City gets 301 letters on both sides of building Wal-Mart distribution center in Merced
Support, opposition, questions come in at comment deadline...SCOTT JASON
The first round for public comment on the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center concluded Monday, with the city receiving 301 letters.
The 90-day comment period yielded a mix of support, oppositions and questions on how the project will forever change Merced's landscape.
A final tally for support-versus-opposition was unavailable Monday evening. Two weeks ago, distribution center proponents had been outnumbering opponents by nearly a nine-to-one ratio. About 50 letters had been submitted at that time.
However, during a Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth meeting last week opponents urged about 75 people to write letters to the city before time ran out.
Supporters trumpet the 1,200 full-time jobs that Wal-Mart pledges to create. Opponents say they come at a cost of congested roads and polluted air.
The deadline marks the first hurdle as the project inches closer to a vote by the City Council, which is still months away.
EDAW, the consultant that wrote the technical analysis, must now respond to all the questions and criticisms before releasing the final version of the report.
That version will go before the Planning Commission for a recommendation and to the City Council for approval or denial. Residents will have the chance to give their opinion to both boards.
It's unclear when a vote will take place, Merced planning manager Kim Espinosa explained. The timeline depends on the number of comments and their complexity.
Public agencies, such as Caltrans, Madera County, the Central California Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Native American Heritage Commission offered their thoughts on the matter.
If the project is approved, Wal-Mart looks to break ground in 2010, with construction taking about 18 months. It proposed the project in 2005.
Wal-Mart wants to build the 1.1 million-square-foot center on 230 acres between Childs and Gerard avenues in southeast Merced.
At capacity, more than 450 trucks would come and go each day. The facility would run all day and all night.
Opponents of Wal-Mart distribution center aligned with attorneys, environmentalists...SCOTT JASON
Opponents of the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center are working with a team of environmental experts to persuade city leaders that the project's detriments outweigh the benefits.
"I've been fighting all the battleships," Sacramento lawyer Keith Wagner said last week to a room full of residents critical of the proposal. "I'm happy to go in and take on the Death Star."
Wagner, who has worked to block supercenters in Paradise, Stockton and Concord, is working with Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth, or MARG, to critique the draft environmental impact report.
A lawyer who earned his degree from UC Davis School of Law in 2000, this is Wagner's first fight against a distribution center. Past successful Wal-Mart fights have led to judges awarding attorney fees, allowing him to keep working on such cases, he told the crowd.
"Fortunately, litigation pays," he said, adding that it's his personal goal to help people.
Wagner, hydrologist Dennis Jackson and San Francisco State University economics professor Philip King spoke to about 75 residents during a meeting Thursday at Golden Valley High School organized by MARG.
An official with MARG said the experts are not being paid for their help.
The trio, along with the residents supporting them, shows that the distribution center will remain a contentious -- and costly -- issue that could end up in court.
Merced County Jobs Coalition chairman Doug Fluetsch said he wasn't surprised by outside experts helping local opponents because anti-Wal-Mart groups do all they can to stop projects. That includes lawsuits, he said.
"It doesn't scare me," he said. "(The city) has done a lot to make sure this EIR covers everything."
If the project is approved, he said he expects a lawsuit.
Based on figures from a distribution center in Apple Valley, Fluetsch said the distribution center will add an annual yearly payroll of about $42 million.
Wal-Mart's building permit alone will cost between $6 million and $7 million. It will pay about $600,000 each year in property taxes.
"I cannot see -- looking at these numbers -- how this could hurt our community," he said.
While there were a few supporters of the project at the meeting, most seemed skeptical or fully opposed to it.
"I think I'm in the wrong place. Is everyone here against it?" Shirley Akins asked.
Tom Grave, co-chairman of Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth, explained that it was a forum to exchange ideas.
The troubled economy and the county's high unemployment rate has made it more difficult to persuade people of the seriousness of the traffic and health impacts.
"People are not seeing that as clearly because they say all we need is jobs," Grave explained Monday.
Akins listened for about an hour before leaving frustrated. She said she didn't want to walk home in the dark, but also didn't get all the answers she wanted.
"I don't even know what CEQA is," she said, referring to the acronym for the California Environmental Quality Act.
The Valley has never had good air, so she doesn't think that should be a big concern.
"I don't understand why the environment would take precedence over jobs and helping people out," she said.
The speakers explained their problems with the project and questioned its benefits.
King, who's studied urban decay, said the distribution center will result in more Wal-Mart supercenters popping up across the Valley, which will hurt other retailers.
The food sold in supercenters usually causes two large grocery stores to close, he asserted.
"Merced can be a great place to live," he said. "Don't mess it up, frankly."
King, who has a Ph.D. from Cornell University, said many of the jobs created wouldn't go to Merced residents. Some workers could come from as far away as Livingston or Fresno, he asserted.
One resident questioned how he came to that conclusion and whether he could back it up. King replied that he'd need to gather evidence.
Mayor Pro Tem John Carlisle listened to the meeting and said afterward that he makes a point to hear from both sides of the issue. He was the only council member there.
"People should look at both sides before they make up their minds," he said. "You shouldn't just jump to conclusions."
San Luis National Wildlife Refuge gets $9.8 million...MICHAEL DOYLE, Sun-Star Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex is getting a new headquarters and visitors' center courtesy of a big economic stimulus package.
A $9.8 million grant will enable the Los Banos-area network of refuges to build the long-deferred project. The newly announced grant is also making the San Luis refuge complex the nation's largest single recipient of new Fish and Wildlife Service economic recovery funds.
"This will provide for a much more welcoming opportunity for visitors," Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Alexandra Pitts said Monday.
The San Luis refuge complex funding is part of $280 million in Fish and Wildlife Service grants being spread nationwide.
Once completed, the new center will host refuge visitors as well as Fish and Wildlife Service administrators currently stuffed into uninspiring quarters on West Pacheco Boulevard in Los Banos. The federal agency employs 30 full-time and 20 seasonal workers.
The San Luis complex spans nearly 45,000 acres and includes the San Luis, Merced and San Joaquin River wildlife refuges as well as the Grasslands Management Area.
Migrating waterfowl love the region, as do endangered species including the San Joaquin kit fox. In the mid-1980s, the refuge complex also became notorious as the location of the since-drained Kesterson Reservoir, where selenium-tainted irrigation runoff accumulated and poisoned thousands of birds.
An estimated 120,000 visitors now come to the refuge complex annually. Officials estimate this could eventually triple, with the help of an attractive new interpretive center.
The new center would be built on a two-acre site off Wolfsen Road, close to Los Banos and the southern entrance to the San Luis refuge.
The Merced National Wildlife Refuge, which is administered as part of the overall San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, is separately receiving $25,000 for work on a canal. The Kern National Wildlife Refuge is receiving $67,000, and two refuges along the Sacramento River are receiving a total of $1.5 million.
Fed judge halts further ag water cuts
Wanger rejects environmentalists' suit to scrap contracts...John Ellis
A federal judge on Monday rejected a request to cancel or renegotiate more than three dozen Sacramento River water contracts that environmentalists claimed were drawn up using flawed information.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger appears to keep in place the Central Valley's intricately woven water system -- and to spare agricultural users north and south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from potentially losing even more water.
Trent Orr, an attorney for environmental group Earthjustice, said it appears that water amounts outlined in the Sacramento River users contracts will be "there in perpetuity. We just don't think that's right."
Westlands Water District spokeswoman Sarah Woolf said it was "nice to see [environmentalists] simply didn't win one."
Wanger's ruling involves one of the last outstanding issues in a federal lawsuit involving the endangered delta smelt. Earlier, Wanger had thrown out a set of rules governing the smelt's management and ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rewrite them.
The new smelt rules involved the effect of delta pumping on the tiny fish. But environmentalists said the new rules also should govern water delivery contracts reached with Sacramento River water users.
At issue were decades-old contracts reached with Sacramento River Settlement Contractors. Those contractors hold water rights that predate the federal Central Valley Project, which delivers water to Westlands and other Valley users.
The settlement contractors argued in court filings that if their contracts were canceled, they would revert to using water under their pre-existing water rights. In turn, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's "ability to operate the [Central Valley Project] would be severely compromised."
Wanger's 86-page ruling makes clear that the federal government and the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors agreed in the early 1960s "on long-term water contracts to continue for a 40-year term and renewals thereafter, for fixed, contractually defined quantities [of water]..." Those contracts predate the federal Endangered Species Act, which governs management of the delta smelt.
Orr said environmentalists will study Wanger's opinion closer and determine if they will appeal.
Recycled-water reservoir idea pushed...Cathy Locke
Being green doesn't come cheap, but El Dorado Irrigation District officials were urged Monday not to let costs derail plans to expand the district's recycled-water system.
"This is your opportunity to save thousands of acre-feet of water forever," said Albert Hazbun. "Please do it."
Hazbun, a civil engineer who pioneered use of recycled water in El Dorado Hills' Serrano development, called on district directors to proceed with plans to build a reservoir to store recycled water during winter to irrigate landscaping during summer.
Staff members during a workshop Monday presented the board with an economic evaluation of a long-contemplated seasonal storage project.
Capital costs to build a reservoir west of Latrobe Road and south of the Valley View residential development are estimated at $52.5 million.
The board in 2004 adopted a policy requiring new development, primarily in the El Dorado Hills area, to use recycled water for outdoor irrigation wherever feasible.
Since then, director George Osborne said, "We had a little sticker shock when we found out how much this little pond was going to cost."
The annual recycled water demand of 3,900 acre-feet is expected to double with the buildout projected in the county's general plan, in about 2025. An acre-foot is the amount of water required to cover an acre to the depth of 1 foot.
To reuse all water discharged from the district's wastewater treatment plants during a wet season would require 5,000 acre-feet of storage capacity. Because the district lacks adequate storage for recycled water, it has had to supplement it with potable water during summer.
Without additional storage, 2,500 acre-feet of either raw or potable water would be required to supplement the system by the projected buildout, staff members said.
Alternatives to the reservoir include constructing a pipeline to deliver raw water from Folsom Lake, or expanding water treatment facilities to provide additional potable water for irrigation.
Staff members said the storage reservoir, as a "green" project, would be more likely to qualify for grants or low-interest loans. But they recommended postponing construction because of the poor economy.
Hazbun urged the board to move ahead with the project. He suggested partnering with the city of Folsom to develop a regional storage facility that could serve development planned south of Highway 50 within the city.
General Manager Tom Gallier said Folsom officials have expressed interest in such a project.
"But, as with us, there is concern about their own economic situation," he said. "They're not quite ready."
Mike McDougall, a spokesman for AKT Development, which owns much of the land proposed for the reservoir site, said the firm is willing to make the property available for the project.
Staff members will provide additional information for consideration at a future meeting.
My View: Solar gold rush puts public lands at risk...Bruce Pavlik
Prospectors are roaming the deserts once again, this time searching for solar gold. It seems to be everywhere. Claims have been staked on more than 2.3 million acres of public land across the American West in a rush without precedent, even during the wildest boom-and-bust days of yore.
But unlike the lone, independent miners of desert myth, these prospectors are copious, corporate and connected. There are more than 50 applicant companies in California, Nevada and Arizona: some large (Chevron), some small (Chuckwalla Solar), some local (PG&E) and some foreign (Iberdrola Renewables). Some are asking for small parcels (250 acres for Abengoa Solar), others are thinking big (more than 300,000 acres for Cogentrix Solar Investments). They have stampeded the understaffed and overwhelmed Bureau of Land Management, whipped into a quiet frenzy by a Bush administration revision of right-of-way rules for utility corridors on public land. Linear corridors can now expand into broad swaths of acreage, thus speeding and easing the leasing process.
And with no small amount of political irony, corporate solar developments enjoy support from Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Ken Salazar and Arnold Schwarzenegger, all progressive leaders who are trying to address energy independence, global warming and a worldwide recession.
Don't get me wrong. Such issues need cooperation between the public and private sectors. The companies have innovative technologies and can-do capital. They also have a very worthy goal – to find sunny places that can produce green energy, green jobs and the beginnings of a green economy. But you can't produce green by destroying green – ancient, diverse and life-giving desert ecosystems that use scant amounts of rainfall to capture carbon dioxide, stabilize soil and support a food web of truly remarkable creatures.
It's not a question of whether we will develop renewable energy on public desert lands; it's a question of how and where. Should speculation and rushed regulatory oversight drive our solar investment decisions? Aren't these the same failed approaches to real estate and investment banking that led to the present economic conundrum?
Some of these companies have no intention of developing solar energy themselves – they plan to sell the permits to the highest bidder. This is not a good way to attain carbon-free energy, start a new economy or administer publicly owned resources.
So how should companies and our government proceed responsibly? First, the process shouldn't begin by blindly selecting sites from a smorgasbord of public lands. This would prolong the environmental review process by inadvertently choosing places with endangered species, cultural resources and scant water supplies.
Instead, focus on the hundreds of thousands of already disturbed acres of public and private land (e.g., abandoned fields) close to existing transmission lines, towns and highways. This would expedite permitting, reduce environmental and legal costs, and provide more of the necessary infrastructure for these large ventures.
Second, we must use a regional planning effort that cuts across agency jurisdictions and takes into account the cumulative impacts of all projects. Scattered developments would block animal migration corridors, destroy watersheds and lead to industrialization of iconic Western landscapes. Clustering solar facilities would allow infrastructure sharing. It would require purchase of adjacent private lands, but this would benefit rural real estate and better balance the contributions of public and private stakeholders. Tax, finance and regulatory incentives would help.
Third, only dry cooling solar technologies that use little or no water should be permitted. Although more expensive, we do not need to sacrifice groundwater resources that are already depleted and hotly contested. Proposals to develop water-guzzling solar facilities in the Amargosa Valley near Death Valley National Park would pit renewable energy against desert pupfish, local agriculture and the city of Las Vegas.
Fourth, government investment in decentralized solar power should be at least as great as its investment in centralized solar. Finding ways to subsidize individually owned rooftop panels across the country would provide clean electrical energy in our midst, not concentrated in wild areas or under the control of the few.
Finally, we should identify one or two pilot projects that fit these criteria and move them forward ahead of the others. And we must include research on minimizing the footprints of facilities, roads and power lines, mitigate construction and operation impacts, and monitor the responses of wildlife, water tables and weeds.
Prospectors left a legacy of open mine shafts and toxic runoff, as well as the mineral wealth of a growing nation. We can use our experience with the gold rush to better inform our solar rush. The planetary and economic riches will boggle the mind.
San Francisco Chronicle
White House push to nullify mining-waste rule...Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Hearst Newspapers
The Obama administration on Monday took steps to cancel a Bush-era rule that made it easier for mountaintop mining operations to dump rock, dirt and other waste near streams.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Justice Department would ask a U.S. district court to overturn the rule that went into effect in January, just before President Obama took office.
"Coal must and will remain an important component of our nation's energy portfolio," Salazar said. "But the 11th-hour rule ... simply does not adequately protect our waterways and our communities."
The Bush rule replaced a 1983 regulation that barred coal miners from dumping debris within 100 feet of nearby rivers and streams, except when the dumping "would not adversely affect the water quantity or quality or other environmental resources of the stream."
The Bush rule broadened the exception to allow coal miners to dispose of debris from mountaintop operations within 100 feet of nearby rivers and streams when alternatives were "not reasonably possible."
Salazar said the 1983 rule would remain in place if the Bush-era regulation were voided.
The administration's action Monday represented its second effort to tighten regulation of mountaintop coal mining. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was concerned about mining operations in which mountaintops are blown off - and debris fills adjacent valleys - to gain access to underground coal reserves. The EPA declared it had the authority to review and possibly block permits for mountaintop mines.
"As we develop these reserves, we must also protect our treasured landscapes, our land, our water and our wildlife," Salazar said.
Tentative ruling to block ports' clean truck rules...(04-27) 21:29 PDT LOS ANGELES, (AP)
A federal judge tentatively ruled Monday to temporarily block several requirements of a plan to reduce pollution and pay for new cleaner trucks at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The ruling would, among other things, block a requirement that big-rig drivers at the harbor become employees of trucking companies no later than the end of 2012. Judge Christina Snyder said she will issue a final decision later this week on the ports' Clean Trucks Program, which is designed to minimize diesel emissions by banning pre-1989 trucks at the facilities.
The American Trucking Associations filed a lawsuit to stop the hiring requirement, claiming it would eliminate independent owner-operator drivers and replace them with company employees.
Last July, Snyder refused to issue an injunction against the new requirements because of a loophole in federal law that allows states to impose safety requirements on trucks.
Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the rules had little to do with vehicle safety. The appeals court ruled that a temporary injunction should be granted on the ports' program and remanded the case to District Court.
The truckers argued that the ports cannot require companies to hire drivers as direct employees because it would stop independent owner-operators from working the harbor.
"There's no good reason to kill off the independent trucker except to allow the Teamsters to cut down the number of trucking companies working the ports so they can unionize the drivers more easily," ATA spokesman Clayton Boyce said. "If you want to clean up the port, then ban older trucks that are causing the emissions, not independent owner-operators."
Snyder said that some emissions reduction, safety and security elements of the Clean Trucks Program could stand, but provisions such as the employee driver mandate would have to be argued in court.
Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong said the tentative ruling means "we can control access to the port but not what truckers do outside of the port."
An attorney for the Port of Los Angeles did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
The program bans some 16,800 of the oldest, most-polluting rigs and requires all trucks using the ports to meet stringent new vehicle emission regulations.
Los Angeles Times
Fish and Wildlife Service to study a stealthy amphibian
If the Tehachapi slender salamander, which lives north of L.A., becomes a protected species, urban growth could be limited...Louis Sahagun
Jeremy Nichols says he became smitten by the Tehachapi slender salamander when he ran across an article about it four years ago in a book about North American reptiles and amphibians.
The brick-red and stealthy Batrachoseps stebbinsi clings to existence in two canyons about 13 miles apart and separated by a freeway 60 miles north of Los Angeles. It lives mostly underground and, without lungs, absorbs oxygen through its skin. When threatened, it can coil its body like a snake.
"I'm not a scientist, but I know enough to understand that these little guys are not adept at crossing freeways," Nichols, 29, of Denver, said in an interview Monday.
So Nichols, acting as a private citizen, filed a petition in 2006 requesting that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list the salamander as an endangered species because of ongoing threats to its subterranean haunts. He cited Tejon Ranch Co.'s development plans, mining, livestock grazing and road construction as threats.
The agency agreed on Wednesday to study the matter, declaring in the Federal Register that Nichols' petition presented "substantial scientific or commercial information" to warrant a comprehensive review.
That could see the broad-headed, long-limbed salamander -- first scientifically identified in 1968 by noted herpetologist Robert C. Stebbins -- brought under federal Endangered Species Act protections within a few years.
The announcement does not mean that the Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to list the species, just "that there was enough information presented in the petition for us to take an in-depth look," said Lois Grunwald, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Ilene Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation organization, praised the move on behalf of a creature already listed as threatened by the state of California.
"If we're going to save California's natural heritage, including this salamander, more land needs to be protected from urban sprawl," she said in a statement.
Barry Zoeller, spokesman for Tejon Ranch, said the company has no plans to develop any area "were the Tehachapi slender salamander is found or may be found."
Unlike many salamanders, the enigmatic species is a terrestrial breeder that lays its eggs in moist soils deep beneath rocky north-facing canyon slopes.
It is unknown how long it lives, and no juveniles have been seen in the wild or reported.
Nichols, a climate program director with Wild Earth Guardians, an environmental group based in Santa Fe, N.M., said he's never seen a living Tehachapi slender salamander.
But he added, "The canyons where it is found are now on my list of places in the West to visit someday."
Obama seeks reversal of mountaintop mining rule...DINA CAPPIELLO, The Associated Press. Associated Press Writer Brian Farkas and AP Business Writer Tim Huber contributed to this report from Charleston, W.Va.
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration took steps Monday to reverse a last-minute Bush-era rule that allows mountaintop mining waste to be dumped near streams saying it was bad public policy.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the rule didn't "pass the smell test" and he wanted a federal judge to give the Office of Surface Mining another crack at refining the so-called buffer zone rule. If a judge approves, Salazar proposed the temporary reinstatement of a 1983 regulation that would keep coal companies 100 feet away from streams unless they could prove mining wouldn't harm water quality or quantity.
Two lawsuits pending in federal court seek to block or overturn the Bush rule, which was approved the month the administration left office.
In a court filing Monday on one of the cases, Justice Department lawyers said the rule should be vacated because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not been consulted about its effect on threatened and endangered species. Sending the rule back to be reworked would achieve the same relief sought by the lawsuits, the filing said.
"The responsible development of our coal supplies is important to America's energy security," Salazar said in a conference call with reporters. "But as we develop these reserves we must also protect our treasured landscapes, our land, our water and our wildlife."
But environmentalists who would like to see mountaintop removal end altogether said the Interior Department would have to do more to protect waterways from mountaintop mining. Earthjustice, which represents the plaintiffs in one of the cases, said that while the lawsuit would be null and void if the judge agrees with the administration, the fight would go on to ensure the rule was enforced.
"With the explosives and bulldozers standing by, it will take tough enforcement and more rule changes and legislation to end mountaintop removal coal mining completely," said Mary Anne Hitt, a deputy director for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.
Mining officials responded to Monday's announcement saying it added another layer of uncertainty about the industry's ability to obtain permits and mine coal.
"The Secretary of the Interior's move to undo a seven-year rulemaking process is precipitous and will only add to the uncertainty that is delaying mining operations and jeopardizing jobs," National Mining Association Chief Executive Hal Quinn said in a statement. "We trust the Secretary of the Interior does not plan on engaging in a de facto rulemaking, thereby avoiding the transparency integral to a fair and legal regulation."
The action is the latest by the Obama administration to address mountaintop removal mining, a process in which mining companies remove vast areas to expose coal. While they are required to restore much of the land, the removal creates many tons of rocks, debris and other waste that are trucked away and then dumped into valley areas, where streams flow.
Although the rule applies nationwide, mountaintop removal operations are of special interest in Appalachia, where surface mines cover thousands of acres. An Environmental Protection Agency study estimated 400,000 acres of forest were cut and nearly 724 miles of streams buried between 1985 and 2001 by mountaintop mining.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was cracking down on mountaintop removal by taking a closer look at 150 to 200 permits pending before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
On Monday, in another sign the Obama administration is targeting Bush administration environmental policies, the agency announced it was initiating a review of three rules that environmentalists and the state of New Jersey had asked the agency to reconsider but in two cases the Bush administration denied. The regulations deal with a program that ensures air quality is not worsened when industrial facilities are expanded or modified.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor said a primary reason for the Bush administration's changes was to clarify whether the 1983 rule covered ephemeral streams that occasionally carry water.
"The original rule was clear that it did not apply to these little, small, dry ditches," Caylor said. "It helped by clarifying it because there was starting to be litigation."
Salazar said he talked to West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin before Monday's announcement. Manchin spokesman Matt Turner said the governor invited Salazar to the state to visit a mountaintop removal mine.
"There has to be a balance and that is what he (Manchin) is looking for," Turner said. "There has to be a realistic understanding of how much energy comes from coal. We just can't instantly wean ourselves from this energy source."
Manchin complained to the administration after the EPA announced it wanted to review permits the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was considering for mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.
Salazar Seeks to Vacate Bush-Era Mining Rule
Disposal of Mountaintop Waste Was Eased...Juliet Eilperin
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar instructed the Justice Department yesterday to seek a court order to overturn a Bush administration regulation allowing mining companies to dump their waste near rivers and streams, calling the regulation "legally defective."
The announcement, coming on the same day the Environmental Protection Agency said it was taking a second look at a handful of Bush-era rules on air pollution, shows that the Obama administration continues to chip away at its predecessor's environmental policies.
Some environmentalists, however, were disappointed by Salazar's move, arguing that more needs to be done and that the federal government has failed to enforce for decades its rule governing mountaintop mining practices.
The ongoing dispute centers on a 1983 law that bars mining operators from dumping piles of debris -- which stem from blowing off the tops of mountains to get to the coal -- within 100 feet of any intermittent or permanent stream if the material would harm a stream's water quality or reduce its flow. Federal and state courts have issued conflicting interpretations of the law, and widespread dumping continued. The government estimates that 1,600 miles of streams in Appalachia have been wiped out since the mid-1980s.
In December, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a rule that required companies to avoid the 100-foot stream buffer zone if they could, but it allowed them to continue dumping "if avoidance is not possible." Environmental groups filed two lawsuits challenging the rule.
"In its last weeks in office, the Bush administration pushed through a rule that allows coal mine operators to dump mountaintop fill into streambeds if it's found to be the cheapest and most convenient disposal option," Salazar said in a statement. "We must responsibly develop our coal supplies to help us achieve energy independence, but we cannot do so without appropriately assessing the impact such development might have on local communities and natural habitat and the species it supports."
Joan Mulhern, a lawyer with Earthjustice who represents a coalition of community groups in one of the two lawsuits in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said vacating the Bush rule "would be meaningless" if Interior does not crack down on the dumping.
"They're going back to status quo, which is a good rule, but it's not being enforced," she said.
Interior spokesman Frank Quimby would not say whether the department would prohibit such activity, but he said the administration is seeking "to develop a comprehensive policy on mountaintop mining" in the months ahead. "This is not the end of what the administration proposes to do about mountaintop mining," he said.
Mining executives did not welcome Salazar's move, saying they would explore legal options to keep the rule in place.
"This rule evolved from a four-year public involvement process, a thorough environmental assessment and ironically would have strengthened, not weakened, existing environmental rules dating from the Reagan administration," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.
New York Times
Cement Makers Decry Emissions Rules...Jeremy Miller, Green Inc.
Cement industry representatives say that proposed federal air emissions regulations announced last week will lead to closure of American plants and outsourcing of cement production to countries with lax environmental regulations.
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed rule changes that would require significant reductions in emissions from cement plants. The new rules call for an 81 percent reduction in mercury by 2013, as well as steep cuts in sulfur dioxide, particulates and other pollutants.
According to the E.P.A., cement kilns are the fourth-largest source of atmospheric mercury. Reducing emissions from the nation’s cement plants will prevent between 620 and 1,600 deaths a year (PDF), and reduce health costs by between $4.4 billion and $11 billion (PDF), according to separate E.P.A. reports.
The agency, which will be hearing public comments on the proposed rules for 60 days, estimates that meeting the new standards will cost the cement industry between $222 million and $684 million.
But Andy O’Hare, a vice president for regulatory affairs for the Portland Cement Association, said in a prepared statement that the new rules were “unachievable,” and that they “will ensure neither global environmental protection nor keep domestic cement plants competitive in a global market place.”
In a telphone conversation, Mr. O’Hare said the E.P.A.’s proposed regulations would force cement plants into “24/7, 365” compliance for an array of emissions including hydrocarbons, chlorine and particulates. “The agency estimates that four plants could close as a result of the new rules,” Mr. O’Hare said. “But those estimates are based only on the mercury rules alone. The number could be higher when you take into account the other pollutants that will fall under the new regulations.”
In 2008, 12 percent of cement used in the United States was imported. Under new regulations, the Portland Cement Association said imports would jump to 35 percent by 2020, and Mr. O’Hare argued that cement production will be outsourced to countries with looser environmental standards like Indonesia, Venezuela and China.
The group also accused the E.P.A. of failing to consider “alternative approaches allowed by the Clean Air Act” that would ensure “the preservation of the U.S. cement industry.”
Keith Barnett of the E.P.A.’s Office of Air Quality Standards, said that these alternative approaches were not technical fixes but appeals for reclassification, called “subcategories,” which would hold plants with higher emissions to less rigorous standards. “We met with industry reps numerous times throughout the rulemaking process,” said Mr. Barnett. “We did not feel that the facts presented to us were strong enough to support subcategorization.”
James Pew, a lawyer with Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that had sued the E.P.A. on behalf of the Sierra Club after the agency missed a 1997 deadline to issue new emissions rules for the cement industry, said, “It’s a very toothy law that will force all cement plants to meet the highest standards of pollution control.
“From a policy standpoint,” Mr. Pew said, “it is absolutely the right decision.”
Home prices down, but rate of loss eases
S&P/Case-Shiller index of 20 major cities falls for 31st straight month, but annual rate is not a record low for the first time since October 2007...Les Christie
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The weak housing market continued to plague home sellers in February as home prices extended their losing streak to 31 consecutive months, according to a report issued Tuesday.
However, the rate of decline slowed, with the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index not hitting a record low for year-over-year drop for the first time since October 2007.
"We will certainly need a few more months of data before we can determine if home prices are finally turning around," said David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at Standard and Poor's.
The index fell 18.6% from February 2008, compared with a 19% year-over-year decline in January. The index was also down 2.2% from January. The index has not recorded a price rise since July 2006 and has fallen 30.7% since that peak.
"I don't think it's great news," said real estate analyst Mike Larson of Weiss Research. "It's just a moderation in the monthly declines and it fits in with the pattern we're seeing of things getting less bad."
"But it's still a weak market. The patient has moved out of intensive care unit but it's still in the long-term care ward," he added.
Moderation: This is the second time in the past several months that the decline trend has seemed to moderate, according to Ken Goldstein, an economist with the Conference Board.
"The first occurrence proved to be a ledge on the way down to the bottom," he said. "We're probably closer to the bottom now."
The leveling off has had a positive impact on consumer confidence, which jumped suddenly this month, although still at historically poor levels.
"Consumers are no longer in despair," said Goldstein. "They're just depressed."
More and more markets are reaching a balance point, according to Bernard Markstein, senior economist with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), where prices should level off. He cites other stats, such as stabilizing new and existing home sales, that indicate we're coming to an end of the housing market meltdown.
"By the end of the year, we should be on the slow road to recovery," he said.
Cities: Of the 20 cities tracked by the index, 16 recorded a slower decline in February than the month before.
No index city has fared as poorly as Phoenix, where prices have fallen 35.2% over the past 12 months and 4.5% in January. Prices are down 51% from their peak.
But Phoenix is hardly unique, according to Larson. He said that if you ask any real estate agent in any of the once overheated markets, he or she will tell you that prices in many neighborhoods are off 40% to 50% from their highs.
Las Vegas, which has recorded more foreclosures than any other city, is close behind Phoenix with a 31.7% year-over-year loss and a drop of 3.6% for the month. Prices there are off 48.4% from their peak.
Other big losers include San Francisco, down 31% over the past 12 months and 3.3% for the month; Miami, down 20.5% year-over-year and 3% month-over-month; and Los Angeles, 24.1% lower on an annual basis and down 2% on a monthly basis.
The housing bust has touched some of the cities on the list less severely. In Dallas, prices were down 4.5% annually and 0.2% monthly. Denver showed a 5.7% annual drop and a 1.7% monthly dip, and Boston was 7.2% lower on a yearly basis and 1.3% monthly.
That price declines did not accelerate in February is certainly a positive change, according to Goldstein, showing that the housing crisis is beginning to let up a little.
"Still, we're in a deep hole, one that will be tough to climb out of," he said.