Southern California politicians trying to derail funding for Merced high-speed rail hub...DANIELLE GAINES
Central Valley lawmakers worried that their counterparts in Southern California are set to derail plans for a high-speed rail maintenance hub in the Valley will have to wait another day for peace of mind.
The state's Budget Conference Committee -- a 10-member panel comprised of members from both state legislative chambers charged with closing the state's budget gap -- put off a vote on funding for the state's high-speed rail project Thursday.
The hub, along with access to the system, were among the points local leaders touted to build support for the statewide project. Losing out on the hub would be a blow to the Valley and to Merced County, which is the frontrunner for landing the maintenance station.
State Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, a Democrat from San Diego and vice chairwoman of the committee, asked to table the funding proposal to remove negative comments that could jeopardize federal economic stimulus money.
The board was cautioned against state Sen. Alan Lowenthal's proposal to pay out only half of the authority's $139.2 million project funding until a new business proposal was submitted to the state Senate. Such a move could lower confidence in the project and put stimulus funding in jeopardy, experts said.
The committee could vote again on the proposal as soon as today.
Even more extreme language -- also from Lowenthal, a Democrat from Long Beach -- had already been removed from the funding proposal, several sources in Sacramento told the Sun-Star.
State Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, drafted a letter earlier this week to Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority. Eight other politicians from Madera, Merced, Monterey, San Benito and Stanislaus counties signed on to the letter, which was obtained by the Sun-Star on Thursday.
The letter said Lowenthal was expected to use language in the final 2009-2010 state budget that would bar any funds from being used for a rail-system maintenance hub in the Central Valley.
"We find this attempt at legislative interference unacceptable and ask that your board formally and immediately oppose such budget language," the letter stated. "The location of the (hub) should be decided by your board based on factors such as what is the best use of tax dollars, what logistically makes sense for the system and where it is most practical to build a facility."
Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, addressed the Senate budget subcommittee after Lowenthal proposed the Central Valley language and also wrote several letters denouncing the move, an aide said. Galgiani sponsored a bill to include the construction of a high-speed rail project on the November ballot.
At an event in Merced in March, a project manager for the authority said the organization considered Castle Commerce Center its first choice for a major maintenance hub in the Central Valley. The county has a committee that's lobbying to bring the hub to Castle.
Other maintenance sites are being considered near Chowchilla and Madera.
At least for now, the move to exclude funding for Central Valley projects seems to be dropped, sources said. Local officials will continue to monitor the situation closely.
"Whatever we need to do, not only for Merced County, but up and down the whole valley here, we will do," County Supervisor John Pedrozo said. "We're an integral part of the state and we need to make sure that everyone knows that."
Tax breaks carry a price...J.N. Sbranti
Billions of dollars in tax breaks are coming to the Northern San Joaquin Valley, and they'll save most homeowners hundreds of dollars a year or more.
It's true: Most landowners will pay less in property taxes during the coming year.
That's a nice way of saying home values have fallen so far that county assessors are drastically reducing property assessments. Property taxes are based on those assessments, so tax bills will decline. That will pinch local governments, which will receive less revenue.
"My guess is that 50 to 60 percent or more of homeowners will have their assessments lowered," said Stanislaus County Assessor Doug Harms, who expects to finish the assessment roll next week.
San Joaquin and Merced county assessors predict that about 70 percent of homeowners there will have property taxes lowered because of the real estate market's collapse.
Harms said many homeowners will save thousands of dollars this year in property taxes, which generally are based on 1 percent of a home's assessed value.
"It's kind of startling what's happened to values," Harms said. "It's really hard for people to realize."
An example: Harms recently reviewed the assessment of a west Modesto home that sold for $350,000 a few years ago when real estate was at its peak. He determined that the 1,200-square-foot, pre-World War II house now is worth $78,000.
With a $350,000 assessment, basic property taxes for that house were $3,500 per year, but the new assessment will drop that bill to $780.
That's a savings of $2,720 for the homeowner, and a equal reduction for the tax collector.
Because property taxes fund schools, state and local governments, not everyone is happy about the tax cut. Public agencies throughout the region are slashing budgets to compensate for the funding losses.
Harms isn't ready to reveal how much the lowered property assessments will cost government agencies, but he said some communities will be hit worse than others.
Patterson, south Modesto, west Modesto and Modesto's airport neighborhood have suffered the greatest drops in values, Harms said.
Merced County Assessor Kent Christiansen already has done his math: Assessments there will drop 20 percent, cutting more than $3 billion in property taxes.
"I think most people would rather still have the value in their homes (rather than the tax cut)," Christiansen said.
But that value is gone, and paying more in property taxes won't change the fact many people owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.
So the tax cut is kind of a consolation prize.
Harms jokes about it being his version of an economic stimulus package.
The county assessors have no option but to reduce property assessments and thus trigger tax cuts. State law since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 dictates how properties must be assessed.
During boom years when home values are soaring, property assessments are forbidden from rising more than 2 percent per year. So people who bought their homes back in the mid-'90s, when prices were low, didn't get nailed with taxes a decade later when home values peaked.
If you paid $100,000 for a home in 1995, your assessment -- for tax purposes -- was about $120,000 in 2005, even though you might have been able to sell your house for $400,000.
That 2 percent limit on assessment increases was approved by voters to prevent homeowners from "being taxed out of their homes," as tax-cut advocates used to say.
Now, unfortunately, homes that sold for $100,000 in 1995 may not be worth even $120,000, so assessments that used to be considered very low now may be too high.
Harms said he is lowering the assessments for some homes that have had the same owners since as far back as 1984. Not every home purchased since then will have its taxes lowered, but most will.
"It's unbelievable. None of us ever dreamed anything like this would happen," said Kenneth Blakemore, San Joaquin's assessor. "We'll probably lower assessments on 100,000 (of the 170,000) homes."
More pain in newer areas
The newer the neighborhood, the further the assessments will drop, Blakemore said.
For instance: Every home built in the upscale Mountain House community on San Joaquin's western edge is worth less than what the original buyers paid for it.
"Lathrop also has been hit really hard because a high percentage of its homes were built during the real estate boom," Blakemore said. "Ripon and Escalon are doing better ... especially Escalon because it put a lid on growth, so a lower percentage of its homes were built during the boom."
Property owners throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley will find out next month how much assessors think their homes are worth. That's when property assessment notices will be mailed.
Those assessments will be based on what each home's estimated value was on Jan. 1. Property values have continued dropping since then, but those losses won't be gauged until 2010.
Property owners who don't agree with their assessments have until November to appeal.
The first installment of property taxes will be due Dec. 10.
Sacramento meeting to kick off overhaul of federal forests plan...Matt Weiser
A major overhaul of the federal government's plans to manage forest lands in California is likely to affect recreation, logging and habitat for a generation to come.
Yet the process is freighted with legal conflict and shifting political winds stretching back to the Reagan administration.
The forest-plan makeover kicks off at a public meeting in Sacramento July 1, at which the U.S. Forest Service will launch a three-year process to revise the management plans for 14 national forests. All federal timberland from the Sequoia National Forest north to the Oregon border is involved.
Four forests in Southern California are not affected because their plans were updated in 2005.
"It's just important for people to understand that we're inviting them in at all phases," said Ron Pugh, acting deputy planning director for the Forest Service Pacific Southwest region.
The plans are supposed to be updated every 15 years, but many are overdue, Pugh said. Like a city's general plan, they serve as policy guidance for all activities in each forest, from camping and other recreation to habitat restoration, stream management and logging practices.
The process begins at the regional level, and then shifts to each forest as details are refined.
Changes to the National Forest Management Act in 2008 require the Forest Service to adopt a more collaborative approach to public involvement.
But other changes prompted legal action by environmental groups.
Greg Loarie, an attorney at the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, said the Bush administration changed the law in 2001, removing a Reagan-era requirement for each forest plan to be vetted by an environmental impact study.
This change, he said, eliminated requirements for each forest to meet clear targets to improve habitat and water quality, for example. A federal lawsuit is under way on this issue, and Loarie said it might not make sense to revise plans while this conflict exists.
The July 1 meeting is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the McClellan Wildland Fire Training Center, 3237 Peacekeeper Way, at the former McClellan Air Force Base. Attendees should register in advance by contacting Martha Maciel at (916) 930-3994 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, visit www.fs.fed.us/r5/planning" target="_blank">http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/planning.
Texas wind farms deploy radar so birds, not feathers, can fly...Renee Schoof, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — Wind on the Texas coast is tempting for energy companies. Unlike other parts of Texas — the nation's No. 1 wind energy state — the coast has breezes that blow consistently on summer days, when energy demand peaks. But there's risk, too.
Millions of birds funnel through the Texas coast before they head north along the Central Flyway, one of the great bird migration routes between South America and the Arctic. This was the first year that wind farms were operating there during the spring migration.
One study near the coastal wind farms in Kenedy County, near the Laguna Madre, found that at the peak of fall migration in 2007, 4,000 birds an hour passed in a one-kilometer-wide band.
The two companies that run the first wind farms on the coast, Iberdrola Renewables of Spain and Babcock & Brown of Australia, recognized the risk bad weather could bring. Most migrating birds fly high above the range of turbines, many of them at night. But they don't fly through clouds and storms, and when bad weather rolls in, migrating birds fly down to wait it out.
The two companies voluntarily installed radar developed for the military and NASA to prevent collisions with birds by aircraft and the space shuttle. It's the first time this radar has been used anywhere in the world to shut down wind turbines if a large number of birds is headed toward them.
Conservationists said it's a good step, but they're still concerned that the companies haven't given permission to outside groups to check for bird fatalities during the migration period in April and May. Legal efforts to block the wind farms on the coast failed last year, and the federal government and Texas, like most states, doesn't regulate wind farms.
"We want to support wind energy wherever it goes, but we want to make sure it's safe for wildlife," said Andrew Kasner, the director of bird conservation for Audubon Texas.
"Most of the neotropical migrating birds that use that part of the flyway are already low numbers," he said. "So any impact that has the potential to take hundreds of birds in one instance or more can really be a problem for some species."
Some of the neotropical migrants (those that live in the tropics of the Americas and West Indies) that pass through are ones conservationists worry about protecting — species such as warblers (blue-winged, golden-winged, cerulean), grassland birds such as LeConte's Sparrow and others such as the Painted Bunting. Among the many others are threatened or endangered shorebirds such as the Least Tern and species of concern, such as the Long-billed Curlew.
"That's why the coast is a concern because of the potential to have a foggy, stormy day when thousands are flying through there. They'll already be limited in their ability to maneuver and detect any danger in front of them," Kasner said.
Tall buildings, communications towers, electric lines, pesticides and cats kill far more birds than wind turbines do. A recent U.S. government study found that global warming already has had an impact on the abundance and distribution of birds and could lower some species' chances of survival.
Although conservation groups such as the National Audubon Society support wind power as a way to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, they've also warned that wind farms need to be placed with care for birds and bats. Wind power could grow about tenfold by 2030, if the country is to reach a goal of getting 20 percent of its electricity from wind.
Iberdrola Renewables, the second largest wind energy provider in the U.S. after NextEra Energy Resources, has plans at all its facilities to protect birds and bats, said company spokeswoman Jan Johnson. She said it also must follow regional rules, regulations of some states and the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it a crime to kill a migratory bird.
"When you have voluntary principles and use them in a plan, you really take a step to mitigate your risk," Johnson said.
There was no need to shut down this spring because there was no bad weather, said Gary Andrews, the chairman and chief executive officer of the radar maker, DeTect of Panama City, Fla., during a visit to the wind farms in May.
Iberdrola's wind farm has 84 turbines, which produce 202 megawatts of energy, enough to power 70,000 south Texas homes, and it plans to expand on the coast. Babcock & Brown's turbines are expected to generate up to 283 megawatts per year.
The American Wind Wildlife Institute, an industry-supported group, is working on guidelines for turbine use.
"These companies really want to do the right thing," said the group's president, Kraig Butrum.
There's no good estimate of the number of bird deaths from turbine collisions nationwide — "It really does range wildly, to be candid," Butrum said.
Michael Fry, a scientist who directs conservation advocacy at the American Bird Conservancy, said the worry about bird and bat deaths would increase as the number of wind turbines across the country increases.
Fry agreed that the Texas coast is particularly a problem because it's the most concentrated area of migration in the country. Most of the risk, however, is for resident birds, he said.
There's great uncertainty in the numbers killed at wind turbines anywhere because dead bats and birds are hard even for trained searchers to spot, Fry said. Others never get counted, because ravens, skunks and other scavengers eat them first.
Experts on bird migration plan to meet soon to try to come up with ways to predict where birds are concentrated and at risk of colliding with wind turbines in bad weather, Fry said.
Some places that see large numbers of migrating birds include the Great Lakes shores, the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains and central California.
The worst known bird kills at wind farms have been at California's Altamont Pass, where some 17,000 raptors have been killed in 25 years.
There's also concern about whooping cranes, with only about 400 left. Many of these cranes migrate between Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas through the wind corridor of the central U.S. and into their breeding grounds in Canada. Fry said they're vulnerable to collisions with power lines, but little is known about the risk from turbines.
In other places, wind farms reduce bird habitat.
The risks to bats also are still being studied. Iberdrola Renewables helped fund research at its Casselman wind farm in southwest Pennsylvania in October that showed that turning off the turbines during low wind periods reduced bat deaths by 53 percent to 87 percent, with only a marginal loss of income. The research is continuing.
Home Front: Lenders' phones silent as rates rise...Jim Wasserman
Mortgage rates, rising quickly from near-historic lows earlier this year, are already having negative consequences in the capital region.
"All of a sudden the phones just stopped ringing," said Michael McGee, president of Rancho Cordova's Winchester McGee Real Estate & Loans.
"At least right now, the refinance window has somewhat shut," added Brent Wilson, senior loan consultant at Sacramento's Comstock Mortgage.
It's also spooking buyers who haven't locked in a rate.
"I called my agent and said, 'We have to cancel,' " said Toby McBride of Citrus Heights on Thursday. He and his wife put in an offer on a house June 1 when rates were 5.12 percent. When the deal wasn't agreed to by Tuesday, with rates at 5.87 percent, they pulled the plug. (The new rate would add $175 a month to payments, said McBride, a federal worker).
"Definitely, the sudden change in interest rates has caused us to rethink our condition and lower our search price," he said.
As investors stew about inflation in the long run, rates are pushing back toward 6 percent and have reached a seven-month high, according to mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
The firm's Thursday survey revealed a national average of 5.59 percent (plus points) earlier this week for a 30-year fixed-rate loan. That's up from 5.29 percent last week.
Thursday, financial Web site Bankrate.com showed an overnight average of 5.74 percent.
"It just pretty much happened so quickly," said Charlene Singley, an agent with Lyon Real Estate and president of the Sacramento Association of Realtors. "I think it will take a while for people to realize that this is where the rates are now."
"I think we'll get some improvement from where we are today," said McGee. "But back to the high fours? It's possible, yes. Likely? I question that."
New home sales suffer
Thousands of distressed existing homes are making life harder and harder for Sacramento-area home builders. Their April sales numbers revealed the capital-area market as one of the state's weakest, according to the California Building Industry Association.
Builders in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties sold 290 houses in April. That was seven fewer than in March, and 48 percent below the same month last year, CBIA said this week. Builders in Yuba and Sutter counties sold 33 – better than March – but down 25 percent from the same time last year.
The numbers put area builders on track for a worse year than 2008, when they sold just 4,847 homes, according to Hanley Wood Market Intelligence.
In 2004 they sold 17,491.
The declines come amid fierce competition with discounted bank repos and short sales. In April, builders closed just 9.6 percent of the escrows in the capital area, compared with 24.5 percent in April 2005.
Statewide trends were a little better. Builders said sales were almost 7 percent better in April than March. But they were still down 31 percent from April 2008.
The CBIA said the median April sales price for a new house in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties was $292,900. It was $237,000 in Yuba and Sutter counties.
More time for renters
Oh, no. Home Front muffed a figure last week in an item about the Obama administration adding new protections for renters. In mistakenly noting that California renters get 30 days' notice to move after banks repossess houses, we overlooked last year's state Senate Bill 1137.
The bill gave tenants affected by foreclosure an extra 30 days' notice – to 60 days – through Jan. 1, 2013.
President Barack Obama, however, just signed a bill that gives renters with month-to-month arrangements 90 days' notice in foreclosure situations. Renters with leases in foreclosed homes stay until leases expire.
Profiting from feng shui
These days everyone is worried about money. But how do you get more? Here are a few feng shui ideas to increase your flow of wealth at home. For these, thank New York real estate broker Debra Duneier:
• The burners on your stove represent wealth. Keep them clean and alternate your use of the burners when cooking … The refrigerator should be filled with healthy food. A full refrigerator brings in abundance.
• The indoor plants that are wealth enhancers are bamboo and jade plants.
• Take three lucky Chinese coins and tape them to the back of a rug. Every time someone walks in (your home's entry point) they symbolically are bringing money into your property and into your life.
• Keep toilet seats down when not in use. Keep them up and money will disappear.
More tax credits sought
Finally, an update on tax credits: The California Franchise Tax Board reports that buyers of new, unoccupied homes have requested $82.5 million of the $100 million allocated for $10,000 tax credits.
The building industry is working the state Legislature to add more millions. In Washington, D.C., real estate and business executives are lobbying Congress for a new $15,000 tax credit for all buyers. A current $8,000 tax credit is just for first-time buyers.
New lawsuit targets retailer
Another attempt made in Lodi to stop Wal-Mart...Daniel Thigpen
STOCKTON - Here we go again.
The looming court battle over Wal-Mart's bid to build a Supercenter in Lodi has begun to take shape.
As expected, Citizens for Open Government, one of two groups opposing the project, has filed a new lawsuit in San Joaquin County Superior Court challenging the city's most recent approval of the 40-acre shopping center, which would be anchored by the massive retailer.
In court papers filed June 5, Davis attorney Donald Mooney wrote that the project's environmental studies fail to adequately analyze a number of potential impacts, including global warming and urban decay.
Mooney could not be reached for comment Thursday.
In the meantime, lawyers for the city and opponents will appear in a Stockton courtroom today to discuss when a judge should rule on the project. The city is asking Judge Elizabeth Humphreys to weigh in at the end of August or early September.
The tangled legal web dates back to 2005, when the City Council originally OK'd the Wal-Mart project.
But opponents sued, and Humphreys reversed the city's action, calling a study of the shopping center's environmental impacts "legally defective."
That study has been revised and, in March, the city endorsed it. The City Council gave its second approval to the entire project last month.
Humphreys still must sign off on the project before anything is built.
The lawsuit filed by Citizens for Open Government is a separate action. The city likely will ask that it and any other separate court challenges be consolidated into one case.
Trinitas owners allege sabotage in new suit...Dana M. Nichols
SAN ANDREAS - The owners of the Trinitas golf course have filed a second suit against Calaveras County, alleging county staff deliberately sabotaged environmental studies for the 280-acre project, thus leading to its rejection in May by county officials.
At the same time, despite the county's order that Trinitas stop allowing golf, Michael Nemee said this week he continues to operate his business and that it is open to golfers.
"Absolutely," he said.
Trinitas owners Michael and Michelle Nemee were recently notified by their bank that they've defaulted on $2.4 million in loans and that in a few months the property on Ospital Road south of Wallace may be foreclosed.
The latest lawsuit mentions those loans, saying Community Bank of San Joaquin lent the Nemees "millions of dollars" in reliance upon statements allegedly made several years ago by then county Community Development Director Stephanie Moreno that the environmental studies would be completed and the project would go to a hearing in 2007. Instead, the environmental impact report was not completed until 2009, and then rejected by the county's Board of Supervisors.
Moreno no longer works for the county. But the suit also names several current employees - land use planner Shaelyn Strattan and Assistant County Counsel Janis Elliott - and accuses them of being "adversarial." The suit alleges that county employees created delays, failed to respond to all required issues in the environmental report and failed to use $37,000 provided by the Nemees to complete required work.
According to the suit, "Petitioners believe that had the Final Environmental Impact Report and the final draft thereof been correctly prepared, Petitioners' project would have been approved or at least Petitioners' golf course would have been approved."
Strattan and Elliott declined to be interviewed because of the pending litigation. In the past, a number of county officials have said they diligently sought to create a complete environmental impact report. Strattan said earlier this year that even though the thousands of pages of testimony and public comment made it impossible to respond individually to each comment, the report addressed all the issues raised.
And at least one frequent critic of Calaveras County's planning staff agreed that planners had given Trinitas the same care given other projects.
"I do not believe that the county in any way intentionally tried to make an EIR that was not the quality that would pass muster," said John Buckley, executive director of Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, which monitors development proposals in the county.
Buckley said the Nemees' decisions created a project that was rejected. (The project was constructed in an agricultural preserve, and work began in 2001, when the Nemees were still receiving a tax break in return for keeping land in farm production.) "It is totally nonsense for them to be claiming that the EIR was intentionally made to be vulnerable, when their own attorneys stood up on behalf of them and testified that the EIR was completely adequate," Buckley said.
The lawsuit asks a judge to overturn the Supervisors' rejection of Trinitas, to force the county to properly re-do an environmental impact report and to prevent county employees whom the Nemees believe are "adversarial" from working on the new report.
In addition to this lawsuit filed June 4, the Nemees sued Calaveras in May to force the county to acknowledge the golf course as a form of "agritourism," because the family also operates an olive orchard there.
Nemee declined to discuss the pending lawsuits. "Our legal team has asked me not to comment any further," he said.
The golf course's fate is unlikely to be resolved soon. The latest suit does not yet have a hearing date. And the first suit on the question of agritourism is scheduled for a case management conference on Sept. 21.
S.J. home prices head up
Prices seen likely to fall with next foreclosure wave...Keith Reid
STOCKTON - Fierce competition over declining inventory in San Joaquin County's housing market led to a 17 percent dip in May home sales, but for the first time since California's real estate bubble burst two years ago, there was an increase in the median sales price.
The countywide median price was $155,000 in May, up 6.5 percent from $145,000 in April, according to the Grupe Real Estate-Trendgraphix monthly sales report based on Multiple Listing Service data.
It's the first monthly median home price rise in San Joaquin County since June 2007, when prices climbed to $370,000 from $365,000 the previous month.
The number of homes sold last month dipped, however, from 1,153 in April to 954 in May. Pending sales also decreased, from 1,324 in April to 1,231 in May.
"The numbers are a direct reflection of the inventory level," PMZ Real Estate manager Ben Balsbaugh said. "We have plenty of buyers; we just need homes to sell."
Grupe Real Estate broker Stephanie Rodriguez said there are only enough houses on the market right now to last another month and a half. For that reason, she said, it appears prices are stabilizing. However, once an expected new wave of foreclosures hits the market, prices likely will be on the decline again.
"The next wave of foreclosures is coming, but it's taking longer than expected, because the government has asked the banks to work with homeowners to keep them in their homes," Rodriguez said, noting that government programs are working out for some people, while others are walking away from their homes.
In general, industry experts consider anything less than three months of inventory to be a seller's market. Four to five months is a neutral market. If six months of
inventory is available, it's a buyer's delight.
A month and a half of inventory is a breeding ground for bidding wars, Grupe Real Estate President Jerry Abbott said.
"Competition is so fierce, as soon as a house hits the market, it has five offers on it right away," he said. "Most agents will take offers for a minimum of five days for absolute exposure. After five days, there are even more offers."
And when foreclosures start to trickle in? "They're swooped up right away," Balsbaugh said.
San Francisco Chronicle
Southern Marin sewage agency fined over spill...Kelly Zito
A Southern Marin County sewer agency faces a $332,000 fine from state regulators who say the district spilled more than three-fourths of a million gallons of bacteria-laden wastewater into Richardson Bay in three separate incidents dating back to last summer.
The San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board, overseen by the California Environmental Protection Agency, said a ruptured underwater pipe at the Sausalito-Marin City Sanitary District's Fort Baker wastewater treatment plant dumped 766,700 gallons of partially treated wastewater into the bay between Feb. 15 and 21, and in a separate incident on Feb. 27.
In August 2008, a blocked sewer line resulted in the release of 9,000 gallons of raw sewage into Richardson Bay, regulators said. A hearing on the complaint is set for Sept. 9.
Feds toughen mountaintop mining rules, let it continue...John M. Broder, New York Times
Washington - -- The Obama administration said Thursday that it would toughen standards for mountaintop-removal coal mining but would not end the practice, as some environmental groups had hoped.
Officials from four agencies said they had agreed to order a more rigorous legal and environmental review of pending and future applications for mountaintop mining in Appalachia. The technique involves blasting the tops off mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams. The practice has buried hundreds of miles of
streams and has polluted water throughout the region.
The officials, representing the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, did not make clear whether the new process would result in the granting of more or fewer mining permits.
Earlier this year, the administration imposed a virtual moratorium on mountaintop mining pending this review, leaving the status of 110 permits in limbo.
In the interim, however, the Obama administration has granted 42 such permits while denying six. It appears that those 42 projects will now move forward.
Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House environmental council, said that strict safeguards in the new agreement among agencies made good on President Obama's pledge to limit the damage from mountaintop-removal mining while providing coal for the nation's utilities.
"We are committed to powering our country while protecting health and welfare in the Appalachian region, securing access to clean streams and safe drinking water, and honoring our clean water laws," Sutley said.
Mountaintop mining has led to many protests and hundreds of lawsuits. The coal industry contends that it is the safest and most efficient way to remove coal that is near the surface and that the landscape and communities are left relatively unharmed. Residents and environmental advocates say the practice destroys streams and valleys, dislocates communities and poisons drinking water.
The Bush administration tried to fast-track permits for such operations but left office without rewriting the laws. The Obama administration is now trying to give mine operators, state officials and communities some certainty on when and where mountaintop mining will be permitted.
In a statement, the National Mining Association complained that the announcement failed to clarify what impact the new procedures would have on the granting of permits.
"We remain concerned that an ambiguous process will continue to hold up coal production and jeopardize jobs not only in six states but possibly throughout the nation's coal fields," it read. Mountaintop mining is practiced in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
State officials were generally positive about the new administration policy, saying that it would make decisions on permits faster and more predictable.
Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine said he supported the new approach. "As we continue to meet the challenges of the global financial downturn, we have an obligation to permit the recovery of traditional energy sources that fuel our economy," he said. "However, we also have a responsibility to discourage the use of mining methods that exploit our mountains and valleys."
But Joan Mulhern, legislative counsel of Earthjustice, an environmental group that opposes mountaintop mining, said it could not endorse the new policy.
"It's not clear yet whether this policy will result in more or fewer permits," she said. "Until they can clearly tell us their policy is to stop the destruction of mountains and streams in Appalachia, we cannot support them."
Locations of high-risk coal ash sites kept secret...DINA CAPPIELLO Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON—The Obama administration wants to keep secret the locations of nearly four dozen coal ash storage sites that pose a threat to people living nearby.
The Environmental Protection Agency identified the 44 sites as potential hazards to communities while investigating storage of coal ash waste after a spill at a Tennessee power plant in December. The sites have existed for years with little or no federal regulation.
The Army Corps of Engineers in a letter dated June 4 told the EPA that it couldn't alert the public to the whereabouts of the 44 sites because it would compromise national security.
The Corps of Engineers had no immediate comment.
May foreclosures fall - but still high
Foreclosure filings fall 6% from April but still post third worst month on record...Les Christie...6-11-09
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Lenders filed fewer foreclosure notices in May, but the total number of filings was still the third-highest monthly total on record.
One of every 398 households in the United States received some kind of filing, including notices of default, scheduled auctions or bank repossession, during May. That was a decline of 6% from April but an increase of 18% compared with May 2008.
And the ultimate type of foreclosure filing - bank repossessions - increased during the month, according to RealtyTrac CEO James Saccacio.
"While defaults and scheduled foreclosure auctions were both down from the previous month, bank repossessions, or REOs, were up 2%" he said, in a prepared statement. "We expect REO activity to spike in the coming months as foreclosure delays and moratoria implemented by various state laws come to an end."
But overall, the May statistics underscore what may be a slight improvement. The number of filings trailed off toward the end of the month, according to RealtyTrac spokesman, Rick Sharga.
"We're still coming through a three-month period like nothing we've ever seen before," he said, "with nearly a million filings in all."
The month saw big increases of repossessed homes in several states, including Michigan, Arizona, Washington, Nevada, Oregon and New York. In Michigan alone bank repossessions went to 6,246 from 3,560 in April, a 75% increase.
And it could have been worse. Sharga said he's been hearing anecdotal reports of banks taking homes all the way through the foreclosure process and then suspending further action.
"We hear the servicers are pulling back from the brink," he said. "They want someone in the house."
Vacant homes are subject to vandalism and looting and often quickly lose whatever value they have. Thieves crash through plaster walls to get at copper wiring and plumbing or strip aluminum siding from exteriors, in many cases eliminating any chance of salvaging the property.
States of foreclosure
The foreclosure problem is widespread but reaches plague proportions in 10 states; those hardest-hit areas account for 77% of all foreclosure filings. California had more than any other state with with 92,249 - nearly 29% of all U.S. filings.
Florida posted the nation's second highest number at 58,931, up 50% from May 2008. Other top 10 states were Nevada (17,157), Arizona (16,865), Michigan (13,891), Ohio (11,360), Illinois (10,942), Georgia (10,516), Texas (9,813) and Virginia (5,385).
Nevada had the highest foreclosure rate with one filing for every 64 households. California, with one for every 144, and Florida, with one for every 148, were second and third respectively.
Working through the problem
The foreclosure boom has depressed home prices and that has brought homebuyers back into some markets. In fact, sales volume is much stronger in many states compared with 2008, and affordability has improved to levels not seen in many years.
"In some of the 'ground-zero' places, like Stockton, parts of Phoenix, San Diego and some others, buyers are bidding bank-owned homes up, way, way over the the asking prices" said Sharga.
What could slow down this market revival, however, is the recent bump in mortgage interest rates.
Rates for a 30-year, fixed-rate loan have jumped to about 5.5% from about 4.8% five weeks ago. That adds about 12% to monthly mortgage payments, almost as if the house increased that much in price.
If the higher rates cause demand for foreclosures to slacken, the nation could see further addition to its supply of repossessed homes. That could send more home prices plummeting, pushing more mortgage borrowers underwater (owing more than their properties are worth) and closer to foreclosure.