9-17-09

 

9-17-09
Merced Sun-Star
Merced City Hall showdown over Wal-Mart center looms
Supporters, opponents to make final cases Merced City Council expects to make decision on Sept. 28...SCOTT JASON
http://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/v-print/story/1061667.html
The fate of the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center will soon be known.
The Merced City Council will hold four hearings in the coming week-and-a-half, culminating with a vote to approve or deny the project.
With crunch time approaching, both supporters and opponents have intensified their public relations campaigns.
The Merced/Mariposa County Asthma Coalition plans to send to 3,000 residents a letter outlining the air quality effects of the project. It notes that the county had 62 bad air days last year and that the center will be a quarter-mile from a public school.
Supporters have taken out newspaper ads to rally citizens. They also plan to march together to City Hall to show their commitment to bringing jobs to the county.
The distribution center last month won a unanimous nod from the Planning Commission, which touted the 600 full-time jobs it would create when it first opens. The center would grow to employ 900 full-time workers.
With those jobs come hundreds of diesel trucks that will come and go each day. The center will operate all day and all night.
The City Council will begin hearing a presentation from city staff Monday, as well as from Wal-Mart officials and opposition leaders.
Public comment will begin Wednesday and continue to Sept. 26, a Saturday. The council will likely cast its vote Sept. 28.
The project, while controversial, hasn't faced the fierce opposition generated by Riverside Motorsports Park, the last major project to polarize the community. (Though plans for Riverside Motorsports Park were approved in 2006, the project never broke ground. The project's leader has since said it will never be built.)
For instance, the Merced County Farm Bureau commented on the distribution center, but hasn't actively lobbied against it as it did during the motorsports park hearings.
The change in tenor may be attributed to at least two factors. One is that Merced's economy has changed considerably since 2006.
The unemployment rate has nearly doubled to 17.6 percent, and several major institutions have gone out of business.
The second factor is that the distribution center is slated for an area that's been zoned for industrial use for several years and near an existing distribution center.
Nevertheless, public turnout for the debate is expected to be large. The city has set aside the Sam Pipes Room at City Hall for overflow seating.
The hearings will also be broadcast live on Channel 96, except theSept. 28 hearing, which will be on Channel 95.
Final lap at Merced Speedway
Waning attendance, economy prompt promoter to drop out...JAMES BURNS
http://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/v-print/story/1061658.html
For the first time in nearly 40 years, the voice of the Merced Speedway struggled to find the words -- struggled to explain the wreck in front of him.
"It hurts," said Johnny Sass, the track's 81-year-old announcer. "Boy, does it hurt.
"They consider me the old man of the track. I've been here since it opened. Next year would have been my 60th year."
Would have been.
The Merced Speedway took its farewell lap Saturday evening, shutting down an operation that began with hope in the 1940s and '50s.
Promoter Chuck Griffin informed the drivers of his decision just hours before Saturday's final running at the Merced County Fairgrounds.
Griffin called the drivers together for a pre-race meeting near the pit boards and announced that he and his wife Marylee were retiring after 26 years, leaving the speedway without a promotion and management team.
Marylee was listed as the manager on the speedway's Web site.
Sass said the Griffins may host a few open races while they still hold the contract on the speedway, but won't renew their bid. The speedway will remain closed, Sass added, until a new bid is accepted.
Merced County spokeswoman Katie Albertson doesn't believe the county has any role in finding a new promoter or manager.
Repeated phone calls to the Griffin family and director Kevin Loughton weren't returned.
"He asked us if we wanted the good news first or the bad news," driver Randy Brewer said of Chuck Griffin's announcement. "I don't even know what the good was now. I don't think there was any.
"This is a big loss. There's not much entertainment in this area. The kids need something to do on Saturday nights. If this isn't here, it's going to be a big, big blow."
The numbers suggest otherwise. The speedway's popularity waned in recent years.
Low car counts, dwindling sponsorships and a sharp decline in attendance ultimately forced Griffin's hand.
At the height of the speedway's popularity in the mid-1970s, Sass said upwards of 120 cars would show up for qualifying events -- for two classes.
On Saturday, the class lineup featured four main events and a total of 17 cars. There was a one-car main event (Valley Sportsman), and Brewer emerged from the evening's biggest field, winning the seven-car Street Stock main.
"Some drivers can't race two or three nights a week anymore. If your car blows up now, you don't have the money to fix it," said Sass, a former driver and pit steward. "You've got your family to think of.
"Everyone thinks racing is just a hobby, but it's a very expensive hobby. Food on the table means more than racing a car. We're not big-time, we're just a local track."
The speedway wasn't immune to the ills of the local economy, which has drawn national attention for its foreclosures and struggling jobs sector.
County Bank used to be a major sponsor, but closed its doors in February.
Ron Smith Automotive and Merced School Credit Union helped fund the Fourth of July fireworks show, but Sass said both have been handcuffed by the failing economy.
Merced Toyota backed out completely, Sass said, but remains in business.
"With the way this economy is," Brewer said, pausing, "I think we all saw this coming."
The Griffins took over promotion and management responsibilities at the speedway in 1985, eventually extending the track to 3/8 of a mile.
In 2008, the Griffins filled the same capacity at the Chowchilla Speedway, but lasted only a few months.
"(Griffin) was going to stick it out as long as he could, but the writing was on the wall," Sass said. "When you can't make expenses, it's time to shut it down.
"There's insurance, employees and officials. There just wasn't enough money to go around.
"The last couple of years you could see it going down and down and down."
Wave the checkered flag on yet another local landmark.
UC officials push plan for steep tuition increases...TERENCE CHEA, Associated Press Writer
http://www.mercedsunstar.com/280/v-print/story/1061123.html
SAN FRANCISCO University of California campus police on Wednesday handcuffed and removed about a dozen demonstrators who interrupted and refused to leave a UC Board of Regents meeting where officials pushed a plan for steep tuition increases.
The demonstrators were protesting layoffs, furloughs, fee hikes and other actions taken by university officials to address the 10-campus system's budget crisis.
The regents left the meeting room at the UC San Francisco campus when more than 100 protesters stood up and chanted "Whose university? Our university!" The board members returned after campus police arrested the demonstrators.
Most of the protesters were UC employees, but the people who were detained are not currently employed by the university, according to union organizer Sanjay Garla.
At the meeting, UC officials presented their plan to raise student fees by more than 30 percent next year to help close a massive budget shortfall caused by rising costs and deep cuts in state funding.
UC President Mark Yudof said the fee increases are needed to maintain the school's place among the nation's top research institutions.
"What we cannot do is surrender to the greatest enemy of the University of California, which is mediocrity," Yudof said. "The state has stopped building freeways to higher education, and they have started building toll roads."
The budget plan calls for a midyear fee increase of 15 percent, followed by another 15 percent hike next fall. Undergraduate fees for California residents would rise to $10,302, which doesn't include room, board or campus fees that average $930.
Under the proposal, fees for graduate students and out-of-state residents would rise by similar amounts, and the university would charge additional fees for undergraduates in professional programs such as engineering and business.
The proposed fee hikes, which follow a 9.3 percent increase approved in May, would generate an additional $378 million in revenue, of which one third would be set aside for financial aid.
The Board of Regents is expected to vote on the plan in November.
Students said the fee increases would create financial hardship for them and their families.
"Student fees are detrimental to access, affordability and diversity in our system," said Victor Sanchez, president of the University of California Students Association. "We have reached a point to which the University of California can no longer call itself affordable."
Anthropological archeologist hired as dean at UC Merced
Prof. takes over School of Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts…DANIELLE GAINES
http://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/v-print/story/1061685.html
A key University of California Regents committee approved the appointment and compensation of a new dean at the UC Merced campus' largest school.
Anthropological archeologist Mark S. Aldenderfer of the University of Arizona will take over as the second dean of the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts on Jan. 1, 2010, provided a full slate of regents fall in line with the committee members today.
"We are very excited to welcome Dr. Aldenderfer to the UC Merced family," Chancellor Steve Kang said in a press release. "It is my belief that he has both the skills and vision required to lead the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts to reach its full potential as our university grows in the coming years."
Aldenderfer received his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in 1977 and most recently worked as an anthropology professor at the University of Arizona, researching the emergence of social inequality and ancient cultures in Central America, the Andes and Africa.
Before that, he worked as professor of anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara, and added a part-time administrative position as director of the Office of Information Technology for four years before he left the campus in 2004.
"I am very happy to be back in the UC system because I really believe it is the finest university system in the United States," Aldenderfer said from his office in Arizona on Wednesday.
He is currently editor-in-chief for the scientific journal "Current Anthropology" and an adviser for "Internet Archeology," an online journal, roles he plans to continue while working at UC Merced. For now, he doesn't plan to teach at the campus.
Aldenderfer fills a position that's been open since Kenji Hakuta, founding dean of the college, left the campus in the summer of 2006. Hans Bjornsson, the campus' vice provost of academic planning, has held an interim appointment since Hakuta's departure.
Aldenderfer's appointment was approved by leaders at the Merced campus in August, and his salary package was approved Wednesday by the Regents' Committee on Compensation.
As dean, Aldenderfer will receive an annual salary of $200,000, which is between the midpoint salary of $195,200 and the average UC Merced dean salary of $203,000. He will also receive a $50,000 relocation stipend, moving expenses and standard health, pension and senior management benefits, UC Merced spokeswoman Tonya Luiz said.
When Aldenderfer begins work at Merced this winter, he will be subject to the mandatory work furloughs affecting all UC employees, Luiz said.
The School of Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts enrolled 918 undergraduates last year, more than any other school on campus. Majors that will fall under Aldenderfer's supervision include anthropology, cognitive science, economics, history, literature and culture, management, political science and psychology.
Aldenderfer said he was comfortable being the administrator for such a varied group of disciplines.
"I was an English major for awhile, so I have an appreciation for the humanities and the fine arts," he said. "I will learn more about them over time, but they are not unfamiliar to me."
Down in the dumps: Landfills scale back operations to fill in budget gap...CORINNE REILLY
http://www.mercedsunstar.com/167/v-print/story/1061684.html
Effects of the recession have trickled all the way down to the dump: Faced with a sharp drop in trash tonnage, Merced County's landfills are struggling to make ends meet.
There are two landfills in the county -- one on Highway 59 near the city of Merced, and one on Billy Wright Road in Los Banos. According to the county's public works department, which operates the dumps, their trash intake dropped from roughly 28,000 tons in January 2006 to 17,000 tons last month.
Because the landfills charge customers by weight, the decline in tonnage has translated into an equally steep reduction in revenue.
"Throughout the recession, Merced County has been ground zero, and this is just another facet of that," Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said. "You know it's bad when the landfills are hurting."
Waste from construction sites once comprised a considerable portion of the trash brought to the landfills, but that changed with the building boom's abrupt end, said Sam Chandler, a deputy public works director who oversees the landfills. "It just completely stopped," Chandler said.
Landfill workers also have recorded a marked drop in the amount of trash delivered from residential curb-side pickups, he said. "We think it's partly because people are buying less and holding on to things longer, but it's also probably because there are just less people here. People have literally left."
The landfills' recycling intake also has declined, possibly because more people are choosing to turn in their bottles and cans to collect the redemption value.
The landfills are slated to take several measures this month aimed at closing a roughly $4 million budget shortfall. Eight workers will lose their jobs Sept. 25. Reduced hours will take effect at both sites Sept. 28. Besides closing 30 minutes earlier during the week, the landfills no longer will operate on Sundays and will open for only half the day on Saturdays.
Chandler said those reductions will result in lower equipment, fuel, maintenance and overtime costs.
"We had a choice between lowering our costs and raising our rates, and it ultimately was decided that we should lower costs," said Jesse Brown, executive director at the Merced County Association of Governments, which governs how the landfills operate. "We would have had to raise the tipping fees by a considerable amount, and I think the policy board felt like people are being squeezed enough right now as it is."
The county has estimated that its two landfills have the capacity to take in trash until at least 2050.
Modesto Bee
August drop means fewer mortgages will be foreclosed...J.N. Sbranti
http://www.modbee.com/local/v-print/story/857566.html
Foreclosures continue to mount throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley, but there are signs of hope.
Significantly fewer homeowners received notices of default — the first step in the foreclosure process — during August than in May, June or July.
That was true throughout Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties, according to just-released data from ForeclosureRadar.
The region's due for a break. Since the mortgage crisis began three years ago, about 44,500 homes in the three counties have been lost to foreclosure. Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced homeowners have defaulted on about $16.8 billion in loans, ForeclosureRadar records show.
And many more home-owners are far behind on payments.
About 1 in 7 mortgages in Stanislaus County are 90 days or more delinquent, according to new First American CoreLogic data. Delinquency rates are even higher in Merced and San Joaquin.
To prevent those homeowners from defaulting completely, several organizations have scheduled foreclosure prevention workshops in this region during September and October.
The free events — including one sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Treasury on Sept. 30 and another by the National Council of La Raza on Oct. 31 — will enable homeowners to meet one-on-one with their lenders to discuss loan modifications.
Workouts do work out
Those so-called loan workouts have reduced the number of homes being foreclosed, said Sean O'Toole, who runs ForeclosureRadar. He said the federally pushed Home Affordable Modification Program has helped some homeowners keep their houses, at least for now.
"We can clearly see that this program is postponing an awful lot of foreclosures; but don't expect a wave of foreclosures if it fails — instead expect further government intervention," O'Toole predicted.
There already are a couple of federal efforts to reduce foreclosures.
The Home Affordable Refinance Program gives up to 5 million homeowners with loans owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac an opportunity to refinance into more affordable monthly payments.
The Home Affordable Modification Program commits $75 billion to keep up to 4 million Americans in their homes by preventing foreclosures.
Those programs are helping, according to First American CoreLogic, which analyzed 2.2 million residential mortgages refinanced from October through June. It found those refinanced loans saved homeowners a median $120 per month on mortgage payments, or about 10.5 percent.
That puts more money into the pockets of homeowners, said Mark Fleming, First American's chief economist.
"This permanent increase in monthly income is likely to, in part, be used to increase consumption and help to drive growth as the economy rebounds," Fleming said. "Additionally, these refinanced loans are likely to be more sustainably affordable debt obligations. The combination of lower payments and fixed-rate terms should also reduce the risk of future foreclosure."
On the Net: For details about federal loan modification programs, go to www.MakingHomeAffordable.gov.
Gov't says drilling policy caused BLM confusion...MEAD GRUVER, Associated Press Writer
http://www.modbee.com/state/v-print/story/857202.html
CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- The U.S. Bureau of Land Management frequently misinterpreted and violated a federal law that sought to expedite oil and gas drilling in the West, a Government Accountability Office report said Wednesday.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 laid out new circumstances in which detailed environmental review would no longer be required before oil and gas developers could drill new wells. The BLM approved such "categorical exclusions" in 28 percent of some 22,000 oil and gas permits issued between 2006 and 2008, according to the report out Wednesday.
The purpose of the law is to save regulators time by allowing them to skip environmental impact statements and environmental assessments that otherwise would be required under the act.
The GAO found the law has improved efficiency, saving a few hours of paperwork for each permit. But the report also documents several violations of the law and noncompliance with BLM's own guidelines.
The law spells out five circumstances when categorical exclusions are permitted, including when new wells are proposed for locations where drilling has occurred within the past five years. Another exclusion exempts review when new wells are proposed for a developed field that has passed an environmental review within the past five years.
Environmentalists and others, including Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, have criticized categorical exclusions for allowing more drilling than might otherwise have been approved - a concern the report mentioned.
Violations by BLM staff have included using categorical exemptions to approve activity other than drilling oil or gas wells. Others have to do with approving drilling that occurred after the five-year timeframe had elapsed, and approving wells on sites that previously didn't have wells, according to the report.
Eighteen BLM field offices in nine states - Alaska, California, Colorado, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming - violated portions of the law, according to the GAO.
In Wyoming, where gas drilling boomed for the better part of a decade, categorical exclusions caused two gas wells to be drilled in an otherwise pristine desert wilderness study area, said Erik Molvar of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyo.
Freudenthal said one problem with categorical exclusions is they are used to grant well-by-well approval without consideration of long-term, cumulative effects after several wells are drilled.
The report suggests that Congress clarify the law and that the BLM make certain to use categorical exemptions properly - recommendations the BLM mostly agrees with, agency spokesman Matt Spangler said.
U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said she doesn't support changing the law in any way that would slow down approval of new drilling, which is necessary to make the nation more energy self-sufficient.
Fresno Bee
Lawsuit accuses FEMA of ignoring species threats...SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN,Associated Press Writer
http://www.fresnobee.com/641/v-print/story/1640307.html
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is being sued again over accusations that it violated the Endangered Species Act by issuing flood insurance without determining whether development would impact imperiled plants and animals.
WildEarth Guardians said Wednesday it filed a lawsuit against FEMA in federal court in New Mexico that claims the agency's National Flood Insurance Program encourages development in flood plains without determining whether threatened or endangered species would be harmed.
FEMA officials said Wednesday they would not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit follows a similar complaint filed by the group in early September in Arizona. Environmental groups also have challenged FEMA over the impacts of the program on species in Washington, Oregon and Florida.
"I think FEMA really doesn't have any understanding, particularly here in the West, that flood plain development is a huge environmental problem that's been overlooked and under scrutinized for far, far too long," said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians.
Horning said it's been more than three decades since the environmental impacts of the flood insurance program have been assessed on a national level, and the goal of the lawsuits is to force the agency to consider the impacts on species and habitat across the nation.
The lawsuits filed in New Mexico and Arizona seek injunctions that would require FEMA to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the impacts of the flood insurance program.
WildEarth Guardians also wants to prevent the agency from issuing insurance policies for new construction in flood-prone areas if the activity would harm threatened or endangered species.
More than 16,700 flood insurance policies, totaling about $2.7 billion in coverage, have been issued in New Mexico. The lawsuit said most cover structures in flood plains along the Rio Grande, San Juan and Pecos rivers, which are all home to species protected by federal law.
WildEarth Guardians points to state and federal agencies that say New Mexico's water ways are vital to the survival of imperiled species, including the Rio Grande silvery minnow and the Southwestern willow flycatcher.
In all, more than half of vertebrates in New Mexico and Arizona are entirely dependent on riparian areas, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"You couldn't find a more precious piece of real estate in terms of its environmental value," Horning said of flood plains in the arid West.
In administering the flood insurance program, FEMA identifies and maps flood-prone areas, adopts requirements for development in those areas and provides for flood insurance or federal disaster assistance. Lenders generally require property owners and developers to obtain flood insurance in areas FEMA determines are at risk.
Environmentalists contend that if FEMA does a better job of scrutinizing the impacts of development in flood plains, there would be less risk to homeowners as well as species and their habitat.
"I think the federal government has been a pushover and has provided a rubber stamp that has allowed development to occur in places that it really shouldn't have," Horning said.
EPA tells court it will redo Bush-era smog rule...DINA CAPPIELLO,Associated Press Writer
http://www.fresnobee.com/news/national-politics/v-print/story/1640015.html 
WASHINGTON The Obama administration signaled Wednesday that it would scrap a controversial Bush-era rule that set stricter limits for smog but fell short of scientific recommendations.
In a notice filed Wednesday in a federal appeals court, the Justice Department says there are concerns that the revision made by the Bush administration does not adhere to federal air pollution law. The Environmental Protection Agency will propose revised smog standards to protect health and the environment in late December.
"This is one of the most important protection measures we can take to safeguard our health and our environment," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in a statement. "Reconsidering these standards and ensuring acceptable levels of ground-level ozone could cut health care costs and make our cities healthier, safer places to live, work and play."
Smog is a respiratory irritant that can aggravate asthma and has been linked to heart attacks.
The Bush regulation, announced in March 2008, was the subject of much controversy, although it was estimated that it would have prevented thousands of hospital and emergency room visits and 1,400 fewer heart attacks.
While stronger than the previous rule, it wasn't as tough as the government's independent scientific advisers had recommended. Documents later showed that then-President George W. Bush had intervened personally on the level of smog protection for wildlife, farmlands, parks and open spaces.
EPA officials had wanted to make this secondary standard stronger than the one to protect human health. But the White House sided with its budget office, where officials argued that the two standards should be the same.
Eleven states and a number of health and environmental organizations filed suit against the Bush regulation, arguing that it ignored the recommendation of a key panel of scientists. Industry groups, whose emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds form smog in sunlight, also sued to weaken the standard.
The office of New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday its lawsuit would be put on hold until the EPA issues new rules.
In a statement, Cuomo said that the Obama EPA's conclusion "that the smog standards promulgated under the Bush administration were weak and insufficient" opens the door for real, science-based standards that will protect the environment and public health.
In March, the Justice Department asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to delay the legal proceedings so the EPA could review the standards.
The Bush regulation set a maximum airborne concentration for ground-level ozone at 75 parts per billion.
EPA's science advisory board - and most health experts - had recommended a limit of 60 to 70 parts per billion to adequately protect the elderly, people with respiratory problems and children.
Environmentalists applauded the agency's decision Wednesday.
Frank O'Donnell, president of advocacy group Clean Air Watch said that if EPA follows the science and the law "it will inevitably mean tougher smog standards than those issued by the Bush administration."
The brief filed Wednesday indicates that the agency will attempt to reach some sort of agreement on the case in coming weeks.
EPA limits pollution from medical incinerators...The Associated Press
http://www.fresnobee.com/news/national-politics/v-print/story/1640453.html
WASHINGTON About 50 medical waste incinerators nationwide will have to reduce their air pollution under new regulations announced Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA said that the new rules, which require better monitoring and tighten emissions limits, will reduce toxic pollution from the burning of medical waste by 390,000 pounds annually and likely result in no new incinerators being built.
Medical incinerators burn biological waste, needles, plastic gloves, batteries and other items. The resulting emissions account for only a fraction of the country's air pollution, but it is a particularly toxic mix of heavy metals, acid gases and other contaminants.
The EPA estimates the cost to comply with the new regulations will be about $15.5 million per year.
The new standards settle a 1997 lawsuit brought by environmental groups that argued existing standards were too weak.
Dream may be over...Larry W. Taylor, Fresno...Letters to the editor 
http://www.fresnobee.com/277/v-print/story/1640515.html
Sen. Dean Florez’ opinion piece: “Is Dream over for Golden State?” [Sept. 4] exposed some historic contradictions of California and eloquently commented on how our future may be no different.
We have a tremendously wealthy state that’s $26 billion in debt, while well-off corporate farmers, actors, comedians, politicians and valley mayors expect billions more public dollars for private profits, in the form of increased water storage and expanded delivery systems.
We have corporations planting a future glut on the west side while one already exists on the east side, a multi-year lack of rainfall and very high unemployment due to a two-year construction freefall. Still, the corporate farmers coerce their farm workers to crusade for dams while the state cuts back on the best public investments, of education and health care. As Sen. Florez alludes, farmhands have been a huge part of the Central Valley’s success. Like most parents, they have found their dreams fulfilled through their children with the benefit of public education.
The dream may be over. If the wealthy water interests prevail, we just might continue into this century with our only and historic claim to fame, as the raisin capital of the world.
DEAN FLOREZ: Is dream over for Golden State?...Dean Florez...9-4-09
http://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/wo/v-print/story/1625759.html
SHAFTER -- The summer harvest is a strange time to be contemplating the death of the California Dream.
I leave the state Capitol, its endless budget battles, and drive 300 miles south through the gut of California -- to this small farm town where I grew up and still live.
I see the dreamers everywhere. They are bent over in the fields with curved blades and buckets in hand, picking grapes and yodeling ranchera music beneath the 110 degree sun.
In a month's time, like some mythical bird, they have plucked clean more than 60 million boxes worth of Crimsons and Flames and Superiors from the vineyards of the San Joaquin Valley.
At shift's end, when they finally remove their ball caps and bandanas, I see the indigenous faces of rural Mexico. These are the Triqui and others Indians who have come to California fleeing a new dust bowl.
They share much with Steinbeck's Joads, as author Mark Arax tells us in his book, "West of the West." Only these Okies are brown.
A single mother has crossed the border by foot and then raft and is now picking bell peppers outside Lamont, a town that has gone from all white to all brown in 30 years' time. Before she earns a dime, she must pay off a $1,200 debt to the coyote, the trafficker of humanity who helped smuggle her over.
"Why did you come?" Arax asks her. "For the future of my children,"
In her journey, I hear the voice of my grandmother, Stella Florez, who arrived in this valley in the summer of 1927 and didn't stop picking its grapes and cotton and potatoes and onions until 1968.
I'd like to think there was something wishful in her decision to quit that year -- the year of Cesar Chavez's first hunger strike for La Causa. Soon after, the big grape farmers of Delano found themselves signing their first contracts with Chavez's United Farm Workers union.
Even as my grandmother made her children follow her into the fields to learn the dignity of hard work, she understood that education was the surest way out.
Back in the 1960s, for a Mexican family living in a Mexican colony in the middle of California, the dream was a high school education. Her four children all graduated from Shafter High.
My father, Ray, worked 35 years of his life at a plant in Bakersfield that made Styrofoam. His older brother, Robert, after returning from the war in Vietnam, worked at a cement plant in Riverside, unearthing the gravel that became Los Angeles' sprawl.
Grandma Stella was bedridden when I earned my bachelor's degree from UCLA in 1987, the first of her grandchildren to graduate from a university. She insisted we film the ceremony in which I gave the graduation speech as the school's first Latino student body president. She must have shown that video to every nurse on the second floor of Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield as she lay dying.
This summer, I find myself wondering what my grandmother would make of this new California: 38 million residents strong; $26 billion dollars in the hole; deep cuts to education and social service programs; the spectacle of big growers and poor farm workers, forever antagonists, marching arm in arm in a protest for more federal water, led not by a Cesar Chavez, but by a comedian named Paul Rodriquez.
My grandmother had a wicked sense of humor and could smell a rat from a mile away. As a young woman who had worked side by side with the cotton-picking machine until it became good enough to replace her, she knew that no job in the fields was forever. She had seen enough booms and busts in the Golden State to know, too, that neither one lasted. In high and low times, frugality was a bottom line that should never be trifled with.
Here in the big valley, the ceaseless reinvention that is California continues. On the east side, farmers are pulling out tens of thousands of acres of nectarines, peaches and plums -- not because of drought or federal water going to fish, but because there is simply too much stone fruit to make a buck.
On the west side, the big farmers have planted so many acres of almonds, pistachios and pomegranates -- heart-healthy snacking, anti-oxidant drinking -- that a new glut surely is in the making.
One thing hasn't changed. Over the next few weeks, the Mexican farmhands will walk into the fields at sunrise, pick 2 million-plus tons of Thompson seedless grapes and lay them down in the vineyard rows to bake into raisins. We remain the raisin capital of the world.
Sacramento Bee
Fish protection group sues over wastewater plant...Cathy Locke
http://www.sacbee.com/eldorado/v-print/story/2188873.html
The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance has filed a lawsuit against the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board for issuing a water-quality permit to the El Dorado Irrigation District's Deer Creek wastewater treatment plant.
The lawsuit, filed Aug. 28 in Sacramento Superior Court, names the district as an interested party.
The district provides water and sewer service to much of western El Dorado County. The Deer Creek treatment plant, south of Cameron Park, discharges treated wastewater into Deer Creek, a tributary of the Cosumnes River.
The state issued the water-quality permit in December.
"The Deer Creek permit represents another failure by the regional board to comply with laws designed to protect the water quality and fisheries of the Central Valley," Bill Jennings, CSPA's executive director, said in announcing the lawsuit on the organization's Web site.
The alliance, which advocates for conservation of California fisheries, alleges that the regional board in issuing the permit failed to comply with state and federal anti-degradation requirements, failed to include effluent limitations for constituents with potential to exceed water quality standards, improperly established limits for metals, failed to include mandated monitoring requirements, ignored the administrative record and failed to comply with basic procedures for public comment and review.
Chico Enterprise Record
Group opposes bottling plant...HEATHER HACKING-Staff Writer
http://www.chicoer.com/advertise/ci_13355937?IADID=Search-www.chicoer.com-www.chicoer.com
ORLAND — People concerned about a proposed Crystal Geyser bottling plant in Orland talked strategy Monday night on getting more people involved in asking questions and encouraging Orland leaders to look more critically at the project.
About 55 people attended the meeting.
Joanne Oberton, who helped organize the group, said the plan is to meet the second and fourth Mondays at 7:30 p.m. at the Glenn County Farm Bureau office, Fifth and Mill streets, while the project is still being processed.
Crystal Geyser wants to build a bottled water plant at County 200 and County Road N, which is zoned heavy industrial. The plan is to pump about 160 acre-feet of water a year. One acre-foot is 325,851 gallons of water, about the same amount of water for one or two California households for a year.
One woman said she had been "beating the pavement" with petitions, talking to people door-to-door.
"It was a real eye-opener" how many people had not heard about the bottling plant proposal, she said.
Another man said he had been involved with a recent recall effort, and it can take 20 minutes of talking to someone to get them to sign a petition. He said there would need to be a lot of people involved. During the meeting a presentation was given by Adam Scow, an organizer with Food and Water Watch. Scow works to help organize local people, including efforts to fight water privatization.
Stow told the story of Santa Cruz, where a German company bought the water system and increased rates dramatically.
"The citizens realized they were being scammed," and organized a community effort. In the end, citizens approved a $11 million bond to buy the water system.
Although the company hired public relations firms, the people won because they spoke with their neighbors face-to-face," Stow said.
Food and Water Watch has also been directly involved with the efforts to stop the Nestle bottled water plant in McCloud, Stow said. That project failed after six years because California Attorney General Jerry Brown challenged the company's Environmental Impact Report, Stow said. After six years of delays, Nestle took plans for the bottling plant to Sacramento, Stow said.
Stow said that in addition to concerns about local groundwater supply, bottled water provide problems because the majority of bottles are not recycled, and it takes resources to produce the bottles.
He encouraged those in attendance to ask to meet with city leaders and "find out how many votes it takes to win a council seat."
A woman in the audience said that one problem is that the city has said the proposed bottling plant would not need an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Another woman asked if it would help to petition the Attorney General's Office. Stow said that would be a good idea.
One concern expressed by residents at the meeting is that there is a plume of groundwater contamination caused by dry cleaning chemicals. If water is pumped nearby, it could draw the plume in another direction.
Several people also said they were concerned that many new wells have been built in recent years.
Another woman said she was concerned that the plans only call for 160 acre-feet of water a year. However, there is no guarantee that more would not be pumped in the future.
Yet another concern is that more water will be used because the bottles will need to be washed before filling.
People also were worried about trucks from the proposed bottling plant harming public roads.
Angus Saint-Evans said he had a meeting recently with a staff member at the city, and was told that Orland does not yet have an application for the project.
However, Saint-Evans said, "We need to bring to the city's attention all these questions."
He said the time to do that is now, not when the subject comes up at a public meeting.
At the end of the meeting, organizers passed a jar asking for donations for buttons and posters. They also handed out blank petition forms, asking people to take them and help get signatures.
People who would like to join the effort can call 865-2731.
Stockton Record
Fish kill reported...Alex Breitler's blog
http://blogs.recordnet.com/sr-abreitler
A fish kill was reported Wednesday morning on the Calaveras River at the Pershing Avenue bridge, according to emails received by the advocacy group Friends of the Lower Calaveras River.
A Delta College instructor riding his bike to work saw a number of fish species belly-up in a log jam on the east side of the bridge.
Sadly, these first-rain kills are as predictable as President's Day.
Every year the first rainstorms of the fall season loosen up a summer's worth of gunk and ooze on our roadways, sidewalks and front yards, sending these toxic materials -- oil, fertilizer, pet waste, etc. -- into our storm drains and, in turn, into several waterways that pass through Stockton on the way to the Delta.
The Calaveras is one of those waterways. Fish kills are also frequently spotted on Smith Canal by the vigilant residents there.
You can help prevent this from happening by following "Only Rain Down the Drain" guidelines, including these tips from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
Please call or write if you've seen any dead fish, and send along any photos too.
San Francisco Chronicle
Study: Urban streams contaminated by road salt...STEVE KARNOWSKI, Associated Press Writer
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2009/09/16/national/a151118D98.DTL&type=printable
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Many urban streams have become salty enough to harm aquatic life, largely because of salt used for deicing roads in the winter, according to a new government study released Wednesday.
The U.S. Geological Survey studied urban streams and groundwater for levels of chloride, a component of salt, in 20 states spanning from Alaska to the Great Lakes and Northeast.
It found chloride concentrations above federal recommendations designed to protect aquatic life in more than 40 percent of urban streams tested. The highest levels were measured in those streams during the winter — as much as 20 times the federal guidelines — when salt and other chemicals are commonly used for deicing.
The problem was less serious in groundwater, and fewer than 2 percent of the drinking-water wells sampled had chloride levels higher than federal standards for human consumption. Chloride levels generally were much higher in urban than rural areas.
High chloride levels can slow plant growth, impair reproduction and reduce the diversity of organisms in affected waters. It also can affect the taste of drinking water drawn from them.
Matthew Larsen, the federal agency's associate director for water, said road safety is a top priority when state and local officials decide to use salt.
"And clearly salt is an effective deicer that prevents accidents, saves lives, and reduces property losses," Larsen said in a statement accompanying the report. "These findings are not surprising, but rather remind us of the unintended consequences that salt use for deicing may have on our waters."
For those reasons, Larsen noted, transportation officials continue to develop innovations that reduce the need for road salt without compromising safety.
The study found the rising levels were consistent over the last two decades with more use of road salt and the expansion of road networks and parking lots that get deicing.
Some of the highest concentrations of chloride were found in two creeks in the Twin Cities and four creeks in suburban Chicago, but Lincoln Creek in Milwaukee exceeded the federal guidelines the most out of all the streams cited in the study.
The findings are consistent with several other studies that blamed road salt, and its increased use, for water quality problems in streams and aquifers.
A University of Minnesota study published in Science of the Total Environment last year linked increasing salinity in Twin Cities lakes to increased use of road salt in their watersheds. Another study by some of the same researchers this year found those waters were getting saltier because most of the salt was being retained in the watersheds instead of being flushed down the Mississippi River.
And a 2005 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said chloride concentrations were increasing in many surface waters in the northeastern states at a rate that threatened to render them undrinkable and toxic to freshwater life.
Eric Novotny, a researcher who worked on both the Minnesota studies, said certain species, mostly bugs at the beginning of the food chain, are typically the first affected by rising chloride levels. Either they're killed outright or it affects their reproduction, reducing biodiversity among less tolerant species, which can have consequences farther up the food chain.
Besides road salt, other sources of chloride include wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, water softeners, farms and more salt leaching from landfills, as well as natural sources.
The states included in the study were Alaska, Washington, North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine.
The study looked at data from 1,329 wells in 19 states and 100 surface water basins in 15 states. Because those two data sets don't perfectly overlap, the number of states is actually 20, said John Mullaney, the study's lead author.
On the Net:
U.S. Geological Survey, National Water-Quality Assessment Program: water.usgs.gov/nawqa/studies/praq/glacaq/index.html
Obama's ocean task force to recommend new policy...AP
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2009/09/17/national/a095006D58.DTL&type=printable
San Francisco (AP) -- The Obama administration is unveiling the first draft of recommendations for a new, comprehensive national policy for protecting and restoring the oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes.
President Barack Obama's Ocean Policy Task Force — comprised of officials from a range of agencies — will help create a new framework for future conservation and restoration efforts.
Task force members are meeting in San Francisco on Thursday to discuss the plan and take public comment.
The president has said the oceans are critical to our survival and economy. He created the task force to coordinate federal response to pollution from industrial and commercial activities and rising sea levels, among others.
14 arrested at raucous UC regents meeting...Nanette Asimov
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/09/17/BAPD19O4SN.DTL&type=printable
University of California police arrested 14 raucous protesters who briefly shut down a meeting Wednesday in San Francisco, where UC regents were discussing a proposed increase in student tuition next year.
"Whose university? Our university!" chanted dozens of UC students, alumni, faculty and staff who expressed fury at UC President Mark Yudof for asking the regents to raise tuition by 32 percent by next fall. That's on top of recent and proposed layoffs of nearly 2,000 employees and a program of unpaid furloughs affecting about 100,000 nonunion workers.
The rise in tuition and systemwide cutbacks, including fewer classes for students, are intended to close a projected funding gap of $753 million.
The protests prompted Yudof to offer a lengthy explanation of why he is proposing the hikes.
"The students ought to be angry about the fee increases," he said. "I'm angry about it, too. The worst is not even over today. This is a terrible time."
But the protesters didn't hear what he had to say because they had been removed from the meeting by police.
"It's worth getting arrested," UC Berkeley alumna Jillian Marks said as police led her out of the room at UCSF's Mission Bay campus.
Angry testimony
The arrests capped angry public testimony in which speaker after speaker told Yudof and the regents that raising tuition would make the university too expensive for many students, and that the furloughs - essentially pay cuts - are unfair for employees earning less than $40,000.
Under the plan - which was formally presented to the regents Wednesday - undergraduate tuition would rise from $7,788 to $10,302 next fall, excluding housing costs.
The regents will vote on the proposal in November. They will also vote on whether to raise graduate student fees by about 30 percent, and whether to reduce next year's freshman class by 2,300 students that UC officials said are among some 14,000 students not covered by state funds.
"You're incompetent!" David Patida, a UC Santa Cruz student yelled at Yudof and the regents when the public was invited to address the panel.
Another speaker, who identified himself as an employee, received a standing ovation when he told the panel: "I throw my shoe at you symbolically!" recalling the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush last year.
San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos told the regents: "You can do better!"
As the comment period drew to a close, some speakers broke through the velvet rope separating them from the regents, and police entered the room. Yudof and the regents left, and protesters continued chanting until they were arrested for civil disobedience and led away in handcuffs.
As the meeting resumed, several regents and campus chancellors said they were disturbed by the personal attacks on the president and expressed strong support for Yudof.
"Just know that you do not stand alone," said regent Bonnie Reiss, to applause from her colleagues. "You have our great respect."
Blaming Sacramento
Yudof and the regents encouraged protesters to shift their anger to Sacramento, where severe budget problems will spell more problems for UC over the next few years.
Vice President Patrick Lenz presented plan to the regents outlining the need for the tuition increase. He emphasized that students whose families earn $60,000 or less pay no fees now and won't in the future.
He said middle-class students are most likely to feel the increase most deeply.
In all, UC experts presented a devastating picture of present and future finances at the premier research university system, and tried to dispel the idea that UC's substantial private funding could be used to make up the funding shortfall.
Eddie Island, a regent who year after year has sided with students in opposing higher fees, said he was finally convinced of the need to ask students to pay more.
"To those who say I've gone to the dark side, I say no: I've gone to the side of necessity."
In November, he said, he will vote, sadly, to raise tuition.
Indybay
Restore the Delta's 9 Points for Legislative Water Solutions...Dan Bacher
http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2009/09/16/18622194.php
Restore the Delta today issued its 9 points to include in addressing legislative solutions to California's water problems - and they don't include building a peripheral canal.
Restore the Delta's 9 Points for Legislative Water Solutions...Dan Bacher
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Campaign Director for Restore the Delta, today called on the California Legislature to include 9 ideas in future water package discussions following the failure of the Joint Water Conference Committee to pass a package of water bills during the final weeks of the 2009 Legislative session.
“While we are pleased attempts to rush a package of flawed water bills through the Legislature this session were unsuccessful, Restore the Delta strongly believes a solution is needed to fix California’s complex water problems,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “We have always agreed that water is one of the highest priority issues for our state, but it must be done in the right way. We would like to see the following 9 points included when water talks resume.”
A broad coalition of fishermen, conservationists, environmental justice advocates, Delta farmers and Delta residents, led by Restore the Delta and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, conducted a successful grassroots campaign over the past several months to stop the Legislature's mad rush to build a peripheral canal and rewrite California water and public trust law. In an unprecedented grassroots uprising by Delta residents and constituents of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, people picketed outside Steinberg's office for three days during the week before the legislation failed.
There has been speculation of a special session on water this Fall or, at the least, continued discussions when the next session begins in January. In either event, Restore the Delta said would welcome the opportunity to work with the Legislature to craft a water package that is good for the State and good for the Delta.
Restore the Delta would like to see the following ideas included in any water package as discussions resume:
1. A Habit Conservation Planning Process that looks at all the hydrological alternatives: including limited exports, no exports and other alternatives. That process would compare these alternatives using independent science to new conveyance. This process should include Delta representation, fisheries representation, tribal representation, and environmental justice representation at the Steering Committee Level and not just be a process driven by water contractors.
2. A full economic analysis of the value of Delta fisheries, farming, and other Delta assets to the state economy.
3. A real push for funding local water projects that will create more water for other California communities, including educating Californians on how to alter their water management practices to benefit the State. According to “California Water Solutions Now,” a report released in August by the Environmental Water Caucus (EWC), the State “has already developed enough water supplies to satisfy our needs into the foreseeable future by utilizing existing infrastructure and existing cost effective technologies.” The report notes that the level of reduction can be “as much as 5 million acre feet a year by 2030 compared with current trends.”
4. The creation of a Delta conservancy as proposed by Senator Lois Wolk.
5. A strengthened Delta Protection Commission.
6. A fully funded State Water Resources Control Board, that will enforce water quality standards for the Delta, as well as the superior water rights held by the Delta and in areas of watershed origin.
7. Emergency preparedness and flood prevention funding for the Delta – to protect urban communities and assets in the Delta.
8. A humanitarian package for Central Valley farm workers that will include emergency aid, economic development and job training for their communities.
9. If through these processes, it is decided that some type of new governance is needed to manage the Delta, then this new structure must include adequate local Delta representation to create a viable state-local partnership. Without local support and participation, any new plans and programs for the Delta will not succeed.
“Restore the Delta is optimistic the California Legislature can bring groups together to find common ground on these complex issues,” Barrigan-Parrilla added. “But that is true only if they commit to addressing the real water policy issues that impact all Californians. We look forward to working with them this fall and winter.”
About Restore the Delta - Restore the Delta is a grassroots campaign committed to making the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta fishable, swimmable, drinkable, and farmable to benefit all of California. Restore the Delta - a coalition of Delta residents, business leaders, civic organizations, community groups, faith-based communities, union locals, farmers, fishermen, and environmentalists - seeks to strengthen the health of the estuary and the well-being of Delta communities. Restore the Delta works to improve water quality so that fisheries and farming can thrive together again in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. http://www.restorethedelta.org
Los Angeles Times
Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton is focus of corruption probe
The Justice Department investigation centers on a 2006 decision to award oil shale leases in Colorado to a Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary. Months later, the oil giant hired Norton as a legal counsel...Jim Tankersley and Josh Meyer
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-norton17-2009sep17,0,340619,print.story
The Justice Department is investigating whether former Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton illegally used her position to benefit Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the company that later hired her, according to officials in federal law enforcement and the Interior Department.
The criminal investigation centers on the Interior Department's 2006 decision to award three lucrative oil shale leases on federal land in Colorado to a Shell subsidiary. Over the years it would take to extract the oil, according to calculations from Shell and a Rand Corp. expert, the deal could net the company hundreds of billions of dollars.
The investigation's main focus is whether Norton violated a law that prohibits federal employees from discussing employment with a company if they are involved in dealings with the government that could benefit the firm, law enforcement and Interior officials said.
They said investigators also were trying to determine if Norton broke a broader federal "denial of honest services" law, which says a government official can be prosecuted for violating the public trust by, for example, steering government business to favored firms or friends.
The Interior Department's Office of Inspector General began the investigation during the waning months of the George W. Bush administration and more recently made a formal criminal referral to the Justice Department. Norton is the first Bush official at the Cabinet secretary level to be the subject of a formal political corruption investigation.
Shell spokeswoman Kelly C. op de Weegh declined to comment on behalf of both the company and Norton, who did not respond to numerous calls. "Shell has not received an official notification with regard to a government investigation. Consequently, we are not in a position to comment at this time," she said.
The Justice and Interior departments also would not comment.
Interior Department investigators referred the case to the Justice Department after concluding that there was sufficient evidence of potential illegal conduct, according to federal law enforcement and Interior officials. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive and confidential nature of the case.
Those officials said the referral was based on an already comprehensive Interior Department investigation that included interviews with numerous Interior employees. The Justice Department has assigned prosecutors from its public integrity section and the U.S. attorney's office in Washington to the case.
Norton, 55, was President Bush's first Interior secretary. She had worked as an Interior Department attorney before being elected Colorado's attorney general. Later, as a private lawyer, she represented mining, timber and oil companies.
As Interior secretary, she embraced an industry-friendly approach to environmental regulation that she called "cooperative conservation" and pushed the department to open more public land for energy production.
Norton also backed commercial development of the oil shale reserves buried in the rocks of the Mountain West. Known as "the rock that burns," oil shale refers to rocks that release liquid petroleum when heated to extreme temperatures. The highly controversial process promises immense fuel production, but environmentalists argue that it contaminates rugged landscapes and drains precious water.
In early 2006 -- following the recommendations of a team representing several federal agencies and states -- the department announced that it planned to award Shell three oil shale leases. Norton resigned two months later, saying that she had no job lined up. In December of that year, Shell announced it had hired Norton as in-house counsel to its unconventional fuels division, which includes oil shale.
The Justice Department, working with Interior Department investigators, is looking into whether Shell received a competitive advantage or other preferential treatment from the Interior Department in the awarding of the leases.
"If [Norton] had feelers out, or was in discussions with Shell in any way, she is absolutely forbidden from participating in any way from doing anything with Shell," a law enforcement official said.
The federal government long has sought a cost-effective way to extract the abundant oil resources from Western shale rock.
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force recommended aggressive steps to encourage private industry to develop such technology. In response, the Bureau of Land Management issued six oil shale "research, development and demonstration" leases. The leases, five in Colorado and one in Utah, granted access to up to 160 acres of federal land apiece to develop shale programs -- with an option to increase that to 5,000 acres once a technique proved commercially viable.
On average, each of those 5,000-acre lease tracts holds an estimated $700-billion worth of recoverable oil (at today's $70-per-barrel price), said James T. Bartis, a shale expert at Rand. Shell has estimated the costs of recovering the oil at $30 per barrel, leaving a potential profit of about $1 trillion after royalties if all the oil is extracted.
Shell was the only company to receive more than one tract.
"Shell got some of the best lands" that the government made available, Bartis said.
At the time, critics accused the Interior Department of undermining a central goal of the leases by awarding three of them to Shell. The leases were meant to allow companies to test distinct methods for extracting shale from rock. But each of Shell's tracts was granted for a variation of the same process.
Critics also raised questions about the fairness of the process, given that Shell filed its first lease application just a day after the department issued its call for proposals in June 2005.
That August, Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which included a provision that changed federal law to allow companies to hold multiple oil shale leases. Interior Department officials said they did not notify potential bidders that the law had changed. Shell, which had lobbied Congress to allow companies to hold more than one lease, quickly filed two more applications, BLM records show.
No other company applied for more than one lease.
The lease proposals were evaluated in the fall of 2005 by the interdisciplinary team that included representatives of several Western governors and from the Energy and Defense departments. The team's recommendations included awarding three leases to Shell.
The Interior Department investigation initially focused on whether agency officials had improperly assisted Shell and other private-sector companies. Three of the interviewed BLM employees -- who all spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation was ongoing -- said the questions investigators posed focused on Norton and her role in the lease process.
San Diego Union-Tribune
SPIN METER: Biden's water projects claim a stretch...MATT APUZZO, The Associated Press
http://www3.signonsandiego.com/stories/2009/sep/16/us-stimulus-rural-water-091609/?politics&zIndex=166946
WASHINGTON — Under pressure to show quick results from the economic stimulus, the White House is taking credit for starting to build hundreds of rural water systems nationwide.
But don't look for construction crews anytime soon. At most job sites, it could be awhile. Sometimes, a long while.
It all depends on what the definition of "starting" is.
–––
THE SPIN: Vice President Joe Biden said two weeks ago, "We set a goal of starting to build 200 water sanitary systems and wastewater treatment facilities in rural America. We've met that goal." The White House Web site says "We are pleased to report that new waste and water systems are underway in 200 communities in rural America."
THE FACTS: Wednesday marked the 100-day deadline Biden set in June for his promise. Despite claims that the administration has started to build these projects, many exist only on paper and won't see construction for some time.
Of the 10 largest projects in the continental U.S. announced by the Obama administration in the past 100 days, none has begun construction. Workers won't begin digging at many job sites until sometime next year.
Administration officials say words like "starting" and "underway" were used because when money for a project is announced, that starts the ball rolling toward construction.
"When you announce a project, you've begun a project," Department of Agriculture spokesman Justin DeJong said. "Everything is begun."
Some projects, such as a sewer plan in Monticello, Ind., are more than a year away from construction.
"We're looking to go bid that job the latter part of the fourth quarter 2010," said Mike Darter, regional superintendent of the Twin Lakes Regional Sewer District. "We'll more than likely start construction in 2011."
In Pickens, S.C., officials don't even know whether they're going to take the government's money. Accepting the $15.8 million in grants and loans would require residents to shoulder a big water rate increase, and City Administrator Katherine Brackett said Pickens may reject the money.
Yet the Obama administration counts Pickens as a project the administration has already started to build.
There's nothing unusual about the process, just the vocabulary. Even under the administration's accelerated timeline, water projects can take more than a year to get going.
Why didn't Biden say that?
Though there are signs the financial markets are recovering, the nation's jobs picture continues to disappoint. The stimulus was a $787 billion package of tax cuts, government spending and social services, with a primary goal of creating jobs.
If Biden had said, "Towns are beginning engineering and getting permits, and we expect to begin work on 200 projects within the next year or so," it wouldn't have had the same political punch as saying the projects were under way.
Most of the projects on the list are in what officials called "pre-construction," which means towns are completing engineering, acquiring land, getting permits and processing paperwork.
"It's just a matter of going out for bids and satisfying all the paperwork. Then we'll be breaking ground. I'd say six months to nine months," said Evan Capron, city administrator in Columbus, Kan., which will benefit from a $12 million federal aid package.
Elizabeth Oxhorn, a spokesman for the White House recovery office, said the administration is proud of how quickly projects are being approved.
"Some are finishing up engineering and site reviews, some are being bid out for contractors, and some have broken ground," Oxhorn said. "Many of those where ground has not yet been broken will see such work start in the next 60 to 90 days."
But some of the project managers who received the money don't use the administration's vocabulary.
"We haven't started yet," said Mark Lago, project manager in Hood River, Ore. "If things go well I don't see why we couldn't start in the spring or summer."
Paul Warnke, of the Koontz Lake Regional Sewer District in Indiana, said "It would be premature and just totally speculative to say how many jobs we're adding."
On some projects, such as the one in Ramsay, Mich., stimulus money can be used to pay for engineering. Jean Verbos, administrator of the Gogebic Range Water Authority, said construction on the water system won't begin until next year but officials have hired about four people using stimulus money to pay for planning.
On other projects, the stimulus money won't kick in until construction begins.
Desalination plant changes OK'd; opponents vow suit...Michael Burge
http://www3.signonsandiego.com/stories/2009/sep/17/desalination-plant-changes-okd-opponents-vow-suit/?northcounty&zIndex=167259
CARLSBAD — Environmental groups haven't given up their effort to derail the proposed ocean-water desalination plant in Carlsbad, telling the City Council, after it approved project changes Tuesday night, that they'll sue.
The changes involve consolidating some of the plant's operations on the grounds of the Encina Power Station, where it will be built, and adding six miles of pipe that will carry the cleansed water inland.
The council approved those as an addendum to the environmental impact report it OK'd in 2006, without reopening the time-consuming environmental review process.
The desalination plant's developer, Poseidon Resources, needed the council's approval so it could meet all conditions by Nov. 14, its deadline to obtain a permit from the California Coastal Commission.
Marco Gonzalez, an attorney for the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation and Coastkeeper, told the council it should have reopened the environmental process to allow for public review.
Gonzalez has represented the Surfrider Foundation and San Diego Coastkeeper in four lawsuits challenging the project. Three failed, and the other was dropped.
Poseidon proposes to suck water into the plant from Agua Hedionda Lagoon to produce 50 million gallons of drinking water a day. The environmental groups say that process kills millions of fish and other marine life.
“I'll simply say we'll have to see you in court again,” Gonzalez said.
Chris Garrett, a Poseidon attorney, said, “They're basically the same arguments we have heard over and over again that have been rejected by all the other agencies and by the courts.”
The company expects the plant to begin operating in 2012. It would be the largest desalination project in the Western Hemisphere.

 

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