Category Archives: Environment

‘First of many’: Lawsuit filed against state contractor blamed for Eastpoint wildfire

Source: Jeffrey Schweers, Tallahassee Democrat, July 12, 2018

This week marked the first claim filed in Leon County against the Tallahassee contractor responsible for setting the prescribed burn that’s been identified as the cause of the 820-acre Limerock wildfire that destroyed 36 homes in Eastpoint. … The Vinson/Cooper/Hattaway complaint alleges that Wildlands was engaged in an “ultra-hazardous activity while engaging in a controlled burn” and is strictly liable for all damages caused by the wildfire. The company knew of the foreseeable risk, the complaint said, and “could have reasonably taken precautions to eliminate the risks of the controlled burn.” …

… Wildlands was contracted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to burn a 480-acre area within the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area to clear it of hazardous underbrush that can become fuel in a fire. The burn was ignited June 18 and extinguished six hours later. The next day, the burn boss said the burn went well and submitted an invoice for $26,400 to the FWC. The fire reignited June 24 and crossed over 600 acres of private land, razing several dozen properties a quarter-mile away on Buck Road, Ridge Road and Wilderness Road, leaving about 125 people homeless. A preliminary report by investigators with the law enforcement branch of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said the prescribed burn caused the wildfire, ruling out arson and lightning. …

Wastewater company to pay state $1.6 million to settle spill

Source: Sarah Betancourt, Associated Press, April 10, 2018

A wastewater treatment firm agreed Tuesday to pay $1.6 million to settle a lawsuit with Massachusetts for a spill in which more than 10 million gallons of raw sewage flowed into state-owned woodlands in Plymouth and Plymouth Harbor. The settlement by Veolia Water North America Northeast is believed to be the largest ever paid for violations of the state’s Clean Waters Act, officials said. Attorney General Maura Healey said the company failed to properly maintain a piping system that carried wastewater from customers to the treatment facility in Plymouth, causing a spill from December 2015 to January 2016. Veolia also allegedly discharged hundreds of thousands of gallons of untreated wastewater into Plymouth Harbor in three separate incidences in 2012. … Veolia continues to operate the Plymouth wastewater plant. Plymouth has a separate suit against Veolia North America that contends the company also is responsible for a 2015 sewage spill that officials claim impacted the town. The Attorney General’s office also has a separate lawsuit against Plymouth, filed in 2016.

The Oil and Gas Industry’s Latest Scheme Would All but Privatize Public Lands

Source: Jimmy Tobias, Pacific Standard, September 11, 2017

Having failed to turn over control of federal lands to state governments and private interests, anti-conservationists in Congress are at work on their next scheme: partially privatizing the public domain by allowing states to take charge of energy development on vast swaths of land owned by the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. This agenda was on full display at a Capitol Hill hearing last week when the House Natural Resources Committee convened a forum on the Federal Land Freedom Act of 2017, a bill that has nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with avarice. The bill would allow industry-dominated state governments like Wyoming and Utah and Oklahoma to manage the leasing, permitting, and regulating of oil, gas, and other fossil fuel production on national lands. It would allow states to have near-total dominion over huge accumulations of federally owned mineral resources. And it would effectively exempt oil and gas drillers from the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and other laws meant to protect public resources from pollution and destruction at the hands of commercial enterprise. For its right-wing proponents, the Federal Land Freedom Act is a solid step toward full disposal of some federal lands.

… According to the Wilderness Society, a land conservation non-profit, the Federal Land Freedom Act represents just “the latest push in a broader anti-public lands movement that has exploded into prominence in the last few years at the state, congressional, and administrative levels.” It is just the latest “land seizure” scheme, as the Center for Western Priorities calls it, to emerge from the muck of Washington, D.C. But what a shameless and telling scheme it is: An extremely powerful industry dominates state governments and hopes to dominate the federal government too. It essentially hires elected officials to do its bidding, and those officials deliver a proposed law that would allow said industry to have its way with millions of acres of land that rightfully belong to all Americans. They deliver a bill that would gut public interest laws and eliminate conservation protections in the name of corporate profits and private gain. …

Deep in debt, flood insurance program expected to boost rates

Source: Dylan Baddour, Houston Chronicle, March 17, 2017

The cost of federal flood insurance will likely rise for thousands of Houston-area homeowners after Congress hits its September deadline to renew and reform the deeply troubled program. The National Flood Insurance Program was created because private insurers couldn’t bear the risk of catastrophic loss, but the program is $24.6 billion in debt and struggling to remain solvent. “The program offers rates that do not fully reflect the risk of flooding.” the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded in a report last month. … Congress tried to fix the problem in 2012, but the program lapsed for a month amid the effort, stalling home sales in flood-prone areas. The reforms that finally passed caused some rates to soar, so they were swiftly repealed. Now, a five-year extension is set to expire this fall, demanding fresh action. No one can say exactly what measures lawmakers will take, but one thing seems probable: rates will rise, especially in flood-prone places.

… The most likely outcome of flood insurance reform will be increased privatization of the program to relieve FEMA’s burden of risk. In a letter to flood-weary constituents last week, U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Kingwood, wrote that Congressional committees are beginning work on flood insurance renewal, and that “preliminary plans allow private insurers greater and easier access to the marketplace.” … Virtually all reform proposals issued by industry groups call for increasing privatization of flood insurance, but that won’t be cheap. The federal program was created precisely because private insurers couldn’t bear the risk of catastrophic loss. A small number of private insurers have begun offering their own insurance in recent years, mostly for extremely high-value properties. … FEMA acknowledged in a statement that private carriers offer a viable alternative to the federal program. Still, without a renewal of the program this year, the agency noted it would stop selling and renewing policies for millions of properties nationwide. …

After a massive backlash, a Republican yanks his bill to sell off public lands

Source: Brad Plumer, Vox, February 2, 2017

In January, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill in the House that would direct the Bureau of Land Management to sell off 3.3 million acres of federally owned lands — an area the size of Connecticut. But this week, Chaffetz decided to yank the bill after a fierce backlash from hunters, sportsmen and women, and conservationists on both the left and the right. Privatizing public land, it turns out, is a lot harder than it sounds. … Conservationists and hunting groups noted that selling off even small parcels of land to private interests could cut off public access into national forests for hunters or campers. But perhaps more relevant, many groups seemed to see this as a gateway to a much bigger fire sale of federal lands down the road. The precise lands in play here were less important than the larger principles at stake. … In the end, Chaffetz backed down — it wasn’t just conservationists complaining about his bill; it was conservative gun owners and hunters too. It’s unclear if Republicans in Congress might return to the issue of transferring public lands later on. …

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Republicans move to sell off 3.3m acres of national land, sparking rallies
Source: Caty Enders, The Guardian, January 31, 2017

Now that Republicans have quietly drawn a path to give away much of Americans’ public land, US representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah has introduced what the Wilderness Society is calling “step two” in the GOP’s plan to offload federal property. The new piece of legislation would direct the interior secretary to immediately sell off an area of public land the size of Connecticut. In a press release for House Bill 621, Chaffetz, a Tea Party Republican, claimed that the 3.3m acres of national land, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), served “no purpose for taxpayers”. But many in the 10 states that would lose federal land in the bill disagree, and public land rallies in opposition are bringing together environmentalists and sportsmen across the west. Set aside for mixed use, BLM land is leased for oil, gas and timber, but is also open to campers, cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts. … The 10 states affected are Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. Residents can see how much acreage is earmarked for “disposal” in their counties by checking a PDF on Chaffetz’s website. … Chaffetz’s proposal might in fact be in violation of the common-law Public Trust Doctrine, which requires that the federal government keep and manage national resources for all Americans. Courts have upheld the policy that sale or use must be in Americans’ interest. …

Trump advisors aim to privatize oil-rich Indian reservations

Source: Valerie Volcovici, Reuters, December 5, 2016

Native American reservations cover just 2 percent of the United States, but they may contain about a fifth of the nation’s oil and gas, along with vast coal reserves. Now, a group of advisors to President-elect Donald Trump on Native American issues wants to free those resources from what they call a suffocating federal bureaucracy that holds title to 56 million acres of tribal lands, two chairmen of the coalition told Reuters in exclusive interviews. The group proposes to put those lands into private ownership – a politically explosive idea that could upend more than century of policy designed to preserve Indian tribes on U.S.-owned reservations, which are governed by tribal leaders as sovereign nations. The tribes have rights to use the land, but they do not own it. They can drill it and reap the profits, but only under regulations that are far more burdensome than those applied to private property. … The plan dovetails with Trump’s larger aim of slashing regulation to boost energy production. It could deeply divide Native American leaders, who hold a range of opinions on the proper balance between development and conservation. The proposed path to deregulated drilling – privatizing reservations – could prove even more divisive. Many Native Americans view such efforts as a violation of tribal self-determination and culture. … Reservations governed by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs are intended in part to keep Native American lands off the private real estate market, preventing sales to non-Indians. An official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not respond to a request for comment. The legal underpinnings for reservations date to treaties made between 1778 and 1871 to end wars between indigenous Indians and European settlers. Tribal governments decide how land and resources are allotted among tribe members. …

Puerto Rico activists fight to keep beaches public

Source: Caribbean News Now, August 10, 2016

Environmental activists and experts in Puerto Rico breathed a sigh of relief when a law that sought to privatize La Parguera, a public maritime zone in the western coast of Lajas, was rejected. But their battle is far from over. Several public beaches and maritime zones are fighting privatization proposals. Project #1621, the bill that was recently rejected, intended to legalize floating water houses or casetas. Illegal casetas have existed in La Parguera for decades. The bill would have legalized these homes, allowed the owners to rent the property for up to 40 years and it would have turned the free public space along the casetas into an exclusive tourism zone. … Project #1621 was only one of several bills that intended to commodify public spaces on the island. In November 2015, an altercation between Marriott hotel’s administration and environmental activists made headline news after a ten year struggle erupted into a protest in Isla Verde Beach in Carolina. The organization Coalición Playas Pa’l Pueblo had established a camp site in Isla Verde over ten years ago to protect free public access in a beach located in the northern city of Carolina. … Another bill proposed this year by the House of Representatives was Project #2853, which intended to legalize the privatization of Puerto Rico’s coastal zones. This project would have created a Trust for Ecotourist Conservation in Puerto Rico under the Department of Natural Resources for granting special licenses for the private use of the coastal maritime zone. The bill was rejected by the Senate, and during the night of its hearing, activists gathered outside the Capitol of Puerto Rico to protest, and activist Alberto de Jesús, better known as “Tito Kayak”, climbed a flag pole and replaced the American flag with one that read “Beaches belong to the people.” …

Contracting in solar work yields savings for state

Source: Jill Asencio, The Work Force, June 2015

… After receiving an expensive quote of $200,000 from a private contractor for a relatiely small job, it became clear to him that outsourcing the work may not be the answer. CSEA member Sam Mattina and co-worker Vince Iacovitti, electricians at Niagara State Park, were asked their thoughts. They agreed that keeping the project in-house or “contracting in” seemed more logical. How to best handle additional work and its necessary training while still maintaining the park was the challenge but CSEA members got the job done, saving the state an estimated $133,000, plus yet-to-be realized energy costs. …

Sometimes, Public-Private Partnerships Can Go Too Far

Source: Larry Kaplan, Nonprofit Quarterly, May 4, 2015

Sometimes, public-private partnerships go too far in one direction. In this case, a government agency was criticized for placing too much of its authority in the hands of a partner nonprofit that was much less accountable and transparent with how it spent the public’s money. South Carolina state auditors called out that state’s commerce department for setting up a nonprofit organization with the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League to appropriate $5 million to offset the destruction of wetlands at a site that is now a Boeing factory near Charleston. The Savannah Morning News reports that the auditors ruled that Commerce failed to provide adequate oversight for the nonprofit’s complex dealings. Saying that they “could not determine the benefit of creating a nonprofit entity to accomplish this particular purpose,” they advised the agency not to take similar action in the future. The audit report said that the nonprofit spent $5.3 million when “only $743,000 was needed to buy or preserve property to meet federal requirements to offset the loss of wetlands caused by building the plant.” The funding was part of a $160 million incentive package the state offered a precursor to Boeing to attract it in 2004. It is now a plant for its 787 Dreamliners, employing about 6,000 workers.
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S.C. watchdog questions agency, nonprofit spending on wetlands
Source: Susanne M. Schafer, Savannah Morning News, April 29, 2015

State auditors faulted the South Carolina Commerce Department on Wednesday for setting up a nonprofit organization with the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League to disperse $5 million to offset the destruction of wetlands at what is now Boeing’s manufacturing site near Charleston. The Legislative Audit Council said Commerce didn’t provide enough oversight for the nonprofit’s complex dealings and advised the agency not to take similar action in the future.

Opinion: Public-private partners bill a bad deal for NM

Source: Victor Reyes, Deming Headlight, March 16, 2015

A bill that could privatize New Mexico’s critical public services, like water, has passed through two committees and passed the House late Wednesday night (HB 299, sponsored by Rep. Larry Larrañaga). Public-private partnerships, or P3s, range from a company designing and constructing a new school, to a government contracting with a company to operate and maintain a road or a water utility. Private companies are pushing hard to expand P3s in our state. HB 299 is one of the broadest, if not the broadest, pieces of P3 legislation in the country in terms of scope of authorized projects, breadth of governmental entities involved, lack of oversight (legislative and executive), lack of public transparency and financial risks….HB 299 is a bad deal for New Mexico. In addition to the broad definition of “public projects” that are subject to privatization, HB 299 specifically lists dams, reservoirs, sewerage or water treatment facilities, water pipelines, habitat or environmental restoration, power plants, and other basic, essential environmental assets….