New EPA Chief Hands Off Coal Ash Regulation to the States

In this Jan. 14, 2016 file photo, a drainage pipe that was the original culprit of a coal ash spill is seen at the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, North Carolina.

In this Jan. 14, 2016 file photo, a drainage pipe that was the original culprit of a coal ash spill is seen at the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, North Carolina. AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

STATE AND LOCAL NEWS ROUNDUP | California high court blocks proposal to split state …. Which states pay the most and least in sales taxes? … Mentally ill in Boston and stranded in an ER.

Good morning, it’s Thursday, July 19, 2018. Revised EPA coal ash rules and a mid-year report on sales-tax regimes coast to coast lead Route Fifty’s state and local government news roundup, which also includes stories from Miami, Florida; St. Paul, Minnesota; Jefferson City, Missouri; and Boston, Massachusetts. Scroll down for more ...

ENVIRONMENT | Acting Director of the US Environmental Protection Agency Andrew Wheeler rolled back coal ash standards on Wednesday, giving state officials and power companies greater authority to decide how to regulate the waste created by plants that burn coal. Industry trade groups have lobbied hard for the change since President Trump took office, arguing that Obama administration “one-size-fits-all” rules lacked flexibility and would force utilities to raise rates for consumers. The rule change is one of the first major moves made by Wheeler since he became EPA acting director early this month. Before joining the EPA, Wheeler was an energy industry lobbyist whose firm represented coal mining giant Murray Energy. Coal ash contains highly toxic contaminants that include arsenic, lead and mercury, yet it had been very loosely regulated before a 2008 leak at the Kingston Fossil Plant dumped more than half a billion gallons into the Tennessee River, a spill estimated to be more than 40 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. The Obama-era rules were written in response to the Kingston disaster. Roughly 50 million tons of coal ash must be disposed of every year. Mostly, companies mix the ash with water in retaining ponds built decades ago and often located near rivers, lakes and streams. Environmentalists have been bracing for the revised rules. They come only a month after former EPA Director Scott Pruitt granted his home state Oklahoma the right to draft its own coal ash regulations. [CNN]

TAXES | The Tax Foundation has published a report on state and local tax rates that renders the tangle of varying state-to-state tax-policy combinations digestible in lean paragraphs, bullet-point lists, charts and maps. Residents of Tennessee pay the highest state-and-local combined rate at 9.46 percent. Washington state (9.19 percent) joins Southern states Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama at the top of the list. At the bottom, residents of Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon pay no state or local sales taxes. Coloradans pay a 2.9 percent state-level sales tax, the lowest state sales tax among states that levy a state sales tax, but many residents also pay high local sales taxes. A major, if unsurprising, finding: “Consumers can and do leave high-tax areas to make large purchases in low-tax areas, such as from cities to suburbs. Evidence suggests, for example, that Chicago-area consumers make major purchases in surrounding suburbs or online to avoid Chicago’s 10.25 percent sales tax rate.” [Tax Foundation]

IMMIGRATION | New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood on Wednesday announced she, along with five other attorneys general, had filed suit against the Trump administration to block a plan to place immigration policy-related conditions on federal law-enforcement grants. The AGs say the administration is overreaching its legal authority by attempting to interfere with the right of state and local authorities to set their own law enforcement policies, effectively forcing local law-enforcement to do the work of federal agents. They also argue that the administration has no legal right to rewrite the provisions of the statute passed by Congress that controls the grant money. Trump’s plan would strip New York state of nearly $9 million this fiscal year in Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant money, or “Byrne JAG” funds. The six states whose AGs are participating in the suit could lose a combined $25 million. The clash over the Byrne JAG money has been ongoing for months, including in other lawsuits. Trump made his opposition to so-called “sanctuary city” immigration policies a centerpiece of his election campaign and has made it an immigration policy priority since taking office. “This is a political attack on New Yorkers at the expense of our public safety, and it is unlawful,” Underwood said in a video released by her office Wednesday.  [New York Attorney General]

ELECTION | The California Supreme Court removed an item from the fall ballot that would have asked voters to consider splitting California into three states. The short order released Wednesday said that the potential harm of leaving the measure on the ballot, given questions about its “validity,” outweighed the harm associated with a delay. Tim Draper, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who backed the measure, blasted the court decision, calling it “corruption.” The court said it would eventually rule on the constitutionality of the measure. The proposal was opposed by the environmental group Planning and Conservation League, among others, whose head called the proposition a “costly, flawed scheme.” [The Los Angeles Times]


  • Boston, Massachusetts: Mentally ill patients, particularly children, have been stuck for long stretches in Boston hospital emergency rooms. Over four months this spring, more than 150 patients in mental health crisis spent at least four consecutive days in often windowless emergency units without shower facilities. The practice persists despite recently adopted rules that allow mental health officials to pressure insurers and psychiatric facility administrators to find appropriate spots for the patients. [The Boston Globe]
  • Sacramento, California: The University of California board will vote today on a budget plan that would decrease tuition for the system’s students for the first time in nearly two decades. The budget proposal would knock $60 off each student’s total annual tuition and fees. The price tag for a year of instruction at a UC school has moved only skyward since 1999, when a year’s tuition and fees tab came in at $3,429. If the 2018-19 budget passes as proposed, students this year will pay $12,570. [The Sacramento Bee]
  • Miami, Florida: The city jail system is installing airport-style body scanners to search inmates for drugs and weapons. The move comes after three inmates fatally overdosed using drugs smuggled into city jails. The Miami Herald called the move a “much-needed upgrade” for the cities jail system, plagued by a “long history of scandals and dysfunction.” The three scanners purchased by the city cost a combined $423,750 and the corrections department will pay $10,000 a year in warranty and software licensing fees. [Miami Herald]
  • St Paul, Minnesota: The city police force has released a draft of its first-ever policy on transgender and gender-nonconforming people. It’s asking residents to weigh in before adopting a final version later in the year. The policy will include guidelines on using preferred pronouns and conducting body searches.  [Star Tribune]
  • Jefferson City, Missouri: Who’s bankrolling the drive to legalize medical marijuana in the Show Me State? A nonprofit that doesn’t have to show you its donor list, that’s who. The Missourians for Patient Care campaign committee raised $530,000 since April. The lion’s share of that money came from a nonprofit with the same name. [St. Louis Dispatch]
  • Phoenix, Arizona: City leaders are looking to turn the downtown transit hub into a vibrant mixed-use space. The Central Station 2.56-acre site is the main transfer point for the city’s light rail and bus systems. The parcel was appraised last October at $12.286 million. It’s one of the rare large development sites in the downtown area that’s also eligible for high-rise development. The city put out its Request for Proposal in June. [Forbes]
  • Boulder, Colorado: Local champions of affordable housing may well sigh in frustration. City Council members in the Centennial State’s flagship university town, where housing prices soar and zoning debates flare, voted Tuesday to buy the Lippincott Ranch, a breathtaking 442-acre spread of foothills property south of the city in the shadow of the Flatiron mountains. Eventual use of the property is yet to be determined, but locals are already suggesting it “could accommodate hiking trails and cattle grazing, as well as recreational climbing.” [Daily Camera]
  • Salt Lake City, Utah: Fighting wildfires around the city before they start, 80 female goats last week were set loose to devour acres of dry brush and noxious weeds in the Greater Avenues area of the city. A wildfire broke out in early July above the nearby Federal Heights neighborhood near the University of Utah. “They don't talk back, they just get right to work,” said Greg Cover, who owns the herd. [News4Utah]

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Seattle.

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