More states want power to approve wetlands development

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In 2020, Florida became just the third state—and the first in decades—to take over management of a key federal Clean Water Act program. Now, state rather than federal officials decide whether companies can dredge and fill wetlands and waterways for projects ranging from mining to housing developments to roads and bridges.

Several other are looking to follow suit. They say state agencies can issue permits more efficiently than federal bureaucrats, speeding up crucial projects while still following federal law.

“Our economy is based on natural resource extraction and development,” said Jason Brune, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which is pursuing a takeover of the program. “Having that predictability and consistency in a permitting process is incredibly important.”

But say state regulators are ill-prepared to take on this authority, claiming such efforts are thinly veiled attempts to rubber-stamp development with little regard for its ecological damage.

And some states recently have backed off their attempts to assume permitting control of the federal Clean Water Act program, known as Section 404, citing prohibitive cost estimates and murky jurisdictional guidelines.

“We have the Clean Water Act because states screwed it up the first time around,” said Janette Brimmer, senior attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group that has filed a lawsuit against Florida over the matter. “The only reason for these states to argue for is to have dirtier water.”

Some critics fear that Florida’s move could open the floodgates for more states to claim Section 404 authority, as Alaska, Minnesota and Nebraska are considering. But the hurdles that have mostly stymied such efforts for decades—steep costs, legal challenges and changing federal regulations—remain significant.

The outcome will determine who’s in charge of protecting crucial waterways and millions of acres of wetlands.

Florida’s takeover

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the Section 404 program’s day-to-day operations and permit decisions, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency develops criteria used in evaluating permit applications and reviews individual applications with the authority to deny them.

States have long had the option to assume control of the Section 404 program, along with other components of the Clean Water Act. Michigan took over permitting in 1984, and New Jersey followed suit a decade later. While many states have considered taking control in the decades since, none did until Florida in 2020.

“There are a lot of states that looked at the 404 program and decided the costs were going to be too expensive,” said Marla Stelk, executive director at the National Association of Wetland Managers, a nonprofit group that represents state and tribal regulators. “It requires a lot of extra staff and a lot of extra resources, but it can create a better, more efficient permitting process.”

Under the Trump administration, encouraged states to apply for control. Florida’s bid was approved just weeks before President Donald Trump left office. State officials hailed the move as a step toward local accountability and improved efficiency.

But critics say the transfer hasn’t gone well. Florida initially asserted it could take on the program without needing additional money, but state lawmakers this year approved the agency’s request to fund 33 new positions for water resource management.

“It’s been a complete s—- show,” said Bonnie Malloy, a senior attorney with Earthjustice and a former staffer with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “The goal is, ‘How quickly can we say yes to developers?'”

The agency would not provide an official for an interview. Former state Rep. Holly Raschein, a Republican who sponsored legislation authorizing the transfer in 2018, defended the department’s management.

“I believe in DEP and our ability to oversee these matters,” she said. “We waded into this as the for other states in the nation, and it doesn’t surprise me that we’re working this out. If people are expecting to have a perfect piece of public policy, good luck with that. DEP is right to ask for help if they need help.”

Meanwhile, Florida is defying federal court rulings and directions from the EPA about which waters require a permit: Although federal District Court judges in Arizona and New Mexico struck down a Trump-era rule limiting the streams and waters protected by the Clean Water Act, Florida is still using the old Trump-era definition. Officials there say they’re using that definition while they review the legal situation, according to E&E News.

Environmental watchdogs say Florida’s defiance of the rule violates its obligation to run the Section 404 program at a standard that meets or exceeds federal protections. Earthjustice is leading a lawsuit claiming that Florida and the EPA made procedural mistakes in transferring authority, seeking to put the program back under federal purview.

In a statement, the EPA said that it still supports state efforts to pursue permitting control, commenting only that it would “continue to work with Florida to ensure consistency.”

‘We’re open for business’

Other states also are considering taking over the program. Alaska lawmakers voted in 2013 to give the authority to pursue control, but the state put that on hold when a drop in oil revenues shrank its budget. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, is seeking to revive that effort.

He’s pressing legislators to approve $4.9 million to fund 28 positions at the Department of Environmental Conservation, which would begin a two-year process to take over Section 404.

“This is what my group of scientists thought would be needed,” said Brune, the department’s commissioner. “(That cost) is a drop in the bucket for a state that depends on natural resource extraction to show that we’re open for business.”

Many business and industry groups have supported Alaska’s effort, citing lengthy wait times for federal permits.

But other Alaska groups fear the transition could be harmful. Guy Archibald, of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission, a consortium of tribal nations, said that the state’s funding and staffing estimates are so insufficient that they seem “designed to fail.”

He said Alaska Natives fear that ineffective state oversight could harm water quality, which would destroy the subsistence lifestyle that many rely on.

“These wetlands provide the food security for many of our communities and villages,” Archibald said. “Commercial foods are incredibly expensive and of poor quality.”

At present, federal agencies issuing permits under the Section 404 program must first consult with affected tribes. Critics fear that a state takeover would push tribes to the sidelines.

“The state is under no obligation to consult with the tribes,” Archibald said, “and they will not do so.”

Brune, though, said the state is committed to tribal consultation if it assumes control. He added that state oversight will allow the program to provide local accountability, with Alaska regulators who care about their state’s waters.

Other critics fear that the state’s true goal is to allow large-scale mining, saying such projects have a worrying track record of polluting waterways.

Nebraska also is moving toward a Section 404 takeover. Last month, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a measure authorizing the state Department of Environment and Energy to apply for control.

Jim Macy, the agency’s director, said will work to craft rules and develop a program before applying to the feds, a process that could take about two years. The agency did not provide details to Stateline on the extra staffing and costs needed to take on the program, but said that funding will be covered by permit fees from companies applying for development.

“The stakeholders that asked us to consider this thought that the state could develop a quality permit that would be more transparent and quicker to get,” Macy said.

Nebraska state Sen. Dan Hughes, the Republican who sponsored the bill to authorize control, said federal regulators have been slow to issue permits.

“They’re holding up construction,” he said. “The contractors are more than willing to pay the additional costs for the state to hire more personnel to make the permits happen.”

But some environmentalists in the state feel that timelier permits will come at the expense of the environment.

“Our Department of Environment and Energy is pretty much a rubber stamp,” said George Cunningham, conservation committee chair of the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club. “The talent pool is really not there within the agency, and they would have to hire a significant number of folks with the right skill set to do this.”

In Minnesota, state lawmakers are considering a proposal to fund developing a draft application for Section 404 control.

“Our regulatory programs already cover more waters than the federal government and are in many cases more restrictive,” said Les Lemm, wetlands section manager with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. “Many of our stakeholders feel [the federal permit program] is redundant and inefficient, with extra time and extra cost for the applicant.”

Other efforts

Michigan was the first state to gain Section 404 authority in 1984. The state’s wetland laws were written with the specific intent of taking over the program, said Anne Garwood, who supervises the wetlands, lakes and streams program at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The state’s program was designed to consolidate the permit process and provide faster permitting decisions.

The state spends more than $12 million a year and has more than 80 staffers who work on Section 404 applications, she said. While Michigan has supported states that have pursued the program, Garwood said, some states haven’t made the necessary commitments to running it.

“We are able to process applications faster because we have so many staff processing them,” she said. “It is surprising when states say they could use substantially less than that. I don’t know how you could do it with so few people.”

Other states recently have abandoned their attempts to take over the program, mostly citing cost.

Indiana’s effort ended in 2019. “Our attempt completely crashed and burned once we did the calculations of the fees that would be needed to support it,” said Martha Clark Metter, assistant commissioner of the Office of Water Quality at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Oregon shelve

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Beam me up, Jeff! William Shatner lends Blue Origin star power

Hexbyte Glen Cove

On October 12, William Shatner is set to become the first living member of the iconic show’s cast to journey to the final frontier, as a guest aboard a Blue Origin suborbital rocket on the company’s second crewed flight.

When Star Trek first aired in 1966, America was still three years away from putting people on the Moon and the idea that people could one day live and work in space seemed like a fantasy.

On October 12, William Shatner—Captain James T. Kirk to Trekkies—is set to become the first member of the iconic show’s cast to journey to the final frontier, as a guest aboard a Blue Origin suborbital rocket.

For fans, the 10-minute hop from a West Texas base back to Earth will be a fitting coda for a pop culture phenomenon that inspired generations of astronauts.

“I plan to be looking out the window with my nose pressed against the window, the only thing that I don’t want to see is a little gremlin looking back at me,” the 90-year-old Canadian, who will become the oldest person ever to go to space, joked in a video release.

Blue Origin’s decision to invite one of the most recognizable galaxy-faring characters from science fiction for its second crewed flight has helped maintain excitement around the nascent space tourism sector, as the novelty starts to wear off.

This summer saw flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson fly just beyond the atmosphere in a Virgin Galactic vessel on July 9, beating the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos by a few days in their battle of the billionaire space barons.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent four private astronauts to orbit the Earth for three days as part of the Inspiration4 mission in September, which raised more than $200 million for charity.

“Bringing on a celebrity like William Shatner, who’s related to space, brings a kind of renewed novelty, and creates media and cultural attention,” Joe Czabovsky, an expert in public relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told AFP.

Pioneering show

The original Star Trek was canceled after only three seasons, but went on to spawn more than a dozen movies and several spin-off series, including some that are ongoing.

Shatner, as the plucky and decisive Kirk, commanded the USS Enterprise on a five-year-mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

His actual voyage to space will be far shorter, taking the crew just beyond the Karman line, 62 miles (100 kilometers) high, where they will experience four minutes of weightlessness and gaze out at the curvature of the planet.

He will be joined by Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations, Planet Labs co-founder Chris Boshuizen, and Glen de Vries, a co-founder of clinical research platform Medidata Solutions.

Star Trek turned American attention to the stars as the US space program was in its offing, landing a man on the Moon towards the end of its run in 1969.

It broke ground by tackling complicated moral questions, and was notable for its diverse cast at a time when the country was struggling through the Civil Rights era.

The Enterprise crew included an Asian-American helmsman, a half-human half-Vulcan science officer, and a Russian-born ensign.

Shatner made history in 1968 when he kissed Black co-star Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, in the first interracial kiss on American television.

Influential

The show is also closely intertwined with the US space program.

In 1976 the first Space Shuttle was named “Enterprise” following a letter writing campaign by fans that swayed then-president Gerald Ford.

NASA hired Nichols in the 1970s to help recruit new astronauts, and numerous other cast members have voiced official documentaries or given talks for the agency.

Astronauts have returned the favor, posing in Star Trek uniforms for mission-related posters and embracing the show’s motifs.

“For 50 years, Star Trek has inspired generations of scientists, engineers, and even astronauts,” NASA astronaut Victor Glover said in a 2016 video that drew parallels between research on the Enterprise and the scientific instruments on the ISS today.

Another mega-fan: Bezos himself.

Amazon’s Alexa was said to be inspired by the conversational computer in Star Trek, and Bezos—wearing heavy makeup sporting an egg-shaped head—appeared in a cameo in the 2016 film “Star Trek Beyond.”

Shatner’s star power and wit—he joked to CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the New Shepard rocket, which has been mocked for its phallic appearance, was in fact “inseminating the program”—could provide a welcome distraction for Blue Origin.

The company is under a cloud of allegations, made by a former senior employee, about a “toxic” work culture with rampant sexual harassment and decision making that prioritized speed over safety.

Blue Origin denied the claims and said the employee was sacked two years ago for issues involving US export control regulations.



© 2021 AFP

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Beam me up, Jeff! William Shatner

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Hexbyte Glen Cove Power failure: How a winter storm pushed Texas into crisis thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove Power failure: How a winter storm pushed Texas into crisis

Hexbyte Glen Cove

In this Feb. 16, 2021, file photo, a woman wrapped in a blanket crosses the street near downtown Dallas. As temperatures plunged and snow and ice whipped the state, much of Texas’ power grid collapsed, followed by its water systems. Tens of millions huddled in frigid homes that slowly grew colder or fled for safety. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Two days before the storm began, Houston’s chief elected official warned her constituents to prepare as they would for a major hurricane. Many took heed: Texans who could stocked up on food and water, while nonprofits and government agencies set out to help those who couldn’t.

But few foresaw the fiasco that was to come. They could not be prepared.

As temperatures plunged and snow and ice whipped the state, much of Texas’ collapsed, followed by its water systems. Tens of millions huddled in frigid homes that slowly grew colder or fled for safety. And a prideful state, long suspicious of regulation and outside help, was left to seek aid from other states and humanitarian groups as many of its 29 million people grasped for survival.

Images of desperate Texans circulated worldwide. To some, they evoked comparisons to a less wealthy or self-regarding place. To others, they laid bare problems that have long festered.

A week after she warned her county’s nearly 5 million residents about the impending storm, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was sleeping on an air mattress at the county’s emergency operations center. Her home had been without power for three nights.

“It’s worth asking the question: Who set up this system and who perpetuated it knowing that the right regulation was not in place?” Hidalgo said.

In this Feb. 19, 2021, file photo, water is loaded into cars at a City of Houston water distribution site in Houston. The drive-thru stadium location was setup to provide bottled water to individuals who need water while the city remains on a boil water notice or because they lack water at home due to frozen or broken pipes. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

___

Around 2 a.m. Monday, the full measure of the crisis Texas faced began to be apparent.

Cold and ice had set in the day before, leading to spreading across the state. But standing in the emergency operations center early Monday, Hidalgo and others learned that their local energy provider, CenterPoint Energy, would not be able to “roll” outages between homes as they had been told earlier.

Instead of short intervals of heat, enough to keep their homes safe, residents would have to go without for days on end.

Power outages spiraled through the day Monday, ultimately cutting off more than 4 million people. Grocery stores shut down and hotel rates skyrocketed.

People who fled to the homes of relatives or neighbors had to consider the risks of contracting or spreading coronavirus.

Ashley Archer and her husband decided to take in his best friend at their suburban Dallas home. She is pregnant and has been trying to protect herself from the virus for nearly a year.

In this Feb. 16, 2021, file photo, people wait in a long line to buy groceries at H-E-B in Austin, Texas, during an extreme cold snap and widespread power outage. As temperatures plunged and snow and ice whipped the state, much of Texas’ power grid collapsed, followed by its water systems. Tens of millions huddled in frigid homes that slowly grew colder or fled for safety. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

The friend is “like family,” she said. “We weren’t going to let him freeze at his place.”

Things got worse Tuesday. Thousands of people sought refuge from their freezing homes in warming shelters. Others sat in their cars; dozens were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning. A woman and her daughter died after running their car inside a garage.

At her Dallas condominium, 51-year-old Stephanie Murdoch layered in blankets, two pairs of pants, two sweaters, three pairs of socks, a hat, and gloves. Her anger grew at the power companies and their apparent lack of preparation.

“We’ve got another blast of snow coming in this evening … and still no clear answers as to why the grids aren’t working better,” she said.

By Wednesday, some started to get their power back, but a new shortage emerged—drinkable water.

In this Feb. 17, 2021, file photo, Juan Guerrlo, center left, waits in line to fill his propane tanks in Houston. Customers had to wait over an hour in the freezing rain to fill their tanks. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Frozen pipes burst across the state. And the water that did come out of taps was often undrinkable due to dangerously low water pressure levels. At one point, an estimated 13 million people were under a boil-water order, nearly half of Texas’ population.

More than 35 people in Texas have been confirmed dead. That number was expected to rise as roads cleared and relatives and first responders could check on missing loved ones.

Mark Henry, Galveston County’s judge, asked the state early in the week to send a refrigerated truck requested by the local medical examiner, who expected an influx of bodies.

“If they had been honest with us from the beginning, we would have ordered evacuations. But they didn’t tell us that,” he said.

___

The disaster can be traced to mistakes by Texas’ leadership and faults created by decades of opposition to more regulations and preparation.

In this Feb. 19, 2021, file photo, Nancy Wilson boils water in her home in Houston. She does not have full running water as the city remains under a boil water notice and many residents lack water at home due to frozen or broken pipes. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Basically, the state is an island in the U.S. electrical system.

There is one large grid covering the Eastern half of the country, another for the West, with Texas wedged between them. There is a long and colorful history to how this came to be, but the simplest explanation is that Texas utilities wanted to be free of federal regulation. They accomplished that, going back to the middle of the last century, by avoiding sending power across state lines.

The Texas grid isn’t walled off, but there are only a few, small interconnection points with the Eastern U.S. grid and Mexico. In the past, utility executives have argued that the Texas grid would be less reliable and more vulnerable to blackouts if it were fully connected to the rest of the country – which would make it easier for other states to tap Texas during their own shortages.

In this Feb. 16, 2021, file photo, customers use the light from a cell phone to look in the meat section of a grocery store in Dallas. Even though the store lost power, it was open for cash only sales. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, was created in 1970; it became a more powerful broker over electricity flows after deregulation in this century. In the wake of the storm, it has taken most of the blame from Texas politicians and the public.

Despite efforts by some Republicans to blame clean energy, the failures occurred in every part of the sector. While and solar panels froze, a major nuclear plant lost half of its generation, and there were massive failures in coal, oil, and natural gas. Demand surged, meanwhile, as people accustomed to mild Texas winters turned on their heat.

In 2011, millions of Texans lost power during the Super Bowl, which was played in a Dallas suburb. Two agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, conducted a study on how Texas could “winterize” its energy infrastructure. At the highest end, winterizing 50,000 gas wells would cost an estimated $1.75 billion, the study found.

In this Feb. 16, 2021, file photo, Robert Webster pulls a full canister of propane for sale as customers line up to enter a grocery store in Dallas. As temperatures plunged and snow and ice whipped the state, much of Texas’ power grid collapsed, followed by its water systems. Tens of millions huddled in frigid homes that slowly grew colder or fled for safety. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Of the 2011 storm, the report said generators and natural gas producers said they had “winterization procedures in place. However, the of many of these generating units and wells suggests that these procedures were either inadequate or were not adequately followed.”

But there was no broad move to winterize equipment. Since then, bills requiring energy producers to hold more power in reserve or ordering a study of how to better prepare for winter failed in the Republican-controlled Texas House.

Texas lawmakers deregulated the energy market in 2002. Supporters say this lowered energy prices statewide, but critics say it gave producers leeway to avoid improvements that might have prevented events like this week’s catastrophe.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has promised multiple investigations of this storm and made ERCOT an “emergency” item for the legislature, which is currently in its biennial session.

  • In this Feb. 15, 2021, file photo, Dan Bryant and his wife Anna huddle by the fire with sons Benny, 3, and Sam, 12 weeks, along with their dog Joey, also wearing two doggie sweaters, with power out and temperatures dropping inside their home after a winter storm brought snow and freezing temperatures to North Texas in Garland, Texas. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News via AP, File)
  • In this Feb. 15, 2021, file photo, traffic is sparse on the snow-covered Interstate 45 near The Woodlands Parkway following an overnight snowfall in The Woodlands, Texas. Temperatures plunged into the teens Monday with light snow and freezing rain. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP, File)
  • In this Feb. 16, 2021, file photo, a man seeking shelter from sup-freezing temperatures prepares his cot at a make-shift warming shelter at Travis Park Methodist Church in San Antonio. As temperatures plunged and snow and ice whipped the state, much of Texas’ power grid collapsed, followed by its water systems. Tens of millions huddled in frigid homes that slowly grew colder or fled for safety. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
  • In this Feb. 17, 2021, file photo, LaDonna collects from a trash container ice cream that had been thrown out because of power outages at a Kroger store in Arlington, Texas. LaDonna said she’s collecting the frozen goods for her neighbors. “I do it because they would do it for me.”, she said. Rolling power outages this week have forced businesses to clear merchandise that needs refrigeration. The power was back Wednesday and the store was open. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, File)
  • In this Feb. 18, 2021, file photo, a woman living on the streets uses blankets to keep warm in downtown San Antonio. Snow, ice and sub-freezing weather continue to wreak havoc on the state’s power grid and utilities. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
  • In this Feb. 18, 2021, file photo, demonstrators stand in front of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s home demanding his resignation in Houston. Cruz has acknowledged that his family vacation to Mexico was “obviously a mistake” as he returned stateside following an uproar over his disappearance during a deadly winter storm. (Marie D. De Jesús/Houston Chronicle via AP, File)
  • In this Feb. 14, 2021, file photo, woman walks through falling snow in San Antonio. As temperatures plunged and snow and ice whipped the state, much of Texas’ power grid collapsed, followed by its water systems. Tens of millions huddled in frigid homes that slowly grew colder or fled for safety. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

“I think there is going to have to be a serious inquiry into why it was, what were the factors that led the grid not to be able to meet the energy needs of Texas,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Cruz spoke Thursday evening in the yard of his home in Houston’s wealthiest neighborhood, River Oaks. He had cut short a trip to Cancun, Mexico, after images circulated of him waiting at a Houston airport for his flight to the resort town.

At week’s end, as the cold weather began to loosen its grip, the power grid came back online for most Texans. But burst pipes had flooded thousands of homes. Earlier in the week, Abbott had asked plumbers from other states to come to Texas and help.

But fixing pipes is one thing. Fixing a whole state is another.



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Power failure: How a winter storm pushed Texas into crisis (2021, February 21)
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