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Trump Administration Sending Some Clean Water Protections Down the Drain

Clean water rules next on the chopping block: The Trump administration announced a sweeping plan to undo clean water protections for certain wetlands and streams, limiting federal jurisdiction primarily to major waterways, tributaries and wetlands. The plan would eliminate protections for waterways that are ephemeral or seasonal. Those may make up as much as 60 percent of all U.S. water bodies, Nathan Rott of NPR reports. EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler rejected that figure but couldn’t offer a more accurate one. Wheeler said the change will undo an Obama-era “power-grab” and relieve farmers and other landowners of a costly permitting process. Wetland protections were initiated under the administration of George H.W. Bush, then strengthened by his son and by President Obama, Coral Davenport of The New York Times reports. Farmers and developers had lobbied hard for the change, she writes. The changes would have a significant impact on the arid West and could affect up to two-thirds of California’s inland streams, Evan Halper of the Los Angeles Times reports. The plan could be finalized after a 60-day comment period, though Rott reports that legal challenges are likely to delay the process.

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Campaign collusion?: An agency that conducted pro-Trump advertising on behalf of the National Rifle Association also was working closely with the presidential campaign, often seemingly coordinating ad buys, according to an investigation by Mike Spies of The Trace. So what? The NRA spent more than any other independent conservative group to help Trump get elected–about $30 million and much of that on television ads. But federal election law requires that when an interest group coordinates its work directly with a campaign, its contributions are subject to rules for in-kind donations, with a cap of $5,000. One former Federal Election Commission chairperson reviewed the records and told Spies that the coordination seemed especially egregious. “It is so blatant that it doesn’t even seem sloppy,” Ann Ravel said. “Everyone involved probably just thinks there aren’t going to be any consequences.” Spies’ story prompted Giffords Law Center and the Campaign Legal Center to file a complaint with the FEC, calling for an investigation.

  • Also: The U.S. murder rate appears likely to fall significantly this year, based on early estimates, but 2018 has been the worst year on record for gun violence in schools. And gun-related homicides are a major factor in declining life expectancy among black Americans.

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Counting coyote carcasses: Hunters in the western U.S. participated last week in the first of three coyote-hunting events in a national competition called the U.S. Predator Challenge, and wildlife advocacy groups are repeating their call to cancel the contest outright. Wildlife killing contests are “inconsistent with modern scientific understanding of the important role that native carnivores play in natural ecosystems, are counterproductive to sound wildlife management, and contravene fundamental hunting ethics,” according to a coalition opposing such events. The contests have been banned in California. The challenge is scheduled to continue in eastern states in January and in the Midwest in February. Sponsors include marketers of ammunition and other hunting gear. The awards include a championship belt buckle.

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Reaping rewards in ‘the sandbox’: Consumers typically think of generic drugs as a cost-saver. But an investigation of generic drugmakers by state attorneys general has found evidence of massive price-fixing schemes that have left patients – plus hospitals, insurers and every other player in the health care system – paying more, Christopher Rowland of The Washington Post reports. Investigators found that executives negotiated for their share of the market and worked together to raise prices, sometimes dramatically and without explanation. “The alleged collusion transformed a cutthroat, highly competitive business into one where sudden, coordinated price spikes on identical generic drugs became almost routine,” Rowland writes. Joseph Nielsen, an assistant attorney general and antitrust investigator in Connecticut, told Rowland that the price-fixing probe involves at least 16 companies and 300 drugs.

 

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‘Coming Undone’: It’s supposed to be national model for allowing more people with mental illness to live independently: The state of New York, after a 2014 settlement, moved people from adult homes that had a history of abuse and health care fraud into apartments where they would be supported by social workers who could help them access services and assist in everyday tasks. But a deeply reported story by Joaquin Sapien of ProPublica and Tom Jennings of Frontline exposes how the change has left some people without the ability to care for themselves, sometimes resulting in steep declines in their mental health or even death. Until recently, the state had no clear system for tracking problems among people who moved into supported housing. The reporters interviewed agency administrators and social workers who said the state’s system was flawed almost from the start, and that their concerns were overruled or ignored. “If someone was actively using drugs, it didn’t matter,” a former administrator of a social services agency told them. “If someone was currently drinking, it didn’t matter. If someone was a fire setter, it didn’t matter.”

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On the wrong track: If it seems that climate change predictions couldn’t get any more dire, last week they did. Carbon emissions worldwide are expected to increase 2.7 percent in 2018, up from a 1.6 percent increase last year and a leveling off for three years before that, reports Kendra Pierre-Louis of The New York Times. Scientists in the journal Nature likened the emissions increase to a “speeding freight train” that, combined with other factors, could cause the calamitous effects of global warming projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for 2040–widespread food shortages, coastal migration, etc.–to arrive as much as a decade sooner. One of the biggest drivers: More cars going longer distances.

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Blasting and drilling: The Trump administration has given the green light to the use of seismic blasts off the Atlantic coast, from New Jersey to Florida, by five companies looking for new drilling sites. The Obama administration had previously ruled that the benefits of the blasts did not outweigh the harm of deafening ocean noise to marine life, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale. The reversal outraged environmental groups and opponents of coastal drilling, Jenny Staletovich of the Miami Herald reports. Several groups were gearing up to file a challenge in federal court.  The administration also eased restrictions for drilling and mining on public lands that are critical to the greater sage grouse. The changes could amount to “death by a thousand cuts,” one wildlife advocate told Matthew Brown of the Associated Press.

  • Also: The speaker of the House in West Virginia has shepherded bills benefiting the natural gas industry through the lawmaking process even while representing natural gas companies as a private attorney. Under state ethics law, there’s no problem with that, ProPublica and the Charleston Gazette-Mail report. –– Coal is not on the rebound in the U.S. In fact, coal consumption is the lowest it has been in almost 40 years.
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Poor record keeping, high-cost correction: Wyoming Casing Service, Inc.,  a North Dakota company, must pay more than $1.1 million in back wages to 275 current and former employees after investigators found that it failed to give them required overtime pay. In its work for the oil and gas industry across six states, the company paid some employees for extra hours based on how much casing, or steel piping meant to protect groundwater during drilling operations, they installed. The company did not properly include those hours in overtime calculations, according to a press release.

  • Also: White Aluminum & Windows of Florida will pay $102,767 to 41 employees for violating record keeping and overtime rules, a Department of Labor press release said. –– In the federal fiscal year that ended September 30, the federal Wage and Hour Division recovered more than $1.5 million for 668 workers in the garment industry in Southern California, often for violations of minimum wage or overtime rules, the office reported.

Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.