Tag Archives: rules

CDC considers lowering threshold for lead exposure

The CDC is considering lowering its threshold for elevated childhood blood lead levels by 30 percent, a shift that could help health practitioners identify more children afflicted by the heavy metal.

Since 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sets public health standards for exposure to lead, has used a blood lead threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter for children under age 6.

While no level of lead exposure is safe for children, those who test at or above that level warrant a public health response, the agency says.

Based on new data from a national health survey, the CDC may lower its reference level to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter in the coming months, according to six people briefed by the agency.

The measure will come up for discussion at a CDC meeting Jan. 17 in Atlanta.

But the step, which has been under consideration for months, could prove controversial. One concern: Lowering the threshold could drain sparse resources from the public health response to children who need the most help – those with far higher lead levels.

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

Exposure to lead — typically in peeling old paint, tainted water or contaminated soil — can cause cognitive impairment and other irreversible health impacts.

The CDC adjusts its threshold periodically as nationwide average levels drop. The threshold value is meant to identify children whose blood lead levels put them among the 2.5 percent of those with the heaviest exposure.

“Lead has no biological function in the body, and so the less there is of it in the body the better,” Bernard M Y Cheung, a University of Hong Kong professor who studies lead data, told Reuters. “The revision in the blood lead reference level is to push local governments to tighten the regulations on lead in the environment.”

The federal agency is talking with state health officials, laboratory operators, medical device makers and public housing authorities about how and when to implement a new threshold.

Since lead was banned in paint and phased out of gasoline nearly 40 years ago, average childhood blood lead levels have fallen more than 90 percent. The average is now around 1 microgram per deciliter.

Yet progress has been uneven, and lead poisoning remains an urgent problem in many U.S. communities.

A Reuters investigation published this month found nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates of at least 10 percent, or double those in Flint, Michigan, during that city’s water crisis.

More than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher than in Flint.

In the worst-affected urban areas, up to 50 percent of children tested in recent years had elevated lead levels.

The CDC has estimated that as many as 500,000 U.S. children have lead levels at or above the current threshold. The agency encourages “case management” for these children, which is often carried out by state or local health departments and can involve educating families about lead safety, ordering more blood tests, home inspections or remediation.

Any change in the threshold level carries financial implications. The CDC budget for assisting states with lead safety programs this year was just $17 million, and many state or local health departments are understaffed to treat children who test high.

Another concern: Many lead testing devices or labs currently have trouble identifying blood lead levels in the 3 micrograms per deciliter range. Test results can have margins of error.

“You could get false positives and false negatives,” said Rad Cunningham, an epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health. “It’s just not very sensitive in that range.”

The CDC doesn’t hold regulatory power, leaving states to make their own decisions on how to proceed. Many have yet to adapt their lead poisoning prevention programs to the last reference change, implemented four years ago, when the level dropped from 10 to 5 micrograms per deciliter. Other states, including Virginia and Maine, made changes this year.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is close to adopting a rule requiring an environmental inspection — and lead cleanup if hazards are found — in any public housing units where a young child tests at or above the CDC threshold.

If the CDC urges public health action under a new threshold, HUD said it will follow through. “The only thing that will affect our policy is the CDC recommendation for environmental intervention,” said Dr. Warren Friedman, with HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes.

To set the reference value, the CDC relies upon data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey. The latest data suggests that a small child with a blood lead level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter has higher exposure than 97.5 percent of others in the age group, 1 to 5 years.

But in lead-poisoning hotspots, a far greater portion of children have higher lead levels. Wisconsin data, for instance, shows that around 10 percent of children tested in Milwaukee’s most poisoned census tracts had levels double the current CDC standard.

Some worry a lower threshold could produce the opposite effect sought, by diverting money and attention away from children with the worst exposure.

“A lower reference level may actually do harm by masking reality – that significant levels of lead exposure are still a problem throughout the country,” said Amy Winslow, chief executive of Magellan Diagnostics, whose blood lead testing machines are used in thousands of U.S. clinics.

Obama sets rule to protect streams near coal mines

The Obama administration this week set final rules designed to reduce the environmental impact of coal mining on the nation’s streams, a long-anticipated move that met quick resistance from Republicans who vowed to overturn it under President-elect Donald Trump.

The Interior Department said the new rule will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, preventing debris from coal mining from being dumped into nearby waters. The rule would maintain a buffer zone that blocks coal mining within 100 feet of streams, but would impose stricter guidelines for exceptions to the 100-foot rule.

Interior officials said the rule would cause only modest job losses in coal country, but Republicans and some coal-state Democrats denounced it as a job-killer being imposed during President Barack Obama’s final days in office.

Coal already is struggling under steep competition from cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas, as well as regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas pollution that contributes to climate change.

U.S. coal production has fallen to its lowest level in nearly 30 years, and several coal companies have filed for bankruptcy protection in recent months, including three of the country’s biggest coal producers, Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the new rule a final, futile attempt by Obama to kill coal jobs and continue what he called Obama’s “war” on coal.

Bishop said he looks forward to working with Trump’s team “to overturn this unparalleled executive overreach and implement policies that protect communities forsaken by this administration,” while House Speaker Paul Ryan vowed that “our unified Republican government will act to provide coal country with relief.”

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota also criticized the rule, which can be rejected by a majority vote in Congress.

Manchin called the rule “alarming in its scope and potential impacts” and said he will “pursue legislation to ensure it does not harm our coal mining communities and economies.”

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, a lobbying group that represents coal producers, called the rule a “post-election midnight regulation” that is “a win for bureaucracy and extreme environmental groups and a loss for everyday Americans.”

Quinn and other opponents said the rule appears to support the environmental movement’s “keep it in the ground” efforts to reduce extraction and use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil that contribute to global warming. He argued that locking away coal reserves will put tens of thousands of Americans out of work and raise energy costs for millions of Americans.

The Sierra Club, not surprisingly, disagreed, calling the rule “a long overdue step toward guaranteeing every community in America is protected from the toxic water pollution caused by surface coal mining.” The organization said the mining dumps dangerous heavy metals such as mercury, selenium and arsenic into local waterways and “puts the health of families living near coalfields at risk.”

An Interior official projected that fewer than 300 jobs would be lost after the regulation takes effect next month.

The rule would require companies to restore streams and return mined areas to conditions similar to those before mining took place. Companies also would have to replant native trees and vegetation.

The administration said the rule updates requirements in place since 1983. The biggest impact will be felt in states such as West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Wind turbines at center of bat protection rules

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering requests from the wind energy industry to exempt wind turbines in Wisconsin and nationwide from new rules to protect threatened bats, even as a fungal disease has killed millions of the creatures.

Because of the disease, white-nose syndrome, the federal agency listed the northern long-eared bat as threatened. The temporary rule to list the bat as threatened exempted some activities, but not wind energy generation. The agency is now considering a final rule, including potential exemptions for wind turbines.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said wind turbines cause a significant number of bat deaths. A 2013 study, cited in the Federal Register, found wind turbines nationwide killed 650,000 to 1.3 million bats in a year.

“You actually have dead bodies in hand,” Rick Amidon, a USFWS regional director in Minnesota, said of the giant turbines. He contrasted that with forestry and highway right-of-way work, which are exempted from the new rules because they kill and harm fewer bats.

Estimates through 2013 show white-nose syndrome has killed as many as 6.7 million bats since it was first discovered in 2006, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency said it expects the disease to spread and the number of deaths to grow.

In 2008 and 2009, a carcass survey conducted at the Blue Sky Green Field Project wind farm in Fond du Lac County estimated the bat fatality rate during the six-month study period at 41 bats per turbine.

Such fatalities are of special concern in Wisconsin where white-nose syndrome is spreading and threatening to dramatically reduce bat populations. The state Department of Natural Resources has found the disease itself or the fungus that causes the disease at 14 hibernation caves, or hibernacula.

Diseased bats have been found in Grant, Crawford, Richland, Door and Dane counties. The fungus has been discovered in Iowa, Dodge and Lafayette counties.

The disease was first seen in a Grant County mine in March 2014, and 70 percent of the bats there have since died — an indication of how deadly the disease can be. So far that mine is the only location where bats have died in such large numbers in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is home to several of the largest bat hibernation sites in the upper Midwest, with a population estimated at up to 500,000. The state’s four species of cave bats — all of which are threatened by white-nose syndrome — serve a crucial role by consuming insects that cost farmers nationwide more than a billion dollars a year.

Wind turbine operators and proponents argue that the disease is the primary threat to bats and that the turbines do not account for enough deaths to warrant stricter rules.

John Anderson, a senior director for the American Wind Energy Association, said it is neither fair nor effective for the Fish and Wildlife Service to put “a conservation burden on activities that are not having a significant effect,” Midwest Energy News, a nonprofit energy news website, reported recently. “The wind industry is one of them.”

High-stakes mortality

But Amidon, with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that some bat populations — such as northern long-eared — are so precarious that even the marginal additional deaths caused by wind turbines can become a factor in their survival.

“The bottom line,” Amidon said, “is that if you have a huge population decline, the bats that are remaining become very important.”

The northern long-eared bat, one of four cave bat species in Wisconsin, weighs only about 0.3 ounce and has been found in 37 states. It has been identified in 67 of the state’s hibernacula. Other than those caves and mines, however, the bat has no other refuges, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and a population analysis led the agency to conclude that the bat could face extinction if white-nose syndrome infected its major hibernacula.

The decision to list the bat species as endangered could force wind turbine operators in affected areas nationwide to spend about $610 million over the next 30 years, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

That cost would cover developing and maintaining a habitat conservation plan, which would show how the operator is going to minimize bat deaths. Such a plan would be required by the wildlife service before it issued an “incidental take” permit, allowing inadvertent killing of bats.

Brian Manthey, a spokesman for WE Energies, which owns the Fond du Lac wind farm where the tests were conducted, said the utility must find a way to protect bats and birds while maximizing wind energy production. According to the American Wind Energy Association, Wisconsin’s 417 wind turbines provided 2.65 percent of all in-state electricity production in 2014, enough to power 148,000 homes. Manthey added that percentage is expected to grow.

Manthey said there is no doubt that the bat protections would be a “financial hit” for turbine operators.

“What would have to be weighed is how do we maximize the amount of energy with the least impact on bats and birds,” Manthey said.

Midwest plan proposed

In a related move, the Fish and Wildlife service is also taking suggestions for an environmental impact study on an eight-state plan to protect habitat for all bats and birds. The agency has scheduled a series of hearings, including a comment session in Madison taking place as WiG went to press.

In the study, the agency would consider the impact of exemptions which would protect operators of wind turbines from prosecution for incidental bat deaths and injuries.

The Wisconsin DNR has been working with the Fish and Wildlife Service on early drafts of the habitat conservation plan. DNR spokesman Bill Cosh said the federal agency is considering exempting wind farm development except in areas within a 20-mile radius around primary hibernacula, including the Bay City, Maiden Rock and Neda mines, along major rivers and within 3 miles of Great Lakes shorelines.

New wind projects in areas not covered by the habitat plan would need to seek individual incidental take permits from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Cosh said.

But Amidon said wind turbine operators have indicated they would prefer a blanket exemption.

In seeking exemption from the threatened species rule, the American Wind Energy Association has proposed adjusting turbine operations to reduce bat deaths. Based on the theory that bats do not fly in high winds, the association says that operators could prevent blades from turning until the wind reaches a certain speed, known as “cut-in speed.” During migration periods and during periods of low wind, bats are more active.

Manthey said the practice is the subject of a new study by WE Energies. According to the company, other studies have reported average reductions in bat mortality ranging from 36 to 89 percent using such curtailment practices.

Russ Benedict, a professor of biology at Central College in Pella, Iowa, estimated that changing the cut-in speed would cut bat mortality by 50 percent but only reduce energy production by 3 percent.

“If we are more careful about when we use wind turbines,” Benedict said, “we won’t have that big of an impact on energy production, but we can dramatically reduce bat mortalities.”

Editor’s note: The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism contributed to this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

President outlines rule changes, says more workers deserve overtime pay

President Barack Obama on June 30 said the Department of Labor will propose extending overtime pay to nearly 5 million workers.

The White House, in a fact sheet released on June 30, said the proposal would guarantee overtime pay to most salaried workers earning less than an estimated $50,440 next year.

The salary threshold guarantees overtime for most salaried workers who fall below it, but it is eroded by inflation every year and has only been updated once since the 1970s.

The current threshold is $23,660 — $455 per week — which is below the poverty threshold for a family of four and only 8 percent of full-time salaried workers fall below the threshold.

The White House said the president directed the secretary of labor to update regulations relating to who qualifies for overtime pay to again reflect the intent of the Fair Labor Standards Act and to simplify the rules so they’re easier for workers and businesses to understand and apply.

The Labor Department’s proposal involves:

• Raising the threshold under which most salaried workers are guaranteed overtime to equal the 40th percentile of weekly earnings for full-time salaried workers. This would raise the salary threshold from $455 a week to a projected level of $970 a week or $50,440 a year in 2016.

• Extend overtime pay and the minimum wage to nearly 5 million workers within the first year of its implementation, of which 56 percent are women and 53 percent have at least a college degree.

• Provide greater clarity for millions more workers so they — and their employers — can determine more easily if they should be receiving overtime pay.

• Prevent a future erosion of overtime and ensure greater predictability by automatically updating the salary threshold based on inflation or wage growth over time.

The proposal does not include specific regulatory changes to the so-called “duties test” that determines whether salaried workers earning more than the threshold are entitled to an exemption from overtime rules.

Hourly workers would generally continue to receive overtime pay, as they do under current rules.

Consistent with the normal rulemaking process, when the Labor Department’s notice is published, there will be a comment period.

Reaction to the announcement …

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, said, “I applaud the president for lifting wages for nearly 5 million hard working Americans. Far too many people these days are working more hours for less pay and struggling to make ends meet. The President’s proposed overtime rule will level playing field for employees — providing them with appropriate compensation for their hard work.”

U.S. Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva and Keith Ellison, co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a joint statement, “We applaud President Obama for standing with American families who deserve fair pay for their hard work. People all over the country are working longer hours, but their paychecks continue to come up short. The Progressive Caucus believes that in the richest nation on earth, no one working overtime should worry about making ends meet. This new overtime rule is a powerful step towards that goal, helping nearly 5 million Americans feed their families, pay their rent, or clothe their children. We look forward to working with President Obama to continue putting more money in the pockets of America’s working families.” 

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

Wisconsin FoodShare fraud crackdown questioned

Under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the state of Wisconsin has seen a nearly 12-fold increase in the number of persons suspended annually from the state’s food stamp program for fraud.

The suspensions for “intentionally violating program rules” are part of a larger get-tough approach to people receiving federally funded nutrition assistance, called FoodShare in Wisconsin. Walker has also introduced new work rules for some FoodShare recipients, and proposes to seek a federal waiver to begin requiring all adult participants of the program to undergo drug testing.

Walker’s administration has long devoted energy and resources to cracking down on recipients of the supplemental food program. The efforts include a new office to fight fraud within the state Department of Health Services, which runs FoodShare, additional systems for citizens to report allegations of abuse, and new strategies to nab would-be freeloaders through stricter screening and income-verification rules.

In 2011, Walker’s first year as governor, 102 people were suspended from the FoodShare program for violating program rules, according to DHS. That number has increased each year, to 1,184 in 2014.

“We’ve shown more intention and intentionality in preventing fraud and abuse,” said Alan White, appointed in 2011 to a newly created position of inspector general within DHS. He cites more workers, better training, and new strategies for finding fraud using social media. Also, “We’ve become more aware of the types of fraud that take place.”

White thinks Wisconsin’s efforts to step up enforcement serves as deterrent to potential cheaters: “They see that we are serious about preventing and detecting fraud.” He notes that federal law requires the state to take action in cases where it believes fraud has occurred.

But advocates for FoodShare recipients say the state is being overly aggressive, punishing needy people who make innocent mistakes.

“There’s a lot of judgment going on by white, middle-class people and a lot of assumptions and disqualifications based on these assumptions,” said Pat DeLessio, an attorney with the Milwaukee office of Legal Action of Wisconsin, a federally funded nonprofit agency. The agency has successfully helped clients fight state efforts to suspend their FoodShare benefits. But in most cases, she said, “people are coming to us too late.”

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force, a nonprofit community group, blasts the state’s crackdown. “It’s silly, it’s stupid, and it’s a way of manipulating public opinion,” she said. “Everybody needs a scapegoat and it seems like the poor are the scapegoat in Wisconsin.”

A ‘misuse’ of resources

FoodShare is Wisconsin’s incarnation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The average monthly number of FoodShare recipients rose steadily in Wisconsin, from about 350,000 in 2005 to more than 850,000 in 2013, according to DHS. Last year it declined slightly, to 836,000, or 14.5 percent of the state’s population.

About two-thirds of last year’s FoodShare recipients were in families with children. The average monthly benefit was $112 per person and $224 per household. The total cost of the program was $1.1 billion in 2014. All of this money came from the federal government.

Under Walker, the number of FoodShare program fraud investigations has grown dramatically, from 2,098 in federal fiscal year 2010 to 6,403 in fiscal year 2014, which ended last September. These efforts have been aided by DHS’ new Office of the Inspector General and the establishment of a hotline and web portal for citizens to report suspected public assistance program fraud.

The office currently has 107 employees and an annual budget of $12.6 million. Thirty-one employees work on fraud investigation, including eight on recipient fraud. It said its fraud-fighting efforts in Medicaid, FoodShare and the Women, Infants and Children programs cost $1.3 million in the most recent state fiscal year, and generated $22.5 million in program savings, including “stopping future benefits from being fraudulently received.”

In federal fiscal year 2014, the DHS identified nearly $1.1 million in fraud-related FoodShare overpayments and collected $675,448 in overpaid benefits from current or former FoodShare recipients, said Michael McKenzie, chief of the Inspector General’s Fraud Investigation, Recovery and Enforcement Section. The overpayments accounted for 0.1 percent of the program’s total cost.

Tussler, of Hunger Task Force, calls this intense focus on ferreting out a relatively small amount of fraud “a misuse of state resources.” She said the state’s disqualifications of needy people is putting additional pressure on local food pantries.

How much fraud is there?

Nationally, the error rates for SNAP overpayments (including fraud) fell for the seventh straight year to a low of 2.6 percent in 2013, USDA numbers show. That’s the lowest error rate since the USDA began its current system of measuring in 1981.

Wisconsin’s error rate that year was 2.2 percent. In fact, Wisconsin’s error rate “has been consistently under the national average since 2008,” according to Alan Shannon, spokesman for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service office in Chicago.

“Our error rate is low, which is great,” said White of DHS. “We want to keep it low.” His office’s mission is “to protect state and federal money,” he said. “Our responsibility is to the taxpayers. Those are our stakeholders.”

DHS statistics show that fraud accounts for a small share of FoodShare program overpayments. During the past three fiscal years, from 2012 through 2014, 10 percent of the total $13.2 million in overpayments collected by the state were attributed to client fraud. A larger share of this amount, 14 percent, was blamed on agency error. And the vast majority (76 percent) was chalked up to “inadvertent” errors by recipients.

While the state’s incidence of FoodShare fraud may be slight, it remains a major talking point among conservative politicians.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisconsin, recently urged an audience in Oshkosh to keep an eye on people they see using FoodShare at the grocery store, saying “some people are arranging their life to be on FoodShare,” according to the Oshkosh Northwestern.

And Gov. Walker, a likely presidential contender, drew what the Wisconsin State Journal called “some of his biggest applause” at an Iowa summit when he talked about requiring food stamp beneficiaries to be drug-free and seeking employment.

Beginning April 1, all able-bodied adult FoodShare recipients without dependents must work or participate in job training, or both, for at least 80 hours a month, or meet an exemption, to keep getting benefits. It has been estimated that half of the 62,000 recipients in this category could lose benefits.

Walker has also proposed, in his 2015-17 budget, to seek a federal waiver to allow the state to require that FoodShare recipients be tested for drug use, and receive treatment if they test positive. Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, on a 12-4 party line vote, added a provision to make recipients who report FoodShare cards lost or stolen, as happens about 130,000 times a year, absorb the roughly $3.50 replacement cost.

And lawmakers plan to introduce a bill to seek a federal waiver to require FoodShare recipients to use benefit cards that include their photos. The measure would cost an estimated $2 million a year.

Are rights being protected?

Hal Menendez, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Madison office, said most of the alleged fraud he sees amounts to mistakes on the part of those receiving assistance. “Sometimes people forget to report a change in their income or are late in reporting,” he said. In the past this might be cured simply by having the person pay back any overpayment.

“Now, oftentimes overpayments are being looked at as fraud or an intentional program violation,” Menendez said. That makes the recipient subject to benefit suspension: one year for a first violation, two years for a second and permanently for a third.

FoodShare recipients have a right to a hearing before an administrative law judge. But Menendez said many recipients are confused into signing forms sent by the state asking them to waive their right to a hearing. DHS numbers for a recent nearly 10-month period show that nearly a third of the people it sought to disqualify signed the waiver.

DeLessio, also of Legal Action, said she is representing a client with intellectual disabilities who signed the waiver terminating her benefits even though she cannot read. The woman is now without benefits.

Advocates for FoodShare recipients say when recipients contest a disqualification they often win. “The deciding factor may be whether the person appeared to explain the purchases,” DeLessio said.

If the recipient does not sign a waiver, a hearing is held. During the recent period under review, 348 hearings were held, and 311 disqualifications imposed. “We were upheld in 89 percent of the cases,” said White. This includes cases that are not contested, but White said the state still must present evidence.

Records of suspension cases provided by DeLessio show that some FoodShare recipients are targeted because they fall into a category of potential suspicion — for instance, by making unusually large or frequent purchases at a given store or having purchases that end in round numbers, like $20.00.

“We have seen people disqualified for less than $100,” DeLessio said.

White confirmed that his office looks for certain patterns, like large purchases, as “flags” of potential FoodShare fraud. And he acknowledged that “there are improvements that can be made” to the waiver form. He said that process is now under way.

According to White, the administrative law judges have “raised the bar” in terms of what evidence is required to disqualify recipients, “as is appropriate.” DeLessio still sees inconsistencies in how the cases are decided.

“The same evidence can lead to very different results depending on the judge,” DeLessio said.

‘It was very unfair’

In one case that came to hearing in 2013, a judge sustained a fraud finding against an individual who made five purchases over a three-month period from a store that was later disqualified from being a state FoodShare vendor. The purchases totaled $183.54; the store, the judge noted, was “not particularly close to respondent’s residence.” The respondent, who did not attend the hearing, was booted from the program for a year.

After another hearing, in 2014, a different judge rejected DHS’s attempt to disqualify a man for making numerous small purchases from a store that aroused suspicion in part because its owner admitted to allowing FoodShare recipients to use their cards to buy diapers, not an allowable purchase. The man appeared at the hearing and explained that the store was near where his children and their mother lived.

DeLessio represented Walter Triplett, 57, of Milwaukee, who in February 2014 was suspended from the FoodShare program for a year despite having appeared at a hearing to explain purchases that the DHS reviewer found suspicious. She filed a 25-page legal brief challenging this decision, which the state then agreed to vacate. But Triplett, who is disabled, was without Foodshare benefits for several months.

“It was very unfair,” Triplett said of the grounds for his disqualification. He got by by going to church food pantries. Also, “my family members helped me out as much as they could.”

DHS’s budget request for 2015-17 calls for the agency to “expand and improve” its fraud-fighting efforts. It sets a goal of 7,000 fraud investigations for each of the next three years.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Environmental groups disappointed with EPA rule on coal ash

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Dec. 19 issued long-delayed federal regulations for coal ash, but failed to fix major pollution problems from the disposal of coal ash waste, including contamination of rivers and drinking water supplies, according to leading environmental groups.

“Today’s rule doesn’t prevent more tragic spills like the ones we are still trying to clean up in North Carolina and Tennessee. And it won’t stop the slower moving disaster that is unfolding for communities around the country, as leaky coal ash ponds and dumps poison water,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans.

The rule treats coal ash — a byproduct in the burning of coal to generate electricity — as solid waste. Environmentalists had hoped for the EPA to treat coal ash as hazardous waste.

The new rule fails to phase out the practice of storing toxic waste in unlined “ponds” behind earthen dams that can be structurally unstable and prone to failure, according to Earthjustice. The group said the EPA’s approach lets the utility industry police itself. 

“While EPA’s coal ash rule takes some long overdue steps to establish minimum national groundwater monitoring and cleanup standards, it relies too heavily on the industry to police itself, ” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “The devil is in the details, and we will review the regulation closely for loopholes. But regardless of what the rule requires, companies like Duke Energy, First Energy and TVA have already learned that spills and leaking ash ponds add up to billions of dollars in cleanup costs.” 

The rule requires closure of some inactive ponds, such as the one that failed on the Dan River in North Carolina, but it only mandates closure of ponds that are located on the site of active facilities.

“This power industry has had half a century or more to clean up its act, but even in the face of huge spills and a terrible record of proven water contamination around the country, it is still dumping ash in huge unlined pits,” said Evans. “These dumps aren’t going away by themselves, and unfortunately under today’s rule, EPA is putting the burden on citizens to get them safely closed.”

The rule requires water quality monitoring and public disclosure of the results, which should help citizens to track damage from dumps and to go to court to force clean-ups. However, there are concerns that coal plant operators will not reliably identify, report and remedy water contamination and structural risks without independent oversight.

When she heard about the new regulations, Esther Calhoun, of Uniontown, Alabama, who lives near a coal ash dump, said, “It seems like the EPA doesn’t give a damn about people.”

Calhoun lives near the Arrowhead landfill, which received 4 million cubic yards of coal ash form the 2008 Kingston disaster.

“Our people have heart attacks and breathing problems. They’re dealing with this big mountain of coal ash in their face.  This is a civil rights issue just as much as an environmental and health one,” Calhoun said.

Coal ash is the toxic waste formed from burning coal in power plants to make electricity. It contains arsenic, lead, mercury and hexavalent chromium. Coal ash — the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States — is linked to the four leading causes of death in the United States — heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases and stroke.

Earthjustice said unsafe disposal of coal ash has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and sources of underground drinking water in 37 states.

Coal ash regulations were proposed in 2010 following the largest toxic waste spill in U.S. history in Kingston, Tennessee, when a billion gallons of coal ash sludge destroyed 300 acres and dozens of homes. But in response to pressure from the coal power industry, the EPA delayed finalizing the proposed rule.

In 2012, Earthjustice sued EPA in federal court on behalf of 10 public interest groups and an Indian tribe to obtain a court-ordered deadline. The groups involved in the lawsuit included the Moapa Band of Paiutes, Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Environmental Integrity Project, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Montana Environmental Information Center, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Western North Carolina Alliance.

In 2013, a consent decree was lodged in federal court that set a deadline of Dec. 19 for EPA’s final rule.

Schaeffer said: “EPA’s coal ash rule is too little and too late. Too little because its standards are minimal, vague and unenforceable. Too late, because damage from collapsing dikes and leaking ash dumps has accumulated in the absence of common sense rules designed to prevent those disasters.”

Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the National Resources Defense Council, added, “The EPA is bowing to coal-fired utilities’ interests and putting the public at great risk by treating toxic coal ash as simple garbage instead of the hazardous waste that it is. Too much of the agency’s new rule is left to the discretion of states, which all too often have favored powerful utility companies instead of the public.

“Unlike the majority of environmental standards — which are backstopped by federal enforcement — this rule all but leaves people who live near coal ash dumps to fend for themselves.”

Feeding the homeless: Act of charity or a crime?

To Arnold Abbott, feeding the homeless in a public park in South Florida was an act of charity. To the city of Fort Lauderdale, the 90-year-old man in white chef’s apron serving up gourmet-styled meals was committing a crime.

For more than two decades, the man many call “Chef Arnold” has proudly fired up his ovens to serve up four-course meals for the downtrodden who wander the palm tree-lined beaches and parks of this sunny tourist destination.

Now a face-off over a new ordinance restricting public feedings of the homeless has pitted Abbott and others with compassionate aims against some officials, residents and businesses who say the growing homeless population has overrun local parks and that public spaces merit greater oversight.

Abbott and two South Florida ministers were arrested this fall as they served up food. They were charged with breaking an ordinance restricting public feeding of the homeless. Each faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

“One of the police officers said, `Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” Abbott recalled.

The arrests haven’t deterred Abbott, and pastors Dwayne Black and Mark Sims.

In fact, on a recent evening, Abbott and Black went back out for a feeding along Fort Lauderdale beach as police videotaped them serving up fresh-cooked entrees: a chicken-and-vegetable dish with broccoli sauce and a cubed ham-and-pasta dish Abbott said he topped with a “beautiful white onion celery sauce.”

Nearly 100 mostly homeless people and volunteers cheered his arrival in the park.

“God bless you, Arnold!” some in the crowd shouted.

 “Thank God for Chef Arnold. I haven’t eaten all day. He feeds a lot of people from the heart,” said 56-year-old Eddie Hidalgo, who described himself as living on the streets since losing his job two years ago.

At one point, an Associated Press staffer said she watched as Abbott was called over beside a police car by officers where an officer wrote up something and handed Abbott a copy as he stood by.

Police spokeswoman DeAnna Greenlaw late told The Associated Press by email that Abbott was issued a citation on a charge of breaking the ordinance. She said no one else was cited and police had no further comment.

“I’m grateful that they allowed us to feed the people before they gave us the citation,” Abbott said afterward. He has said feeding the homeless is his life’s mission.

Fort Lauderdale is the latest U.S. city to pass restrictions on feeding homeless people in public places. Advocates for the homeless say that the cities are fighting to control increasing homeless populations but that simply passing ordinances doesn’t work.

In the past two years, more than 30 cities have tried to introduce laws similar to Fort Lauderdale’s, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. The efforts come as more veterans face homelessness and after two harsh winters drove homeless people southward, especially to Florida.

Mayor Jack Seiler said he thinks Abbott and the two pastors have good intentions, but that the city can’t discriminate in enforcing the ordinance. He said it was passed recently to ensure that public places are open to everyone and stressed that the city was working with local charities to help with the root causes of homelessness.

“The parks have just been overrun and were inaccessible to locals and businesses,” Seiler said.  

Black, a local pastor, noted that the ordinance passed after a long meeting after midnight, when many people had gone home. But he said he’s willing to stand up to the measure, even at the risk of arrest.

Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance took effect this fall, and the city passed a slew of other laws addressing homelessness in recent months. They ban people from leaving their belongings unattended, outlaw panhandling at medians, and strengthen defecation and urination laws, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“I think cities have grown tired of the homeless situation, and businesses and residents complain about the homeless population,” Stoops said, citing the conflict between business needs and the needs of the homeless.

Fort Lauderdale police have said that the men were not taken into custody last weekend and that they were given notices to appear in court from that encounter, adding the matter will ultimately be decided by a judge. The police spokeswoman Greenlaw said those charged “were well aware of the changes to the ordinance and its effective date.”

Other cities are conducting routine homeless sweeps while some have launched anti-panhandling campaigns, according to the coalition. And many laws continue to target public feedings.

In Houston, groups need written consent to feed the homeless in public, or they face a $2,000 fine. Organizations in Columbia, South Carolina, must pay $150 for a permit more than two weeks in advance to feed the homeless in city parks.

In Orlando, an ordinance requires groups to get a permit to feed 25 or more people in parks in a downtown district. Groups are limited to two permits per year for each park. Since then, numerous activists have been arrested for violating the law. The arrests have drawn national attention, with some focusing on the contrast between the vacation destination of the Orlando area and the poverty in some surrounding areas.

How Obama’s power plant emission rules will work

The Obama administration is poised to unveil the first rules limiting carbon emissions from the thousands of power plants across the nation. The pollution controls form the cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s campaign to combat climate change and a key element of his legacy.

Obama says the rules are essential to curb the heat-trapping greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. Critics contend the rules will kill jobs, drive up electricity prices and shutter plants across the country.

Environmentalists and industry advocates alike are eagerly awaiting the specifics, which the Environmental Protection Agency will make public for the first time on June 2 and Obama will champion from the White House.

While the details remain murky, the administration says the rules will play a major role in achieving the pledge Obama made in Copenhagen during his first year in office to cut America’s carbon emissions by about 17 percent by 2020.

Some questions and answers about the proposal:

Q: How does the government plan to limit emissions?

A: Unable to persuade Congress to act on climate change, Obama is turning to the Clean Air Act. The 1970s-era law has long been used to regulate pollutants like soot, mercury and lead but has only recently been applied to greenhouse gases.

Unlike with new power plants, the government can’t regulate existing plant emissions directly. Instead, the government will issue guidelines for cutting emissions, then each state will develop its own plan to meet those guidelines. If a state refuses, the EPA can create its own plan.

Q: Why are these rules necessary?

A: Power plants are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Environmentalists and the White House say without bold action, climate change will intensify and endanger the public’s well-being around the world. In its National Climate Assessment this year, the administration said warming and erratic weather will become increasingly disruptive unless curtailed.

“This is not some distant problem of the future. This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now,” Obama said earlier this month.

Of course, the United States is only one player in the global climate game. These rules won’t touch carbon emissions in other nations whose coal plants are even dirtier. But the White House believes that leading by example gives the U.S. more leverage to pressure other countries to reduce their own emissions.

Q: How steep will the reductions be?

A: We don’t know.

The administration hasn’t said whether it will set one universal standard or apply different standards in each state. But Obama’s senior counselor, John Podesta, said the reductions will be made “in the most cost-effective and most efficient way possible,” by giving flexibility to the states.

That could include offsetting emissions by increasing the use of solar and nuclear power, switching to cleaner-burning fuels like natural gas or creating efficiency programs that reduce energy demand. States might also pursue an emissions-trading plan _ also known as cap-and-trade _ as several northeast states have already done.

Q: How will they affect my power bill? What about the economy?

A: It depends where you live. Different states have a different mixes of coal versus gas and other fuels, so the rules will affect some states more than others. Dozens of coal-burning plants have already announced they plan to close.

Still, it’s a good bet the rules will drive up electricity prices. The U.S. relies on coal for 40 percent of its electricity, and the Energy Department predicts retail power prices will rise this year because of environmental regulations, economic forces and other factors.

Environmentalists argue that some of those costs are offset by decreased health care costs and other indirect benefits. They also say the transition toward greener fuels could create jobs.

Q: Doesn’t Obama need approval from Congress?

A: Not for this. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling gave the EPA the green light to regulate carbon-dioxide under the Clean Air Act. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be fierce opposition and drawn-out litigation. The government is expecting legal challenges and is preparing to defend the rules in court if necessary.

Q: Is this the final step?

A: Not even close. After the draft rule is proposed, there’s a full year for public comment and revisions. Then states have another year to submit their implementation plans to the EPA.

Obama’s boldest move on carbon comes with perils

The new pollution rule the Obama administration announces on June 2 will be a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy and arguably the most significant U.S. environmental regulation in decades.

But it’s not one the White House wanted.

As with other issues, the regulation to limit the pollution blamed for global warming from power plants is a compromise for Obama, who again finds himself caught between his aspirations and what is politically and legally possible.

It will provoke a messy and drawn-out fight with states and companies that produce electricity, and may not be settled until the eve of the next presidential election in 2016, or beyond.

“It’s going to be like eating spaghetti with a spoon. It can be done, but it’s going to be messy and slow,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

At the crux of the problem is Obama’s use of a 1970 law that was not intended to regulate the gases blamed for global warming. Obama was forced to rely on the Clean Air Act after he tried and failed to get Congress to pass a new law during his first term. When the Republicans took over the House, the goal became impossible.

The new rule, as the president described it in a news conference in 2010, is another way of “skinning the cat” on climate change.

“For anybody who cares about this issue, this is it,” Heather Zichal, Obama’s former energy and climate adviser, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “This is all the president has in his toolbox.”

The rule will tap executive powers to tackle the single largest source of the pollution blamed for heating the planet: carbon dioxide emitted from power plants. They produce about 40 percent of the electricity in the nation and about one-third of the carbon pollution that makes the U.S. the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

“There are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None,” Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address.

“We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It’s not smart, it’s not safe, and it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

While Obama has made major reductions in carbon pollution from cars and trucks by increasing fuel efficiency, manufacturers cooperated after an $85 billion government bailout.

His rule requiring new power plants to capture some of their carbon dioxide and bury it underground, while significant, has little real-world impact because few new coal plants are expected to be built due to market conditions.

Both those rules also prescribed technological fixes or equipment to be placed on the automobile or power plant.

The rule released Monday, though, would allow states to require power plants to make changes such as switching from coal to natural gas or enact other programs to reduce demand for electricity and produce more energy from renewable sources.

They also can set up pollution-trading markets as 10 other states already have done to offer more flexibility in how plants cut emissions. Plans from states won’t be due until 2016, but the rule will become final a year before.

That hasn’t stopped the hoopla over the proposal.

Some Democrats worried about re-elections have asked the White House, along with Republicans, to double the length of the rule-making comment period, until after this November’s elections.

The Chamber of Commerce said the rule would cost $50 billion to the economy and kill jobs. Harvard University said the regulation wouldn’t just reduce carbon but also would have a beneficial side effect: cleansing the air of other pollutants.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, are taking credit for helping shape it and arguing it would create jobs, not eliminate them.

Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia, which gets 96 percent of its power from coal, said Thursday that while he didn’t have the details, “from everything we know we can be sure of this: It will be bad for jobs.” Rahall faces a difficult re-election in November.

Obama said such pessimistic views are wrong.

“Now, special interests and their allies in Congress will claim that these guidelines will kill jobs and crush the economy,” Obama said in his address. “Let’s face it, that’s what they always say.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and other government officials have promoted the proposal’s flexibility as way to both cut emissions and ensure affordable electricity. But that flexibility could backfire.

Some states, particularly those heavily reliant on fossil fuels, could resist taking action, leading the federal government to take over the program. That happened in Texas when it initially refused to issue greenhouse gas permits through another air pollution program.

Lawyers for states and industry also are likely to argue that controls far afield of the power plant violate the law’s intent.

The rule probably would push utilities to rely more on natural gas because coal emits about twice as much carbon dioxide. The recent oil and gas drilling boom in the U.S. has helped lower natural gas prices and, by extension, electricity prices. But it still generally is cheaper to generate power with coal than with natural gas. Also, natural gas prices are volatile and can lead to fluctuations in power prices.

The rule will push the U.S. closer to the 17 percent reduction by 2020 it promised other countries at the start of Obama’s presidency, it will fall far short of the global reductions scientists say are needed to stabilize the planet’s temperature. That’s because U.S. fossil-fueled power plants account for 6 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Endangered Species Act faces threat from House Republicans

A group of 13 House Republicans has proposed dismantling key portions of the Endangered Species Act, including limiting citizens’ ability to hold the government accountable and giving local politicians more influence over which plants and animals receive protections.

Changes recommended in the report would ultimately reduce protections for species on the brink of extinction and give politicians, rather than scientists, more say over how the Endangered Species Act is administered, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This is a cynical and Orwellian attempt to cripple one of our nation’s most successful environmental laws to curry favor with polluters and other powerful interests,” said Brett Hartl, CBD’s endangered species policy director. “According to the twisted logic of Rep. (Doc) Hastings and his tea party colleagues, denying protections to critically imperiled species helps save them and reducing funding for the Act will make more resources available to help species — the reality is that this report is all about gutting the Endangered Species Act and has nothing to do with improving it.”

The report from the GOP working group claims the Endangered Species Act is a failure even though 99 percent of species protected under the law have been saved from extinction and hundreds of species are on the trajectory toward recovery at the rate that federal scientists have predicted, according to the CBD.

“Time and again Americans have voiced their support for the Endangered Species Act — they see signs of its success in every state. It’s why we still have bald eagles, grizzly bears and wolves in the lower 48 states,” Hartl said. “Now these Republicans are asking Congress to tip this law in favor of profiteers and local politicians rather than the plants and animals it was designed to protect.”

The Republican report takes particular aim at an agreement in 2011 to speed up protection decisions for 757 imperiled plants and animals in the United States. The agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the CBD, broke up a logjam in the decision-making process for species threatened with extinction, including some that had waited more than 20 years for a decision.

The agreement also led to Endangered Species Act protection for more than 100 species, including the Mount Charleston blue butterfly, which had just 17 left in the wild at last count; the Ozark hellbender, which is America’s largest amphibian and is severely threatened by water pollution; and the Florida bonneted bat, which has one of the smallest ranges of any bat and faces losing much of its habitat to sea-level rise.