Category Archives: environment

Legislature raises fees for county audits, sets up historic preservation funds

Legislation raising fees that counties pay for audits by the comptroller’s office and diverting new revenue from the state’s real estate transfer tax to historic preservation funds has won almost unanimous approval by the Legislature.

State law requires annual audits of county governments and In 89 of the state’s 95 counties, the comptroller does the auditing. Under current law, those counties pay a fee based on population — 30 cents per resident.

Under SB2654, the fee will be increase to 36 cents per resident starting next year with the comptroller granted authority to raise the cost another 3 cents per resident in each of the following years. The Republican sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville and House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent of Franklin, said the extra money is needed to cover increased costs — and if the future increases are not necessary, they won’t be implemented.

The Fiscal Review Committee estimated the cost to the counties would be about $230,000 next year. Six of the state’s most populous counties, including Knox, hired their own auditors and do not rely on the comptroller.

Another provision of the bill creates two new uses for money collected from the state’s real estate transfer tax —— purchase of Civil War sites and purchase of historic properties. The Fiscal Review staff estimates that the two funds will split about $1 million next year as a result of the bill’s enactment.

Currently, funds from the tax are earmarked for four other funds — one for wetlands acquisition, one for state park land acquisition, one for local park acquisition and the Agricultural Resources Conservation Fund. Under the bill, those accounts will be frozen at their current levels of annual funding and all growth money will go to the new funds.

The bill passed the Senate 31-1 and was approved 92-1 in the House. The no votes came from Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston.

Massive Memphis sewage spill contaminates lake, kills fish

A massive spill of raw sewage from a ruptured line in Southwest Memphis has produced a “large and growing” fish kill in McKellar Lake, reports the Commercial Appeal.

The number of fish that have died is unknown but could reach into the thousands, said Kelly Brockman, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. The fish kill resulted from a damaged Memphis sewer line that is spewing up to 50 million gallons of waste daily into Cypress Creek, which empties into the lake near the Mitsubishi Electric manufacturing plant on Paul R. Lowry Road.

State and local officials have posted signs giving notice that water in the area may be contaminated and people should avoid contact with it. City officials on Monday also closed the boat ramp at Riverside Park Marina until further notice. The ramp provides access to McKellar, which is not truly a lake but a slack water harbor off the Mississippi River.

The rupture occurred Thursday after heavy rains eroded the ground beneath the sewer line, which carries sewage to the T.E. Maxson South Treatment Plant. City officials said Monday that public works crews are working around the clock to construct a bypass to halt the spill and should have one completed on Wednesday.

In the meantime, the wastewater is depleting the oxygen in the lake, causing fish to die.

“There is a fish kill,” Brockman said. “It’s large and growing.”

EPA drops pollution complaint against Rep. Holt

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has dropped a complaint seeking $177,500 in fines from a state lawmaker for discharging waste from his northwestern Tennessee hog farm without a permit.

The EPA withdrew the filing against Rep. Andy Holt after the Dresden Republican agreed to an order of consent on the closure of two lagoons on his property. The agency reserved the right to refile the complaint if Holt fails to comply with the order.

Holt called the resolution of the dispute an “interesting process,” and thanked supporters for standing by his family.

According to the August complaint, Holt’s farm discharged a total of more than 860,000 gallons from lagoons on the farm raising nearly 1,500 swine without proper authorization. Holt said he self-reported the overflow after heavy rainfall.

Note: Rep. Holt’s press release on the matter is below. Continue reading

TDEC, environmentalists oppose bill revising stormwater rules

Despite opposition from Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, a bill to change state rules on regulating stormwater drainage has won Senate approval and appears poised for House passage as well.

The bill (SB1830) is being pushed by the Home Builders Association of Tennessee. It would effectively loosen the rules for issuance of water quality permits to developers and is sponsored by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Curtis Halford, R-Dyer, and Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Steve Southerland, R-Morristown. Basically, it declares that state standards on stormwater runoff can be no stricter than federal standards.

A key effect would be elimination of the so-called “1-inch rule” that’s now in effect across the state, mandating that the permit applicant assure that up to 1 inch of rainfall be absorbed within the development property without any runoff.

Current state standards are based on a 2010 Environmental Protection Agency rule that has since been changed, at least in part thanks to action by homebuilders at the national level, according to Robert Martineau, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
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House Repubs blow up rock quarry blasting bill

House Republicans on Tuesday dealt a fatal blow to Nashville lawmakers trying to block a quarry from blasting near the Old Hickory Dam, shattering the measure on a voice vote and leaving little hope other attempts will be any more successful once they pick up the pieces.

Further from Andrea Zelinski:

“God help us,” Nashville Rep. Bill Beck said, walking out of the committee room after the vote.

“I have three other bills that would address the situation in different ways, and we’re going to put them on notice. Unfortunately, they’re in front of the same committee,” Beck told Post Politics, “And this committee is not friendly to preserving the welfare and the safety of the people of Nashville, which is absolutely a crime in my estimation.”

The legislation was a tough sell from the beginning. Not only has the legislature been known to unravel Nashville-area policies it believed hampered business in the past, but the legislation sought to convince Republican supermajorities in both chambers to go against a major tenet of their party by telling a private company what it can’t do on its own property.

Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Senate Republican who represents much of Davidson County’s outer edge, said he is willing to take up a fight akin to a hobbit slaying Smaug the Dragon. Losing could mean risking a “catastrophic event” should blasting at the quarry jeopardize the integrity of a dam sitting on compacted wet sand 600 feet away and cause an estimated $2 billion in damage should it parallel the devastating Nashville flood of 2010.

Enforcement of TN water pollution rules declining?

An environmental group is questioning why the Haslam administration’s water quality enforcement against polluters appears to be disappearing down a drain, reports the Times-Free Press.

The Tennessee Clean Water Network said its study shows water quality enforcement orders by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation against water polluters dropped from 219 in 2007 to just 15 during 2015.

That’s a 93 percent drop the group warned. And it impacts protection of state waterways “that are the source of drinking water for millions of Tennesseans.”

…TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau said the environmental group is looking solely at penalties collected as enforcement action.

“There’s an array of what we take as enforcement actions, from the reading of the report they send in with what your discharge levels, to inspections, to all the way up to what we call formal enforcement actions that are orders or civil judicial actions,” he said. “Those are all tools in the tool box.

“If we do an inspection and identify a problem and within a few days the source comes back into compliance, that’s our goal, it’s compliance,” the commissioner said. “Enforcement actions usually mean that somebody hasn’t, after reasonable efforts to try to comply, they just haven’t gotten their facilities corrected, then we take a more formal action with what they call enforcement action.”

Asked if critics might call that regulation light, Martineau said, “Again, it’s a matter of perspective. We get a lot of people telling us that every time we issue a penalty we’re over-enforcing and we’re putting people out of business. Our goal is compliance.”

He said the state’s compliance rates “are extremely high, higher than they’ve ever been.”

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Senate votes to end emission testing of new cars

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The state Senate has overwhelmingly approved a bill to end emissions testing in Tennessee for new cars, brushing aside concerns of pursuing more lax standards in light of the Volkswagen scandal.

The chamber voted 29-3 on Thursday in favor of the measure to exempt cars less than 3 years old from the testing requirements.

Volkswagen was forced to admit last year that about 600,000 vehicles — including 90,000 sedans made at the automaker’s Chattanooga plant — were sold with illegal software designed to trick government emissions tests.

Republican Sen. Ron Gardenhire of Chattanooga noted that Tennessee emissions testing wasn’t able to catch the offending Volkswagens.

The companion bill still has to clear the state House, and the change would also have to be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

State sues Chevron

Attorney General Herbert Slatery is suing Chevron and its subsidiaries for a “prolonged and costly scheme” to take more than $18 million from a state fund used to cleanup spills of oil and gas, reports The Tennessean.

The fund reimburses tank owners for expenses during spill cleanups, but is intended as a last-resort fund for owners who cannot afford the costs. Owners with private insurance must first seek cleanup costs from their insurance companies.

The lawsuit alleges the companies used taxpayer funds to pay for leaks and spills at more than 100 Tennessee gas stations — despite having private insurance that paid for the cleanup costs.

The lawsuit filed in Davidson County Chancery Court also accuses Chevron and its subsidiaries of filing falsified paperwork for millions of dollars to pay for leaks at storage tanks that occurred before the cleanup fund was operating.

In its applications for cleanup costs, the company “misled” the state and continued to “misrepresent the insurance status of the facilities,” the lawsuit said.

The state is seeking more than $18 million in funds to be returned as well as penalties ranging between $2,500 and $10,000 for each false claim filed.

The fund has paid out more than $370 million to hundreds of tank owners across the state since it was created in 1988…. (T)he company is seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming in some instances Chevron and its subsidiaries had sought state funds to make up the difference in their cleanup costs from the “pennies-on-the-dollar” claim payouts from their insurers.

Transfer of Morgan County land to TWRA protested

Morgan County Executive Don Edwards is opposing the planned transfer of 1,753 acres of land adjoining Catoosa Wildlife Management area from private ownership to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources
Agency, complaining the rural county already has too much tax-exempt property, reports the News Sentinel.

More than one of every five acres in Morgan County is already controlled by entities that don’t pay property taxes and it’s time to draw the line, he said. But the State Building Commission has already approved the transfer – a further irritation to Edwards.

“When the state is going to take land off the tax rolls, you’d think they’d notify county officials,” he said. “I would have been there, objecting to the deal.”

Two tracts of property owned by Betty Jane McCartt and Gener M. McCartt, on the property assessor’s books at a value totaling more than $3.2 million, are sought by TWRA.

The property is next to Catoosa and the Lone Mountain State Forest, and TWRA told the Building Commission the land purchase “will allow for conservation of wildlife and other recreation for the public.”

Edwards has a starkly different view. “There’s really no good reason why they (TWRA) wants it other than it’s next to their property and they can add to their dynastic holdings in Morgan County.”

“They want all the property they can get their hands on,” he said.
Morgan County “is a very rural county which lacks economic opportunity for its citizens,” Edwards wrote in a letter to Gov. Bill Haslam protesting the intended purchase. He said the land purchase by the state would “take another $7,000 away in property tax revenues from Morgan County tax payers which they will have to make up with an increase in their property tax rate.”

TWRA Executive Director Ed Carter last month responded to Edwards’ concerns and his letter to the governor, saying in a letter to the county executive that the McCartts “have indicated a clear desire to proceed with selling their property to the state.”

Carter’s missive states that the “McCartt family tried to sell their land on the open market for several years to no avail.”… The planned sale, at 75 percent of the land’s fair market value, “will alleviate their (the McCartts’) growing inheritance tax burden,” Carter wrote. He said TWRA can buy the property “entirely with federal Wildlife Restoration dollars.”

Slatery won’t sue EPA; GOP legislators unhappy

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery opted not to join in a legal challenge to the new carbon restrictions on power plants being pushed in 27 other states, reports the Times-Free Press.

Slatery’s decision comes despite complaints from GOP lawmakers opposed to the new EPA rules. Attorneys general in 27 other states, including most of Tennessee’s neighhbors, have joined a lawsuit against the rules.

…Harlow Sumerford, communications director for the Tennessee Attorney General, said concerns about EPA’s initial carbon control regulations “have been alleviated in the final rule” by allowing TVA to count its new Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor toward its carbon reduction targets and by extending the enforcement date for the new rules by another couple of years.

“We will continue to monitor the situation, as well as consult with impacted parties,” Sumerford said, but Slatery decided against joining the lawsuit by Tuesday’s filing deadline for such challenges.

That decision has upset many of the 59 legislators who signed a letter in August asking Slatery to join the lawsuit against EPA.

State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who authored the letter, said Tuesday she is “very disappointed” that Tennessee “is not doing the right thing” by challenging what she calls “junk science.”

…State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, called the EPA rules “an overreach of the federal government” and urged Slatery to reconsider and join the fight against the new rules to avoid higher power rates for businesses and consumers.

The lawmakers also said they wish that Tennessee’s Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau had not flown to Paris this month for the United Nations climate change conference. His trip was paid for by the Climate Action Reserve and not state taxpayers, according to TDEC spokeswoman Kelly Brockman.

“He still shouldn’t have gone and participated in an international event where we committed to a plan that will make power rates more costly,” Bowling said.

But Myers said TVA expects annual rate increases of only a fraction of what critics claim. He said TVA rates should rise about 1.5 percent a year in the next decade, comparable to what it has raised rates for the past couple of years since Bill Johnson took over as TVA’s CEO.