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Nation roundup for March 8

Ukraine doesn’t keep Obama from vacation

MIAMI (AP) — The crisis in Crimea won’t keep President Barack Obama from forging ahead with a weekend getaway with his wife and daughters in the Florida Keys.

But it’s more than the Oval Office that will be dark as Russia’s incursion into Ukraine reaches its one week mark. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife are vacationing in the Virgin Islands. And national security adviser Susan Rice is traveling in the Middle East for meetings with her counterparts.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said “there’s always a chance” Obama could cut a trip short and return to D.C., but this weekend’s vacation appeared solid.

“The fact of the matter is what the president’s doing this weekend in Florida is essentially what the president would be doing if he stayed back at the White House,” Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama. The president, he said, was looking forward to “getting a little bit of down time in the warm weather with his wife and daughters.”

Obama’s vacation at a private club on one of the islands off Florida’s southern tip was tacked onto an afternoon visit by the president and his wife, Michelle, to a Miami high school to announce new Education Department initiatives to help more students complete the paperwork needed to qualify for federal financial aid or student loans.

Obama and Biden’s decision to continue with their weekend vacation plans appeared to be an indication that the White House did not expect any quick resolution to the dispute in Ukraine.

Obama is checking his family into the Ocean Reef Club, a private, by-invitation-only membership club that is more of a gated, self-contained community sprawled across 2,500 acres on the northern edge of Key Largo. The property has two championship golf courses. There’s also a swimming lagoon, tennis courts, a spa and fitness center, a private airport, shopping and more than a dozen restaurants.

Kansas school funding ruled unconstitutional

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas must spend more money on its public schools, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday in a decision that could jeopardize Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s desire to make his state a tax-cutting template for the nation.

The high court’s ruling that Kansas’ amount of school funding was unconstitutional fell in line with past decisions that strongly and specifically told lawmakers how much they had to allocate to provide adequate education for every child.

But the court stopped short of telling legislators exactly how much to spend, giving that responsibility to a lower court. Kansas legislators had delayed any decisions on school funding this session until the high court made a final judgment.

The case also has broader implications beyond the classroom: Kansas enacted sweeping cuts to income taxes in 2012 and 2013 championed by Brownback that have reduced the amount of available resources to comply with a court order on education funding.

Lawmakers could be forced to reconsider the income tax measures — pushed as a means to stimulate the economy and estimated to be worth nearly $3.9 billion over the next five years.

Other Republican-run states have looked at such cuts, including this year in Oklahoma and Missouri.

Brownback, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and legislative leaders scheduled a Friday afternoon news conference to discuss the ruling.

“This is a complex decision that requires thoughtful review,” Brownback said in a statement. “I will work with leadership in the Kansas Senate and House to determine a path forward that honors our tradition of providing a quality education to every child and that keeps our schools open, our teachers teaching and our students learning.”

Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat, said they were reviewing the ruling.

The decision reaffirms a promise “that all students share equally in the benefits of a quality public education,” said Wade Henderson of the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, saw Friday’s ruling as a victory because the justices rejected the state’s arguments that the funding issue was political, to be determined by the Legislature and governor.

He predicted that after the next round of lower-court hearings, the outcome will mirror what happened previously: An order for the state to increase its total annual spending on schools by at least $440 million.

“I see that we have to go around the block again,” he said.

A state Department of Education official estimates legislators must increase funding by $129 million, in addition to the more than $3 billion the state has budgeted for the 2014-2015 school year.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to district court for more review to “promptly” determine what the adequate amount of funding should be, but didn’t set a deadline for a hearing. It did, however, set a July 1 deadline for legislators to restore money for two funds aimed at helping poorer districts with capital improvements and general school operations.

Kansas cut its annual base aid to schools by $386 million over several years as tax revenues declined during the Great Recession, although it did cover some rising costs, such as teacher pensions.

A lawsuit was filed in 2010 on behalf of four school districts and parents, claiming Kansas reneged on promises made in 2006 to provide a certain level of funding for public schools. The suit also said students were harmed because spending cuts resulted in lower test scores and affected programs aimed at helping poor and minority students.

In recent years, school districts have trimmed their staffs, cut after-school programs and raised fees for parents. Classrooms became more crowded.

State attorneys had said legislators did the best they could to maintain education spending among the reduced available revenues during the recession, pointing to efforts to raise the state sales tax rate in 2010 and the reliance on federal stimulus funding to keep spending stable.

A three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court said in January 2013 that the lawsuit was valid, and the state appealed that ruling to the high court.

Because no issues involving the U.S. Constitution were raised, there’s no appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

All states have language in their constitutions for providing public school funding. But Kansas’ courts in the past have been strong and specific in spelling out how the state must carry out that responsibility, and education advocates wondered earlier this year whether the push in Kansas to base funding on costs — not political considerations — would continue, perhaps emboldening parents and educators in other states.

Brownback has claimed that Kansas is leading a low-tax, small-government “American renaissance.” Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature suggested before they convened in January that they might resist an order for more spending.

Record fine proposed for coal mining operations

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is proposing a record fine for thousands of water pollution violations by coal mine operators in five Appalachian states.

Alpha Natural Resources Inc., the nation’s third-largest coal supplier, will pay a $27.5 million fine and spend $200 million to reduce illegal toxic discharges from 79 mines and 25 coal processing facilities in West Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky.

The deal, which marks the largest fine ever for violations of water pollution limits, was filed in federal court Wednesday. It comes after a series of coal-related spills in West Virginia and North Carolina have raised questions about whether state and federal environmental officials are doing enough to curb water pollution from companies mining, processing, transporting and burning coal.

Advocacy groups said that environmental officials should do more to prevent pollution from entering waterways.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency and Justice Department characterized the deal as historic and said the fine was large enough to deter others in the coal industry from flouting the law.

But advocacy groups said state and federal authorities needed to do more to prevent the pollution from occurring in the first place. Environmental groups have filed lawsuits in several states to enforce the law in situations where they have felt the state and federal government have fallen short. In West Virginia, lawmakers and the governor have tried to thwart those efforts with legislation.

The government says that between 2006 and 2013, Alpha Natural Resources Inc. and dozens of subsidiaries violated water pollution limits in state-issued permits more than 6,000 times. They discharged heavy metals and other contaminants harmful to fish and other wildlife from nearly 800 outfall pipes directly into rivers, streams and tributaries, according to the government. There is no evidence that any of the violations contaminated drinking water, EPA officials said.

Monitoring records attached to the complaint show that in some cases, the releases exceeded permit limits by as much as 35 times.

Under the agreement, the mine operators will install wastewater treatment systems and take other measures aimed at reducing discharges from 79 active coal mines and 25 coal-processing plants in those five states.

Bristol, Va.-based Alpha estimates those steps will cost about $200 million.

Gene Kitts, Alpha’s vice president for environmental affairs, said the company, which has 700 state water permits and 5,000 different discharge points, is in compliance with the Clean Water Act 99.8 percent of the time, but says “our goal is to do even better.”

Half of the $27.5 the fine will go to the federal government; the other half will be divided among West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, D-W.Va., said his share of the fine — $8.9 million — will be spent on stricter enforcement of the laws at the state level.

The settlement with Alpha covers a different source of water pollution from coal — from mines and from the processing plants where the coal is prepared for shipping.

Before Wednesday’s settlement, Alpha already was hurting financially, but the company said the civil penalty would not result in any layoffs. Last year, Alpha lost $1.1 billion on total revenues of $4.9 billion.

The company acquired Massey Energy in 2011, and more than half of the violations covered by the new settlement stemmed from that company’s operations. Massey was fined $20 million in 2008 by the federal government for similar violations of water pollution laws.

For the Obama administration, the settlement is likely to generate more criticism from the coal industry, their lobbyists and supporters in Congress. They have said that this administration is going after coal with new regulations aimed at reducing mercury and other toxic air pollutants from power plant smokestacks, as well as the first-ever proposal to reduce carbon from yet-to-be-built coal-fired power plants.

Senators: Quicker action needed on safety rules

WASHINGTON (AP) — Government regulators are taking too long to write new rail safety regulations in light of recent fiery oil train accidents and a deadly commuter train derailment, senators complained Thursday.

Railroads are also taking too long to implement safety improvements Congress ordered under legislation passed seven years ago, lawmakers said at a hearing before the Senate’s surface transportation panel.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the panel’s chairman, said he is “disappointed and disturbed by some of the delays and failures in rulemaking and scrutiny.”

“One of the things we’re going to do here is impose accountability,” he said.

Cynthia Quarterman, head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, said her agency is working as fast as possible to draft new standards for tank cars used to transport crude oil. She said it takes time to address the more than 100,000 public comments the agency has received, as well as fulfill other requirements of the federal rulemaking process.

The cars, known as DOT-111s, were involved in explosions and fires following derailments of oil trains near Casselton, N.D., in December and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border, in July. Forty-seven people were killed in Lac-Megantic and much of the town center destroyed. The North Dakota accident occurred a half mile from Casselton, causing the evacuation of more than 2,000 people.

U.S. freight railroads transported about 415,000 carloads of crude in 2013, up from just 9,500 in 2008, according to government and industry figures. The increase is overwhelmingly due to the fracking boom in the Bakken region, which is mainly in North Dakota, but also extends into parts of Montana and Canada.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has urged replacement or retrofitting of the tank cars since 1991, calls the original DOT-111 cars still in use an “unacceptable safety risk.”

In 2011, the Association of American Railroads issued updated DOT-111 standards in response to the safety criticism. Tank car makers have been using those voluntary industry standards since, but accident investigators and government regulators say those standards don’t go far enough, which is why the government is drafting standards now.

Prentiss Searles, testifying for the American Petroleum Institute, said the oil industry hasn’t seen evidence that standards need to be toughened beyond the voluntary industry standards. On the other hand, Edward Hamberger, head of the railroad association, said railroads agree new standards are needed.

“This is shaping up as a regulatory fight here,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

In response to questions from Heitkamp, Searles confirmed that older, less safe DOT-111s aren’t being taken out of use. Rather, the overall number of tank cars in use has increased, so that there are now a mix of cars designed with the old standards and cars that meet the new voluntary standards.

Blumenthal asked Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, why the agency hasn’t required commuter railroads like the Metro-North, which serves the New York metropolitan area, to install cameras inside train cabs and speed limiters that have long been recommended by accident investigators. He noted that several new regulations Congress directed the agency to issue in legislation passed seven years ago have still not been completed.

Congress can demand as many regulations as it wants, but only so many regulations can go through the “pipeline” at one time, Szabo responded.

That same safety law requires freight and commuter railroads to instill new technology aimed at preventing the most deadly types of collisions by Dec. 31, 2015. Freight railroads won’t meet that deadline, Hamberger said, blaming the Federal Communications Commission for time-consuming locating requirements for communications towers necessary to make the technology work.

Most commuter railroads also aren’t expected to meet the deadline.

The technology, known as positive train control, would likely have prevented 24 accidents investigated by the NTSB since 2004, including a Metro-North derailment on Dec. 1 in Bronx, N.Y., in which four people were killed, safety board member Christopher Hart said.


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