Best of #StateReads: Slow and Underfunded, EPA Program Falls Short in Toxic Site Cleanups

 

This week’s collection of #StateReads explores states’ lax oversight of redevelopment of polluted land, concerns about Tennessee’s handling of child abuse and an athletic facilities “arms race” in Texas.

These examples of extraordinary journalism about state government were recommended in tweets using the #StateReads hashtag on Twitter and in email submissions to dvock@stateline.org.

“Slow and Underfunded, EPA Program Falls Short in Toxic Site Cleanups” —Investigative News Network

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has doled out more than $1.5 billion over the past two decades to help clean up hundreds of thousands of abandoned and often toxic properties known as “brownfields,” but many of the sites remain contaminated, putting public health at risk, reports six nonprofit news organizations in a collaboration organized by the Investigative News Network (@INN). “The shortcomings are due to limited funds, a lack of federal oversight, seemingly endless waits for approvals and dense bureaucratic processes that make it difficult for poor and sparsely populated neighborhoods to compete against larger and middle-class communities that have the means to figure them out,” the network found. Under the program, EPA grants states oversight of the cleanup and some cede it to private contractors, whose progress is rarely monitored. The Connecticut Health Investigative Team, City Limits (@citylimitsorg), Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism (@IowaWatch), the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (@NECIRBU) and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (@WisWatch) collaborated with the network. Most published local stories.

“Jobless feel pain as state cuts staff at unemployment offices” — The Detroit News

The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency answered fewer than 10 percent of the millions of calls made to its service lines last month, leaving the state’s unemployed with hours-long waits, reports Karen Bouffard (@kbouffardDN) of the Detroit News. And in July, it answered just 3.7 percent of the calls, her analysis shows. But conditions will only get worse at the agency, riddled by decades of cuts, as it girds for another round of mass layoffs. On October 1, it will lose 255 full-time employees, whittling the staff to about 800 workers, Bouffard reports.

“TN lax in severe child abuse cases, officials say” — The Tennessean

A county sheriff and a child welfare agency head say that Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services is failing to follow state law in tracking child abuse, according to letters obtained by The Tennessean. The letters allege the agency is misclassifying cases of severe abuse as more minor offenses, missing opportunities to intervene, reports Anita Wadhwani (@anitawadhwani). “There are four or five in our area that we know of and can validate with certainly, but we want to show (Commissioner O’Day) — and we know we can, unfortunately — that it’s a statewide problem,” Jeff Bledsoe, sheriff of Dickson County wrote to the agency. The letters come amid concerns that the department’s $37 million system to track child abuse is unable to perform basic functions. The agency has yet to produce data on child deaths requested more than two months ago, Wadhwani reports.

“State program's open hunting land tough to find” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin taxpayers are paying tens of millions of dollars each year to enjoy the benefits of land that few of them know is public. What’s more, much of the land is nearly impossible to access, reports Raquel Rutledge (RaquelRutledge) of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. More than 1 million acres are enrolled in a state program that doles out property tax breaks to landowners agreeing to practice sustainable forestry while opening their land to the public recreation. Some landowners have gotten breaks as high as 95 percent of their parcels’ value. But the Department of Natural Resources, which runs the program, does little to publicize the program, providing no statewide maps of the available land, Rutledge reports. In some cases, parcels are surrounded by private land, making them nearly impossible to reach without trespassing. State officials don’t track the cost of the program or the value of the land. After reviewing data on more than 31,500 enrolled parcels, Rutledge pegs the land’s worth at nearly $2 billion.

“Texas Schools Borrow to Build Stadiums for Friday Heroes” —Bloomberg

Just before the legislature slashed $5 billion from public education, Texas school districts launched a “five-year facilities arms race” that saw more than 100 football stadiums built, compete with high-price perks, such as video scoreboards, reports Bloomberg’s Kathy Warbelow (@KWarbelow). The Tatum Independent School District, for example, spent $16 million — about $1,000 per student — on athletic facilities, including a new football stadium featuring a three-story press box and a training facility that houses a 70-yard-long practice field. Those projects, like others, were financed by voter-approved bonds. The bonds are often an easy sell to voters, Warbelow reports, and not just because many Texans are football crazy. Proponents in wealthier districts say the bonds provide a way to “keep local money at home,” guarding property tax revenue from a state law requiring it be shared with poorer districts.

 
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