State News: Groups React to Repeal of Obama-Era Water Rule

On Sept. 12, the Trump administration repealed an Obama-era rule that had expanded protections for waters and wetlands across the country. Business groups hailed the move as a win for property rights and state authority while environmentalists say the decision threatens drinking water for millions of Americans.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the repeal provides greater regulatory certainty for farmers, landowners and developers, as well as clarity on waters that fall under the federal government’s jurisdiction. The agencies will implement regulations in place prior to the 2015 rule that expanded the definition of “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.

Wisconsin environmental groups and state officials said the move represented a significant rollback in water protections, ignoring science and posing a threat to the state’s most vulnerable waters. The repeal threatens roughly 20 percent of streams across the country and more than half the nation’s wetlands.

“Unfortunately, I feel that when we’re all done, we’re going to have something that can only be described as a partially Clean Water Act at best because we simply will not have the protections that are needed to make sure that we have fishable, drinkable, swimmable waters,” said Todd Ambs, assistant deputy secretary with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

DNR Secretary Preston Cole wrote in an April 15 letter to the EPA that the proposed changes could eliminate protections for much of the state’s more than 5 million acres of wetlands.

Unpaid Medical Bills Continue to Rise

The number of unpaid medical bills continues to rise at Wisconsin hospitals, but it remained steady nationwide in 2018.

Uncompensated care – a combination of medical bad debt and charity care – rose 7.6 percent in 2018 compared to the previous year, according to an annual report compiled by the Wisconsin Hospital Association. Bad debt refers to debt a patient cannot or will not pay, whereas charity care is when hospitals offer care at no cost to patients who fit certain criteria.

In 2018, there was a total of $1.2 billion in uncompensated care at 150 Wisconsin hospitals. Hospitals nationwide had $38.4 billion in unpaid bills – the same as the previous year. Unpaid medical bills dipped after the Affordable Care Act went into effect, but they have continued to push upward in recent years.

Patients generally have higher out-of-pocket costs for health insurance, including older residents with Medicare, which doesn’t pay as much as commercial insurance. There’s also been a drop in the number of people using the marketplace to buy private insurance on the federal exchange.

DeVos Stumps for $5 Billion School-Choice Plan 

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spent Monday morning in Milwaukee stumping for a $5 billion federal tax credit that would fund scholarships to private schools. She spoke at St. Marcus Lutheran School, which serves 900 predominantly African American students in the city’s Brewers Hill neighborhood.

DeVos, who has been a longtime proponent of private schools and alternatives to traditional public schools, called the legislation – known as Education Freedom Scholarships – the “most transformative idea for education in decades.”

The proposed legislation would allow states to opt in to a program that provides individual and corporate donors dollar-for-dollar tax credits for contributing to scholarship programs that help families pay for private-school tuition and other expenses.

DeVos painted a grim picture of the country’s current education system, saying public school students can’t pass military entrance exams.

“The United States ranks 24th in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math in the world. Think about it. These statistics have very real consequences for our future,” DeVos said.

“The expansion statewide of school choice has been a great success and has become part of the fabric of the state, and as a result of that, we will continue to move forward,” said state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau).

Scientists Close to Finding Crashed Meteorite

At the bottom of Lake Michigan, somewhere between Manitowoc and Sheboygan, lies a 600-pound meteorite that made headlines in the state when it lit up the skies, was captured on dash cams and cell phone cameras, then crashed into Lake Michigan on Feb. 6, 2017, about 10 miles from shore. Settling in 200 feet below the surface, finding the meteorite is no simple feat.

Meteorites are basically iron, so a group of scientists and teenaged volunteers from Chicago’s Adler Planetarium built a magnetic sled that skids along the bottom of Lake Michigan to detect iron. What they didn’t anticipate was that that particular stretch of lake bottom isn’t smooth and sandy – it’s a layer of magnetic sediment.

A couple of years and many trips to the bottom of the lake later, Chris Bresky, teen-program coordinator at the Adler Planetarium, can’t officially confirm that they’ve found pieces of the meteorite, but they have promising candidates that they’ll be analyzing shortly.

As for why finding the meteorite is so important, Bresky said every meteorite has a story that can help reveal the history of the solar system.

“What’s even more exciting about this one is that because so much video recording was made of it, our astronomer over at the Adler Planetarium … was able to track its path back out into its original orbit in the main asteroid belt,” he said. 

“So [if] we find a piece of this meteorite, we find a puzzle piece of the makeup of our solar system. [Fewer] than 30 meteors in the history of astronomy have that much data,” he continued. “So this is pretty, pretty exciting.”

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