President Joe Biden has granted partial approval of Gov. Chris Sununu’s request for a major disaster declaration for storms that hit the Monadnock Region starting July 29.
In a Sept. 20 letter to Biden, Sununu asked for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance Program for Cheshire and Sullivan counties, and a statewide designation of eligibility for Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding. The storms, which moved across southwestern New Hampshire from July 29 to Aug. 2, resulted in more than $3 million in damage in Cheshire and Sullivan counties verified by FEMA, but the total cost is expected to be “significantly” higher, Sununu wrote.
In a news release Monday afternoon, Sununu said Biden had approved a disaster declaration for the July 29 and 30 storms but not for the storms on Aug. 1 and 2. The latter were primarily responsible for damage affecting the N.H. Department of Transportation and the N.H. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, including to state roads, culverts and bridges, according to the release.
The N.H. Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management plans to appeal the president’s decision on the early August storms, the release says.
The DNCR reported that six bridges had been damaged in the storm, one of which was washed away, according to Sununu’s letter. Three culverts were also damaged, and a collective 3,000 feet of trail was washed out or eroded, he wrote.
The DOT reported that four bridges, 37 state roads and 12 culverts were damaged in the storms. The department reported $152,127 in costs verified by FEMA but estimated the total damage costs to be over $3 million, according to Sununu’s letter.
The damaged infrastructure reported by the DOT and DNCR is state-owned, according to Fallon Reed, chief of the Preparedness, Mitigation and Recovery Section under the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The division plans to argue that the flooding that occurred Aug. 1 and 2 would not have been as severe if it hadn’t been for the July 29 and 30 storms, and the storms should be considered as tied events, she said Tuesday morning.
In a joint statement issued Monday evening, U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., along with Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas, noted the importance of including the early August storms in the disaster declaration.
“This relief is a lifeline that will help our local governments restore damaged infrastructure and reimburse state agencies that provided costly assistance on the frontlines of the storms,” the statement reads. “We’ll continue urging the Biden administration to approve New Hampshire’s full request of funding through August, ensuring our municipalities have the resources they need to recover and become more resilient.”
FEMA’s Public Assistance Program provides supplemental financial support to states, municipalities and certain nonprofits on a cost-sharing basis, with the federal share typically being no less than 75 percent, according to Vanessa Palange, spokeswoman for the division.
Once the division has an idea of the total funds to be given from the Public Assistance Program, an additional 15 percent of that sum will go to the state for hazard-mitigation projects, Reed previously told The Sentinel.
Last Thursday, Sununu’s office announced that Biden had approved a disaster declaration for an earlier July storm, which will allow eligible communities in Cheshire County to apply for funds from the Public Assistance Program, as well as eligible towns statewide to apply for funds from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
The state will contact communities to set up briefings for the storms that started July 17 and July 29, according to the release.
Keene State College will continue campus-wide COVID-19 testing at least through October as school officials continue to monitor infection rates on campus and in surrounding communities.
“We will re-evaluate in mid-October to see if appropriate changes could be made for November,” Mary Beth “MB” Lufkin, the college’s vice president for enrollment and student engagement, said in a recent email. “We continue to be focused on trends.”
When students began returning to campus in late August, Keene State officials said the college would conduct weekly mass testing through September. Beyond that, school leaders said the frequency of this surveillance testing would depend on data such as coronavirus case rates at the college and throughout the region.
Keene State monitors “a slate of metrics daily,” Lufkin said, specifically new cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days for Cheshire County, the number of active COVID-19 cases in Keene and the number of new cases per week among Keene State students and employees.
“These three metrics are the top three that determine whether or not we make adjustments,” Lufkin said. “We have also put more of an emphasis on our wastewater epidemiology project which detects COVID levels in the wastewater and has proven to be a useful tool over the past year.”
As of Monday, 44 students and two employees had tested positive for COVID-19 since students started returning to Keene in late August, according to Keene State’s online COVID-19 dashboard, which is updated each Monday. For the first time this school year, no students tested positive last week, while one employee did.
The new academic year began during the continued surge of COVID-19 cases nationally and locally, driven by the more contagious delta variant. Infection rates in Cheshire County remain significantly higher than this summer, and Cheshire Medical Center in Keene has seen an influx of COVID-19 patients in recent weeks. Like all of New Hampshire’s 10 counties, Cheshire is currently experiencing substantial community transmission, the highest of three levels, according to the state health department.
Keene State reported seven coronavirus cases during student arrival, and case rates climbed in each of the next three weeks, hitting a peak of 16 cases the week of Sept. 13 through 19. New infections have dropped off since then, with four the following week and one last week.
The college has roughly 3,100 students and 630 employees, and has conducted 21,245 coronavirus tests so far this academic year for a total positivity rate of 0.22 percent.
Anyone who tests positive for the novel coronavirus at Keene State is contacted by the school’s Rapid Response Team, which provides instructions for isolating. Vaccinated individuals identified as close contacts of people who test positive are not required to quarantine but do need to be tested for the coronavirus three to five days after exposure. Unvaccinated people identified as close contacts must quarantine for 10 days.
Due to a new state law, the college, along with the rest of New Hampshire’s public university system, is not requiring a COVID-19 vaccine this fall. But, Keene State is encouraging all students and staff to get the shot and consider sharing proof of vaccination with the school’s Wellness Center through a confidential online portal.
As of this week, 78 percent of faculty and staff and 65 percent of students have provided proof of vaccination, Lufkin said.
Moving forward, Keene State officials will continue to evaluate public health data daily, but Lufkin said conversations about potential changes to the college’s COVID-19 protocols likely won’t happen more frequently than every two weeks.
As of Monday, the college is operating under a mix of “orange and yellow” conditions, the middle two tiers of a four-tiered COVID-19 response plan. Measures that remain in place include a mask mandate indoors and for groups of more than 10 people outdoors; a cap on indoor gatherings at 67 percent of the venue’s capacity; and an outdoor event limit of 350 people.
“In addition to a mask requirement, social distancing, and limits on gatherings,” Lufkin said, “the College continues to take a layered approach to protect against this pandemic.”
Recommendations out of a legislative study committee amount to doing away with the Site Evaluation Committee — a group that’s handled permitting for siting energy projects in the state for decades. But there’s disagreement about when is the right time for such a significant change and whether a massive overhaul is the correct way forward.
The SEC is tasked with weighing the environmental impact of an energy project against the state’s energy needs, collecting public input and hearing from those who would be affected, and ultimately determining whether a project can move forward.
In recent years, the SEC has been criticized for saying no, such as when it denied the contentious Northern Pass power project in 2019. The project would have run power lines from Canada south through the North Country and into central New Hampshire.
The roots of the SEC date back to 1971, an era of major energy project proposals such as the Seabrook nuclear station. But it was in 1990, according to former SEC chair Tom Getz, when the review process for private developers and public utilities were combined into one. The committee is considered a one-stop shop for developers that streamlines the permitting process and could have a big role to play soon, given the Biden administration’s goals and funding for clean energy.
But a legislative study committee this year said the process is inefficient and ineffective, which is why some lawmakers are keen on getting rid of it. Not everyone is so sure that’s the right approach.
“I understand that at times, the process is lengthy, but again, is that a reason to scrap the whole system or is that a reason to sort of look at the process and make some more fine-tuned adjustments rather than tossing everything out?” said Jim O’Brien, director of external affairs for the Nature Conservancy.
“My chief concern is I’m not entirely sure that the process of the Site Evaluation Committee is broken,” O’Brien said. “The study committee, they go to the assumption that the committee and the process is broken so therefore we need a wholesale change.”
O’Brien worked to address some of the SEC’s issues during a similar revision in 2015. At that time, the number of committee members was reduced from 15 to nine. The current study committee wants to lower that number further. Several department heads remain on the SEC, which makes scheduling difficult, and some lawmakers don’t think they even need — or want — to be involved.
“The agency heads don’t want to be here,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican, who served on this year’s study committee. At least one agency head, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services, agreed.
Two issues tackled in the last revision persist: a lack of staff and funding. Those are tricky problems to solve because the nature of the SEC’s work is erratic and because New Hampshire has been loath to pay for the work from the general fund. In some years there are no applications, but when there are they can be time consuming, pulling employees from other duties without a clear mechanism for payment. An application fee was added, and an administrator position was created. The position is currently vacant.
The five-person study committee that met this year looked at those issues and came up with short-term and long-term solutions. In the short term, the structure of the SEC would remain, but in the long term they favored scrapping it.
“During these meetings, the committee determined that the current statutory structure for energy facility siting in New Hampshire under RSA 162-H is not working,” says the committee’s final report issued on Oct. 1. RSA 162-H is the statute that addresses the Site Evaluation Committee. The report notes that more study may be needed before the overhaul they describe can be implemented.
Rep. Michael Harrington, a Strafford Republican, has pushed the idea of getting rid of the SEC and moving those responsibilities to the newly formed Department of Energy, with the adjudicative part of the process taking place in the Public Utilities Commission.
But Department of Energy staff attorney David Shulock pushed back at a committee meeting on Sept. 28, saying the department currently doesn’t have the staff or the funding to take on the review, investigation, and enforcement of the state’s energy projects.
“There’s no staff to do this work that you’re talking about,” he said.
Other committee members argued now is the time to act, given recent government reorganization related to energy. Both the study committee and the newly created Department of Energy were initiatives that came out of last year’s budget bill.
“I think the time to do this is now because we have a new Department of Energy,” Giuda said. “While that is still forming, the iron is hot.”
At the Sept. 28 meeting, Giuda said he would sponsor legislation to do away with the SEC by moving it to the Public Utilities Commission, but by Friday the iron had cooled and Giuda backtracked, concerned that if the more significant structural change failed this session it would be harder to pass in the future.
“In some measure it kind of looks like they’re building the ship as they’re sailing it,” said Jim Monahan, a lobbyist and executive director of the Dupont Group. Monahan wasn’t opposed to the proposals the panel put forward but said he would advocate for taking more time to study the broader structural changes.
Kelly Buchanan, the director of regulatory affairs at Clean Energy New Hampshire, said the funding issues the report identifies are “particularly of interest to us.”
She said timing would be key when it comes to any major structural changes.
“Is the timing right for the Department of Energy to take this on? Probably not immediately, but of course we would need legislation and that will take time and allow the Department of Energy to get their feet underneath them in terms of the reorganization and be a little more established and staffed up before they would be tasked with something so large and so new,” she said.
The Senate can file proposed legislation starting on Oct. 13. The deadline for the House has already passed.
House Bill 624 is the other vehicle for changes to the SEC, a bill that was retained in the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee last session. That bill would fix at least one of the problems the study committee identified — lowering the filing fee to contest a decision made by the SEC’s administrator from $10,500 to $250.
But for now, it seems the study committee will push off the bigger changes it hopes to see to yet another study committee, a process that would have to be introduced as legislation and likely wouldn’t be able to get underway until June or July. Committee members were dissatisfied with that solution late last week, as they worried it wouldn’t allow enough time for the next study committee to iron out the details of the sweeping change they envision.This story originally appeared in the N.H. Bulletin.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Monday criticized Republicans for not voting to raise the debt ceiling, accusing them of being “reckless and dangerous” in a way that could harm the economy.
“Not only are Republicans refusing to do their job, they’re threatening to use [the filibuster] to prevent us from doing our job — saving the economy from a catastrophic event,” Biden said during a speech at the White House.
The Democratic-controlled House last week passed legislation that temporarily suspends the debt ceiling. Senate Republicans, however, have said they will not vote to approve such a measure. Biden said the Republicans’ stance is “hypocritical, dangerous and disgraceful.”
“Especially as we’re clawing our way out of this pandemic,” Biden said.
“We’re not expecting Republicans to do their part,” Biden said. “We tried asking to no avail. We’re just asking to not use [the filibuster] to block us from doing the job they won’t do.”
Republicans argue that if Democrats want to govern alone — such as by trying to enact Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan through a legislative process that prohibits a GOP filibuster — they will have to raise the debt limit on their own.
“Republicans’ position is simple. We have no list of demands,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote to Biden on Monday. “For two and a half months, we have simply warned that since your party wishes to govern alone, it must handle the debt limit alone as well.”
That stance overlooks the fact that raising the debt limit merely allows the federal government to continue to cover debt it has already undertaken, not future spending.
The United States has never defaulted on its debts, even amid heightened partisan squabbling.
Senate Republicans have insisted that Democrats have enough votes to raise the ceiling through reconciliation, a filibuster-proof process that requires a simple majority in Senate. If all Democrats and two independents back such a bill, Vice President Kamala Harris can break the tie and put the bill on Biden’s desk.
But Biden warned that reconciliation is “fraught with all kinds of potential danger for a miscalculation. It’s an incredibly complicated, cumbersome process.”
The process allows for two sets of unlimited amendment votes. The minority party typically uses the “vote-a-rama” to box the majority party into taking politically perilous votes.
Republicans “need to stop playing Russian roulette with the U.S. economy,” Biden said. “Let us vote and end the mess.”
Once the Treasury Department runs out of cash, payments to government workers, including military personnel, veterans and Social Security recipients would likely be delayed. A default would also affect taxpayers.
“Savings in your pocketbook could be directly impacted by this Republican stunt,” Biden said.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen previously said the department would run out of “emergency measures” to pay the nation’s debts on Oct. 18. The limit on federal borrowing is currently $28.4 trillion.
A U.S. default would not only upend global markets but also imperil America’s economy, likely causing unemployment rates to jump to 9 percent, experts have warned. Even waiting to the last minute to raise the limit “can cause serious harm to business and consumer confidence, raise borrowing costs for taxpayers, and negatively impact the credit rating of the United States for years to come,” Yellen wrote last week in a letter to congressional leaders.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on Monday told Democrats that a measure addressing debt limit must be on Biden’s desk by the end of this week.