Saturday, March 05, 2011

States can't reveal drug costs because federal law makes them secret; governor blames drug lobby

When Montana journalists asked Gov. Brian Schweitzer, right, to reveal the prices the state pays for drugs in government health care programs, he said he wanted to tell them, but had to refuse because federal law keeps the information secret. Congress is "bought and paid for" by drug makers, said Schweitzer, a conservative Democrat with a maverick streak. "Congress has created a system so that even the states, which buy tens of millions of dollars worth of these drugs, have no idea what we pay on a per-unit basis."

"Actually, Schweitzer does know what the state pays — but, before acquiring the information last summer, had to have his chief counsel sign a written agreement not to disclose it publicly," Mike Dennison of the Billings Gazette reports. "Schweitzer said the drug industry wants to keep secret the rebates it gives to states buying drugs for public programs, because it doesn't want regular retail customers to know how much more they're paying for drugs."

Schweitzer obtained the information last summer when he was trying to compare what the federal-state Medicaid program for the poor and disabled was paying for drugs compared to the cost in Canada. Montana news outlets argued that the state open-records law requires him to release "documents in his possession that list public money paid out or received by the state," Dennison reports. But the governor's chief legal counsel "said federal law bars disclosure of the information requested by the news organizations, and that federal law pre-empts Montana's open-records laws."

Also, "Magellan Medicaid Services, the Virginia-based contractor that negotiates additional drug rebates for the state Medicaid program, also claimed that the rebate information is a trade secret protected from public disclosure," Dennison reports. MMS, which works for several states, said revealing the information would hamper its ability to compete with other companies doing the work." It seems to us that if all such information from all states were released, that wouldn't be a problem.

Right-to-hunt laws piling up, absent any threat

The list of states that make hunting and fishing a constitutional right seems likely to keep growing, as the Kentucky legislature put an amendment on the 2012 ballot yesterday. A similar measure in Indiana, which would also protect farming, seems headed for passage in the Hoosier State, where a sedcond legislative endorsement would be required for a referendum.

"Thirteen states already have enshrined hunting and fishing rights into their constitutions, most with provisions that allow lawmakers to impose restrictions such as requiring licenses," reports Lesley Stedman Weidenbener of The Courier-Journal, noting that the only voters to reject the idea have been in Arizona, presumably influenced by many retirees and former Californians.

"The amendments have passed despite arguments from critics that they are not only unnecessary but meaningless," the Louisville newspaper reports. Even some supporters have acknowledged there is no direct threat now to hunting and fishing," but note increasing pressure from animal-rights groups. The Indiana measure would guarantee the right to “engage in the agricultural or commercial production of meat, fish, or poultry.”

In Kentucky, legislators say the measure "would prevent animal-rights groups from challenging state-authorized hunts . . . to manage the wildlife population," John Cheves and Jack Brammer report for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Other sponsors said the measure reflects bipartisan concern in Frankfort following President Barack Obama’s health care reform law and what some people see as overreaching by the federal government. The right to hunt and fish might be targeted by the federal government in the future, they said." (Read more) And we suspect the support of the National Rifle Association has something to do with it, too.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Budget cuts turn more states to online education

Online education, which can be an effective tool for leveling the playing field for rural schools, is catching on across the country. "A combination of higher proficiency standards and tighter budgets are prompting school officials to look more closely than ever at online education," David Harrison of reports. Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, told him, "Budgets are being cut. We can’t do more with less by continuing to do the same thing we’ve always done."

Just two states do not offer online courses. In most schools online courses are blended with in-school classes, "but 27 states allow students to attend virtual schools full-time," Harrison writes. "Online courses allow students to work at their own pace, with advanced students moving through the curriculum quickly while others might get more of the attention they need from teachers." Online education allows poor rural districts to still offer advanced classes without having to recruit specialized teachers. "The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, has embraced online learning, provided it’s taught by licensed and trained teachers and as long as it doesn’t completely replace in-school teaching," Harrison writes.

State-run virtual education programs enrolled roughly 450,000 students last year up from 40 percent the year before, the online learning group reports. Florida and North Carolina lead the way; Florida enrolled 220,000 online students, while North Carolina has the fastest growing program, now reaching 80,000, Harrison reports. (Read more)

Some regulators fear farmland price boom could be a bubble, mirroring the housing crisis

Average price of farmland in Iowa,
adjusted for inflation and unadjusted
(click on image for larger version)
Is the recent boom in farmland prices a bubble waiting to burst, as it did 30 years ago? "As prices for agricultural land surge across America’s grain belt, regulators are warning that a new real-estate bubble may be forming — echoing the frothy boom in home prices that saw values in Miami and Las Vegas skyrocket and then plummet," William Neuman of The New York Times reports. Farmland prices have seen double-digit percentage increases over the last year in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota and Nebraska. (NYT graphic)

"Just a few years ago, farmers marveled as land prices began to rise in response to demand for corn to make ethanol," Neuman writes. "More recently, soaring prices for wheat, corn, soybeans and other crops have driven the increase." When adjusted for inflation agriculture grain prices are close to reaching their peak in the late 1970s before the last farm land boom-and-bust cycle. "History has taught us that it is nearly impossible to determine how much of the farmland boom may be an unsustainable bubble driven by financial markets," said Thomas M. Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee last month.

The bank warns that rising interest rates combined with a drop in crop prices could drop farmland values by a third to a half, Neuman writes. "It’s very hard to guess what a property will sell for these days because it seems like it’s been changing on a weekly basis," said Mike Green, an auctioneer. The rapid rise in farmland prices led the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to send a letter to lenders in December "warning them to not let high farm land values lull them into lax lending practices," Neuman writes. Despite the fears, some like Michael D. Duffy, an agriculture economist at Iowa State University, don't think a bubble is emerging. "If you’ve got good ground, it’s worth a lot of money," he said. (Read more)

North Carolina's ambition to become U.S. truffle capital encounters many obstacles

In a perfect world, the emerging North Carolina truffle industry would be able to help replace the hole left in the state's economy by the decline of tobacco, but the industry has encountered a plethora of problems. The black Perigold truffle can bring in $800 a pound, but the 80 orchards that make up the North Carolina sector of the industry produced less than 50 pounds during the last harvest, Kim Severson of The New York Times reports. (NYT photo by Travis Dove)

If the industry ever took hold in North Carolina the payoff could be huge. "Truffle orchards could help replace tobacco as a crop and preserve farmland," Severson writes. "Cooks who embrace local food could stop looking to Europe for their truffle fix." One acre of trees cultivated to grow black Preigold truffles can produce around 75 pounds of the crop. "Even at a wholesale price of about $600 a pound, a truffle farmer could earn $45,000 an acre," Severson writes.

Setting up a truffle orchard is anything but quick and easy. A sapling whose roots have been inoculated with truffle spores and costs around $20 can take five to 10 years to actually produce a truffle. Weather and disease also complicated the process. "The market is essentially like a Wild West operation, populated with cagey truffle hunters and savvy brokers who set the prices each season," Severson writes.

Other efforts to establish a truffle industry are underway in other states including California, Oregon and Tennessee, but soil conditions and moderate climate have led some to hope North Carolina could be the country's leader. For now the state's food community remain skeptical. Says Nancie McDermott, a Chapel Hill cookbook author and teacher: "Yeah, and we’ve learned to spin straw into gold, too." (Read more)

Is pork inspirational? Pork producers now say so

In June we reported the pork industry would change its "Other White Meat" brand, and now it has a new slogan: "Pork, Be Inspired." The phrase "will be seen in print, broadcast and internet advertising and promotion and beginning Tuesday," Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register reports. The National Pork Board will replace "The Other White Meat" sign at its headquarters in favor of the new slogan, though the old one "will still be prominent on the Board’s consumer web site and in nutrition communication," Tom Steever of Brownfield Network reports. Per capita consumption of pork has declined from about 80 pounds per year in 1960 to 58 pounds in 2010. (Pork Board ad)

"The Pork Producers decided last year to scrap the old slogan after surveys showed that 'the other white meat' had accomplished its purpose of positioning pork as a rival to poultry as a lower-fat alternative to beef," Piller writes. The new campaign will be accompanied with nontraditional recipes for pork, said Ceci Snyder, vice president of marketing for the Pork Board. "Our research shows that pork’s top consumers are looking for more than basic education; they’re looking for inspiration," Snyder told Piller. "With its great taste and versatility, pork is the ideal catalyst to inspire great meals."

Urban paper does series on historical farms

In a good example of rural coverage by a smaller newspaper in a tri-state metropolitan area, an Eastern Kentucky daily is publishing a series of local farm profiles. Carrie Stambaugh, writing for The Independent of Ashland, most recently profiled the Meadows family, right, of Oldtown, Ky. Stambaugh recounts the history of the Meadows' farm, which dates back to 1911, before examining the current operation.

“I had a good childhood right here on this ground," Mildred Meadows Claxon, 84, told Stambaugh. "I never had to move. I was born here, raised here. I went to school about a mile up the road. Never had to move like other kids did." Grandson Jared Stephens, who owns the farm with his wife, has adapted the family's history into two novels, which he hopes will help preserve a simpler way of life he fears is disappearing from the U.S. "There are still people who appreciate the importance of a simple life," he told Stambaugh. (Read more)

You can see the entire farm series via Stambaugh's personal website here.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Almost all nursing homes have employees with criminal past, estimated at 5% of total staff

Does your state require background checks for nursing-home employees? All of them? A new federal report says 92 percent of nursing homes employ someone with a criminal record, and "About 5 percent of nursing home workers—or one out of every 20—had at least one conviction, according to the report, which took a random sample of 260 nursing homes certified by Medicare and ran FBI background checks on their workers," writes Marian Wang of ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news agency.

Most states require such facilities to check the backgrounds of applicants for employment, but the standards vary. The lack of national standards allows people convicted in one state to work in another—a more significant factor in states that border several other states and have population centers on the borders.

“The current system of background checks is haphazard, inconsistent and full of gaping holes in many states,” Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, told The New York Times. “Predators can easily evade detection during the hiring process, securing jobs that allow them to assault, abuse and steal from defenseless elders.”

Let's observe Sunshine Week March 13-19

It's time to plan your observance of Sunshine Week, the annual event that reminds Americans of the virtue of open government, citizen access and oversight, and journalists' role in keeping citizens informed about their governments. Today we saw a new way to make readers, listeners and viewers remember it.

"It may be just a coincidence but the combination is apropos: Sunshine Week begins Sunday, March 13, the same day that Daylight Saving Time returns," the Arkansas Publishers Association notes in its latest Arkansas Publisher Weekly. Perhaps Sunshine Week could be promoted in conjunction with the annual reminder to move clocks forward.

Sunshine Week has coincided with the start of DST since a change in the federal time law a few years ago. The week has been built around national Freedom of Information Day, March 16, the birthday of James Madison, our fourth president and author of the First Amendment.

Promotional materials for Sunshine Week are donwnloadable at They include logos, editorial cartoons, other graphics and op-ed pieces on freedom of information and open government.

Education, Agriculture Depts. say USDA Rural Development can help schools with projects

Rural school officials looking for alternative sources of financial support in the face of budget cuts should consult the Rural Development agencies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the secretaries of education and agricuture said this week.

"The Obama Administration is doing more to guide high-need rural school leaders to federal resources that some are not aware exist outside of education," the Department of Education said on its blog Tuesday. "USDA Rural Development can help with school construction, renovation, teacher housing, home loan assistance for teachers and administrators, distance learning and broadband technology, and even a school bus replacement grant for a community facility."

More details are available in transcripts of conference calls the two departments have had with rural school leaders, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders. Links to the transcripts are included in the blog item.

Illinois school plan targets 500 districts; report calls state-directed consolidations ineffective

A plan from the Illinois governor that would eliminate around 500 of the state's 868 school districts through consolidation has the support of the state's top education official. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's office says "the state could save $100 million by reducing administrative redundancies," Andrew Thomason of Illinois Statehouse News reports. In a recent interview with the Illinois Farm Bureau Radio Network state Superintendent of Education Chris Koch voiced support for consolidations, noting "In this climate, over the past few years I've seen more and more inquires about consolidation. And certainly it's an important conversation to have. Our board, this summer and August had, during their retreat, a considerable look at consolidation."

Consolidation has been a decision made on the local level in Illinois, but Quinn's plan calls for legislating consolidations. Koch said "having the state direct school districts to do this might avoid a situation where residents agree with the concept, but don't want it in their community," Thomason writes. Koch added "I've had many local superintendents approaching in my four years in this job and say ‘you know we really need to do this but we can't do it here, you've got to push it from the top." One of Democratic State Rep. Linda Chapa's concerns that she says points to a need for consolidation is that 274 superintendents reportedly make more money than the governor. (Read more)

While the goal of Quinn's plan is to save the state government money, a new report from the National Education Policy Center found that while state-level consolidation proposals "may serve a public relations purpose in times of crisis, they are unlikely to be a reliable way to obtain substantive fiscal or educational improvement." School-district consolidation over the past century has obtained most of the added efficiency possibly from the process, the report concludes, noting many districts are now too large and may need to be de-consolidated. The report concludes "any consolidation or deconsolidation should be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis," the anti-consolidation Rural School and Community Trust reports. (Read more)

Indiana judge orders news outlets to help identify anonymous commenters for libel plaintiff

An Indianapolis judge has ruled for the first time in Indiana that media outlets can be forced to reveal the identity of anonymous online commenters, though the state has a shield law to protect news-media sources. Marion Superior Court Judge S.K. Reid's ruiling came in a lawsuit by the former chief executive of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana against The Indianapolis Star, the Indianapolis Business Journal and WRTV, Jeff Swiatek of the Star reports. Miller is looking to "broaden the list of defendants in his case to include people who criticized him anonymously last year on websites" run by the newspapers and the TV station, Swiatek writes.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether websites can be forced to identify online commenters, but the Miller case "is among a growing number of defamation claims nationally that target anonymous Internet posters," Swiatek writes. "We are seeing more and more defamation lawsuits being filed, that's clear. ... If this happens, then people will be less likely to comment" on public issues, said David Hudson, a First Amendment scholar at the First Amendment Center, affiliated with Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

The judge ruled the Star and Business Journal must turn over identifying information, which typically includes the commenter's Internet protocol address and service provider, who can be subpoenaed for the identifying information. The plaintiff's attorney said the Business Journal has already turned over the identifying information, but Star Editor and Vice President Dennis Ryerson said "We now are reviewing our legal options." The judge is expected to decide next week whether WRTV has to turn over similar information.

While still not revealing the identity of anonymous commenters on the Star website, Swiatek did note the identities of three of the commenters on the Business Journal website who have been added as defendants in the lawsuit. "This is not an assault on the shield law," plaintiff's attorney Kevin Betz said. "In fact, it is well within the bounds of the traditional terms of the shield law. I don't think the media should be interested . . . in protecting the identities of cyberbullies." (Read more)

Oil could be next arena for fracking coverage

Hydraulic fracturing in natural-gas drilling has received much attention lately, and oil drilling can present many of the same issues. "As fracking for gas has proven successful from an industry perspective, companies extracting oil are jumping on the fracking bandwagon," the Society of Environmental Journalists reports in its Tip Sheet. "Their method is very similar to that used for natural gas, and therefore may pose some of the same health and environmental risks." Oil fracking is already occurring in California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming.

Oil fracking "likely will continue to expand considerably in volume and location in the near future," SEJ reports. "Some experts are saying it could reduce U.S. oil imports by half within a decade." Initial results from the Environmental Protection Agency's ongoing study of oil and gas fracking is to be completed in 2014. SEJ has provided a number of resources for reporting on fracking, including EPA's website about the method, an industry perspective from the American Petroleum Institute and several examples of existing media coverage about the issue. (Read more)

Biotech food foe says organic-farm rules don't do enough to limit genetically modified crops

Organic farming advocates were among the most ardent opponents to recent U.S. Department of Agriculture approvals of genetically modified crops, and now some say the key to preventing similar decisions in the future may be a narrow definitions of organic farming. For now, potential cross-pollination from g-m crops is not considered in the organic farming standards, Dan Charles of National Public Radio reports on "All Things Considered." If an organic farmer "plants non-[genetically modified] seed and uses organic methods, the harvest is organic, even if a few stray genes blew in," Charles writes.

Some anti-biotech activists like Ronnie Cummins, from the Organic Consumers Association, argue that organic farmers must move past simple compliance with organic regulations, in order to limit g-m contamination. "If you're not willing to sue the person who pollutes the organic crop and really undermines organic integrity, then we're not going to stand up for you," Cummins told Charles. "You've got to do the right thing." Most U.S. corn, which Charles calls one of the "most promiscuous cross-pollinators," is genetically modified, meaning that most organic corn in the U.S. typically contains anywhere from half a percent to 2 percent g-m organisms.

Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center, told Charles the anti-GMO campaign could result in a loss of trust from consumers in organic food. "It would be a shame for the momentum behind the growth in the organic livestock industry to be siphoned off or diverted because of one-tenth of 1 percent contamination in a source of animal feed," he said. Benbrook claims the only way to eat food with absolutely no GMO contamination is to import food from Europe, which is "hardly a welcome solution for people who see in the organic food industry the best hope for positive change and innovation in the U.S. food system." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Congress cuts some education programs in legislation to keep government operating

The stopgap spending bill that Congress passed today to keep the federal government running includes cuts in several education programs that benefit rural areas.

"The bill would scrap all funding for the rest of the year for the $250 million Striving Readers program, the $66 million Even Start program, and other literacy programs," Alyson Klein reports for Education Week. "The administration had wanted to see those programs consolidated into a new, broader, $383 million funding stream aimed at improving literacy. Now it appears there may be a lot less available money for that effort."

Klein adds: "The measure would also get rid of all funding for the rest of the year for the $88 million Smaller Learning Communities program, which was slated to be funneled into a broader program aimed at improving educational options. And it would scrap the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships, or LEAP, program, financed at $64 million." (Read more)

Even if 'rural' gets a better definition, USDA Rural Development programs seem likely to be cut

Rural development may be among the prime targets of federal spending cuts, since the benefits of those programs are not always immediately evident. That view may be short-sighted, and the difficulty of defining "rural" makes those decisions even more difficult, writes Timothy Collins, assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. Collins, who recently testified before a House Agriculture Subcommittee about defining "rural," writes for the Daily Yonder: "In a dynamic global economy with multi-faceted domestic, urban relationships, the meaning of 'rural' is truly problematic, especially on the so-called rural-urban fringe."

Because of rural development's inclusion in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's broader mandate, rural has often been used synonymously with agriculture. When USDA took on rural development tasks outside agriculture, "better definitions were needed to take into account the mixed rural-urban functions of smaller cities and towns, since these are the economic, social and cultural anchors for wider, less-densely populated regions," Collins writes. USDA's county rural/urban codes are useful for research and adding context, but "contemporary conditions demand a broader regional approach that might include only parts of counties," Collins writes.

Micropolitan statistical areas, which are removed from larger metropolitan areas but have at least one urban cluster with a population between 10,000 and 50,000, have become the key to rural development, Collins writes. Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute, says micropolitan areas could provide keys for new rural regional-development strategies, including federal support for localized food systems and specialized economic clusters, and Collins argues they could be hubs of green energy production and educational outreach. In a perfect world those regions would be used to enhance rural development under current funding levels, but "unfortunately, given the budget-slashing mood and current farm politics, rural development is ripe for cutting because its constituency is scattered and because its benefits come in the longer, not the shorter term," Collins writes. (Read more)

In Eastern Kentucky, two marginal coalfield counties are planning to establish an "agricultural industrial park" that would be home to "a USDA-approved meat processing plant" that would start with 30 to 35 employees with an expansion to 150-300, reports The Licking Valley Courier of West Liberty. The project is being helped with $425,000 in coal severance taxes. (Courier is not online)

Recycling wastewater from hydraulic fracturing presents its own set of challenges

Natural-gas drilling companies began recycling wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations after facing mounting criticism as the process became more prevalent over the last decade, but recycling hasn't alleviated many of the industry's problems. The "win-win" that drilling companies say results from waste water recycling "comes with significant asterisks," Ian Urbina of The New York Times reports as part of a series about fracking. "In Pennsylvania, for example, natural-gas companies recycled less than half of the wastewater they produced during the 18 months that ended in December, according to state records."

Even recycled water may not eliminate all the environmental risks associated with fracking, Urbina writes. "Some methods can leave behind salts or sludge highly concentrated with radioactive material and other contaminants that can be dangerous to people and aquatic life if they get into waterways," he reports. Some well operators sell their wastewater to communities who spread it on roads for melting ice during the winter and controlling dust during the summer. In Pennsylvania "such waste remains exempt from federal and state oversight, even when turned into salts and spread on roads," Urbina writes.

"No one wants to admit it, but at some point, even with reuse of this water, you have to confront the disposal question," Brent Halldorson, chief operating officer of Aqua-Pure/Fountain Quail Water Management, told Urbina. Halldorson added that he believes in the benefits wastewater recycling brings, including reducing waste produced by fracking, reducing water used and facilitating the shift to cleaner natural gas as a electricity source, but "there still needs to be a candid discussion, and there needs to be accountability about where even the recycled wastewater is going." (Read more)

Webinar to focus on help for failing rural schools

Successful strategies for turning around failing rural schools will be the subject of a March 16 webinar hosted by the Rural School and Community Trust. Presenters at the event will include select i3 grantees that claimed a rural competitive preference and received matching grant support from RSCT. The webinar will be held March 16 at 2 p.m. EDT and be hosted by RSCT Executive Director Doris Terry Williams.

"Panelists will focus on the opportunities, obstacles, and challenges they face in transforming rural education," RSCT advises, encouraging current and aspiring rural educators, community-based activists, policy analysts, faith-based organizations and education advocates for underserved and rural children to register for the free webinar. You can register for the event here.

Wendell Berry getting National Humanities Medal

Author, poet, farmer, environmentalist and rural icon Wendell Berry is among the 19 Americans being honored for their work in the arts and humanities at a White House ceremony today. Berry, who lives in Henry County, Kentucky, and has written more than 40 books, will receive the National Humanities Medal. Berry was among Kentucky environmentalists who staged a sit-in at the Kentucky governor's office last month to protest mountaintop-removal coal mining. (James Crisp photo for The Courier-Journal of Berry looking out a door of the Capitol during the sit-in) Berry has "spent his career exploring our relationship with the land and community," the White House said in a news release.

Other National Humanities Award honorees include National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates and Pulitzer Prize winners Philip Roth and Gordon Wood. Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and Meryl Streep, an academy award winning actress, are among the recipients of the National Medal of Arts. Berry is expected to attend the White House ceremony, which will be streamed online here, at 1:45 p.m. (Read more)

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

GAO report highlights overlaps, could lead to budget cuts; food and nutrition among them

A new report from the Government Accountability Office highlights a plethora of overlapping government programs that cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars yearly, including 15 programs that oversee food-safety laws. The GAO report "compiles a list of redundant and potentially ineffective federal programs, and it could serve as a template for lawmakers in both parties as they move to cut federal spending and consolidate programs to reduce the deficit," Damain Paletta of The Wall Street Journal reports.

The report examines spending by numerous agencies, including the Department of Agriculture. It says lawmakers should create a single food-safety agency, noting USDA "is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products," while the Food and Drug Administration makes chicken eggs are "safe, wholesome and properly labeled." USDA and FDA spokespeople pointed to the Obama administration's creation of the Food Safety Working Group as one strategy for better coordinating government regulators.

Also on the food front, the report notes 18 federal programs, which combined to spend $62.5 billion in 2008, are tasked with administering food and nutrition assistance, but "little is known about the effectiveness of 11 of these programs because they haven't been well studied," Paletta writes.

In other areas, "The agency found 82 federal programs to improve teacher quality; 80 to help disadvantaged people with transportation; 47 for job training and employment; and 56 to help people understand finances," Paletta writes. (Read more)

Feds won't list wild plains bison as threatened

Wild bison do not deserve Endangered Species Act protection, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The announcement came following the conclusion of the agency's 90-day review of a petition by private citizens James and Natalie Bailey to list the wild plains bison as threatened, Environmental News Service reports. "Based on our review," said FWS, "We find that the petition does not present substantial information indicating that listing may be warranted." (Photo by Jim Patton)

Wild plains bison are estimated to number 20,500 in 62 conservation herds, and the herds' recent population trends appear to be stable or slightly increasing, FWS says. "In 2010, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity sued the service for failing to respond to the petition to list the bison and other petitions to list dozens of species as threatened or endangered under the Act," ENS reports. Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the center, called the decision not to list bison as threatened a "complete farce."

Greenwald said the agency had chosen to look only at the species' current range and ignore the fact that wild plains bison are almost completely absent from their historic range. "The Fish and Wildlife Service has turned a blind eye to the tremendous loss of our iconic bison from the North American landscape," he said. "This see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach is entirely inconsistent with the broad purposes of the Endangered Species Act, and we will certainly challenge this absurd finding." About 500 bison are being held captive at Yellowstone National Park to prevent them from entering Montana, where brucellosis, a disease that causes elk, cattle and bison to prematurely abort their young, is prevalent. (Read more)

Proposed power line across Appalachia is in limbo

American Electric Power announced Monday it will withdraw applications for approval for the massive Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline, which we have reported on previously here. Construction of the line could raise rates not only for customers in the three states it would cross, but also in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and North Carolina.

The announcement came after PJM Interconnection, a private agency that runs the region's electric grid, recommended that AEP and its partner, FirstEnergy, "suspend efforts" on the project because of the slow economic recovery, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. (Black line on map shows proposed route; sorry for low resolution)
PJM's president said its action "does not, at this time, constitute a directive by PJM to the sponsoring transmission owners to cancel or abandon the PATH project," and said the grid operator would do a "more rigorous analysis." In early January the West Virginia Public Service Commission delayed hearings about the West Virginia portion of the project until October. Michael G. Morris, CEO of AEP, said "We remain convinced that the project will be needed and plan to move forward with it when PJM completes its review." (Read more)

Walla Walla newspaper tackles spike in suicides

In January, Walla Walla County, Washington, recorded five suicides, as many as in all of 2010. Coroner Richard Greenwood and Deputy Allison Barnett were new to the office "and had no idea what could be done to stop the number from climbing higher," Sheila Hagar of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin reports as part of the newspaper's package on the local suicide outbreak. Greenwood began organizing roundtable discussions with area professionals, county officials and clergy. (MapQuest image)

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ranks Washington about average the in number of suicides per capita, but Walla Walla County Public Health Department Administrator Harvey Crowder notes the county's rate is 50 percent higher than the rest of the state. Barnett said she was wary about several things when taking the deputy coroner job, but she was "had no idea suicide would be one of them." She explained, "I was blindsided — totally unprepared for it. And we’ve been slammed with it."

Public perception may be that suicides are most prevalent among teenagers, but the recent ones in Walla Walla have been "all over the board. Different ages, different socioeconomics, different methods, different education," said Patty Courson, director of the county’s emergency medical services. In a phenomenon that likely affects many rural areas, local therapist Richard Garcia says part of the problem in rural Washington may be a lack of access to mental health services. (Read more)

You can read the entire Union-Bulletin suicide package here. As part of the package the newspaper explained the ethical concerns in reporting about suicides, noting it usually only reports suicides when they occur in public or the person was a public figure. "Our objective has been -- and always will be -- to keep the public informed," Union-Bulletin editor Rick Doyle writes. "But we also try to do it in a way that does as little additional harm to the survivors as possible." (Read more)

Strongest earthquake to-date in Arkansas swarm recorded; drillers stop doing injection wells

Last month we reported residents of Guy, Ark., suspect that a recent swarm of earthquakes was related to natural-gas drilling in the area. On Sunday the strongest earthquake in Arkansas recorded since 1976 hit the region, centered on nearby Greenbrier, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports. No serious damage was recorded after the quake, but some people did report broken windows and cracks in plaster walls. More than 4,100 people reported on the U.S. Geological Survey's website that they felt the quake. (Read more)

The Arkansas quake swarm "has garnered national attention because of its possible connection to natural-gas drilling operations in the area," Campbell Robertson of The New York Times reports. "Researchers with the Arkansas Geological Survey have pointed out spatial and temporal relationships between the earthquakes and the use of injection wells, which are used to dispose of the wastewater left over from gas drilling." No scientific link has been established between the quakes and hydraulic fracturing used in drilling to open up gas and oil deposits.

The Arkansas Oil and Gas Association has halted drilling of new injection wells until the connection is better understood, but injection wells that were drilled prior to the moratorium are still being used. While similar swarms have occurred in the region in the past, "there is also a growing body of research suggesting that injections wells can induce earthquakes, and there is some circumstantial evidence that this might be happening in Arkansas," Robertson writes. (Read more)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Security boss for mine where 29 died is indicted

The security chief for the Massey Energy coal mine where 29 workers died last April has been indicted on charges of lying to federal agents and ordering an employee to destroy records of the mine nine months after it exploded. The indictment of Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, was issued last week and unsealed today, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

"The indictment is the first in the mine disaster investigation," notes National Public Radio's Howard Berkes, who has done much reporting on it. "The indictment says the documents were recovered." Stover supervised security at several Massey mines.

Massey said it "takes this matter very seriously and is committed to cooperating with the U.S. attorney’s office. Indeed, the company notified the U.S. attorney’s office within hours of learning that documents had been disposed of and took immediate steps to recover documents and turn them over to the U.S. attorney’s office."

Sherrod: Killing racism can revive rural U.S.

Shirley Sherrod, who lost her job in the U.S. Department of Agriculture after she was falsely accused of racial discrimination, "believes the key to reviving rural America lies in moving past the racism that has plagued the South and was the cause of her own USDA ouster," Mike Mueller of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis reports after hearing Sherrod speak at Metropolitan Baptist Church in the city.

"We have gotten to the point that poverty is the issue. We have got to work with other racial groups, other ethnic groups to make our communities better," said Sherrod, who grew up in rural Baker County, Georgia. "We need to deal a deathblow to racism. We can do a better job working together than we can trying to fight each other." (Read more)

DEA cuts funding for meth-lab cleanup

Local law enforcement agencies' attempts to curb methamphetamine production have taken a hit with the Drug Enforcement Administration's announcement that it was cutting funding for cleanup of meth labs. "According to records, $10 million was transferred to the DEA for meth-related spending nationally in fiscal year 2010," DeWayne Patterson of The Daily Sentinel in Scottsboro, Ala., reports. "The funding was not included in President Barack Obama's recommended 2011 budget."

"Right now, all we can do is the best we can," said Jackson County Sheriff Chuck Phillips. Scottsboro Police Lt. Scott Matthews told Patterson the average meth lab costs $2,500 to clean up. Previously when a meth-related arrest was made, local law enforcement called the DEA to clean up the lab, Matthew said. "I'm not sure what the plan is now," he told Patterson. "I don't know."

The loss in funding will affect every law-enforcement agency in the country, said Jackson County District Attorney Charlie Rhodes. "Right now, we don't have the answers to what we will do," he told Patterson. DEA reports every pound of meth produced can yield up to five pounds of toxic waste, Patterson writes. "We can't just leave it," Rhodes said. "It's very dangerous." (Read more)

Fracking documents show radioactive pollution that sewage and water plants can't handle

A review of documents obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency, Pennsylvania regulators and natural-gas drilling companies show the dangers of hydraulic fracturing are greater than previously understood, The New York Times reports. "The wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle," Ian Urbina writes. Other documents show some EPA scientists worry that fracking wastewater is a threat to drinking water.

Those concerns are partially based on a 2009 study by an EPA consultant that was never released to the public but found "some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law," Urbina writes. The newspaper also discovered never-reported studies from EPA and another from an industry group that all concluded "radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways," Urbina writes. Still federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants to accept drilling waste without testing for radioactivity, which is found naturally in many shales. For a diagram showing how fracking works, from Pro Publica, click here.

"Most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008," Urbina writes. Fracking, which uses millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals to release natural gas from dense shale formations, is the bright spot in domestic energy production. However, some experts fear that adequate safety precautions are being sacrificed to reduce dependence on foreign sources. "We’re burning the furniture to heat the house," John H. Quigley, who left last month as secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, told Urbina. "In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste." (Read more) (NYT graphic showing well sites, water plants and amount of radioactivity over the federal limit found in wastewater from 149 Pennsylvania wells; click on map for larger version, here for online interacvtive map)

Local school officials in Wisc. question savings from scaling back teachers' collective bargaining

The national debate over collective-bargaining rights started by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker may have begun on a flawed argument. "As massive demonstrations played out in Madison—an estimated 70,000 protesters came to the state Capitol one day this week—local school officials were questioning one of the core arguments behind the governor’s proposal: that it will help cash-strapped districts financially in the years ahead," Sean Cavanagh of Education Week reports. Some Wisconsin school district officials also worry that limiting collective bargaining to pay issues, ruling out working conditions, would ruin relationships between teachers and districts that have so far been relatively harmonious.

"We’ve never supported stripping all bargaining rights," said Miles Turner, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. "This goes way too far." Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker "predicted that without making changes to public workers’ pensions, health insurance, and negotiating rights, state and local governments would have to lay off thousands of workers, including teachers," Cavanagh writes. Several officials representing school boards agreed pension and health care costs would go down under the governor's proposal, but overall savings, particularly ones resulting from changes to collective bargaining, are difficult predict.

Those officials say the cumulative amount of savings from the proposal "would almost certainly be insufficient to make up for anticipated cuts in state funding," Cavanagh writes. Dan Rossmiller, the director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards said, "We don’t know how deep the state-aid cuts will be, but we think they’ll be deeper than we can make up" through the proposal. Turner added that overcoming potential losses in state funding "is going to be nearly impossible . . . without layoffs." (Read more)

In lawsuit against Cheaspeake Bay cleanup plan, Farm Bureau has other regions in mind

The Chesapeake Bay region has rarely attracted much interest from the nation's largest farm group, but now the American Farm Bureau Federation is suing to block the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to limit pollution runoff into the bay. The lawsuit argues the "bay's cleanup is the responsibility of the six states in the region and that the EPA does not have the authority to establish a "pollution diet" that will cost taxpayers and farmers billions of dollars by the time it is fully implemented in 2025," Darryl Fears of The Washington Post reports. In January we reported Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman claimed the regulations would "ruin agriculture in the region" and "become a model for similar environmental restrictions nationally."

"The farm lobby has made it clear it sees the cleanup effort as a harbinger of more far-reaching EPA requirements across the country, including in the Mississippi River basin, where chemical runoff from industrial farms is swept to the Gulf of Mexico," Fears writes. Farm Bureau also alleges EPA's science behind the decision is flawed and the agency did not allow adequate time for public comment about the proposal. An EPA spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit but told Fears "restoring the bay to health will help local economies and encourage recreational activities."

"Environmentalists are concerned that the Farm Bureau is focusing on the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay watershed because of its broader interests in the Midwest," Fears writes. Don Carr, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, sees the lawsuit as a warning to stay away from the Mississippi River Basin and giant farms around it. "I agree that this is motivated by the national Farm Bureau's issues elsewhere," Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., told Fears. "The Chesapeake Bay just happens to be the place where [regulations] are being implemented now." (Read more)

USDA sets hearings on conservation policies

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking public input on natural-resource conservation policy issues six regional meetings around the country, starting this Thursday. The goal of the meetings, which are administered by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, is "is to improve delivery of conservation services to landowners and communities, and expand participation in conservation programs," reports the Farm Foundation, which is collaborating with NRCS and the American Farmland Trust to complete the project. Here is the schedule:
  • March 3 -- Augustana College -- Rock Island, Ill.
  • March 10 -- Colorado State University -- Fort Collins, Colo.
  • March 10 -- State University of New York -- Cobleskill, N. Y.
  • March 15 -- Arizona State University -- Mesa, Ariz.
  • March 18 -- Portland State University -- Portland, Ore.
  • March 22 -- 4-H Center -- Columbiana, Ala.
There is no cost to attend the meetings, but registration is required. You can register by clicking on the meeting you wish to attend here.