Friday, November 04, 2011

Federal strip-mine chief defends effort to draft new 'stream buffer rule' as compliance with law

New regulations to protect Appalachian streams from strip mining would not kill coal jobs as Republicans claim, the head of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining said today at a hearing where he drew heat from GOP critics. (Photo by Paul Corbit Brown)

"This administration continues down this road of job-killing regulatory policies," Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, told OSMRE Director Joe Pizarchik. "It is mind-boggling to me that you can't, number one, admit that and, number two, stop that." Replied Pizarchik, a former top Pennsylvania environmental regulator, "It's not a job-killing rulemaking."

"He added that agency documents leaked earlier this year that showed the rule having a significant economic impact have 'no basis in fact'," Manuel Quinones reports for Environment & Energy News. Those documents "show state regulators' concerns about the preliminary documents prepared by a contractor hired by OSM to develop the rule's environmental impact statement."

Pizarchik said a new "stream buffer rule" is needed to follow the 1977 strip-mine law's ban on "material damage to the hydrological balance outside the permit area" because a rule enacted in the final days of the George W. Bush administration allows coal operators to bury streams. (Read more; subscription required)

As price of gold rises, so does threat to streams

The rising price of gold has revived recreational gold prospecting, but many experts fear prospectors' technology may hurt aquatic life. Some use machines called suction dredges, right, which vacuum gravel, dirt and other particles from riverbeds and streams, resulting in aquatic life being "killed by the machine or smothered in stirred-up sediment," Bruce Henderson of the Charlotte Observer reports. (Observer photo by Robert Lahser)

North Carolina, the nation's top gold producer in the early 1800's, has no commercial gold mines and requires no permits for recreational prospecting, Henderson reports. However, the popularity of suction dredging has many concerned. The Uwharrie National Forest, home to about a dozen old mining sites, banned suction dredging about five years ago and prohibits metal detectors to prevent damage to rare plants or historic sites. LandTrust for Central North Carolina, a group that owns 1,300 acres along the Uwharrie River, fenced its property last year to keep out prospectors. Of more concern to environmentalists is three firms' exploration of historic mining sites in the Slate Belt region, Henderson reports. If they disturb less than one acre no permit is required.

California placed a moratorium on suction dredging in 2009 to protect spawning salmon, Henderson reports.

Rural telecom providers fear shift of subsidies to broadband expansion will hurt their business

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission announced a major revision of the Universal Service Fund that will shift billions from telephone subsidies into a new "Connect America Fund" that will expand broadband services to millions of rural Americans. Large telephone and Internet providers are praising the decision, but many small, rural providers are more cautious. They fear the cut in subsidies they rely on will have have a dramatic impact on their operations.

Ross Boettcher of the Omaha World-Herald reports that the Great Disconnect, a lobby created by the Iowa Telecommunications Company Coalition, says "the changes will undercut their ability to afford investments in their infrastructure and cost their customers more in the long run." The CEO of Western Iowa Networks, a rural telecom provider, told Boettcher the company's revenue comes from three places: customer charges, compensation from other carriers and subsidies from the Universal Service Fund. Rep. Lee Terry, vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, who was key in early plans to change the Universal Service Fund, told Boettcher that changes in the subsidies would hurt rural providers: "We knew USF was going to be flattened, capped and reduced, but what the providers weren't counting on was another third of their revenue stream being phased out." Sheila Navis, executive director of the Rural Iowa Independent Telephone Association, said the burden to pay for broadband infrastructure expansion will fall on consumers.

The FCC hasn't yet released details of rules for the Connect America Fund, but an executive summary released last week reveals the phasing out of inter-carrier compensation fees over five years. Boettcher reports that rural broadband expansion will be opened up to a competitive bidding process, which will keep costs down for consumers and give more incentive to larger companies for expanding broadband services in rural areas. This was likely a result of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's pledge that consumers' bills would fall as hidden fees associated with subsidies evaporated. (Read more)

Grain used for ethanol is going into livestock feed in a bigger way than expected

Used grain from ethanol plants are replacing more corn and soybean meal for livestock and poultry than originally predicted, a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows. (Ethanol Producer Magazine photo)

Since ethanol production only uses the starch of the corn kernel, the remaining fat and fiber in distillers' grains increase by a factor of three compared to unprocessed corn, reports Kris Bevill of Ethanol Producer Magazine. On average one metric ton of distillers' grains can replace about 1.22 metric tons of animal feed. (Read more)

The prior assumption was that ethanol plants generated about one-third of the original corn bushel for every bushel processed, Southeast Farm Press reports. The new report says dry-mill ethanol plants generate on average 2.8 gallons of ethanol and about 17.5 pounds of animal feed for every 56-pound bushel of corn processed. (Read more)

Most states violate law requiring Indian foster kids to be placed within families or tribes

Thirty-two states have failed to abide by a 1978 law that requires Native American foster children to be placed with their relatives or tribes, according to a National Public Radio investigation. This makes the number of Native American children in foster care significantly disproportional to the number in the general population. Click here to see the disproportionality index for different states.

South Dakota Native Americans see nearly 700 children removed annually, many under subjective circumstances, and placed in non-native homes or group homes. The reason, Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters of NPR report, may be money. The state receives thousands of dollars for every child removed, with Native American children sometimes bringing more.

"Critics say foster care in South Dakota has become a powerhouse for private group home providers who bring in millions of dollars in state contracts to care for kids," Sullivan and Walters write. The state's largest foster care provider has close ties with top government officials gaining them millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts. (Read more)

Small farmers provide produce for Occupy movement to raise awareness of their issues

Some Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts farmers have joined in the Occupy Wall Street movement by donating fruits and vegetables to protestors in New York. Originally, farmers made individual deliveries and donations to protestors, but as the number of participating farmers has grown, so has their mission. Now, in addition to providing food to protestors, they are trying to raise awareness of issues affecting small farmers, Jennifer Hus of WNYC Radio reports.

"They all had this related thing: They're small organic farmers competing against big commercial and industrial farmers," Heather Squire, Occupy Wall Street's off-site kitchen coordinator (right) told Hus. "The kitchen became a place for farmers to come together. It represented that place to take their issues to." (Photo by Hus)

The farmers are donating their produce despite their own hardships, but through the creation of a website they are hoping to raise awareness of their efforts and generate financial and other support. (Read more) To view video, click here.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Prescription-drug overdoses twice as likely to be rural; now surpass heroin and cocaine deaths

Only two months after the announcement that drug overdose deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed this week in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that deaths from prescription-drug overdoses now outnumber the combined total of heroin and cocaine overdose deaths.

Eryn Brown of the Los Angeles Times reports that people living in rural areas are twice as likely as people living in cities to overdose on painkillers. In 2008, 20,044 out of 36,450 overdose deaths were caused by prescription drugs, mostly opioid pain relievers like oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone. (Times photo by Lawrence Ho)

Brown reports that sales of the drugs increased with death rates. She writes: "In 2010, 4.8 percent of Americans 12 years or older used opioid pain relievers nonmedically - that is, without a prescription or purely for the feeling the drug causes. The report calculated that by 2010, 'enough opioid pain relievers were sold to medicate every American adult with a typical dose of 5 mg of hydrocodone every four hours one month.'"

The CDC recommended tracking prescription patterns, overdoses and limiting reimbursements to reduce inappropriate prescribing. It also cautioned that a balance between restricting access to prevent abuse and protecting legitimate use of the drugs must be maintained. (Read more)

UPDATE, Nov. 14: Some states track prescriptions of controlled substances by county, and the data can make for good stories and graphics, as the Lexington Herald-Leader showed with this story on Kentucky's prescription-pill epidemic.

Meth production expands as police forces shrink

"One pot" meth labs, in which the drug is cooked in a two-liter pop bottle, are increasing at the same time many police departments across the country are shrinking, reports Ana Campoy of The Wall Street Journal. The method has all but replaced kitchen-size labs because ingredients can easily be attained and mixed almost anywhere, and that makes perpetrators hard to find and stop.

Campoy reports that so much police time is spent trying to stop the manufacturing of meth, other larger illegal drug activity like global cartels, cocaine and heroin are ignored. Police in Tulsa have busted 15 percent more meth-lab busts this year than last year, while the department cut 70 officers. In Vanderburgh County and Evansville, Ind., the meth case load has grown so much, police designated three investigators out of their 20-member narcotics task force to deal with it full-time.

In Christiansburg, Va., This year, the police department is paying $6,000 to meth-lab informants. The DEA gave Christiansburg money to clean up one pot-labs, but it was gone before the end of last year. Nationally, incidents related to meth production rose above 11,000 last year, after falling sharply to around 6,000 in 2007, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. (Read more)

CO2-devouring algae may lessen the carbon footprint of coal-fired power plants

Coal-burning power plants may yet be the energy of the future, thanks to a carbon-dioxide-devouring algae. The University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and East Kentucky Power Cooperative are partnering to further investigate the use of algae to capture carbon dioxide from coal-fired plants and converting it to biomass, the university said in a release.

UK will place 135 interconnected tubes of algae (right) at the rural utility's Dale Station near Winchester to conduct a real-world test of the carbon dioxide reduction process. Officials hope to have 10 times as many tubes by early next year, Kelsey Sheridan of the Lexington Herald Leader reports. (H-L photo by Pablo Alcala)

The algae digest carbon dioxide and light in a process similar to photosynthesis in plants. (Read more) Once the algae has consumed the carbon dioxide, the by-product can be used to produce biodiesel, animal feed, fertilizer and chemicals. To view an explanatory video, click here.

The state agency committed nearly $1.3 million, the utility is contributing about $75,000 in in-kind and the university is providing $543,663. The research will be done by UK's Center for Applied Energy Research.

States, farmers say EPA model for cleaning up pollution in Chesapeake Bay may be flawed

The computer model used by the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor nutrient and sediment pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay may be flawed, say some farm groups and federal and state officials. Agri-Pulse reports that recent runs of the model show farmers in Maryland with high concentration of poultry production are meeting total maximum daily loads (TMDL) of pollutants allowed in the Bay and its tributaries, but farmers in neighboring counties with crop, forest and pasture land can't meet standards "even if they do every best management practice imaginable."

Officials from Pennsylvania and Virginia wrote letters to their EPA regional administrator, Shawn Garvin, and expressed concern with new TMDL standards. They said that in most cases, "the new model shows that best management plans, designed to reduce runoff of fertilizer, increase nitrogen and phosphorus pollution instead of reducing it." The Virginia secretary for natural resources wrote: "We have found the model, as currently constructed, is not appropriate for use in assigning loads in permits, developing local load targets, or measuring reduction progress. It is especially not appropriate for imposing consequences." They attempted to reveal discrepancies in the model during a modeling summit in September.

The American Farm Bureau Federation filed a federal lawsuit in January to halt the EPA's plan for cleaning up Chesapeake Bay alleging that "the TMDL rule unlawfully 'micromanages' state actions and the activities of farmers, homeowners and businesses within the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed," Agri-Pulse reports. Said Don Parrish, Farm Bureau's senior director of regulatory relations: "The EPA has some real substantive, scientific problems on their hands and I don’t know how they are going to deal with them. There is nothing about their model that works. We think the courts will have to sort this out.” (Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but a free trial is offered on its website.)

ACLU court victories mean teachers in two Tenn. counties can't pray during 'See You at the Pole'

In Middle Tennessee's Sumner and Wilson counties, where the American Civil Liberties Union won church-and-state separation lawsuits that ended parent prayer groups and Gideons International Bible distribution, thousands of students and parents gathered to pray this year during "See You at the Pole" events, which call for student-led prayer around school flag poles, are prevalent in rural areas. Matt Anderson and Jennifer Easton of The Tennessean report that teachers attended the events, but their participation could only extend so far before being in violation of the First Amendment.

Anderson and Easton report that in Wilson County, such events must be student-led, but teachers can participate in everything except prayer. In Sumner County, employees were told "that if they choose to pray on campus, it must be done out of sight and earshot of students." Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU of Tennessee, said in a statement that See You at the Pole events are constitutional so long as they are student-initiated and student-led.

Some students participating in the events prayed for the ACLU and teachers who couldn't participate. Others said they understood the new rule because they wouldn't want teachers promoting any religion more than any other. Thaddeus Scwartz, president of Secular Life, a local group for non-Christians, told Anderson and Easton that he support teachers' rights to practice their beliefs, but added school is not an appropriate place in which to do so. (Read more)

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Proposed Social Security changes would have a disproportionate impact on rural America

Republicans and Democrats agree that Social Security should change the way it calculates cost-of-living increases for beneficiaries, but any cuts would disproportionately affect rural America, Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo report for the Daily Yonder. The total personal income from Social Security payments in rural counties is 9.3 percent, almost twice urban counties' share of 5 percent. (Social Security Administration graphics)
"In many rural places, Social Security is a very critical element of the local economic base," Peter Nelson, a geographer at Middlebury College in Vermont, told the Yonder. In counties with cities under 50,000 population, Social Security accounted for 8.2 percent of total personal income, Bishop and Gallardo report.

In 2009, 16.7 percent of the national population received Social Security monthly payments either as old-age pension, survivor benefits or disability checks, Bishop and Gallardo report. The percentage for rural communities was 23.6 percent and 21.2 percent of small city residents received a check. To see data for individual states and counties, click here. (Read more)

Legality of referendum vote against Pebble Mine project in rural Alaska is under fire

Last month, voters in the remote hills of the Lake and Peninsula Borough in Alaska cast ballots to determine whether a proposed metals-mining project would proceed. By a vote of only 280-246, residents were able to "ban large-scale resource extraction," including mining for gold and copper, "that would destroy or degrade salmon habitat," The Associated Press reports. The legality of the vote is being questioned by the state of Alaska, which filed a lawsuit last Friday to invalidate the vote.

Superior Court Judge John Suddock initially cleared the vote, but is scheduled to address the legality of the vote again on Monday, Nov. 7, Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times reports. Lamar Cotten, manager of the Lake and Peninsula Borough, told Murphy that $600,000 to $700,000 was spent to try influence votes, and of even greater concern is whether cities and boroughs have the power to control such activities on state land. (Read more)

The state is suing the borough, claiming the state's authority to govern mineral resources management and development outweighs the vote. "It is about upholding the state's constitutional authority and responsibility to evaluate whether, on balance, development of Alaska's resources is beneficial to all Alaskans," Attorney General John Burns said in a statement. (Read more)

Weekly newspapers' lobby generates agreement on bill to at least delay end of Saturday mail delivery

Lobbying by weekly and small-daily newspapers and others is on the verge of pushing back the U.S. Postal Service's plan to end Saturday mail delivery.

"We have had a tremendous breakthrough on preserving Saturday mail delivery," Tonda Rush, chief executive and lobbyist for the National Newspaper Association, said in an email this afternoon. She said a bipartisan bill "will require USPS to carry out significant cost cutting steps and seek new review by both the Government Accountability Office and the Postal Regulatory Commission before it can again seek to move to 5 day" delivery, a step that seemed closer after President Obama and House Republicans largely agreed on it.

The bill would prohibit USPS from taking any steps to eliminate Saturday delivery for two years. "In that time, we hope the other cost-cutting measures are sufficient to avoid ever taking this step," Rush said. The bill is to be introduced today by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Tom Carper, R-Del.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "We have miles to go before this becomes law," Rush said, "but we are moving quickly now to help get this bill passed." The NNA website is here. For a summary of the bill, click here.

The undersigned, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, testified before the Postal Regulatory Commission last year on behalf of NNA, arguing that an end to Saturday delivery would have a disproportionate impact in rural America. The PRC essentially adopted that position, saying more study on rural impact was needed before Saturday delivery is eliminated.

Postal Service idea for post offices in stores isn't working, especially west of the Mississippi River

The U.S. Postal Service "has determined that its plan to replace money-losing offices with retailers contracted to offer basic services will not work in many rural communities," Reuters reports. "It is now looking at ways to operate some rural post offices more cheaply rather than closing them."

"When you get west of the Mississippi, it's more prevalent that you don't have stores in these communities, you have nothing in these communities. It's pretty much just the post office," Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told the news service. USPS has abandoned its hope to have 2,000 "village post offices" within retail establishments; at this point it has only six, Reuters reports.

"They are discovering that in these rural areas they've identified there aren't necessarily other businesses that would take on the rural post office," said Ruth Goldway, chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, which advises Congress about USPS. "Donahoe said USPS still plans to close post offices where residents can access another post office or where rural letter carriers -- who can sell stamps, pick up packages and offer other services -- could make up the service," Reuters reports.

EPA moving forward with new permit process for pesticides after foes fail to get help in Senate

The Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward with plans to require new permits for application of agricultural pesticides near water, after opponents of the plan failed to win Senate approval of a two-year moratorium or repeal of the regulation that many call "costly and duplicative," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington-based newsletter.

Pesticide use is already regulated by federal law and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, but the new permitting rules come after the 2009 6th Circuit Court of Appeal ruling in National Cotton Council vs. EPA that pesticide discharge is "a point source of pollution subject to additional regulation under the Clean Water Act, necessitating NPDES permits for each application near water bodies." EPA estimates that the ruling and its resulting plan will affect about 365,000 pesticide users each year.

Agri-Pulse reports that crop-protection trade group CropLife America says a general permitting process for pesticide applicators has long been used by the EPA under the Clean Water Act, but "Congress never intended non-point sources of contaminants to be similarly regulated, and exempted agricultural storm water runoff and irrigation return flows from the CWA’s permitting program." The House and the Senate agriculture committees approved bills clarify that, but the legislation stalled in the full Senate because of multiple holds by individual members and supporters' failure to attach it to other legislation.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told Agri-Pulse, "Because pesticide applications are already regulated, this new requirement won’t provide any additional environmental benefits. All it will do is impose substantial new costs that slows down economic activity and hurts job growth at a time when we can ill afford to do so.” EPA announced that pesticide applicators covered under general permits won't have to submit a notice of intent for any discharges before Jan. 12, 2012. CropLife president Jay Vroom told Agri-Pulse that pesticide users remain vulnerable to lawsuits by citizens.

Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers four-week free trials on its website.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Rural children face more health risks; most parents say their kids are healthy

Children in rural areas face more health challenges than those in urban parts of the country, and are more likely to be poor, more vulnerable to death from injuries, and more likely to use tobacco. Rural families also have more difficulty in gaining access to health care. But the majority of parents, regardless of whether they live in urban or rural communities, say their kids are healthy.

These findings are from a report entitled "The Health and Well-Being of Children in Rural Areas: A Portrait of the Nation 2007," compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Health Resources and Services Administration. The report's results are based on the National Survey of Children's Health, conducted in 2007.

The survey classified children as living in an urban area, a large or well-populated rural area or a small or isolated rural area. Large rural areas include large towns with populations of 10,000 to 49,999. Small rural areas include small towns with populations of 2,500 to 9,999. Survey results were not broken down by state.

The report found children's overall health status doesn't vary much by location. Four-fifths of parents said their children are in excellent or very good health, regardless of where they live.

But the analysis found rural children, as a whole, face more health risks than their urban counterparts. Only 67.6 percent of children in large rural areas and 69.8 percent in small rural areas are breast-fed, compared to 77 percent of urban children.

Rural children are also more likely to be overweight or obese — 34.6 percent of children in large rural areas and 35.2 percent in small rural areas compared to 30.9 percent of urban children. Rural children are also more likely to live with someone who smokes — one in three children in large rural areas and 35 percent in small rural areas do. Only one in five urban children do.

Though about 90 percent of children surveyed had health insurance, those in rural areas were more likely to have public coverage like Medicaid or CHIP. Urban children were more likely to have private insurance. Access to health care also remains a factor. Of the 2,052 non-metropolitan counties identified in 2010, 704 were designated as health professional shortage areas. Of those, 467 had shortages for dental care and 521 lacked adequate mental health services.

There are some advantages for rural children, however. They tend to be better protected and more connected to their families and communities. More than half of children in small rural areas shared a meal with their families every day in the past week. Children in small rural areas are also more likely to get physical activity every day (34.7 percent), though they are less likely to have access to community centers, parks or playgrounds. However, rural children are more likely to spend more than an hour each weekday watching television or videos — 60.9 percent of children in large rural areas did so, compared to 53 percent in small rural areas and 53.9 percent of urban children.

Potential for geothermal energy in the U.S. could greatly outshine energy from coal

In an effort to increase viability of geothermal energy as a reliable source of renewable and clean energy, Google is providing researchers at Southern Methodist University with funding to map the United States' geothermal potential. The maps, which are available on Google Earth, reveal that 3 million megawatts of energy, 10 times the amount from coal, could be produced through geothermal. Researcher David Blackwell told Energy and Environment News' Julia Pyper that the capabilities to grow geothermal energy sustainably will only improve as energy conservation and exploitation factors are further explored.

Geothermal relies on hot water found in reservoirs deep in the earth's crust along fault lines (mostly in the West) to produce steam that turns turbines and produces energy. After the water is used, it's returned into the earth and reused. The Department of Energy says this method emits little or no greenhouse gases. Pyper reports that geothermal is "one of the most underused sources of homegrown clean energy," saying the U.S. uses only about 2,800 megawatts to power 2.8 million homes.

However, with Google's help, the SMU researchers have mapped temperatures at greater depths than before and have found new areas of potential in the East. Research is now shifting toward enhanced systems that inject water into the ground to heat it. Sites that would support this method are larger than traditional geothermal sites and can support larger power plants, Piper reports. Existing oil and gas wells are being used to explore this method because research about the fluid properties of these wells has already been done and basins were oil and gas are extracted can have fluid reserves at many depths, increasing success of possible geothermal wells. (Read more)

Unemployed Alabama residents ready to work, but farmers are reluctant to hire them

More than 330 unemployed Americans have signed up for seasonal agricultural jobs in Alabama as a part of Gov. Robert Bentley's plan to connect job seekers to struggling farmers following implementation of Alabama's strict new immigration laws, Stephen Clark of Fox News reports. But many are still waiting for jobs, since only three agricultural employers are participating in the program and most of their openings don't start until January.

Many local farmers are hesitant to participate for fear most Americans cannot meet the physical demands of farming. Sweet-potato farmer Kevin Smith of Cullman, Ala., has not had a shortage of people interested in filling the positions, with 10 or more calls per day, but he says most quit after only a few hours because the labor is so intense, Kim Chandler of The Birmingham News reports.

Tom Surtees, director of the state Department of Industrial Relations, says farmers should give the jobs program a chance. "Americans can do the work and need the opportunity to try," he told Fox.

Marshall County saw its unemployment rate drop by 1 percentage point after many illegal workers left, Republican Sen. Scott Beason told Fox. "So what will happen over time is people will see opportunities open up and those opportunities will be filled by people willing to take a shot." (Read more)

Supreme Court will decide the fate of pigs that can't walk to slaughter

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments next week over the proper treatment of "non-ambulatory pigs," or those that can't walk or stand on their own, at slaughterhouses in California after the National Meat Association sued the state government on behalf of the pork industry. The three-year-old law requires pigs that can't walk when they arrive at slaughterhouses to be removed, inspected and humanely euthanized if necessary. Federal law already mandates inspection of pigs that are lying down, but they don't have to be removed from the slaughterhouse.

David Savage of the Los Angeles Times reports that the meat lobby's lawyers say federal law supersedes state law and is more humane because it requires "inspections of sick animals rather than automatically killing them." The inspections, they say, are crucial in finding pig diseases like foot-and-mouth. Steven Wells, one of the lawyers, told Savage that pigs are sometimes stubborn, "stressed or fatigued" after the trip to the slaughterhouse, but they usually recover and are fine. California Deputy Attorney General Susan K. Smith sees it differently. She told Savage: "We're not concerned about a pig who is taking a nap." She said removing "non-ambulatory pigs" will protect the food supply and prevent animal cruelty.

Wells said "severe financial impact" would be incurred by the pork industry if it has to kill 200 to 300 pigs a day because "they were lying down." He and the other lawyers for the meat lobby are asking the Supreme Court to strike down the state law on the grounds that the federal law trumps it. A federal judge in Fresno agreed, and barred the state from enforcing the law. However, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the state in a 3-0 decision. "Hogwash," he wrote, saying states have always had authority to determine which animals should be slaughtered and which should not. (Read more)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Some say a new farm bill is being written in secret; plan due at 'super committee' tomorrow

On the eve of what amounts to a new Farm Bill being submitted for a joint House-Senate vote, small-farm advocates are voicing concern about it being written behind closed doors by agriculture committee leaders and big lobbying interests. The committee staffs plan to submit a proposal tomorrow to the joint "super committee" charged with adopting a plan to cut the federal deficit.

Amanda Peterka of Energy and Environment News reported last week that Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, allied with environmental groups and some right-leaning think tanks, said "submitting such a proposal without input from the agriculture panels or the whole Congress amounts to a 'secret' Farm Bill." He told Peterka that committee leaders are "replicating what got us into this deficit mess in the first place" and they are "not really looking at the big picture, not debating, not looking at the long-term consequences, not subjecting it to public scrutiny."

Carolyn Lochhead of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote for the paper's political blog: "Leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees are attempting a breathtaking end-run around the democratic process.They are hatching their own farm bill in private and plan by Nov. 1 take it to the new deficit super committee to be enacted whole, without votes in their own committees or in Congress." The current Farm Bill is up for revision in 2012, but a deficit-reduction plan would take precedence.

Lochhead predicts states with diverse agriculture, like California, will be left out of the "secret" bill because it's being written by politicians from states that receive a lot of subsidies. Ken Cook wrote on the subsidy-skeptical Environmental Working Group's agriculture blog that the new farm bill to will likely only serve to "bankroll industrial-scale commodity farming." The new bill proposes cuts from $23 to $33 million that would likely eliminate mandated conservation programs and negatively effect several others, like those that support local and regional food systems.

Jerry Hagstrom reports for AgWeek that Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told him in an email, “We are undertaking a monumental shift in federal farm policy — one that saves billions of taxpayer dollars by ending payments to farmers who don’t need them.” Read the overall story from Hagstrom, a veteran ag-policy reporter, here.

Scientists think they know what is killing bats, but don't know if they will be able to stop it

Today is Halloween, so there are plenty of illustrations of flying bats around, but the real thing is becoming less common, and it's a matter for concern. Bat populations have declined by almost 90 percent in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont as a result of white-nose syndrome, a survey of six species at 42 sites shows, Darryl Fears of The Washington Post reports. The culprit, a recent study in the journal Nature suggests, is an aggressive fungus called Geomyces destructans that burns holes in the membrane that controls wing flapping. (Photo of bats with syndrome by Alan Hicks, National Speleological Society)

Two bat species in the Mid-Atlantic states face within the next seven years, but some wildlife biologists are optimistic that with a known cause they may now be able to slow progression of the disease, Fears reports.

The fungus appeatrs to be spreading south and west, but scientists speculate the warmer temperatures could slow its growth, making it less lethal. This and the potential for a treatment is good news for agriculture, since insect-eating bats are a natural pesticide. A study released in April suggests farmers could pay tens of millions of dollars more for pesticides with the loss of so many bats. (Read more)

Angus Association revisits legacy of the Chicago Stockyards in new documentary

The American Angus Association is releasing a documentary that celebrates the history and legacy of the Chicago Stockyards and the Chicago International livestock show, Drovers Cattle Network reports. The program will air on Halloween night at 7 p.m. CST on RFD-TV, channel 345 on DirecTV and 231 on Dish Network.

Subsequent programs are scheduled for Nov. 21, Dec. 19 and Jan. 2 with two more programs airing sometime in February and March. (Read more) To watch the promo for tonight's program or view previous programs, click here.

Industries and local governments steering debate over EPA plan to clean up Chesapeake Bay

As local impacts of the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to clean up Chesapeake Bay become clearer, state and local governments and polluting industries are out-lobbying environmentalists who have campaigned for a bay cleanup for decades, Paul Quinlan of Environment & Energy Daily reports. (Map: Chesapeake Bay watershed)

Agriculture and homebuilding industries recently filed a lawsuit against against EPA arguing the agency overstepped its legal authority. "Pollution-reduction targets are too ambitious and ill-timed," the industries argue, and the expensive mandates will overstrain farmers and homebuilders already struggling financially, Quinlan reports. Republican industry allies are attempting to block the EPA plan by attaching policy riders to spending bills.

The Conservation, Energy and Forestry Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee will review the issues, specifically the plan's impact on rural communities, at 10 a.m. Thursday in Room 1000 of the Longworth House Office Building. (Read more)

The local attitudes toward the plan are reflected in part by Cheryl Mattix of Maryland's Cecil Whig, who writes, "Cecil County citizens will learn for the first time Tuesday that a new state mandate aimed at cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay could be cleaning out their wallets instead. The culprit," she writes without mentioning EPA, is the state's implementation plan. (Read more)

Mine-safety chief says safety crackdown isn't keeping the coal industry from expanding

After 29 underground coal miners died in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in West Virginia last year, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration started a program of "safety blitzes" in which inspectors showed up at mines unannounced and disabled internal telephone lines so advance warning couldn't be sent underground. These efforts were led by MSHA Administrator Joe Main, above, a former miner and United Mine Workers safety director who told The Associated Press that the crackdown hasn't kept the industry from expanding. (AP photo by Harry Hamburg)

Since April 2010, the agency has found over 4,000 safety violations and temporary closed 427 mines. The industry dealt with the highest number of mining-related deaths in 40 years in 2010; this year, it's on track for record low injuries and deaths. As Main told the The Courier-Journal's Jim Carroll, the safety blitzes are "the best foundation for mine safety in this country."

Main told the Louisville newspaper that the safety blitzes have become routine since last year and have allowed the agency to identify problem mines that "were not on the watch list" before the Upper Big Branch disaster. Mines with the worst safety records are being targeted, and while some of the operators understand the severity of the violations, some don't, Main said. He added that those who do understand are finding problems and fixing them before MSHA inspectors show up; those who leave safety problems unchecked could face closure until the problems are addressed.

Carroll reports Main split up the MSHA district that oversaw Upper Big Branch because it was responsible for the largest number of mining operations in the country. The agency has been looking for patterns of violations since last year, and started a database accessible by the public that compares mine safety records to criteria that determines "pattern of violations" designations. If a mine is assigned this designation, and the problems aren't addressed, it could be closed. MSHA is working on new pattern-of-violation rules that would stop the practice of sending warning letters to operators which allowed them to skirt inspections in the past. The agency is also trying to streamline appeals of citations, which used to allow operators to avoid the designation because the process was so lengthy.

MSHA is also proposing simplified safety standards that would allow inspectors to quickly target problem mines and is holding public hearings to discuss installation of shut-off and warning devices on continuous-mining machines, which have caused the most common underground mining accidents in recent decades: crushing deaths and injuries. Main has championed stricter coal-dust rules that will require miners to carry dust monitors displaying dangerous levels of dust.

National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston told Carroll the industry has opposed this rule based on an analysis commissioned by the association. She said "data to support health improvements based on the levels MSHA has proposed" does not exist. Despite the announcement that the new rule will go into effect in April, the industry has requested MSHA withdraw it and draft a new one.

Carroll writes that mine safety advocates, like Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, are praising Main's decision to use "enforcement tools MSHA was given in the late 1970s but had never employed" to hold the industry accountable. UMW president Cecil Roberts told Carroll that Main has initiated "significant progress" in mine safety, and former Kentucky state and federal mine-safety official Tony Oppegard said Main "deserves a lot of credit" for refusing to help protect "buddies" in the industry and said Main's career was built upon protecting miners' safety and health. Raulston declined to talk with Carroll about Main specifically, but told him it's "every mine's responsibility to abide by the rules and regulations." (Read more)