Saturday, April 07, 2012

Senators object to FCC proposal to make TV stations put political advertising files online

UPDATE, April 13: "Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and several other Senate Republicans sent a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski earlier this month complaining of the "imposition of burdensome new rules on broadcasters," reports Pro Publica, citing Communications Daily.

Many elements of the Tea Party have been outspoken in favor of government transparency, but for the U.S. senators most identified with the movement, that does not extend to making political television expenses more accessible to the public.

Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky (right), Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah "have asked the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider its proposal to have TV stations put their political files online," reports John Eggerton of Multichannel News. They were joined by Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Boozman of Arkansas.

The political files, which show who buys the time, how much and when, must be made available for public inspection at a station or cable-company office during regular business hours. The FCC is expected to approve April 27 a regulation that would require the stations to put the information in an online database. "Broadcasters argue . . . that to maintain an online, real-time system would cost staff time and money better spent on local news and other public service," Eggerton writes.

OPINION: That money could also be spent on executive salaries, shareholder profits or some other thing besides public service. In their letter, the senators said the proposal would carry "heavy compliance costs," but as someone who has inspected many of these files at stations, and is familiar with how the same information is already maintained electronically, it's hard for me to imagine that the compliance costs would be very high. And putting them online would make them much more accessible to rural journalists. –Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

UPDATE, April 9: Because of complaints from stations, "The proposal will give smaller stations two more years to start uploading new additions to their files about political ad spending. At the outset, only the affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in the top 50 TV markets will be required to do so," reports Brian Stelter of The New York Times. "The FCC says the initial uploading will cost less than $1,000 for a typical station, and will save the stations money over time by avoiding printing and storage costs. The uploaded files will be searchable — but only inside one file at a time." (Read more)

Eggerton notes, "Putting the political files online is part of a larger FCC effort to move station public files online and into a database managed by the FCC that is more easily searchable by the public." (Read more)

Friday, April 06, 2012

Young people suffering fewer injuries on farms

Young people had 36 percent fewer injuries on farms in 2009 than in 2006, according to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture report. USDA surveys farmers every three years about injuries of workers under 20. Experts say increased focus on safety and more training and education have led to the decrease in injuries,  Bill Tomson and Mark Peters of The Wall Street Journal report.

Farm-related work has long been the most dangerous for youth, and the Department of Labor recently proposed new rules for child farm labor for the first time in 40 years. The agency withdrew the rule after complaints that it wouldn't allow youth to work on farms owned wholly or partly by their grandparents, for example. National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson said "the numbers are trending in the right direction" and "suggest the Department of Labor was well advised to back off a little." (Read more)

Painkiller abuse rises most in Appalachia, Southwest

There's been a "dramatic rise" in the distribution of hydrocodone and oxycodone, the nation's two most popular prescription drugs, from 2000 to 2010, according to Drug Enforcement Agency data. Chris Hawley of Bloomberg Businessweek reports hydrocodone distribution has risen most in Appalachia and the Midwest, and oxycodone distribution rose most on Staten Island and in the West.

Increases parallel a rise in overdose deaths, pharmacy robberies and other drug-related crime across the country. Pharmacies dispensed the equivalent of 69 tons of pure oxycodone in 2010. Opioid painkillers, including hydrocodone and oxycodone, caused more than 14,000 deaths in 2008, and the Centers for Disease Control reports the death toll continues to rise. Prescription-drug overdose deaths now outnumber deaths from car accidents.

The increase is partly due to doctors prescribing more painkillers to aging baby boomers, Hawley reports. It's also driven by addiction and "doctor shopping." Advocates for the Reform of Prescription Opioids President Pete Jackson said the addiction problem has roots in Appalachia and affluent suburbs, and spreads out from those two areas. Some areas with military bases or Veterans Affairs hospitals have seen large increases in painkiller use, Hawley reports. In 2010, per-capita oxycodone sales increased five to six-fold in most of Tennessee. Sales also engulfed much of Kentucky, with high rates of sales stretching north to Columbus, Ohio and south to Macon, Ga.

The Southwest is another "hot spot," Hawley reports. Per capita sales of oxycodone rose 10-fold and hydrocodone sales rose five-fold in New Mexico. The state had the highest rate of opioid overdoses in 2008, at 27 per 100,000 people. Hawley reports areas with large Native American reservations saw increases of painkiller abuse, including South Dakota, northeastern Arizona, northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. (Read more)

Walmart depresses rural wages, researchers find

In some rural counties, Walmart "exerts such power over the local labor market that it depresses wages by more than 6 percent," reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder. The results were found in a study conducted by two University of Connecticut economists who have been studying the retail chain's power in local labor markets for several years. They found it has little effect in urban areas, but in rural areas, mostly in the Southeast, its power to "bid down" wages is triple that in cities.

Walmart is the largest single employer in the U.S., and its power varies by region. There's no evidence it's depressing wages nationwide. But in states where the company's presence is strongest, its "monopsony power," or the ability of a single buyer of goods to fix prices among many sellers, is highest. In Kansas, West Virginia and Arkansas, that power is more than 6 percent. In Colorado, Kentucky, Idaho, Illinois, Oklahoma and Utah, it's above 5 percent.

Bonanno and Lopez say Arkansas-based Walmart depresses wages so much in the South that it could "warrant attention from antitrust regulators in the Department of Justice," Bishop writes, adding that the researchers' paper brings attention to at least two issues: the Justice Department and the Department of Agriculture conducted a hearing in 2010 "to examine the antitrust implications of Walmart's increasing share of local grocery markets," but Justice took no action in the matter. Also brought to mind, Bishop reports, is a Penn State study that found having big box stores in a community depressed local income. (Read more)

Study: Banned antibiotics still being used in feed

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Arizona State University have found a class of antibiotics banned by the Food and Drug Administration are still being used in livestock feed, MeatingPlace reports. Fluoroquinolones, antibiotics used to treat infections in humans, were found in eight of 12 samples of feather meal, a supplement added to chicken, pig, cattle and fish feed. The Department of Agriculture banned use of this class of antibiotics in 2005 because some bacteria in humans were becoming immune to fluoroquinolones. (The Guardian photo)

David Love, lead author of the study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, said the research "strongly suggests the continued use of these drugs" despite the FDA ban. Researchers analyzed commercially available feather meal samples from six states and China, and found the active ingredients from Tylenol, Benadryl and Prozac in them. They also found inorganic arsenic in all 12 samples.

The National Chicken Council released a statement saying the study "looked at chicken feathers and not chicken meat," Meatingplace reports. The group contends chickens in the U.S. are not given arsenic additives in feed or any other drugs mentioned in the study. "If consumers were to take away one message from the findings, it should be from the researchers themselves: 'We haven’t found anything that is an immediate health concern'," the group said. (Read more)

Tennessee set to get law requiring weaknesses of climate-change and evolution theories be taught

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, left, is likely to sign a bill that would protect public-school science teachers who discuss "weaknesses of theories such as evolution and global warming in their classrooms," reports Cameron McWhirter of The Wall Street Journal. The bill, which passed the Republican-dominated legislature by large margins, is similar to several in other states that have been either written or supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a business-backed, conservative group.

The bill "does not require the teaching of alternatives to scientific theories of evolution, climate change, human cloning and 'the chemical origins of life'," notes Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times. "Instead, the legislation would prevent school administrators from reining in teachers who expound on alternative hypotheses to those topics."

There have been no cases of Tennessee teachers being punished for questioning evolution or climate change, but the bill's supporters say it will provide a safeguard if any are, while not allowing religious teaching. Wrong, say opponents, including science teachers, science organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU spokeswoman Hedy Weinberg told McWhirther the bill would "gut science education in our schools." She added the Tennessee branch of the organization is ready to pursue litigation. Louisiana and Mississippi have passed similar laws, and science standards in seven other states now allow teachers to question evolution, McWhirther reports.

UPDATE: Gov. Bill Haslam allowed the bill to pass into law without his signature, ignoring pleas from parents, science teachers, the ACLU and science organizations to veto it. In a statement, he expressed "misgivings" about the bill, saying it would "create confusion over the state's science standards." Tennessee is now the second state to allow teaching of alternatives to climate change without fear of repercussion.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

New report analyzes toxic-release reports to figure amount of chemical pollution in waterways

Industrial facilities were responsible for 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 1,400 American waterways in 2010, according to an Environment America study released last week. Forty percent of all toxic discharges into waterways come from Indiana, Virginia, Nebraska, Texas and Georgia, according to a press release. The organization analyzed toxic chemical release reports companies sent to the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA compiles the data into a Toxics Release Inventory that is searchable by location. (Environment America map)

The reports found that food and beverage manufacturing (including slaughterhouses and rendering plants), metals manufacturing, chemical plants and oil refineries are some of the biggest polluters. AK Steel, based in West Chester, Ohio, was responsible for the most pollution from a single source, at 30 million pounds. About 1.5 million pounds of carcinogens were discharged in 2010, including arsenic, chromium and benzene. Nitrates accounted for almost 90 percent of the total volume of discharges in 2010. The full report can be accessed here, and a summary can be found here.

Young farmers are leading buyers of land being released from Conservation Reserve Program

Contracts for more than 6.5 million acres land now in the Conservation Reserve Program will expire this year, returning the land to production. The planting of U.S. field crops is expected to rise by 1.7 percent this spring, largely due to the expiration, according to the annual U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, reports Tom Polansek of Reuters. Farmers planting on former CRP land "could lift crop acres in the world's top grains producer to a record next year," he writes, and it could ease food-supply fears.

The program pays farmers to not plant on the land and to protect wildlife and natural habitats, but for young farmers who have been outbid for traditional farmland in the Midwest, the release of CRP land "offers a rare chance to join the biggest agricultural boom in a generation," Polansek reports. Not all the land is suitable for farming, but economists say almost half of it can be farmed for the first time in decades. Young farmers are leading the return of CRP land to farming.

The loss of acres is concerning environmental and wildlife groups. The USDA says the program has restored 2 million acres of wetlands and increased populations of some ground-dwelling birds. The agency is trying to encourage farmers to put more acres into CRP by providing a one-time signing bonus for enrollees of land that's considered the most environmentally sensitive. (Read more)

Local officials fighting states' moves to exercise all authority over natural-gas drilling

State governments that want to take advantage of the natural-gas boom are facing resistance from local officials who want to control noise and industrialization that accompanies gas drilling, report Daniel Gilbert and Russell Gold of The Wall Street Journal. States created laws that prevent localities from regulating drilling because legislators feared local officials would stunt job growth, but in some places, town officials are attempting to change the laws.

In Pennsylvania, seven towns are are suing the state to overturn a law passed in February that prevents them from using zoning laws to regulate oil and gas development. The suit claims the state has overstepped its constitutional powers. An Ohio senator introduced legislation last week that would give local officials more control over location of drilling, and in New York localities can use their zoning laws to ban drilling, but one company is appealing that ruling.

A spokesman or America's Natural Gas Alliance, Dan Whitten, told the Journal that many local governments "want to change the rules under which we operate after we've made investments, and that makes for a difficult situation." But these situations make local officials nervous. That's what led Ohio state Sen. Capri Cafaro to introduce legislation "to rescind the exclusive authority of state officials to regulate oil and gas, and to require drillers to comply with local zoning rules," Gilbert and Gold report. (Read more)

W.Va., Labor Department pause to remember 2nd anniversary of worst coal mine disaster in 40 years

Two years ago today the worst coal mining disaster in 40 years happened in Raleigh County, West Virginia, at the Upper Big Branch underground mine. An explosion fueled by methane and coal dust tore through the mine, killing 29 miners. In the wake of the disaster, Massey Energy's longtime chief Don Blankenship resigned, and Alpha Natural Resources bought the company. Two high-level employees at the mine have been convicted, and Alpha has reached a settlement with the miners' families. The Associated Press reports Alpha will soon permanently seal the mine. Bore holes will be plugged and air shafts capped to prevent any access, and the company hopes to be finished by summer. (Charleston Gazette photo)

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has encouraged all West Virginians to observe a moment of silence today at 3:01 p.m., the time of the explosion, reports Chad Abshire of the Williamson Daily News. "Two years ago, a tragic mining accident forever separated families from their loved ones and shattered a community,” Tomblin said. “The 29 men who lost their lives were more than hard working miners; they were sons, brothers, fathers, friends and fellow West Virginians." U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall and U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller have also commemorated the anniversary of the disaster and called others to remember the 29 miners.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis issued a statement, saying that the disaster was "the single most heartbreaking day" of her tenure, and that the Mine Safety and Health Administration has made changes to prevent similar disasters in the future. "On this sad occasion, I commit to ensuring the full human dignity of every coal miner by pursuing violators with the full force of the law," she said in the statement. "And I vow that those miners and families who suffered so grievously two years ago - and every day since - will never be far from my thoughts." (AP photo: After the disaster)

Several memorial events have been planned across the state. The Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce and the Whitesville Miners Memorial Group will lay a wreath at the Raleigh County Courthouse at 3 p.m., reports Sarah Plummer of The Register-Herald. Several local officials and the local fire department will attend. The chamber is trying to install a permanent memorial at the courthouse.

Small newspaper publishers must apply by Wed. for highly rated forum to be held in Galveston May 20-22

Wednesday, April 11, is the last chance for publishers of small-circulation newspapers to apply to attend the Carmage Walls Leadership Forum, to be held May 20-22 at The Tremont Hotel in Galveston, Texas.

Fifteen newspaper executives will be selected to attend the program, which is designed to provide the small newspapers of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association a place to explore the issues most important to them and to mine the industry’s best minds for practical solutions. The agenda will be set entirely by those publishers through a questionnaire they will fill out in advance of the meeting.

Dolph Tillotson, executive vice president of Southern Newspapers Inc., will be the moderator, as he was last year, when participants in the conference rated it highly, with such comments as "hands down the best meeting I've attended in a long time" and "I have been to many two-day meetings, but this absolutely was the best. The discussion was honest, open and sincere. I also came away feeling much better about our industry knowing that these folks are involved and will be right beside me if needed."

To apply for a seat, submit this application no later than April 11. Questions should be addressed to SNPA Executive Director Edward VanHorn at

'Pink slime' mess getting worse for beef industry

The public uproar about lean finely textured beef, dubbed "pink slime," has caused beef processing companies to close plants, lay off workers and in one case, file for bankruptcy. It's clearly caused an economic impact on the beef industry, and as Ken Anderson of Brownfield Ag News reports, that impact may be worse than initially thought.

CattleFax's Kevin Good estimates the controversy is costing U.S. cattle producers $15 to $20 per head in lost value, Anderson reports. Good also said that if lean finely textured beef isn't used in the U.S., customers will pay higher prices for ground beef. Oklahoma State University livestock market economist Derrell Peel told Anderson the fall of pink slime could mean the end of the dollar menu in fast food chain restaurants, and increase imports of ground beef. (Read more)

In response to requests from beef processing companies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will now allow companies to label meat that contains lean finely textured beef, telling them the processed product is in the meat they may buy, Bob Meyer of Brownfield reports. "The idea is the labeling would allow companies to continue to provide the beef to an informed consumer," Meyer reports.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Millions of Americans, many rural, now without bank accounts will have to adjust to direct benefit deposit

The federal government is ending paper benefits checks next year to save millions, but for "unbanked" people, or those without bank accounts, this will create issues because they can't receive payments by direct deposit. Gary Wollenhaupt writes for The Lane Report in Kentucky that the situation is "often more critical in rural areas that have fewer resources and fewer financial institutions than urban areas."

People without bank accounts rely on payday lenders and check-cashing stores that charge fees for money orders used to pay bills, and pay "exorbitant interest rates to borrow money to make it to the next paycheck," Wollenhaupt reports. Many low-income people who receive federal benefits will have to choose to directly deposit funds into a bank account or to put them on a pre-paid card similar to a debit card, but without a bank.

According to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. study, 7.7 percent of U.S. households, about 9 million, are unbanked. Those households include about 17 million adults. Another 17.9 million households with about 43 million people are are "underbanked," meaning they "may have an account but also use alternative financial services such as non-bank money orders or check cashing, payday loans, rent-to-own agreements and pawnshops," Wollenhaupt writes. The study also found that almost 20 percent of lower-income households don't have a bank account, and households with annual earnings less than $30,000 account for 71 percent of unbanked households. In total, close to 30 million households are either unbanked or underbanked.

Mississippi has the highest rate of unbanked households at 16.4 percent, and and Utah has the lowest rate at 1.7 percent. The eight states with the highest rates following Mississippi are Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, Alabama, New Mexico, South Carolina, Arkansas and Tennessee. The District of Columbia ties with Georgia's rate at 12.2 percent. The West and South overwhelmingly have the most states with high rates of unbanked households. (Read more)

Postal closings could delay absentee ballots, legislators and election officials warn

Several state lawmakers and election officials are worried that closing mail processing centers will negatively affect voting by mail, The Associated Press reports. Voters who take advantage of mail-in ballots are those who typically can't make it to the polls or who live away from their voting precinct, usually the elderly and college students. The U.S. Postal Service has proposed closing hundreds of mail processing centers and post offices, mostly in rural areas. (AP photo)

In California, where about 40 percent of voters are permanently registered for absentee ballots, almost 6 million people voted by mail in 2008. Lawmakers and officials there are considering extended the voting period for mail-in ballots, the AP's Hannah Dreier reports. The move could delay election results by days or weeks. Election officials are worried longer delivery times caused by postal closings will disenfranchise tens of thousands of absentee voters. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen said mailed ballots from places where distribution centers closed took two to four days longer to reach county election offices than those from places with open centers. Bowen sent the postal service a letter urging it to halt closures until after the November elections.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has also asked the USPS to delay closings to "accommodate Montanans who vote by mail," reports Lorna Thackeray of the Billings Gazette. Absentee voting has increased three-fold in Montana since 2008, and 47 percent of voters cast ballots by mail in 2010. the USPS has agreed to delay closures until May 15 and again during the general-election season, Thackeray reports. But Montana's primary election isn't until June, and Tester told the postmaster general that closures would prevent absentee ballots from being counted. He asked, "If changes must be made which would affect Montana's primary election, I ask you, how you will ensure that you are protecting Montanan's right to vote? Will you consider hand-canceling ballots or providing ballot drop boxes at local post offices?"

Last October, Congress asked the Government Accountability Office conduct a study to determine whether increased voting by mail could financially help the postal service. The GAO "found that voting by mail has limited potential for providing USPS with additional revenues substantial enough to affect its deteriorating financial condition because of the small potential increase in volume relative to total mail volume, the low profit margins on election mail, and the lack of strong nationwide support for voting by mail." (Read more)

Proposed rule changes would help coal miners and families get benefits for black-lung disease

Coal miners and their families could find it easier to get benefits for black-lung disease if proposed rule changes in the U.S. Department of Labor are approved, The Associated Press reports. The 2010 health-care reform law requires the department's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs to reinstate two provisions of the Black Lung Benefits Act that were eliminated in 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration.

One proposal would create an assumption that death was caused by black lung if the miner worked at least 15 years and suffered total respiratory impairment, AP reports. After 1982, survivors of miners with black lung had to prove the disease caused the death to get such benefits. The other proposed rule would automatically transfer benefits from the deceased miner to eligible surviving family members.

Coal companies contended that black-lung disease had been eliminated, but it is reappearing in younger miners. At least 17 of the 29 killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion a year ago tomorrow had black lung, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration report about the disaster.

Pennsylvania ranks first in black-lung claims filed since 1973, with more than 138,000, AP reports. West Virginia is second, and Kentucky is third. More than 660,000 claims have been filed nationwide since 1973, with total payouts last year at $227.4 million. The proposed rule changes would affect claims filed on or after March 23, 2010, and claims dating to Jan. 1, 2005. Public comment about the changes is being accepted until May 29. (Read more)

Black farmers have another chance to file discrimination claims against USDA; deadline May 11

Black farmers have another chance to file discrimination claims against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and potentially be awarded thousands of dollars, reports Adrian Sainz of The Associated Press. Black farmers previously filed suit against the USDA in the Pigford v. Glickman case, claiming the agency denied them loans between 1981 and 1996 because of their race. The case was settled in 1999 and provided about $1 billion to 15,000 farmers.

Some farmers missed the deadline to be a part of the settlement and filed late claims. A second settlement was approved in October 2011, and is allowing black farmers who claim to have been discriminated against by the USDA between 1981 and 1996 to sign on. Lawyers think 40,000 to 65,000 farmers are eligible to claim about $1.2 billion under the new settlement, Sainz reports. Thousands have filed claims and some could receive as much as $250,000, depending on the level of damages and losses experienced and how many farmers file claims. An independent panel will decide who is eligible. Farmers have until May 11 to file.

Black farmers owned 15 million acres of land in the 1920s, but when they tried to expand with USDA loans, they faced adversity, Sainz reports. As a result, they had to reduce the size of farms or sell their land. Today, black farmers own only 3 to 4 million acres, with the highest number of black-owned farms stretching from Mississippi to North Carolina. Many have abandoned traditional row crops and grow watermelon, mangoes and vegetables because they are worth more per acre. (Read more)

Broadband subscriptions lag most in rural South

Rural broadband subscription increased in Western states "at a rapid clip" between 2008 and 2010, but lagged behind in the South during the same period, according to government data, John Dunbar and Jacob Fenton report for the Tucson Sentinel. Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee "have abysmal subscription rates," while Hawaii has the highest rate, followed by "relatively wealthy" Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. An interactive map showing percentage of broadband subscriptions by county can be accessed here.

Dunbar and Fenton report people without broadband access are more likely to be lower-income rural residents, and that they are falling "further and further behind, widening the 'digital divide' between rich and poor." Forty percent of all households in the U.S. didn't have broadband access in 2010, the latest year for which data are available. Also in the bottom six states are West Virginia and Oklahoma, and all the least-connected states have household median incomes of $45,000 or less. Eight of the 10 least-connected states are in the South. (Read more)

Western states seek U.S. land for its resources

Legislatures of several Western states are demanding that the federal government give their states title to tens of millions of acres of public forests and ranges. The movement's goal is to open access to natural resources, which supporters claim will increase jobs and revenue for resource extraction companies. The states say they will send property-tax bills to Washington if the land isn't surrendered by the end of 2014.

"In the last 30 years, the radical environmental policies of these federal agencies have ground those industries to a halt -- right into the ground -- and almost killed them," state Sen. Al Melvin told the Arizona Republic. Legal experts say the movement has misread the scope of states' rights in the Constitution and that it will likely fail to survive court challenges. Opponents of the movement say it could threaten iconic landscapes, and that states aren't prepared to handle management of millions of acres, report Shaun McKinnon and Yvonne Wingett of the Republic.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has signed a package of bills to reclaim public land, and the state's U.S. congressmen and women have pledged support for it. In Arizona, a similar bill has passed the Senate and awaits approval in the House. A proposed ballot measure there would "declare the state's sovereignty over its land, air and water." The federal government owns 85 percent of Nevada's total area, according to 2004 data. It owns 57 percent of Utah and 48 percent of Arizona. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Santorum mining rural base in last-ditch bid in Wis., but draws small crowds and less attention from Fox

UPDATE: Mitt Romney won the Wisconsin primary, which "cemented his status as the almost certain Republican nominee and put new pressure on rival Rick Santorum to significantly scale back his campaign," Dan Balz and Philip Rucker report for The Washington Post. Romney "was doing better among evangelical Christians and voters who described themselves as very conservative than he did two weeks ago in neighboring Illinois, a sign he may be consolidating the party behind his candidacy." (Read more) Santorum carried the vote deemed rural by exit pollsters, but by single digits: 43 percent to 34 percent.

Rick Santorum "is counting on a small-town strategy to pull off an upset" today in Wisconsin's Republican presidential primary, but is drawing small crowds, Juana Summers of Politico reports. Catalina Camia likewise sketches Santorum's strategy for USA Today, in a short story that confirms Santorum's boast that he has carried many more counties than front-runner Mitt Romney.

Camia cites Eric Ostermeier's post today on the University of Minnesota's Smart Politics blog, which notes Santorum's "interesting but somewhat deceiving metric . . . which is essentially shorthand for the former Pennsylvania U.S. senator's large support outside of heavily populated urban areas." (Read more)

Romney has been leading in polls in Wisconsin, where a victory could clear his path to the nomination, but Santorum is hoping his supporters will prove to be more dedicated as the votes are counted tonight. "I’m asking small-town America, rural America and rural Wisconsin to come out and speak loudly tomorrow," he said in Oshkosh, Summers reports.

Santorum's bid appears to be undermined by a lack of attention from Fox News, the favorite TV outlet of Republicans, Walter Shapiro reports for Columbia Journalism Review: "Judging from the lopsided tenor of most of the coverage during the broadcast day on Fox News on the Monday before the Wisconsin and Maryland primaries, Mitt Romney already had been anointed as the GOP nominee. In contrast, Rick Santorum was often as invisible as a purged Soviet general airbrushed out of history by Stalin." (Read more)

Eastern Livestock operators plead guilty to fraud; deal calls for restitution to Ky. cattle raisers

Four men involved in now-bankrupt Eastern Livestock LLC have pled guilty in Kentucky to a range of charges, including organized crime, theft and facilitating criminal activity. Owner Thomas Gibson, 71, and chief financial officer Steve McDonald, 59, pled guilty to charges of organized criminal activity and 172 acts of theft. Attorney General Jack Conway recommended a sentence of 10 years for both men. Thomas' son, Grant Gibson, 48, and accountant Darren Brangers, 43, pled guilty to facilitating Gibson's criminal syndicate and several thefts.

Grant and Brangers are expected to pay a total of more than $800,000 in restitution to 170 Kentucky ranchers, reports Kate Micik of DTN/Progressive Farmer. Conway spokeswoman Allison Martin "said that if Grant Gibson or Brangers don't pay the restitution or miss a payment, the state may seek five-year prison sentences for each," Micik writes. ( flow chart)

The guilty pleas are the latest in a case started in December 2010. Eastern Livestock was one of the largest cattle brokerages in the U.S. At the time it filed for bankruptcy, ranchers in more than 30 states were left holding about $130 million in bad checks from it. Kentucky ranchers are lucky, Micik reports, because whether or not ranchers in other states get paid back depends on the bankruptcy case, which has been "bogged down in litigation." National Cattlemen's Beef Association's Colin Woodall told Micik the guilty pleas will satisfy only one area of ranchers' discontent: "It's great they pled guilty, but where is the money and how can we get that returned to the producers who were going about their regular business and have been left high and dry?"

"All of this is complicated by Eastern Livestock's lack of records, false records and under-the-table deals," Micik reports. She adds that two questions from ranchers still remain: "Why didn't the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration notice Eastern's behavior and stop it, and what did Fifth Third Bank know and when did they know it?" The Cincinnati-based and was first to notice the company's suspicious financial activity. GIPSA's audit history of the company is thin, and Woodall said NCBA is seeking a congressional hearing about the agency's oversight. (Read more)

Almost 30 percent of Americans live in rural areas or non-metropolitan towns, census analysis shows

The 2010 census found that the rural share of U.S. population had dropped to 16 percent from 21 percent in 2000, but the figure is much larger when populations of cities under 50,000, the minimum size for a metropolitan area, are counted.

Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder did that, and found that 28.8 percent of Americans live in rural areas or small cities, and that most states are "well above average when it comes to the size of their rural populations." In 34 states, more than 28.8 percent of people live in rural areas or non-metropolitan towns, and in 15 states such places account for more than half the population. By this measure, the most rural state is Vermont, with 82.6 percent of its population living in rural areas or small cities.The size of rural population, as the Yonder defines it, has been growing but not at the same pace as urban areas, Bishop reports. The ten states with the highest percentage of people living in rural areas or small cities are Vermont, Wyoming, Maine, Montana, Mississippi, South Dakota, West Virginia, Arkansas, North Dakota and Kentucky. (Read more)

Here's an update on shortage of rural veterinarians

A shortage of rural veterinarians is growing worse every year, and with no one to replace them, longtime rural vets are prevented from retiring, writes Susannah Jacob of The New York Times, picking up on a trend noted her previously. Most veterinary graduates want small-animal practices in urban areas, Jacob reports. The problem seems amplified in Texas, where eight areas that can span five counties were designated as "shortage areas" for vets last year. The national shortage has prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start a program to repay student loans of vet-school graduates if they work in a rural area with a vet shortage.

Jacob reports there are many possible reasons why veterinary graduates don't want to locate to rural areas. Many think it's harder to make a living in rural areas, and grew up in urban or suburban areas where their relationship to animals "is rooted in the afternoons they volunteered in animal shelters rather than working with cattle," Jacob reports. Schedules in urban areas are also predictable, and the opportunity to make more money appeal more to graduates with no ties to rural areas. (Read more) Another reason, as we have previously reported, may be the increasing prevalence of women vets and their preference for small-animal practices.

DNA testing, gun-sniffing dogs help catch poachers

Poachers in western states have become technologically advanced over the past 30 years, and game wardens have had to do likewise in order to catch them, reports Sandra Chereb of The Associated Press. DNA has become critical in animal crime investigations. “It’s the same as a homicide investigation,” said Nevada Department of Wildlife law enforcement chief Rob Buonamici. “We have to literally prove the same elements as a homicide. Except we can’t go to the mountain and talk to the elk that are left and ask them who did it.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has operated the largest animal forensics lab in the country in Ashland, Ore., since 1989.

Wardens also enlist gun-sniffing dogs to help catch poachers. Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Jim Sterling is owner and handler of gun-sniffing Pepper, whose first assignment was to find a missing gun used to illegally kill a bull elk in 2010. (AP photo: Sterling and Pepper with poacher's gun) That case also involved DNA testing of frozen meat the poachers had, and analyzing a blood stain one of the poachers' ATVs. Pepper found the gun after the spring thaw and forensic testing confirmed bullets from it were the same that killed the elk. Though the Humane Society of the United States reports only about 1 to 5 percent of poaching cases are ever investigated, wildlife experts insist the "rigorous, detailed work involved in solving such cases is worth the effort," Chereb reports. (Read more)

Monday, April 02, 2012

'Pink slime' uproar causes beef plants to close

Three governors from beef-producing states toured a Nebraska plant that makes finely textured beef, which has become known as "pink slime," last week to show their support for the company and the jobs supported by the product. (Associated Press photo by Nati Harnik: Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad tours processing plant)

Hundreds of jobs have been lost as several plants that make the product closed in the wake of media attention about the process, which includes compressing left over meat from other cuts and treatment with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria, Martha White of MSNBC reports.

U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein first used the term "pink slime" in what he thought was a private email, and the public became aware of it after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver drew attention to it. The following outcry caused several retailers and fast food chains to refuse future purchase of the product. AFA Foods, one of the largest ground beef processors in America, said the backlash led it to file for bankruptcy, reports CNBC. The company is based in King of Prussia, Pa., and has about 850 full-time employees. Beef Products, Inc., whose South Sioux City, Neb., plant the governors toured, has halted production at some of its plants. Hy-Vee, a grocery chain based in Iowa, has since reversed its decision to stop using lean finely textured beef in ground beef products.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, and two lieutenant governors "blasted the media" for calling the product pink slime, The Associated Press reports. They said the beef industry has been "unfairly maligned and mislabeled." Crisis management experts, though, say "it will take more than a tour and a few burgers to rehabilitate the product's image," White reports. Vice President of Rubenstein & Associates Marcia Horowitz told White: "It's the perception problem. They have this moniker now and they can't seem to get the slime off of them."

Ken Anderson of Brownfield Ag News reports that many beef industry supporters are upset that the USDA hasn't championed a stronger defense of finely textured beef. Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson told Anderson the USDA "really ignored the science," which states "there's absolutely nothing wrong with finely textured lean beef." He said he's disappointed the USDA "caved to the 'pink slime' hysteria." The USDA announced it would tell school districts which suppliers use lean finely textured beef so administrators can decide whether or not to use it. Secretary Tom Vilsack, who defended the product generally, said schools should have the option to reject it.

Feds reach agreement with 5 Great Lakes states to spur offshore wind farms in lakes

The Obama administration and five states have reached an agreement to speed up plans for wind farms in the Great Lakes, The Associated Press reports. Plans for construction haven't moved forward because of cost concerns and public opposition. Under the deal, state and federal agencies will craft blueprints for speeding regulatory review without sacrificing environmental and safety standards. Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania signed the agreement.

Opponents say turbines would "ruin spectacular vistas, lower shoreline property values and harm birds and fish," AP reports. Last year, New York Power Authority abandoned plans to build 200 turbines on lakes Erie and Ontario. Supports, though, say the Great Lakes are an "untapped source of clean energy and economic growth." Officials say offshore winds could generate more than 700 gigawatts of electricity. Each gigawatt of offshore wind could power 300,000 homes while reducing demand for electricity from coal, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (Read more)

Prohibition still exists, mainly in the rural South

Prohibition is still alive and well in some rural parts of the U.S., even though the national law banning alcohol sales was repealed in 1933, Brian Wheeler of the BBC reports for his worldwide audience. The 21st Amendment handed alcohol regulation to the states, and many places voted to keep the ban in place. There are more than 200 "dry" counties in the U.S., and many others where cities and towns allow only beer or have voted to go "moist," allowing alcohol sales only in restaurants. "The result is a patchwork of dry, wet and moist counties stretching across the South," Wheeler reports. (BBC map)

The rough economy has "accelerated the march of alcohol, and in recent years many communities that have been dry for decades are opting to end prohibition, for fear of losing business to their wet neighbors," Wheeler writes. He traveled to Williamsburg, Ky., near the Tennessee border, where a recent vote ended a ban on alcohol sales in restaurants. "I hope that we can move into the 21st Century and take advantage of a lot of the things that other communities have," local lawyer Paul Croley told Wheeler. "It is time to wake up and realize that our standard of living can be as good as our neighbors." It's a big mind-set shift from five years ago when the ban was upheld by 130 votes. (Read more)

More studies link pesticides to colony collapse disorder in bees

Two studies released last week have linked pesticide use to colony collapse disorder in bees, adding to two other studies this year suggesting the same linkage. One study out of Britain and published in the journal Science found bumblebees reacted negatively to neonicotinoid pesticides, which harm the central nervous system. The other study was conducted in France and found the pesticide affected the honing capability of bees to find their hives, even with little exposure. The pesticides in question are made by Bayer CropScience.

The company questions how the British study was conducted and said all studies about pesticide use affecting bees are "oversimplified" and ignore decades of declining bee health. CCD was identified in 2006 and has killed an estimated 20 to 40 percent of U.S. honeybees, reports Rick Wills of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The country could lose $15 billion worth of crops that bees pollinate each year. Beekeepers and several environmental organizations have filed a legal petition asking the Environmental Protection Agency to halt use of some pesticides.

NPR's Dan Charles reports the EPA knew neonicotinoid pesticides were harmful to bees when it approved usage of them in the late 1990s. He writes: "Government regulators, relying in part on studies carried out by Bayer CropScience, came to the conclusion that bees would be exposed to only tiny amounts of the pesticide, well below what's necessary to kill them." The new studies, though -- one of which is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- are starting to prove otherwise. Charles provides a review of this year's CCD and pesticide linkage studies. (Read more)

New EPA emissions rule to end 'coal as we know it'

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a new proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions two weeks ago, effectively ending construction of new coal-fired power plants. The new rules would limit carbon dioxide emissions to 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour, something that's virtually impossible at coal-fired plants without viable carbon-capture technology, still not commercialized. Many media outlets have weighed in about the decision, including speculation about the "end of coal as we know it."

Terrence Henry of State Impact reports building a new coal-fired plant "is going to be a very unattractive option" in the future. Though the EPA says coal can still be used for energy production if plants are built with technology to reduce CO2 emissions, Matthew Yglesias of Slate writes: "Barring some miraculous new innovation in the creation of cost-effective carbon sequestration technology, there aren’t going to be any more coal-fired plants built in the United States." He says natural gas will be the new face of American energy production, and the alternative to gas "in the event that the gas boom ends" will be renewable sources.

Yglesias says the new rules aren't "that big a deal" right now because it won't have an impact in the short-term. "Cheap gas, the falling price of solar, community activism, and the risk of CO2 regulation had already created the situation where no new post-2012 conventional coal was in the pipeline anyway," he writes. At least three energy companies were already moving away from coal-fired plants, writes Padma Nagappan of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., San Diego Gas & Electric and Duke Energy representatives told Nagappan they had no intention of building new coal plants, but they do intend to build natural gas plants. Yglesias says regulating old coal-fired plants will be the subject of a separate rule-making process.

Here is a story about the EPA's new greenhouse gas limits from McClatchy Newspapers, and another from The New York Times.