Friday, June 22, 2012

Justice Department lawyer orders reporter not to quote her as she conducts a public meeting

A U.S. Department of Justice attorney conducting a public hearing in New Iberia, La., told local newspaper reporter Matthew Beaton that he could not quote her. When he and others questioned her authority to issue such an edict, the lawyer "grew belligerent and threatening," demanded that Beaton leave and said "You don’t want to get on the Department of Justice’s bad side," Beaton reported. Beaton initially agreed not to quote her, but she persisted in her demand, then let him stay.

Rachel Hranitzky's "demeanor softened" after the meeting and she told Beaton she "had gotten into big trouble" being quoted. "She said if she was quoted she could lose her job and that was the reason for her demands," he wrote. The hearing was about alleged discrimination in the city fire department. (Read more)

"When a public hearing is announced, the expectation is that whatever is discussed is to be talked about in a public forum," Daily Iberian Managing Editor Jeff Zeringue wrote in an editorial. "The threats of not wanting 'to get on the Department of Justice’s bad side' are unbelievable. Why would any government agency threaten its citizens at all, much less on an issue that is clearly no concern of national security?" (Read more)

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent the department a letter today saying RCFP was "gravely concerned" about the episode and any such policy or practice, and asking to what extent it has been adopted, when and who was responsible for it, along with relevant documents. (Read more)

Once assumed safe, chemical waste is leaking from injection wells and sometimes polluting aquifers

Over the past few decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation's geology as an invisible dumping ground, writes Abrahm Lustgarten, who won awards for his reporting on the fracking industry, which disposes vast amounts of drilling wastewater in such wells.

"No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil," Lustgarten writes. "But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia. There are growing signs they were mistaken. Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation's drinking water." Recent examples include contaminants from oil and gas drilling wells bubbling up, fountain-like, in Oklahoma and Louisiana, as well as in a dog park in Los Angeles.

Thus begins a fascinating and exhaustive piece by Lustgarten that covers "the more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking. Federal officials and many geologists insist that the risks posed by all this dumping are minimal. Accidents are uncommon, they say, and groundwater reserves — from which most Americans get their drinking water — remain safe and far exceed any plausible threat posed by injecting toxic chemicals into the ground. But in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn't always work."

"In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted," said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the Environmental Protection Agency's underground injection program. "A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die." The boom in oil and natural gas drilling is only making matters worse, geologists say. (Read more.)

Midwest bankers survey: International economic situation dampening growth in region

A monthly survey of bankers has indicated a slowing of economic growth in rural areas of 10 Midwestern and Western states, according to a Bloomberg News report. The reason: The problems in Europe and elsewhere, according to a report released Thursday. "International economic problems are affecting us here," said Dale Bradley, CEO of Citizens State Bank in Miltonvale, Kan. The survey covers rural areas of Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, most of the Great Plains and the Corn Belt.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss oversees the survey. He said the results suggest that areas dependent on agriculture and energy will generally continue growing, but more slowly. The overall index on the monthly survey of bankers declined to 56.7 in June, from May's 58.5. That's the lowest level for the index in 2012, but any score above 50 still suggests growth in the months ahead. 

Senate passes bipartisan Farm Bill; House faces split between Midwestern and Southern farmers

The Senate approved a wide-ranging, bipartisan-pleasing Farm Bill Thursday that would expand crop insurance, eliminate direct payments to farmers -- the backbone of farm subsidies since the mid-90s," notes David Rogers of Politico -- and make other cuts for a projected savings of more than $23 billion over its five-year lifespan. The bill passed on an unusual bipartisan vote of 64-35, after senators defeated most of the 73 amendments on a list agreed to by party leaders. The deal was brokered largely by Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, top Republican and chairman of the Agriculture Committee, right (Associated Press photo).

One amendment that didn't make the list would have prevented meatpackers from owning livestock, reversing the trend in the industry. It was worth a vote, the Daily Yonder opines. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee blocked "implementation of regulations meant to bring a little market fairness into the lives of poultry and hog producers," the Yonder says. "What a lively week for the nation's livestock raisers!"

"In the final hours Thursday, exhausted Democrats only narrowly beat back two anti-regulatory proposals — each of which got a solid majority but fell short of a 60-vote threshold," reports Rogers. "On a 56-43 vote, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) came surprisingly close to winning a flat ban" on aerial surveillance of agricultural operations by the Environmental Protection Agency and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) "came even closer, 58-41, on his proposal" to let rural water companies forgo mailing annual reports to customers if no violations had been found.

The new emphasis on crop insurance created "a real and lasting split" between corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest and "Southern rice, peanuts and wheat growers," Rogers notes, pointing to the roll call (which is available from the Yonder). Bridging that split will be high on the agenda in the House, where Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) "is open to keeping some target price supports" to help Southern farmers, "a heavier government hand than some tea party Republicans may want," Rogers writes. "At the same time, Lucas is shooting for greater savings than the Senate, meaning he will have to cut more from food stamps, straining his bipartisan coalition with farm state Democrats." The bill passed Thursday would cut about $4.5 billion from food stamps. The House Republican budget introduced earlier this year by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would turn the nutrition program into block grants for the states.

The House is scheduled to start work on its own Farm Bill July 11, but before then it will consider an agriculture appropriations bill. "The fact that the Agriculture and Appropriations committees should be thrown together on the floor next week has its own irony," Rogers writes. "Both committees have a tradition of bipartisanship, which has earned them the scorn of many in the House Republican leadership. But that same history of working together is what the Senate was celebrating Thursday in Stabenow and Roberts’ performance." (Read more)

Growers debate how Obama's lifting of deportation threat from young immigrants affects them

With President Obama's executive order to halt the deportation of young, illegal immigrants announced late last week, Agri-Pulse reports that U.S. agriculture is wrestling with its possible impact on the labor force. The executive order, which incorporates part of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a measure pending in Congress that, while not granting citizenship to children who came to the United States as illegal immigrants, would remove the threat of deportation and grant them the right to work in the United States. The move may provide work permits to as many as 800,000 young immigrants.

"While this might be a step in the right direction, it could set back efforts by the agricultural industry to get a new guest worker program or other needed immigration reform legislation passed in Congress," said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers. West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, a fruit producing company based in Washington state that relies on immigrant labor for a portion of its workforce, told Agri-Pulse that, "We're trying to understand how this is going to work and how we're going to work with our people who might be in this category. It's going to create hope in the lives of many young people who under no fault of their own have come to know the U.S. as their own, yet that don't have legitimate documentation."

However, Western Growers chief lobbyist, Ken Barbic, said the measure "is as at best short-term relief to something that Congress needs to act on, whether we are talking about the DREAM Act specificially, or larger immigration issues." Barbic noted that the industry has been waiting a long time for some kind of congressional solution.

Agri-Pulse is a subscription-only weekly newsletter, but it offers a four-week trial subscription.

Arch Coal to lay off 650 Appalachian miners, mostly in E.Ky.; blame game begins

Blaming market conditions and regulatory obstacles, Arch Coal announced its intent to lay off about 650 miners -- 500 of those in Eastern Kentucky, 125 in West Virginia and 25 in Virgina. “You’ve got people that are going to lose their homes, lose their livelihood,” Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble of Hazard, Ky., said of the decision, terming it "a disaster" for the region.

"Some Kentucky officials directly blamed the layoffs on recent actions by the Obama administration and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which have taken a more aggressive stance in recent years to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants and to crack down on water pollution from surface mining," Mike Wynn of The Courier-Journal reportsBut Matt Wasson of the environmental group Appalachian Voices challenged those assertions, saying while Kentucky mining operations have laid off more than 900 workers in recent months, coal companies have attributed nearly all of those cuts to market conditions. “It’s really unfortunate that is how some of the local officials are going to play this,” he said. “That is all about politics. . . . The reality is that four years ago coal supplied half of our electricity. Today it supplies a third. That has enormous consequences."

NEA honors rural craftsman with annual Heritage Awards; 2012's best -- snowshoes, baskets, gospel

National Endowment for the ArtsSnowshoes made from ash wood and rawhide by Paul and Darlene Bergren of Minot, North Dakota -- the Begrens' craftsmanship and teaching have been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Daily Yonder reminds that The National Endowment for the Arts has announced its National Heritage Awards for 2012. And that Paul and Darlene Bergren -- dog-sled and snowshoe makers from Minot, North Dakota -- are among them. "The awards honor artists who are preserving traditional crafts, music, and visual arts through teaching and the excellence of their own work. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of rural makers and musicians have been recognized, from woodcarver George Lopez (Cordova, New Mexico) to zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier (Opelousas, LA) to weaver Teri Rofkar (Sitka, Alaska). Many folk expressions originated as the practical arts of rural life (saddlery, quilting,..making snowshoes)." A list of the 2012 winners and past winners is available here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rural states do poorly on higher education report card

Public higher education is failing when it comes to preparing students for the workforce, a new study by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce has found. It graded each state on how well its public colleges and universities prepare students. Sonali Kohli of The Ithaca Journal reports that the states with the worst grades trend rural: Alaska, Nevada, Idaho and Louisiana.

The report used data from different sources from 2008 to 2012 and graded four-year and two-year schools separately. Among the findings: Washington state, California and Florida scored the highest grades; 12 states scored D's for student success at four-year schools: seven in the Great Plains, five in Appalachia and the South; the Dakotas' two-year schools out-performed all other states; and, completion rates at four-year schools were close to 50 percent in 47 states.

ICW President Margaret Spellings said colleges and universities are more worried about maintaining reputations than actually examining how they are performing. The report says states should "focus less on attracting new students and work harder at making sure students who are already enrolled get their degrees," Kohli reports. Spellings, a former secretary of education, said making it easier to transfer credits from community colleges to four-year schools and expanding online classes would help. Both are options that would be of particular importance in rural areas, where many attend community colleges and utilize online classes. (Read more)

Protesters to stage hunger strike to oppose postal closings and service cutbacks

Protesters will be in Washington, D.C. on Monday, June 25, to start a four-day hunger strike to bring attention to the U.S. Postal Service plan to reduce services and cut jobs, mostly in rural areas, reports Steve Hutkins of Save the Post Office. The protest will take place just days before the USPS implements changes that would end overnight delivery for about 20 percent of First Class mail.

Over 400 community groups, clergy, citizens and postal workers are endorsing the strike, and individuals can add their names to the list of endorsers. If any are from your community, that could be a local story.

Hutkins says the theme of the hunger strike is "that cuts to service will succeed only in driving business away from the Postal Service and sending it into a death spiral." Hutkins adds that alternatives to the current proposals exist to save the USPS, including repeal of the 2006 Congressional mandate that requires the USPS to pay $5.6 billion a year into its retiree health plan, which he says is the main cause of the agency's deficit (Read more)

Two Indian tribes likely to back settlement for water rights along Little Colorado River

Navajo and Hopi tribal governments are likely to support a settlement with the U.S. federal government that would allow the Navajo Nation to use as much water as they need from the Little Colorado River, right, reports Anne Minard of Indian Country Today Media Network. The Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement would allow the tribes to pull water from a river aquifer that is on the Navajo reservation in parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and close to the Hopi reservation.

Hopi Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa and Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly say the settlement "is a boon for future generations," and would secure water supplies for three water projects to deliver drinking water to rural communities on both reservations, something they to which they previously didn't have access. It's a deal they wouldn't likely win through "protracted court battles that are the settlement's alternative," Minard reports.

A group of anti-settlement activists disagrees, saying that the 30 stakeholders in the settlement all had to agree, and they want certain terms met in return for their agreement. In particular, activists are opposed to the extension of the lease for the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. for 34 years, and the provision that states the Navajo can never sue for past or future water withdrawals from or pollution of the aquifer from coal mining on tribal land. Many activists and locals contend that Peabody Energy and the power plant have already damaged the water beyond repair.

Both the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe are faced with dueling bills on which to vote this week: one that supports the settlement, and one that opposes it. At least 22 Navajo chapters have issued resolutions opposing the settlement, and "the number is growing," Minard reports. (Read more)

Coal miner fired for whistleblowing about safety violations is reinstated to work by federal judge

A federal judge has ordered that coal miner Charles Scott Howard, 52, right, is entitled to return to work at Cumberland River Coal Co. after 13 months of alleging discrimination in federal court for his reporting on the company's violations. Administrative Law Judge Margaret Miller also ordered the company to pay Howard a $30,000 fine for discriminating against a whistleblower.

Howard was fired last year after he suffered a head injury while working. Several doctors deemed him fit to return to work, but he was fired anyway, he alleged, because the company didn't like that he brought safety violations in the mine where he worked to the attention of federal safety officials. Miller wrote in her decision that managers at Cumberland River and its parent company Arch Coal "waited until every doctor, including two neurosurgeons, two eye doctors, a psychiatrist and others found no impairment and agreed Howard could return to work" before a doctor working for the companies said Howard could no longer be a miner, The Associated Press's Brett Barrouquere reported. "I find that the mine sought out and received the opinion they were seeking and immediately upon receipt of that single opinion, terminated Howard's employment," Miller wrote.

Howard has been whistleblowing about unsafe mining conditions for years, and has been getting disciplined or fired after each occasion. This is the third time he's been reinstated by a judge. (Read more)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some tea party lawmakers worked hard to keep federal subsidies for rural passenger service

"Tea party lawmakers from rural areas were among those fighting the hardest to preserve taxpayer subsidies for airline flights into and out of small towns last year after senior Republicans tried to eliminate the oft-criticized program," reports Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press. "Now, the House Appropriations Committee is awarding the program an 11 percent budget hike. Next year, the subsidies would reach a record $214 million under a bill the GOP-run committee approved Tuesday. The subsidies can reach hundreds of dollars per ticket -- and can exceed $1,000 in a few routes. The Essential Air Service program was established to guarantee that small communities would continue to get commercial air services even though the routes were no longer profitable.

Taylor notes, "The program awards contracts, usually worth between $1 million and $2 million a year, to subsidize airlines that serve airports in such places as Escanaba, Mich., Pueblo, Colo., and Scottsbluff, Neb. Such subsidies work out to as little as $6 per passenger for airports like Cody, Wyo., and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. But subsidies can often reach hundreds of dollars each way on a round trip flight to and from isolated places like Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai in Hawaii or Great Bend, Kan., whose three or so passengers a day benefited from a subsidy exceeding $600 in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available."

Reps. Rick Berg, R-N.D., and Kristi Noem, R-S.D., were among those who fought to save the program. The subsidies increase approved Tuesday "came as the panel also moved to cut food aid to poor nations overseas and funding for implementing new Wall Street regulations." (Read more)

Rockefeller tells West Virginia to stop listening to 'scare tactics' of coal industry

Jay Rockefeller, the five-term Democratic senator from the nation's most coal-dependent state, told West Virginians today that they need to stop listening to the fear-mongering and scare tactics from the coal industry and told them it's time they woke up to the truth. He told them he is worried for their future and for their health.

The occasion for his passionate remarks was his refusal to go along with a coal industry-backed resolution of disapproval of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on mercury and air toxins, which failed to pass on Wednesday, 53 to 46.

Rockefeller said the industry's "scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money, and, worst of all, coal miners’ hopes. But sadly, these coal operators have closed themselves off from any other opposing voices and few dared to speak out for change – even though it’s been staring them in the face for years."

The senator added that he wants West Virginians to prepare for the future in light of coal's finite quantity, the rise of natural gas, and the increasing desire for a low-carbon economy. He asked that they consider the health implications of the rule in question and remarked, "I oppose this resolution because I care so much about West Virginians." For his text, from The Charleston Gazette, go here.

A bit of background on the rule: On December 21, 2011, EPA announced the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the first national standards on power-plant emissions of mercury and toxic air pollution such as arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide. The standards will slash emissions of these dangerous pollutants by relying on widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.  For more on the MACT rules, click here.

Rural schools struggle to bridge the digital divide

Rural schools have long been leaders in distance-learning and online education. "To offer a full slate of courses to their students, they’ve had to be. Some states, fearing a divide between rural and urban communities, have developed statewide initiatives to provide technology to rural schools," Sarah Butrymowicz writes in The Hechinger Report. Maine, she points out, gives every student a laptop, and Alabama requires all school districts "to offer advanced placement courses through distance-learning technology, where students video-conference with teachers. (Edison School in Yoder, Colo.; Butrymowicz photo)

In 2010, only 57 percent of rural households had broadband Internet access, compared to 72 percent in urban areas, according to a November 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Teachers in rural settings don't require students to go online to complete assignments and have to be flexible about staying after school so students can work on the computers. “The Internet can give them library resources that they might otherwise not have,” said Aimee Howley, senior associate dean in the College of Education at Ohio University, who studies technology integration in rural schools. Technology can also be used for simulations of things, she said, that “you just can’t do on site."

For schools facing shrinking budgets and consolidation, technology could be rural schools’ saving grace, said Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia who now serves as president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., that has studied the challenges facing rural schools. “We’re encouraging every district to develop a systematic strategy for employing technology,” he said. “My guess is you will see a number of rural schools actually saved and renewed as learning centers.”

Natural gas industry's rapid growth putting strain on states' efforts to properly inspect wells

Advocates whose job it is to watch the natural-gas industry have been impressed by Ohio's example: The state has hired as many as 70 new field inspectors to keep track of the work being done by drillers of 250 more wells this year in their state alone. But, reports Jim Malewitz of Stateline, the news agency of the Pew Center on the States, there is concern that other states are falling way behind in their mandated inspections of the gas wells that have appeared on their landscapes. (Photo by Amy Sancetti)

Gwen Lachelt of Washington, D.C.-based Earthworks, which advocates more oversight of the gas industry, "notes that in other states with surging natural gas production, there has been no effort to beef up oversight of the oil and gas industry. 'No one is minding the store,' Lachelt says. 'The states are simply not enforcing what regulations they do have on the books…They don’t have enough inspectors, and wells are going uninspected."

Because of a lack of manpower, most wells across the U.S. are not inspected in a given year.  Malewitz notes that, for example, New Mexico has roughly the same number of oil and gas wells as Ohio, but it employs only 12 inspectors to oversee them. That small crew made between 25,000 and 30,000 inspections last year. In Colorado, home to 47,651 wells, a team of 15 performed 12,000 inspections in 2011, according to the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.  (Read more)

House panel votes for new ban on horse slaughter

Horse slaughterhouses would again be effectively banned in the U.S. if the House Appropriations Committee has its way. The panel voted Tuesday to bar the Department of Agriculture from spending any money on inspection of horse abattoirs, thus preventing their operation. Such a ban was imposed several years ago but was dropped in a House-Senate conference committee last year.

No horse slaughterhouses have opened since then, partly because of the uncertainty about federal policy, and clues were scant Tuesday about the future of the amendment by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., to the USDA appropriations bill. Sara Gonzalez of Agri-Pulse reports that the amendment passed on a voice vote after Moran said, “Industrial slaughter of horses should not be condoned by the U.S. government. We have to put an end once and for all to this practice.”

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said "It is more inhumane to let a horse die by the side of the road" than to kill it in a slaughterhouse. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., chairman of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, said the government needs to allow U.S. producers to meet demand for horse meat in Asia and Europe. "This is a 100 percent emotional issue," he said. Agri-Pulse notes that the ban "is a long-standing priority of the Humane Society of the United States."

Agri-Pulse is a subscription-only weekly newsletter, but it offers a four-week trial subscription.

Southern Baptists enthusiastically elect first African-American president

Fred Luter Jr., left, and outgoing SBC
President Bryant Wright (AP photo)
Rev. Fred Luter Jr. has been chosen to lead the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the first time that an African-American pastor has been so honored. Travis Loller of the Associated Press writes that it is "an important step for a denomination that was formed on the wrong side of slavery before the Civil War and had a reputation for supporting segregation and racism during much of the last century. In a news conference after the vote, Luter said he doesn't think his election is some kind of token gesture. 'If we stop appointing African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics to leadership positions after this, we've failed ... I promise you I'm going to do all that I can to make sure this is not just a one-and-done deal.' " Luter was unopposed when he was elected by thousands of enthusiastic delegates at the SBC annual meeting in his hometown of New Orleans.

At that meeting, a controversial proposal was also put forth for the organization to adopt the alternative name of Great Commission Baptists, a move that was made in hopes of bringing in more believers. The organization, acknowledging a recent decline in membership,  its desire for greater diversity and the belief that some may have a negative associations with the current name, has put the optional name to vote. The result was set to be announced Wednesday.

Luter did speak Tuesday about the decline in SBC membership and his own efforts to grow his church, reports AP's Loller, "which included intensive outreach to men, and his concern that men in his inner-city neighborhood were not taking responsibility for their children."  (Read more)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Senate votes mandatory funding for some Rural Development programs in Farm Bill

The U.S. Senate voted this afternoon to amend the 2012-17 Farm Bill to include $150 million mandatory funding for certain Rural Development programs in the Department of Agriculture, rather than leave them at the mercy of appropriators and administration officials.

The amendment would secure funding for non-farm microenterprise development, which advocates said is in danger, guarantee funding for water and sewer projects for which applications have already been filed; and avoid cuts in programs for beginning and minority farmers.

The vote, 55-44, was almost entirely along party lines, with Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri voting no and Republican Susan Collins of Maine voting yes. Collins' seatmate, Republican Olympia Snowe, voted no. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, another moderate Republican, switched from no to yes near the end of the vote.

Debate was limited to one minute on each side by the agreement governing consideration of 73 amendments to the bill. Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio, left, who sponsored the amendment, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chair of the Agriculture Committee, spoke for it. She implicitly defended her committee's decision to leave the usual Rural Development title out of the bill, saying the move eliminated 16 specific spending authorizations. For Brown's press release on the amendment, click here.

Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas opposed the amendment, saying it reduces the five-year savings in the bill to an estimated $23.2 billion, and "If we're going to achieve savings we've got to hold the line."

Final Senate approval of the bill is expected next week. UPDATE, June 20: Agri-Pulse reports that it could pass this week. The early consideration of the Rural Development amendment, because of its financial implications, may have helped secure its passage.

Meredith Shiner of Roll Call reported that "Sources were cautiously optimistic that the Senate will approve a bill that received a bipartisan 16-5 vote out of committee. But it is also clear that certain regional disputes will be tougher to bridge and that even if the Senate does pass the bill, the road to the president’s desk likely will be difficult, if not impossible, with a Republican-controlled House."

Shiner wrote that the agreement on the amendments was a "massive" deal that was passed by unanimous consent and includes some measures that are not germane to the bill Reuters reports several of the amendments, including those about debt reduction, subsidies and soil erosion, "are meant to put lawmakers on the record on hot-button spending issues."

David Rogers of Politico reports that crop insurance, sugar price supports and food stamps "will all likely be subject to multiple challenges testing their political support." Rogers also reports that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was promised a vote on his RAISE Act, which amends labor laws to give employers more ability to reward performance bonuses. The Associated Press notes the bill, which financially is mainly about nutrition, will provide $80 billion a year for the food-stamp program.

The Rural Development amendment was "hanging by a thread," Chuck Hassebrook of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs wrote earlier for the Daily Yonder. He asked, "Why is the political system unresponsive to the more than 95 percent of rural people who do not farm but need jobs, opportunity and community development?" He offered these answers: "Rural Development gains little mention in the news media. It’s not on the list of concerns that pundits say must be resolved before the Farm Bill can muster enough support to pass the Senate. Rather, all eyes are on the dispute between Midwestern and Southern agriculture interests on how commodity payments are structured. Rural development scarcely prompts a mention. . . . Our organizations are not presumed, individually or collectively, to represent the rural masses. And there is little fear that ignoring our pleas will prompt dire electoral consequences with rural voters generally."

Reporter who broke Penn State abuse story offers lessons, including: 'People can be good at lying'

Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim, 24, right, learned a big lesson while covering the Penn State sex-abuse scandal that has landed former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on trial this week. "People can be good at lying," she said during a speech at the annual convention of Investigative Reporters & Editors, reports Ted Gest of The Crime Report.

Ganim has won several awards for her coverage of the scandal, including a Pulitzer Prize this April. She told IRE members that she wasn't handed the story of Sandusky's wrong-doing and had to go after it with "old-school, knocking-on-doors journalism," Gest reports. It took her more than 18 months to compile the bits and pieces of reporting into a solid story that resulted in the allegations that Sandusky abused several boys over several years.

Ganim didn't name the sources who lied to her during that time, but said she had a two-hour conversation with someone that was initially convincing. Later, she found out the information was "fabricated" and made her think "This does not add up," Gest writes. An original source told her that the source's tip wasn't true, but she followed it anyway.

She said The Associated Press got ahead of her at one point, but by returning to her original sources, including mothers of some alleged victims, she was able to stay ahead of her competition. Ganim had recently been hired by the Patriot-News as a police reporter, but her boss was willing to let her work on the Sandusky story full-time. As a bit of advice to those at the conference, she said they should find employers who support good investigative reporting, because many wouldn't have that much faith in a new reporter. (Read more)

Officials of Western states want to keep possibly endangered species off federal list; scientists say alternatives won't protect the animals

"Candidate conservation agreements" are plans to keep an animal or plant species from being placed on the federal endangered-species list to prevent restrictions on land use that includes habitat of the species. Keeping dwindling species off the endangered list through these agreements is a growing trend in the West, where the fate of more than 1,000 species will be decided by 2018 under settlements between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and two environmental groups, Joshua Zaffos of High Country News reports. (HCN photo by Noppadol Paothong: endangered-list candidate Gunnison sage grouse)

Fish and Wildlife had a backlog of species to be considered for listing, and WildEarth Gaurdians and the Center of Biological Diversity filed lawsuits and listing petitions to speed up the process. Those groups have agreed to curtail those after the agency agreed to process the backlog. Zaffos reports wildlife managers have to determine if the conservation agreements are "producing meaningful results" before the agreements between the agency and environmental groups can affect listings.

Scientists and environmentalists are questioning "on-the-ground benefits" of candidate conservation agreements, Zaffos reports. Some agreements require landowners and users to "continue current practices and preserve existing vacant habitat without trying to restore populations or address major threats," he writes. College of Idaho professor Eric Yensen told Zaffos the agreements can "prevent poisoning, shooting and similar responses," and ease reintroductions. But, they don't stop habitat loss or development, Yensen said. Despite that, Fish and Wildlife plans to extend conservation agreements, and is accepting public comment on the how to improve them through July. (Read more)

EPA sues coal companies, says they buried Eastern Kentucky streams without proper permits

The Environmental Protection Agency has accused several Eastern Kentucky coal mining companies of burying streams in the region without proper permits, Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reported earlier this month. The agency said in a lawsuit that the companies should restore the sites or pay for mitigation projects elsewhere. The suit was filed in federal court in Pikeville, in the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfield.

The damages sought by EPA could reach into the millions of dollars. Companies named in the lawsuit are Frasure Creek Mining, Essar Minerals, Trinity Coal Groups, Trinity Coal Partners, Bear Fork Resources, Falcon Resources and Prater Branch Resources. EPA alleges that beginning in 2005, the companies buried more than 11,000 feet of streams at two surface mines in Eastern Kentucky without the required federal permits. (Read more)

Rumor EPA was using drones for surveillance of pollution from farms, fed by Fox, is shot down

"The Environmental Protection Agency isn't using drone aircraft -- in the Midwest or anywhere else," David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post reports, in an effort to quash rumors that the agency was using the same drones used to kill terrorists to spy on Midwestern farmers. The rumor filled airwaves this month, and Fahrenthold writes this reveals "something hard to capture in American politics: the vibrant, almost viral, life cycle of a falsehood."

The lie was born out of true reports about EPA inspectors flying in small planes, something they've done for more than 10 years, looking for clean-water violations. The flights are legal, says the EPA, under a 1986 Supreme Court decision, and only cost about $1,000 to $2,500 instead of the $10,000 it costs to do the same inspections on the ground.

Nebraska ranchers have recently become concerned about the effects of the flights, calling them an invasion of privacy. A coalition of Nebraska's congressional delegation wrote a letter to the EPA asking about the planes and the flights. They never mentioned drones, but Fahrenthold reports that soon after the letter was sent, someone did start mentioning drones and the rumor quickly got out of hand. "In the days since, the truth has begun, slowly, to rouse itself and stagger after the lie," Fahrenthold reports. (Read more)

The rumor was fed by Megan Kelly of the Fox News Channel, which issued a "clarification" after Farenthold's story.

Rural Development boss sets Twitter Q & A today

Doug O’Brien, the deputy agriculture secretary who runs Rural Development programs, will host USDA's "virtual office hours" on Twitter today at 1:30 p.m. Submit questions in advance to the @USDA Twitter account using the hashtag #AskUSDA.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Innovative program for veterans teaches Marines how to farm, and how to market what they produce

Marine Master Sgt. Ruben Villarreal, right, holds a sage plant as part of the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training Program, a six-week course that teaches service members and veterans about entrepreneurship and agriculture. He's learning to make tea and market it. “We’re looking at capturing a market that hasn’t been addressed. The purpose behind that and sage tea is to raise money, or seed capital, to allow and empower other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” Villareal told Gretel Kovach of The U-T San Diego, formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune. (U-T photo by Charlie Neuman)

VSAT is aimed “to provide them the opportunity to go out there, start up a business, be entrepreneurs, be employers instead of employees, drive the market, create jobs, and continue making America what it is, and that is great and free, Villareal saidMarine veteran Colin Archipley and his wife, Karen, started the program five years ago on their organic farm above Escondido, Calif. With some funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs, they've focus more lately on active-duty service members preparing to leave the service. The intensive, six-week, 270-hour course is now operated in partnership with California State University San Marcos. Veteran benefits and donations are available to cover the $4,500 cost, writes Kovach.

One of the most successful graduates is Mike Hanes, a former Force Recon Marine and Iraq combat veteran who struggled to adjust after he left the service in 2004, notes Kovach. "For about two years while he attended college, he was homeless. 'After class at night, I’d crawl into a bush' in Balboa Park, he said. He graduated in 2009 from San Diego State University but still lacked the business know-how and network to turn his hot sauce recipe into a marketable product. He graduated from VSAT in February and now his Dang! hot sauce is sold in 12 local Whole Foods stores." (Read more.)

New York landowners win right to negotiate pre-fracking oil and gas leases with Chesapeake Energy

More than 4,400 landowners in New York have won the right to seek more favorable oil and natural gas leases, after the state attorney general and a subsidiary of Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corp. came to terms last week.

"The leases, which were signed in the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, were prior to the proliferation of high-volume hydrofracking, a much-debated gas-drilling process that made formations such as the Marcellus Shale profitable. As such, the terms of the contracts are generally well under current market value," reports Jon Campbell of the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester.

“Make no mistake about it," said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, "this agreement will provide a safety net for thousands of landowners by allowing them the opportunity to negotiate fairer lease terms, both financial and environmental, regardless of their existing contracts. For landowners across the state, this deal literally will provide a new lease on life.”

"The leases had been subject to a force majeure claim from Chesapeake Appalachia LLC, which had tried to extend their terms amid an ongoing environmental review of natural-gas development in New York," notes Jay F. Marks of The Oklahoman. "Such claims typically involve uncontrollable circumstances such as natural disasters."

The agreement covers leases that have expired or would have expired before Dec. 31, 2013. Landowners will be able to negotiate leases with other energy companies, but Chesapeake retains the right to match those terms. Chesapeake admitted no wrongdoing, but the company will pay $250,000 to reimburse the state for its investigation of landowners' complaints. (Read more.)

Rural health advocates object to federal report that suggested ending special payments to rural hospitals

The National Rural Health Association and a coalition of Medicare-dependent rural hospitals say a recent report that found payments to rural doctors are "at least as adequate as those made to urban physicians"and "some special payments to rural hospitals should not be continued" is inaccurate and "harmful to rural Americans," the Daily Yonder reports.

The report came from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, "an independent congressional agency given the job of reporting on functioning of Medicare." The groups say 77 percent of rural counties are defined by the Rural Health Research Center as having a shortage of health professionals, and 164 counties have no primary-care physician. And they point to a 2011 federal report which found that “Rural areas have higher rates of poverty, chronic disease, and uninsurance, and millions of rural Americans have limited access to a primary health care provider.” Moreover, the groups say that a recent study found that 35 percent of all rural hospitals lose money.

Alan Morgan, CEO of NRHA, said “Rural patients and providers will ultimately pay the price as rural hospitals will be forced to eliminate services or close their doors if this report is enacted." (Read more)

CDC says 4% of Central Appalachian surface miners tested have black-lung disease

Nearly 4 percent of surface coal miners who work in Central Appalachia who were tested for a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have black lung disease, compared to 2 percent of all U.S. surface miners and 3.2 percent of underground coal miners. (Getty Images photo)

Though the study didn't test Kentucky separately from the 14 other states assessed, Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal in Louisville asked about it and found that "13 of 230 Kentucky surface miners tested — or 5.7 percent — had black lung," she reports, quoting Cara Halldin, a CDC epidemic intelligence service officer, as calling that number " a disproportionate burden."

It's not clear why the incidence is higher in Central Appalachia than other parts of the country, but Halldin suspects it has to do with "more years spent mining, area geology or the safety culture at mines," Ungar reports. One study showed miners who work in Central Appalachia typically work 28 years in the mines while non-Appalachian miners work average 20 years.

Black-lung disease, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is the result of miners repeatedly inhaling the dust that comes from extracting coal. That dust occurs whether the miner is under- or above-ground. "Coal mining is really, really dusty. Don't matter what you do, you're in the dust," said John Bud Ritchie, a retired surface miner who has black lung disease. "It's real rough. You can't hardly keep the dust down on hot days."

The federal exposure limit for "respirable dust" in underground and surface mines is 2 milligrams of coal dust per cubic meter of air. That limit was set in 1969, along with a law that set up "a surveillance system for assessing prevalence of black lung among underground coal miners," Ungar reports. "But the requirement for surveillance doesn't extend to surface miners." Haldin said, "Industry should recognize this is a problem and their workers are at risk and bring down the levels." (Read more)

In the wake of the CDC study, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is offering free black-lung screenings in Eastern Kentucky, Hazard, Ky.'s WYMT-TV reports. The screenings will be at various locations in Eastern Kentucky throughout the summer and will be confidential. They will include a work history questionnaire, chest X-ray and a spirometry test, with the whole process lasting about 25 minutes. NIOSH will provide participants with results of their screenings, and will not release information to the public or give it to coal companies. For a list of when and where the screenings will take place, click here

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Romney on 5-state bus tour to shore up rural votes

President Obama lost the nationwide rural vote, but the race for president is a state-by-state election, and rural voters could be critical in some swing states. Mitt Romney didn't do well among rural voters in the Republican primaries, so he is on a bus tour of five swing states, kicked off in New Hampshire and headed to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. The tour is "largely intended to generate enthusiasm among conservative voters who wouldn’t dream of backing Obama but might be lukewarm about the former Massachusetts governor," writes Scott Conroy of Real Clear Politics.

"Romney and President Obama are both, let's be honest, city slickers," reports Ari Shapiro of National Public Radio. "That's a big change for the American presidency, says Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies," based in Whitesburg, Ky. "If it's Reagan on a horse or Clinton, the man from Hope, there's always been this kind of visual narrative or this story that to be president you had to be able to handle the wilderness, be comfortable outside of the city," Davis told Shapiro. "It's just part of the lore."

"One cameraman told ABC News that he was being paid by the Romney campaign to shoot an ad. No doubt that footage will resurface on a television screen near you sometime between now and November," Michael Falcone and Emily Friedman report for the network.

For his part, Obama (shown wearing a cowboy hat in Texas in Getty Images 2007 photo) is reminding rural voters of his efforts to help them. "The Rural Council, which Vilsack runs, is a group of Cabinet members who meet to talk about policies aimed specifically at rural America," Shapiro notes. "This week the council put out a report documenting improvements in the agricultural economy." (Read more or listen)