Friday, August 23, 2013

Eliminating black lung is attainable, mine safety and health boss says, but rules still up in air

Joe Main (file photo)
The U.S. Department of Labor has made great strides to ensure the health and safety of coal miners, but there is still work to do to make sure all miners make it home each night healthy and free of injuries, Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told an Aug. 22 conference in Lexington, Ky., on black-lung disease.

However, Main said at the 2013 Central Appalachian Regional Work Safety and Health Symposium that he didn't know when his agency would finalize stricter regulations that it has proposed to deter recent increases in black lung, especially in Central Appalachia. MSHA sent the final rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget this week, Manuel Quinones of Environment & Energy News reports. "It may be months before OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs finishes reviewing the final proposal," Quinones writes. "Two MSHA-proposed rules have been there since 2011." (Read more; subscription may be required)

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says 9 percent of Eastern Kentucky miners screened in one of its programs from 2005 to 2009 had black lung, the highest rate in any state. That was the primary reason for the conference, held by the Central Appalachian Regional Education and Research Center at the University of Kentucky, in partnership with Eastern Kentucky University.

Dr. Edward Petsonk of West Virginia University said he "thought the disease was going to go away" 15 to 20 years ago, when when miners' risk of getting it had dropped by 89 percent. But then it became more prevalent. "and doctors started seeing miners getting severe forms of the diseases at younger ages," Bill Estep notes for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The National Mining Association opposes the rules, saying that black lung is increasing only in a few areas -- not enough to impose more costs on the entire industry, said Bruce Watzman, the lobbying group's senior vice-president. Petsonk "said NIOSH has documented new cases of black lung in recent years in every state but New Mexico — not the outcome the nation was supposed to see under the 1969 law," Estep reports.

For a more detailed report on the issue and Main's remarks, from Tim Mandell of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, click here.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

National pro-biofuels policy has downsides, and limits that are being reached; article lists research

How is the U.S. doing on its 15-year plan to reduce the dependence on oil by producing 36 billion gallons of fuel based on renewable sources by 2022? Biodiesel production approached 1 billion gallons in 2011, while ethanol reached 14 billion gallons, just over 10 percent of the approximately 136 billion gallons of liquid fuels consumed that year, Leighton Walter Klein reports for Journalist's Resource. a service of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.

But, there are some downsides to using biofuels, Klein notes. "That biofuels are crop-based may seem like an advantage — if you need more, just grow more — but there are limits and downsides, too: Feedstock supplies can be volatile, something recent droughts have brought home, and in 2012 U.S. ethanol production began to fall behind the Renewable Fuel Standard as harvests suffered." The 2012 drought significantly hurt production of corn ethanol. More corn could be planted, "but at the cost of increased land-use change, pollution and water consumption."The solution, Klein writes, could be second-generation biofuels, which are produced from algae, plant cellulose or other sources.

"For all the big questions, the impact of biofuels is also intensely local," Klein writes. "Government policies can make the difference between a good year and a bad one for farmers — or complicate an already difficult situation: As the drought in the summer of 2012 dragged on, U.S. biofuel interests, livestock producers and farmers wrangled over whether the ethanol mandate should be suspended — it required that nearly half of the domestic corn production go to ethanol refineries, not feedlots. Consumers play their role, too: Energy-use per capita is expected to fall 20 percent by 2040 compared to 2000, with more people choosing hybrids and all-electric vehicles; this is good for the environment, but pushes the ethanol market toward the 'blend wall',” the capacity of the fuel market to absorb ethanol production with the current limit of 10 percent ethanol in gasoline. The article concludes with a list of studies on issues related to biofuel production and consumption.
Graphic by Energy Information Administration

West Virginia senator won't back down, continues to push for wider background checks for guns

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia refuses to apologize for his failed attempt to expand background checks on guns, while remaining an advocate of the rights of gun owners. Speaking this week in Beckley, W.Va., Manchin told a crowd, "Let me ask you this point-blank. Do you think it's unreasonable if you went to a gun show or online that there'd be a background check? That's all we're talking about," Chris Frates reports for the National Journal. (Associated Press photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The background-check measure was defeated in April, falling six votes short of stopping a fillibuster. Manchin blamed the National Rifle Association, which responded in June by running ads asking him not to support background checks. Manchin responded with his own ads, urging the NRA to support background checks.

"Everywhere he goes, Manchin paints his proposal as a simple fix to close loopholes that allow some gun-show and Internet buyers to avoid background checks," Frates writes. "It's an attempt to better keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. It's not a government gun grab. In fact, he argues, his plan would strengthen gun rights. Still, Manchin knew, in a culture as steeped in guns as the Mountain State, he was going to pay a price for pushing any increased gun control."

Manchin told the crowd, "You think I didn't know that when I looked at the background-check bill that it wasn't going to be as hot as anything can possibly (be) in my state? You think politically that was a smart move for me? Not at all. It was a stupid move, politically."

But Manchin doesn't like to change his stance just to sway voters. "Whether it's special interests or party bosses, Manchin spends a lot of time reminding his constituents that he's not beholden," Frates writes. "He's constantly giving political-geography lessons where his GPS puts him squarely in the middle, working to bring Democrats and Republicans together on the big issues of the day."

A source who has worked closely with the senator told Frates, "Manchin doesn't want to fall in line, he wants to do his own thing. It's really hard to get him to execute an agenda that's very systematic. The reason he does these things like cutting deals with Republicans is because they're more willing to meet him where he is."

Manchin told Frates he's going to keep looking for a way to expand background checks. "As he walked back to his car, Manchin talked about how important it is to meet people on their turf. West Virginians, he said, "shake your hand, look into your eyes, and see into your soul. They have to. It's survival in some tough territories. You can't bullshit them." (Read more)

Republican majorities take over county election boards in N,C.; at least one creates controversy

Residents of Watauga County, in the rural northwestern corner of North Carolina, are upset over arguably partisan actions of the 2-1 majority on its county board of elections, freshly Republican because of the GOP's recent takeover of state government.

The Democratic board member has alleged open-meetings violations by the Republicans, who recently took several actions that could lessen the electoral influence of students at Appalachian State University: reducing the number of early polling places, combining three precincts into one that will be the state's fifth largest, and changing the location of another polling place, Jesse Wood reports for the High Country Press in Boone, the county's largest city. (Photo by Wood: The meeting got so crowded it had to be moved to a larger room)

The crowd at the meeting reacted with "a roomful of boos and jeers and ended with a chant of 'shame on you,'” Wood writes. Democratic member Kathleen Campbell threatened legal action multiple times during the heated meeting, saying Eggers and Aceto signed the special-meeting notice on a Thursday, but she and Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges hadn’t received the information packet for the meeting until minutes before Monday’s meeting, after the Republican members had first refused to let her have it. (Read more)

The Watauga Democrat, which despite its name is not a partisan newspaper, said in an editorial, "What is difficult to understand are the depth and breadth of some of the rapid-fire alterations of board policy that were imposed." The paper invited the board to come to its office "for a roundtable discussion. . . . We would like to believe that our county board of elections, at all times and in all political climates, exists for a singular nonpartisan purpose -- to promote full and fair elections within the confines of our county. That is the ideal to which we must aspire, and it's time to talk honestly about how we will get there." (Read more)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

As grain outlook fades, cattle prospects rise

Cattle producers will fare better than grain farmers in the next two to three years, an agricultural economist told Brownfield Ag News.

Dan Basse, president of Chicago-based AgResource Co., said a combination of factors will make feed costs lower and cattle prices higher. “We think we’re at a tipping point in terms of the grain farmer, who has had a very good run relative to biofuels for the last six or seven years,” he told Brownfield. “Now we’ve kind of changed that environment as biofuels have become mature.  And the U.S. is going to have to fight to get export demand back in corn and wheat forthcoming—and that fight will probably produce lower prices and oversupplies.”

That will help cattle producers, Basse said: “This is kind of their day now in terms of grain prices declining for two to three years—and now, of course, meat prices increasing because of lower supplies.” He said Merck & Co.'s withdrawal of the cattle supplement Zilmax “will probably cut carcass weights 25 to 29 pounds per head,” creating a “rather bullish landscape for the beef producer, for a least a couple of years.” For Brownfield's report and 6-minute interview with Basse, click here.

Could drop in corn prices help pass Farm Bill?

Corn has been big business in recent years, with prices peaking at more than $8 a bushel, up from years of  $1.50 to $3 per bushel. But as the corn boom begins to fade, and prices are expected to drop below $5 a bushel, corn growers and the businesses that benefited from the boom -- those who sell seed, fertilizer, chemicals, equipment -- see their profits fall, some wonder if the threat of such low potential prices might prompt crop farmers and their lenders to push lawmakers to pass a new Farm Bill, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Corn prices have dropped 40 percent since last year.

On Tuesday American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman "urged farmers and ranchers to keep sending Congress the message that agriculture needs a new, five-year Farm Bill, and called talked of a one-year extension of the current Farm Bill a 'cop out,'" Agri-Pulse writes. Yet, several congressional offices say "they get more phone calls and letters from conservative groups opposed to the farm bill than from farmers, ranchers and the agribusiness community who support the bill. If there is a nervousness about the lower price scenarios, it's not yet translated into much political activity."Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Group accepts penalties USDA wants enforced today at Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration

"The organization that sanctions the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration has decided to adopt the minimum soring penalties proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Lucas Johnson II reports for The Associated Press. The penalties, which could result in a suspension from two weeks to up to a year, will be enforced at the celebration, which begins today in Shelbyville, Tenn. (Tennessean photo by Dipti Vaidya: Cymri Hight, left, and Jeff Archer at last year's celebration)

"Shelbyville-based SHOW HIO is a USDA-certified agency that show operators hire to inspect horses and punish trainers for signs of abuse such as soring, the act of intentionally injuring a horse's front legs to make it step higher," Johnson reports. "The organization and at least two other parties sued the USDA last year over the penalties, arguing the new regulations violated horse trainers' rights to due process." But this week the organization issued a statement saying it supports the penalties and will not appeal.

Celebration CEO Mike Inman said in the news release that the group had a short amount of time to make a decision before the event, Johnson reports. Inman wrote: "We were put in a real time crunch with the judge's ruling taking a year and coming out less than a month before the celebration." He said anyone who entered horses by Aug. 6 and disagreed with the penalties could withdraw and get a refund. (Read more)

Ohio's chief surface-water regulator resigns at request of coal-supported governor, citing permits

George Elmaraghy
Ohio's top waterways watchdog announced his resignation Monday, saying Republican Gov. John Kasich asked him to step down over disputes with the coal industry, Spencer Hunt reports for The Columbus Dispatch. George Elmaraghy, chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s division of surface water, and the administrator who oversees the state’s efforts to protect streams, lakes and wetlands from pollution, said he will resign in September.

In an email sent to his staff, Elmaraghy wrote that the coal industry wants “permits that may have a negative impact on Ohio’s streams and wetlands and violate state and federal laws Now, due to this situation, the governor’s office and the director have asked me to resign my position.” Elmaraghy, who did not return calls seeking comment, has been with the agency for 39 years. A spokesperson for the governor's office told Hunt they don't discuss personnel matters.

"Since Kasich began his gubernatorial campaign in 2009, Ohio coal interests have poured nearly $1 million into campaign coffers of statewide and legislative candidates, with more than $870,000 coming from the families that run own Boich Companies and Murray Energy." Hunt reports. "The Kasich campaign received about $130,000."

There has long been clash between the state's EPA and coal industry "over permits that businesses must obtain before they can remove streams and wetlands or fill them in," Hunt writes. "These permits attempt to minimize environmental damage and outline the work needed to repair or replace waterways. In 2008, state lawmakers advanced an industry-backed bill that would have transferred the Ohio EPA’s authority to oversee such permits for coal companies to mining regulators at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. It did not pass.That same year, the EPA denied a permit request from Murray Energy to dam a small Belmont County stream and use it as a storage lagoon for coal slurry," calling it a pollution threat to a nearby creek that was home to the endangered eastern hellbender salamander. (Read more)

Couple quit paper in protest of undisclosed issues

Kevin Woster
Married couple Kevin Woster and Mary Garrigan, a pair of veteran reporters for the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota, abruptly quit last week, with Woster writing on Facebook, “We can no longer work for that organization and its management. It’s too diminishing, too demeaning. . . . We could not, would not eat what they wanted us to eat today.” Woster did not offer further further explanation, even when media blogger Jim Romenesko inquired.

Mary Garrigan
Woster told Romenesko in an email, "I don’t want to talk specifics about our resignations yesterday. That would be unfair to all involved. But it was an unhappy parting. I still love that paper. I hope for its future, despite its current struggles and the challenges in the business. This is a great news town and region and a great place for a reporter to live and work. Mary and I are saddened and a bit dazed today, since most of our professional lives have been in newspaper work, with a mix of South Dakota papers but mostly the Journal since the late 1980s. We’re now in the job market, hopefully looking ahead." (Read more)

Illinois becomes 37th state to raise interstate speed limit to 70; big urban counties can opt out

Three months after the Illinois Legislature passed a bill that would raise the state's interstate speed limit from 65 mph to 70 mph, Gov. Pat Quinn signed it into law Monday, Tom Kacich reports for the News-Gazette in the east-central part of the state. The bill, which also lowers the legal threshold excessive speeding from 31 mph to 26 mph over the limit, will go into effect Jan. 1. (Associated Press photo by Jeff Roberson: I-64 in O'Fallon, Ill.)

The law allows eight highly urban counties to set a lower limit. Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana) told Kacich, "One of the reasons I felt comfortable voting for this bill was that it eliminates the counties that have really heavy traffic. That's one of the big safety issues, that if there is really heavy traffic they can opt out."

There are now 37 states with speed limits of 70 mph or higher: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Poor and elderly make rural broadband use lag; promotion needed?

High-speed Internet service, or broadband, has become more available in rural America in the last decade, but just because it's available doesn't mean people will use it. A typical rural household is much more likely to be using broadband today than it was than 10 years ago, when 23 percent of metropolitan-area residents had it and only 10 percent of rural residents did; recent figures (70 percent vs. 57 percent) show that the ratio has greatly improved, but a rural-urban gap of 13 percentage points remains. Research suggests that is because rural areas have more poor people who can't afford the service, and more elderly people who are not interested in getting connected to the Internet, even if it is available.

"The metro/non-metro gap has actually increased over time for households with characteristics that have historically been associated with low levels of broadband adoption (low income, low education and elderly)," researchers Brian Whitacre, Roberto Gallardo and Sharon Strover write for the Daily Yonder. These charts show the differences by income and education in the rural-urban gaps of 2003 and 2010:
They also point to the increased gap in older people: "A similar story can be told about another important predictor of Internet adoption – the age of the head of household. . . . Older heads of households (ages 60 and older) in metropolitan areas increased their broadband-adoption rates between 2003 and 2010 at a faster rate than their non-metropolitan counterparts. This means that another group of historically slow broadband adopters – the elderly – are seeing the metro/nonmetro broadband gap increase rather than decrease." (Read more)
"Effective use of broadband Internet certainly has the potential to increase economic mobility for some historically disadvantaged groups – but only if these households are introduced to the possibilities the technology presents," the researchers write. "In rural areas, in particular, broadband holds a world of opportunities for income generation (examples here and here) and improving education (examples here and here). . . . Historically disadvantaged groups in rural areas seem to be falling further behind in broadband adoption, which can make the situation even worse. So, while most government policies dealing with broadband have traditionally focused exclusively on providing infrastructure (such as grants or loans to telecommunication companies), there is a case to be made for attempting to increase demand." They note that about 3.5 percent of the $7.2 billion in economic-stimulus funds invested in broadband were used for "encouraging sustainable adoption. Programs that help educate rural citizens about the opportunities that broadband presents are a useful complement to investments in the infrastructure itself – and likely deserve a bigger chunk of the pie."

Whitacre is an agricultural economics prodessor at Oklahoma State University. Gallardo is an extension professor at Mississippi State University, where he manages the statewide broadband adoption initiative. Strover is a Regents Professor in Communication at the University of Texas, where she runs the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute.

Pipeline projects draw fire in several states

While the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline through the Great Plains has grabbed most of the headlines and remains on hold while President Obama ponders a decision on it, several other pipeline projects are garnering local and national attention as opposition to them continues to grow and questions are raised about the need for them all. Most would re-purpose existing lines that carry natural gas from the Gulf Coast into lines that would supply Gulf refineries with natural-gas liquids condensed from the nation's newly largest gas field, the Marcellus Shale in Northern Appalachia.

One is the Bluegrass Pipeline, which would extend from Pennsylvania to Louisiana and carry 200,000 barrels of natural-gas liquids per day to Louisiana refineries, is causing growing concern in Kentucky. In an editorial, the Kentucky Standard in Bardstown, 40 miles south of Louisville, said in an editorial, "After much consideration, it is this board’s view that the risks, coupled with the safety history of one of the partners in the venture, outweigh any of the minimal benefits to our area’s citizens. Among the many concerns voiced by opponents, safety and landowners’ property rights seem to be the most concerning." (Read more) (Map by Williams Cos., a partner in the project)

The biggest question is whether the pipeline company has the right to condemn private property to get the route it wants. It says it does, but its foes disagree. The News-Enterprise, in Elizabethtown, 26 miles west of Bardstown, opined, "Kentucky laws regarding eminent domain allow some property to be seized through a court process if intended for the greater good of society. While it is unclear if a private company can assert that claim successfully under Kentucky law, it is clear that county government has no impact on this matter of interstate commerce and that state government seems unlikely to take it up any time soon. To summarize, the rules are unclear, the government oversight is spotty and the appeal process is non-existent." (Read more) Gov. Steve Beshear declined to put the question on the agenda of the legislature's current special session on redistricting, saying there was no rush to deal with the issue. His son Andy is a lawyer for one of the pipeline partners.

Other proposed pipelines include the Energy East Pipeline, which would convert 1,864 miles of an existing, 55-year-old pipeline currently used for natural gas to carry about 900,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Alberta to the Atlantic seaboard, and the Eastern Gulf Crude Access Pipeline, a 774-mile project that would carry 880,000 barrels of crude per day from Illinois to Louisiana, Kiley Kroh reports for Climate Progress. (Read more) (Graphic by Paul Horn, InsideClimate News)

Those aren't the only pipelines garnering attention. "Last week, a joint venture between two companies jumped into the pipeline scramble," James Bruggers reports for The Courier-Journal of Louisville. There has been a proposal from Kinder Morgan/MarkWest Utica EMG to convert "its existing pipeline to a natural gas liquids line between northwest Louisiana and the Northeast through Kentucky," and "Enterprise Products Partners, has already begun constructing the ATEX Express Pipeline, a natural gas liquids pipeline that will run 369 miles from Washington County, Pa., to Seymour, Ind." If those two pipelines, along with the Bluegrass Pipeline, are completed, "they could move almost 600,000 barrels a day from Ohio and Pennsylvania to the Gulf Coast. . . . It’s not clear now if there will be enough customers to buy it all, experts said." (Read more)

Many seniors in rural N.C. don't trust medical professionals, would rather treat themselves

Nearly 60 percent of seniors in rural North Carolina are skeptical of medical professionals, and believe they are better equipped to control their own health with home remedies, vitamins, mineral supplements or a self-care therapy, according to a report published in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, Valerie DeBenedette reports for Health Behavior News Service. Almost 20 percent said they could overcome an illness without help.

Researchers surveyed 198 people over 65 in three rural counties. "To determine levels of medical skepticism, they were asked whether they believed they could overcome illness without the help of a medical professional, whether they thought home remedies were often better than prescribed drugs, and if they felt they understood their health better than most doctors," DeBenedette reports. Participants "were also asked about their use in the past year of various home remedies including honey, vinegar, baking soda, olive oil, whiskey, or petroleum jelly; vitamin or mineral supplements; herbal remedies such as garlic or ginseng; supplements such as fish oil; or of alternative medical practitioners such as chiropractors, physical therapists, or massage therapists, or self-care practices such as meditation, relaxation techniques or exercise."

Leigh F. Callahan, of the Thurston Arthritis Research Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told DeBenedette, “The findings are not surprising. Older people in rural areas often live where their parents and grandparents lived and complementary treatments and folk remedies are handed down in the family." She said folk remedies are often used to treat arthritis and conditions that cause chronic pain or that interfere with sleep. (Read more)

Merck pulls supplement over stress to cattle; Lilly demurs, citing similar drug's benefits

Weight-gain supplements called beta-agonists, used in the final weeks before slaughter to stimulate growth of lean muscle, have made cattle heavier but are believed to cause them unusual amounts of stress, including trouble walking or standing, Jesse Newman and Kelsey Gee report for The Wall Street Journal. Zilmax, which was designed to alleviate asthma in humans, can add 24 to 33 pounds, while Optaflexx can add as much as 20 pounds.

In response to concerns, Tyson Foods Inc. last week said it would stop buying Zilmax, and on Friday, Merck & Co., said it would suspend sales of the drug, Newman and Gee report. Zilmax and Optaflexx have been used in about 70 percent of U.S. cattle sold to slaughterhouses, according to Merck. Zilmax sales in the U.S. and Canada totaled $159 million in 2012. A spokesperson for Eli Lilly and Co., which produces Optaflexx, told the Journal that removing the drug would require producers to use an additional 91 bushels of corn a year, and would require 10 million more head of cattle to produce the same amount of meat without the drug.

Since the Food and Drug Administration approved the drugs in 2003 and 2006, the average weight of a steer at the time of slaughter has risen from 1,302 pounds in 2007 to 1,409 this year, Newman and Gee report. Gerald Timmerman, a third-generation cattle rancher and feeder whose family owns livestock operations in Nebraska and Colorado, told the Journal, as "grain prices accelerated, the margins got extremely squeezed in our business. That was the catalyst that drove demand for Zilmax up." (Read more)

UPDATE, Aug. 21: Some industry observers think Tyson is trying to increase its beef exports, but "others wonder of some cattlemen could have been giving cows too much of the drug," Agri-Pulse reports. (Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a free trial.)

W.Va. writer says Hatfield-McCoy 'reality' show offensively furthers negative stereotypes

The reality-television gods have invaded Appalachia once again to further negative stereotypes, this time for a History Channel show depicting the nation's most famous feud from a modern perspective. In "Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning," members of the families are tasked with working together to create a moonshine that can be sold in liquor stores. West Virginian Janney Lockman gives her opinion about the ridiculousness of the show for the Daily Yonder. (History Channel photo: Mickey McCoy and Scotty May Hatfield sample a batch of moonshine)

"I’m embarrassed to say that I sat through an entire 21-minute episode," Lockman writes. "The unnatural twang and 'ain’ts' in the narrator’s accent was the first sign that something was deeply wrong. The appearance in a single episode of a turkey hunt, cursing matriarchs, donkeys and pigs in a house, moonshine recipes in the back of the family Bible, alcoholic cousins, a jug band and a hoedown made me wonder if the producers even spent any time in an Appalachia that was located outside a comic strip."

Lockman continues, "The Hatfield-McCoy distillery scheme follows the same pattern of much of the other economic activity ... that we attribute cultural significance to: Appalachia has a resource that someone outside of the region realizes can make a profit. Person from outside region uses the labor and natural resources of Appalachia, acts as if it will bring lots of money to the region, resource gets consumed, outside interest leaves area, communities are left struggling in its wake."

"While the show focuses on moonshine, it’s clear that the resource utilized here is a violent history," she writes. "The only 'history' the History Channel depicts with 'White Lightning' is the history of exploitation of Appalachian people for entertainment purposes. Whether the show is set in West Virginia or New Jersey, it’s just plain nasty to derive pleasure from violent regional stereotypes, especially ones that are packaged as 'reality'." The show airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. (Read more)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Writer details how drug manufacturers have fought laws to make it harder to make meth

In a strong piece of investigative reporting for Mother Jones magazine, freelancer Jonah Engle delves into the history of how cooking methamphetamine became a simple task via over-the-counter cold medications, and how drug makers have warded off most state laws intended to make the decongestant pseudoephedrine more difficult to purchase. (Photo by Stacy Kranitz: Cleaning up a meth lab found on school property in London, Ky.)

Engle's well-rounded story examines the issue from the viewpoints of politics, law enforcement, drug users and the effects of their habits on their children, while looking at how small-town life -- especially in Kentucky, where meth-related cleanup and law enforcement cost the state $30 million in 2009 -- has been hit hard by the drug. When a bill was filed in Kentucky in 2011 to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine, a Washington-based group representing the makers and distributors of over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements, reportedly spent more than $303,000 in three weeks, with most of the money spent on "robocalls," or automated telephone messages. The bill failed, but in 2012 the legislature passed a law with a tighter limit on the amount of pseudoephedrine anyone can buy in a month, after a strong radiuo advertising campaign by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. The drug is kept behind counters so purchases can be tracked but does not require a prescription.

Engle tells a tragic story of meth in many states, ever since 2007, when the process called "shake-and-bake" or "one-pot" method, became commonplace. "The number of clandestine meth sites discovered by police has increased 63 percent nationwide," Engel writes. "As law enforcement agencies scramble to clean up and dispose of toxic labs, prosecute cooks, and find foster homes for their children, they are waging two battles: one against destitute, strung-out addicts, the other against some of the world's wealthiest and most politically connected drug manufacturers. In the past several years, lawmakers in 25 states (see map below) have sought to make pseudoephedrine—the one irreplaceable ingredient in a shake-and-bake lab—a prescription drug. In all but two—Oregon and Mississippi—they have failed as the industry has deployed all-star lobbying teams and campaign-trail tactics such as robocalls and advertising blitzes."
In Oregon, the number of meth labs found by police dropped 96 percent since the bill was passed, while in Mississippi the number dropped 74 percent, Engle writes. "Children are no longer being pulled from homes with meth labs, and police officers have been freed up to pursue leads instead of cleaning up labs and chasing smurfers. In 2008, Oregon experienced the largest drop in violent-crime rates in the country. By 2009, property crime rates fell to their lowest in 43 years. That year, overall crime in Oregon reached a 40-year low. The state's Criminal Justice Commission credited the pseudoephedrine prescription bill, along with declining meth use, as key factors."

"Everywhere else, industry has prevailed," Engle reports. "Many states have very limited laws on what lobbyists must report, and they don't monitor spending on robocalls or ads. But news reports and my interviews with legislators in Southeastern and Midwestern states where meth labs are most concentrated—and where CHPA had the biggest fight on its hands—show that the pharmaceutical industry deployed a mix of robocalls, print and radio ads, as well as a Facebook page and a website, These states include Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee." (Read more)

New EPA chief pledges to build trust with farmers

In the recent past, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator has not always had the best relationship with farmers and agriculture workers. But new EPA chief Gina McCarthy told an audience in Iowa that she plans to change that. She said, “My commitment to you is that at the end of my term, we will have a stronger, more productive, more trusting relationship between EPA and the agriculture community. Why are we going to do that? It benefits me, it benefits you and it will make this country stronger,” Jennifer Jacobs reports for the Des Moines Register. McCarthy didn't take questions from reporters. (Associated Press photo by Charlie Neibergall: From left, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and EPA chief Gina McCarthy)

"The Iowa farmers in the audience – including those who have chafed at the thought of regulation of farm dust and youth employment and heavy penalties for farm run-off problems – all applauded her warmly," Jacobs reports. Nancy Beyer, a co-owner of Koszta Farm Corp. corn and soybean farm in rural Belle Plaine, told Jacobs, “She’s probably the most on-track EPA director we’ve ever talked to.”

While farmers are happy with McCarthy, environmental activists are not, Jacobs reports. "They say proposed plans for more oversight of Iowa farm facilities are too weak and won’t do enough to stop pollution in Iowa’s waterways. Iowa is in the middle of a long fight over how state officials will comply with the federal Clean Water Act. Environmental groups say lax regulation of pollution by livestock operations has contributed to more manure spills, more manure reaching rivers and streams and higher drinking-water treatment costs."

"Some activists contend that the government officials, including the Republican-led Iowa DNR and [Republican Gov. Terry] Branstad, are too cozy with farm interests in conducting the negotiations for how to provide oversight to prevent pollution from manure," Jacobs writes. Barb Kalbach, a fourth-generation Iowa farmer, told Jacobs, “Iowa already has 628 impaired waterways and nothing is reversing in an industry that’s voluntarily regulated. It won’t work in this state." (Read more)

Smallest town with a gay-rights ordinance welcomes laughs on 'The Colbert Report'

Vicco, Ky., a Appalachian village of 334 people in the southeastern part of the state, made headlines in January when it became the nation's smallest town to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. The town is making headlines again, this time by allowing the popular Comedy Central show "The Colbert Report" to poke fun at the town and openly gay mayor Johnny Cummings, who introduced the ordinance.

Cummings told Asawin Suebsaen of Mother Jones, "Everything considered, I was remarkably pleased with the way (the segment) turned out. We got a lot of attention after that New York Times article ran (in January), and we got these offers from production companies wanting to do all this crap. So when some of them called, I was often quite rude to them. … But then I got a call from ('The Colbert Report'). I always watch 'The Colbert Report.'…To get your point across, sometimes you just gotta laugh. That's how I look at it. So I thought, okay, 'The Colbert Report' would be perfect." (Read more)

The segment was part of a segment titled "People who are Destroying America," which joked about how gay people have already taking over the big cities, and now they're taking over the small towns, and jokingly called all the people in town gay for supporting the ordinance, while also poking fun at the one detractor, a pastor who said he doesn't have a problem with homosexuals, then went into detail with what's wrong with their lifestyle:

Thoroughly cleaning boats is keeping invasive species out of two Michigan lakes

The simple act of thoroughly washing boats has significantly decreased the amount of invasive species in two northern Michigan lakes, Leslie Mertz reports for Great Lakes Echo, a project of the journalism department at Michigan State University. "While the Great Lakes and other lakes across the state struggle with a collection of non-native species that can affect fishing, swimming and lake ecology, Big and Little Glen lakes are nearly invasive-free." The program, which began in 1994 in Big and Little Glen Lakes, will wash about 4,000 boats this year. (Echo photo by Leslie Mertz: Sallyanne Morris flushes a boat engine)

Boaters can be fined $500 for refusing to have their boat washed, but it's a simple process that takes five minutes, Mertz reports. "Vehicles trailering a boat pull up to the station, a little wooden shack at the Department of Natural Resources public boat launch that services the two adjoining lakes. A boat-wash worker asks the driver if the boat has been in another lake in the past 10 days. If so, the worker sprays off the hull and trailer with heated water and flushes the engine to remove or kill hitchhiking species that might still cling to life there. The worker asks drivers if they are bringing in bait minnows. Store receipts are checked to verify that the minnows are virus-free and not a potential source of the deadly infectious fish disease called viral hemorrhagic septicemia."

The cost to run the operation at Little Glen is $29,000 a year, Mertz reports. The funds come from lake association dues. Sarah Litch, who is on the Glen Lake Association boat-wash committee, told Mertz, “Looking at milfoil alone, the $29,000 we spend is a pittance compared to the cost for fighting just that one species in your lake.” (Read more)

White-nose fungus reported in Minnesota bats

White-nose syndrome has been reported in Minnesota, making it the 23rd state to report the fungus, which has killed nearly 6 million bats in North America and is spreading across the nation. The fungus was found "at Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park in southeastern Minnesota and at Soudan Underground Mine State Park on the Iron Range," Elizabeth Dunbar reports for Minnesota Public Radio. (New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation photo by Al Hicks)

"Minnesota is home to at least 50,000 hibernating bats that pollinate plants and help control insects that feed on farm crops and trees in Minnesota's forests," Dunbar reports. Gerda Nordquist, a mammalogist for the Minnesota Biological Survey, told Dunbar,  that a decline in bat populations could lead to problems with pest control in the state.

"Officials said the good news is that the fungus has only been found in four bats -- three little brown bats and one northern long-eared bat. It wasn't detected on any cave walls," Dunbar reports. "But the disease can spread easily from bat to bat, and the animals can fly over 200 miles. Officials said the closest sites where the disease has been found are in Ontario and Illinois. Because the fungus was also found in Iowa, it's possible that Minnesota bats mixed with infected bats." (Read more)