Saturday, March 01, 2014

Coal-ash spill and N.C.'s response reflect pro-industry Republicans' takeover of state

Duke Energy's coal-ash spill into the Dan River and North Carolina officials' response to it show how the state's environmental agency, "once among the most aggressive in the Southeast, has been transformed under Gov. Pat McCrory into a weak sentry that plays down science, has abandoned its regulatory role and suffers from politicized decision-making," Trip Gabriel reports for The New York Times.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory (AP photo)
"The episode is a huge embarrassment for Mr. McCrory, who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years and is a former mayor of Charlotte, where the company is based," Gabriel writes. "And it has become another point of contention in North Carolina, where Republicans who took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and the governor’s mansion last year have passed sweeping laws in line with conservative principles. They have affected voting rights and unemployment benefits, as well as what Republicans called 'job-killing' environmental regulations, which have received less notice."

Gabriel offers plenty of examples. Read the story.

Friday, February 28, 2014

W.Va. inspectors find more than 1,600 chemical storage tanks in critical areas near water supplies

Reuters graphic: Site of Jan. 9 spill
The January chemical spill that dumped thousands of gallons of a coal cleaner into a major regional water supply in West Virginia has led to an investigation that continues to shed light on the lack of state regulations on above-ground chemical storage tanks located near public drinking-water supplies (not just a problem in West Virginia). State inspectors say they have found 600 more tanks, bringing the total to more than 1,600, Ken Ward reports for The Charleston Gazette.

"The Department of Environmental Protection for the first time released lists of storage tanks that could be subject to new rules if lawmakers pass legislation drawn up in response to the January chemical leak on the Elk River," Ward writes. "DEP officials cautioned that they could end up with a final inventory showing even more storage tanks located in or near the 'zone of critical concern' near public water-supply intakes." Inspectors are still visiting sites, "and plan to examine a much larger number -- 600 facilities with an estimated 3,000 tanks -- to confirm locations, double-check the number of tanks and examine the tank contents." The list includes coal-fired power stations, chemical plants, lumber mills, and trucking operations, but does not identify what chemicals are being stored or the amount of chemicals.

"To define tanks that could potentially impact public water systems, DEP officials expanded the area covered by the Bureau of Public Health's 'zone of critical concern'," Ward writes. "The bureau defines the term to cover anything located within five hours upstream and within a 1,000-foot corridor around main-stem water supply streams and 500 feet alongside tributaries. The DEP added 500 feet to the main-stem and tributary zones to be more inclusive, officials said." (Read more)

Sunshine Week March 16-22 for open government

It's time to celebrate freedom of information. March 16-22 is Sunshine Week, which highlights the "importance of access to public information and what it means for you and your community," says the observance's website. The site offers several tips on how to get involved in the event, which was launched in 2005 "to promote open government and push back against excessive official secrecy." While everyone can get involved in the week, it's a time when journalists can make their voices heard, and use the power of the press to fight for open government.

Suggestions for Sunshine Week are: Journalists "can highlight the importance of openness through stories, editorials, columns, cartoons or graphics." Those in a civic group "can organize local forums, sponsor essay contests or press elected officials to pass proclamations on the importance of open access." Educators "can use Sunshine Week to teach your students about how government transparency improves our lives and makes our communities stronger." Elected officials "can pass a resolution supporting openness, introduce legislation improving public access or encourage training of government employees to ensure compliance with existing laws mandating open records and meetings." Private citizens "can write a letter to the editor or spread the word to friends through social media."

Good sources and ideas can be found at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, American Society of News Editors, or the Sunshine Week website.

Civil-rights leaders object to USDA plan to speed up poultry-plant lines and have fewer inspectors

The battle over faster poultry processing lines has reached Congress. At stake is a Department of Agriculture proposal to speed up lines by 25 percent, which critics would increase danger for workers and open the door for weaker inspections, since the proposal also calls for 40 percent fewer inspectors. That would leave the poultry industry responsible for self-monitoring to reduce food-borne pathogens. Critics have also turned the issue into a civil-rights case, saying 39 percent of workers are Hispanic, 16.3 percent are African American, and 7.8 percent are Asian. (Congressional Black Caucus photo: Hilary O. Shelton of the NAACP said conditions at poultry plants are a civil-rights concern)

Both sides are pushing for their voices to be heard, led by the National Chicken Council, which in the last three years has been "spending an average of more than $500,000 annually lobbying Congress, according to lobbying records, five times the group’s average spending in the years before the USDA began working in earnest on the proposed plan in 2011," Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post. "Opponents of the proposed ­changes are trying to play catch-up with the efforts of the poultry industry. The latest push came Thursday when civil rights and worker-safety groups arranged for poultry workers to meet with lawmakers and administration officials to warn against the proposed acceleration of processing-line speeds and to share their accounts of injuries being caused at current speeds."

Workers say increasing the rate from 140 birds a minute to 175 has led to more injuries, led by carpal tunnel syndrome, Kindy writes. The industry counters that injury rates have steadily declined over the past 30 years, and "has also been citing the latest worker-injury data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing that [rates of] poultry-worker injuries are in the single digits."

USDA said it hopes to finalize a plan by April, and the Obama administration appears to be ready to support it, Kindy writes. The president’s budget, due for release next week, expects "to reflect government cost-savings arising from reduced inspections, according to several lobbyists and Hill staffers who have been briefed on the issue." (Read more)

Rural and urban cellphone use are equal, but rural users are much less likely to have smartphones

With the Internet set to celebrate its 25th birthday in March, the Pew Research Center decided to examine how Americans use it, as well as their use of cell phones and smart phones. While getting access to broadband in rural areas has been a constant problem, the survey found that the gap between rural and urban Internet use is fairly small, as is the gap between cell phone use. The biggest gap was in smartphone use. The survey was based on 1,006 telephone interviews. Use by income, age, and education were not split up by rural, urban or suburban areas. (Pew graphic)

Pew found that the Internet is used by 87 percent of all adults, 88 percent of urban adults, 87 percent of suburban adults and 83 percent of rural adults. Numbers varied dramatically by age groups. Among respondents 15 to 19, Internet use was 97 percent, and among ages 30 to 49 it was 93 percent. Use dropped to 88 percent for those 50 to 64, and 57 percent for respondents 65 and older.

Income, where rural populations generally rank lower, were also factors. Ninety-seven percent of college graduates said they use the Internet, while 76 percent with a high school degree or less use it. Ninety-three percent of households with incomes of $50,000 or more use the Internet, and 99 percent with household incomes of $75,000 or more use it, while only 77 percent of households with incomes of $30,000 or less use it.

Ninety percent of adults said they use a cell phone, with 88 percent of in rural and urban areas saying they use one, but only 92 percent in suburban areas. Use was high among younger respondents, with 98 percent of those aged 15 to 19 having one, and 97 percent of those ages 30 to 49. Use dropped to 88 percent among those 50 to 64, and 74 percent for respondents 65 and older.

While rural respondents were just as likely as urban ones -- 88 percent -- to say they use a cellphone, they were much less likely to use a smartphone: only 43 percent, compared to 58 percent overall, 64 percent in urban areas and 60 percent in suburbs. Smartphone use dropped significantly as age rose: 83 percent of those 18-29 years old, 74 percent for the 30-49 group, 49 percent for 50-to-64-year-olds, and 19 percent for those 65 and older. Smartphone use rose with education an income. To read the full report click here.

Drought has led to record high cattle prices, swine disease to highest hog prices since 2011

Years of drought that depleted livestock supplies in the Midwest have led to record high prices for cattle, and a swine virus is leading to the highest prices for hogs since August 2011, Kelsey Gee reports for The Wall Street Journal. The result is higher wholesale prices, which is expected to raise the cost for consumers. (Getty Images photo)

The drought, which forced ranchers to cull herds, combined with a drop in prices for animal feed, "are prompting ranchers to retain more female cattle to breed animals and rebuild their herds, which in the near term cuts the number headed for slaughter," Gee writes. This has led cattle futures to rise 10 percent this year, and 0.9 percent in February to $1.5005 a pound at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. "Meatpackers this week paid a record $1.52 a pound for cattle in the cash markets across Nebraska and other northern Great Plains states, with sales four to nine cents a pound higher than last week's trade."

Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which has killed millions of piglets since last spring, but doesn't appear to be a safety concern for humans, has led hog farmers to sell fewer hogs, leading to higher prices, Gee writes. "April hog futures at the CME rose 2.8 percent to $1.0385 a pound." (Read more)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Farmer and farmworker advocates both unhappy with EPA's new proposed pesticide rules

Notice to be required under new rules
Last week the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new safety rules for people who work or live near farms who might be exposed to pesticides, including annual training, no-entry areas, signs, and a ban on pesticide handling by children under 16 (with a family exception). Farmworker advocates say the minimum age requirement is too low, and the posting requirement is so loose it will make it more difficult for workers to get information. Farm lobbies say the rules will lead to an increase in paperwork, and potentially increase liabilities, and argue EPA is basing its calculations on estimates, and not concrete facts.

EPA said making the minimum age 18 would cost the industry more money, totaling "about $3.1 million annually, or $11 per agricultural establishment and $320 per commercial pesticide handling establishment per year," Ronnie Greene reports for The Center for Public Integrity. That excuse isn't going over well with farmworker lobbies. Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health for Farmworker Justice, said the new age limit “is better than nothing but I don’t see justification for wanting to expose 16- and 17-year-olds.” She told Greene, “Why you would want somebody that young applying chemicals in the workplace is beyond me."

The current posting requirement calls for a central location for pesticide information. The EPA said many workers don't routinely pass by the area, and proposed a designated location, Greene writes. "To the farmworker community, this is a change for the worse. With a central posting place, they say, farmworkers know there is a spot they can turn for information. But now, they say, the burden will fall on farmworkers – many of them working in the shadows – to actively seek out that information." (Read more)

Other concerns for farm lobbies are a proposed rule that requires "posting of signs in treated areas with restricted entry of over 48 hours; requirements that records of training be kept for two years; and mandatory training would be on an annual basis, instead of every five years, as is the current rule," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said "requiring increased recordkeeping could possibly open farmers up to increased liability." He told Agri-Pulse, “We don’t want (those regulations) to be put in place if they create legal exposure” for farmers. Another concern, he said, is the amount of work required to install new signs.

While EPA says "changes will save $5 million to $14 million in health care and 'loss of productivity' costs for both farm operators and farmworkers, and will cost industry $62 to $73 million per year," amounting to about $5 to $60 per handler annually, farm advocates say those numbers are based on calculations that pesticide poisoning was under-reported by 25 percent, an estimate the EPA calls conservative, Agri-Pulse writes. "The problem comes down to something simple, but distressing: As EPA frequently notes in its proposed rule, the agency does not have enough data to know how many agricultural workers are affected by pesticide poisoning."

Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

New food-safety rules could hurt organic farmers

New safety rules proposed by the Food and Drug Administration are creating headaches for organic farmers, who say the rules are targeting farmers whose product has no history causing illnesses, Evan Halper reports for the Los Angeles Times: The "proposed rules would curtail many techniques that are common among organic growers, including spreading house-made fertilizers, tilling cropland with grazing animals, and irrigating from open creeks."

Other groups disagree on sources of foodborne illnesses. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said "farm-to-fork growers need to accept that emerging strains of E. coli and other bacteria can just as easily seep into the produce sold at a farmers market as into the batches of salad bagged at giant processing plants, and they need to tweak their methods to protect against it," Halper writes. She told him, "We don't believe large facilities are the only place where outbreaks are happening."

But the proposed rules could hurt farmers, who say the FDA is out of out touch with farm life, Halper writes. Dave Runsten, policy director for Community Alliance with Family Farmers in Davis, Calif., told Halper, "They are going to drive farms out of business. The consumer groups behind this don't understand farming. They talk out of both sides of their mouth. They demand these one-size-fits-all regulations, then say, 'I don't want to hurt those cute little farmers at the farmers market. I shop at the farmers market.' It is frustrating."

The new rules stem from 2010, when "food-safety activists persuaded Congress to give the FDA authority to regulate farm practices," Halper writes. "The next year, an outbreak of food poisoning that killed 33 people who ate tainted cantaloupes put pressure on the FDA to be aggressive." The first set of proposed rules was first announced in January, 2013, but the FDA said in December it would re-write the rules to appease farmers, who said the laws were too costly. (Read more)

Federal agency won't set deadline for tank-car rules

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration refused a request by lawmakers on Wednesday to set a deadline for new tank-car rules. Administrator Cynthia Quarterman testified that "tank car fixes weren’t 'a silver bullet,' and were only 'one piece of the mitigative puzzle' in making crude oil transportation safer," Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers. "The rail industry petitioned the agency three years ago for a rule on tank cars, but the process didn’t begin until this past September and could take at least another year to finish." (Minneapolis Star-Tribune photo: An oil-train crash in December in North Dakota)

Quarterman's refusal came one day after the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring oil-train shippers to check their crude for volatility. More crude oil was spilled in U.S. railway accidents in 2013 than in the previous 37 years, and an accident in July in Quebec that left 47 people dead.

"In addition to the safety of crude oil shipments on railroads, the hearing in the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees railroads also examined recent commuter rail accidents and the problems the industry has meeting a December 2015 deadline to install a collision avoidance system," Tate writes. "Federal regulators and industry officials told lawmakers that commuter and freight railroads will not be able to install the system, called Positive Train Control, by the end of next year. Congress required the system in 2008 after 25 people died in a head-on collision between a commuter train and a freight train in southern California." (Read more)

Investigation finds no conflict in State Dept. contractor's favorable review of Keystone pipeline

The controversial Keystone XL pipeline got a boost Wednesday after the State Department's inspector general concluded that a department contractor who prepared an environmental analysis of the pipeline "did not violate conflict-of-interest rules, even though the contractor had previously done work for TransCanada, the company seeking to build the pipeline," Coral Davenport reports for the New York Times. (Washington Post graphic; best we've seen)

"The results of the investigation could further pave the way for the Obama administration to approve the 1,700-mile, $5.4 billion pipeline, which would move oil from forest in Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast," Davenport writes. "The pipeline has become a critical cause to environmentalists, who view President Obama’s ultimate decision as a reflection of his commitment to fight climate change. They have rallied, protested and been arrested by the thousands in an effort to pressure him to reject the project." (Read more)

Last week a Nebraska court invalidated Republican Gov. Dave Heineman's endorsement of legislation to allow the pipeline to cross part of the state.

Indiana might eliminate energy-efficiency program

As governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels initiated a clean-energy program that environmentalists saw as a method to reduce costs and clean the air, but yesterday the state House passed a bill to end the program. The program forced electricity customers to pay a fee each month to fund energy-efficiency programs. "Since 2012, the state has used the funds to conduct energy audits and weatherization programs and to provide energy-saving light bulbs and other energy-saving programs," John Russell writes for The Indianapolis Star. The bill would also prevent the state from making utilities achieve particular efficiency goals.

Environmentalists said the program conserved enough energy every year to provide power for 64,000 homes, but critics called it executive overreach because the legislature didn't approve it and because it costs several extra dollars per month for homeowners but even more for big companies that use a lot of energy. The measure to end the program was an amendment to a Senate bill, which will go back to the Senate for consideration. (Read more)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

With fewer local-based banks, rural business owners often turn to relatives for loans, Texas study says

Many small-business owners in rural areas would rather ask relatives for loans, remortgage their homes, or draw from pensions than deal with the unfamiliarity of a corporate, urban bank located many miles away, according to a Baylor University study of Texas banks published in the journals Rural Sociology and International Innovation. As the number of banks continues to decrease in the U.S., leaving some rural areas without an institution, some small business owners are dealing with larger banks who don't know them on an individual basis, offer high interest rates, or reject their loans. (Small Business Trends graphic based on information from the Federal Financial Examination Council)

"Many small businesses, especially fledglings, do not have 'hard data' on earnings and credit scores to compete for loans at big, nonlocal banks," the study says. "Some interviewees reported that even when restructured local banks are familiar with individuals' 'soft data' -- such as credit history and reputation -- they are far more interested in lending to companies that will bring in large manufacturing." 

The number of banking firms in the U.S. dropped by more than half between 1984 and 2011, to fewer than 6,300, but during that time the number of branches doubled to more than 83,000, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Many banks that closed were in rural areas, which means "that local lending to individuals based on 'relational' banking -- with lenders being aware of borrowers' reputation, credit history and trustworthiness in the community -- has dropped," the study says.

Researchers used a small sample size, interviewing 30 small business owners in rural Texas, but "the research is important because local businesses and entrepreneurs are increasingly vital for rural employment growth," said Carson Mencken, professor of sociology at Baylor. "Many rural areas lack job opportunities or have lost them, in part because rural manufacturing jobs have been exported overseas to lower-wage destinations." (Read more)

USDA offering $3 million to Midwestern farmers to help save honeybee population

The U.S. government is opening its pocketbook to help save the honeybee population. Dairy farmers and ranchers in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota can qualify for about $3 million from the Department of Agriculture "to reseed pastures with alfalfa, clover and other plants appealing to both bees and livestock," M.L. Johnson reports for The Associated Press. "Farmers also can get help building fences, installing water tanks and making other changes that better enable them to move their animals from pasture to pasture so the vegetation doesn’t become worn down. The goal is to provide higher quality food for insects and animals." (AP photo by Lance Cheung)

"Commercial honeybees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of produce each year," Johnson writes. But their population has been in decline in recent years because of a a disorder that has wiped out around 50 percent of hives and a new virus that could be just as deadly. "The USDA hopes to stem those losses by providing more areas for bees to build up food stores and strength for winter."

The five states were chosen because 65 percent of the nation's estimated 30,000 commercial beekeepers "bring hives to the Upper Midwest in the summer for bees to gather nectar and pollen for food then truck them in the spring to California and other states to pollinate everything from almonds to apples to avocadoes," Johnson writes. "Corn, soybean and other farmers can qualify for money to plant cover crops, which typically go in after the regular harvest and help improve soil health or to grow bee-friendly forage in borders and on the edges of fields." (Read more)

Severe drought continues in California; farmers uprooting almond trees

Severe drought in rural California has caused headaches for local residents, with officials reporting in January that the water supply in 17 communities is quickly running out. One month later, the situation hasn't gotten much better for many people, including almond farmer Barry Baker, who has lost 1,000 acres— or 20 percent of his crop—in Northern California because he lacks access to enough water, NBC News reports. "The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials announced this past Friday that it will not be providing Central Valley (which consists of 6.5 million people) farmers with any water from the federally run system of reservoirs and canals fed by mountain runoff." (NBC photo: Baker's almond farm)

Baker isn't the only one struggling. Northern California's Folsom Lake has shrunk from 97 percent of capacity in 2011 to 17 percent capacity, according to the state Department of Water Resources. The reservoir serves 265,000 customers, reports Thom Jensen of KXTV in Sacramento. Folsom Lake Water Conservation says on its website, "Folsom Lake is at critically low levels, and that means our customers need to conserve water. We have asked our customers to conserve water both outdoors and indoors at significant levels. Please check with your water provider for specific water conservation mandates." (Read more)

Another area hit hard in Northern California is Santa Clara County, where water commissioners on Tuesday approved mandatory drought restrictions, requiring its 1.8 million residents to reduce water use by 20 percent of levels from 2013, M. Alex Johnson reports for NBC. Reservoir levels for the area are at only 33 percent capacity, less than half the average over the past 20 years. (Read more)

N.C. governor, former Duke Energy officer, tells it to move coal ash ponds away from drinking water

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years, said Tuesday he wants Duke to move all its coal-ash ponds away from drinking water sources, Bruce Henderson reports for the Charlotte Observer. The announcement comes weeks after a coal ash spill leaked toxins into the Dan River, and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources declared the water was safe when it wasn't. Then officials announced a second leak. (CNN photo: Coal ash in the river) 

In a letter to Duke, McCrory and Secretary John Skvarla said, “As a state we will not stand by while coal-ash ponds remain a danger due to their proximity to where so many North Carolinians get their drinking water,” Henderson writes. The letter "demands that Duke supply options, costs and other details about its ash ponds to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources by March 15."

Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Henderson, “I think it’s good the governor is reacting finally and is communicating with the CEO of Duke Energy, but given everything that’s happened, actions speak louder than words. He says they’re not going to stand for it anymore, but if you’re not going to stand for it any more, clean up the mess.” (Read more)

Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/02/25/4723269/nc-might-make-duke-energy-move.html#emlnl=Todays_Headlines#storylink=c

Feds issue emergency order requiring oil-train shippers to check their crude for volatility

In an effort to improve the safety of shipping crude oil by rail, after a rash of accidents over the past year, the U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday issued emergency rules "requiring extensive tests on crude oil moving by rail, concluding the system had become 'an imminent hazard to public health and safety and the environment,'" Russell Gold and Laura Stevens report for The Wall Street Journal. The order is aimed at operations in the the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, "where production has far outpaced the availability of pipelines to move crude to refineries," but will cover all shipments from anywhere. (Journal chart)

The order, which takes effect immediately, "will require companies to test each batch of crude for an array of characteristics, from the temperature at which it boils to the percentage of flammable gases trapped in the oil and the vapor pressure, which is created when crude emits gases that can build up inside railcars," Gold and Stevens write. "Previously, federal rules didn't require that crude be tested as extensively; indeed it only required that crude be properly classified and didn't spell out in any detail how often to test the crude." It "also prohibits moving crude using certain railcars that are suitable only for less hazardous materials," a move that would affect 1,100 tank cars, or about 3 percent of the total crude-oil fleet.

North Dakota has seen a massive growth in the number of trains filled with crude oil leaving the Bakken Shale region, Gold and Stevens writes. In 2008, one train of 100 tankers left every four days, but in 2013 one left every 21/2 hours. (Read more)

UPDATE, March 6: Oil refiners asked officials to delay enforcement of the rule, saying " the lack of detail in the Transportation Department's directive may prompt some shippers to stop moving oil by rail," and result in fuel and chemical shortages, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers President Charles Drevna wrote Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, EnergyWire reports.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

'Wild West' in skies: FAA says commercial drone use is illegal, but can't effectively enforce law

Commercial drone use is illegal in the U.S., but it's nearly impossible for the Federal Aviation Administration to enforce the law, Kevin Robillard reports for Politico: "Thanks to falling prices, spotty enforcement and the fact that it’s almost impossible to spot the devices being used, the FAA is often powerless to halt the growing drone swarm. Retailers freely sell the tiny planes, quadcopters and hexacopters for as little as a few hundred dollars, and entrepreneurs continually come up with creative uses like wedding photography and crop monitoring—along with delivering beer and dropping off dry cleaning." (Associated Press photo)

Many businesses, including some in agriculture, have expressed an interest in using drones, but with a free-for-all going on, and no one enforcing it, "The result, observers and drone users warn, could be a Wild, Wild West in the nation’s skies," Robillard writes. "As small drone operators grow used to flying them without the FAA’s permission, they could become less inclined to obey any rules the agency puts in place. And with the cost of the technology continuing to drop, the drones could eventually become far too ubiquitous for the agency to police."

The FAA maintains that commercial drone use is illegal and says it has sent out 12 warning letters to companies using drones, fining one $10,000. But that case is under appeal, and based on the growing use of drones, it doesn't appear people are afraid of using them publicly, Robillard writes. Timothy Reuter, the founder of the Drone User Group Network in Washington, told Robillard, “A lot of our members would like to start businesses using this technology. Some of them are waiting for the regulations to open up. Others, honestly, aren’t.”

While the FAA continues to test drones, "The agency probably will eventually issue two rules: one for drones less than 55 pounds, which are likely to fly under 400 feet, and one for heavier drones, which are likely to share airspace with manned aircraft," Robillard writes. For now, the illegal use of the drones keeps showing up at baseball games, on movie sets and among business small and large. (Read more)

First lady, USDA propose rules to phase out marketing of sugary drinks and junk food in schools

Advertisements for unhealthy foods in American schools could soon be a thing of the past. First Lady Michelle Obama and the Department of Agriculture proposed guidelines Tuesday that "would phase out the advertising of sugary drinks and junk foods on vending machines and around campuses during the school day and set guidelines for other in-school promotions, from banners hung in hallways to sponsored scoreboards on school football fields," Maggie Fox reports for NBC News. The rules "would ensure that foods and beverages marketed to children in schools are consistent with the recently-released Smart Snacks in School standards," a White House press release said. (White House photo by Chuck Kennedy: Obama eating with school children)

The program is part of Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" initiative to curb obesity, a problem that is especially high in rural areas, where children are 25 percent more likely to be overweight or obese. The first lady said in the release, “The idea here is simple—our classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren’t bombarded with ads for junk food. Because when parents are working hard to teach their kids healthy habits at home, their work shouldn’t be undone by unhealthy messages at school.”

The Federal Trade Commission found that the majority of marketing in schools is for candy, snack-food and beverage companies, and fast-food restaurants "through posters, scoreboards, products promoted on the fronts of vending machines, promoting pizza by giving students coupons for reading books, commercials on in-school television programs and branded educational materials and curricula," reports the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In-school marketing—most of it for unhealthy foods—reaches 90 percent of high-school students and 70 percent of elementary students, but "Only 20 percent of school districts have food-marketing policies, and less than 10 percent of states do," the center says. "Although some companies have voluntarily agreed to limits on food marketing in schools through the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, CFBAI's school-marketing guidelines exclude middle and high schools and don't apply to many forms of marketing in elementaries, including vending-machine exteriors, menu boards, display racks, branded-food reward programs, branded materials for staff, and fundraisers." (Read more)

“The food marketing and local wellness standards proposed today support better health for our kids and echo the good work already taking place at home and in schools across the country," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the release. "The new standards ensure that schools remain a safe place where kids can learn and where the school environment promotes healthy choices. USDA is committed to working closely with students, parents, school stakeholders and the food and beverage industries to implement the new guidelines and make the healthy choice, the easy choice for America’s young people." (Read more)

Colorado's tougher clean-air regulations for oil and gas industry are first in U.S. to include methane

Working on a rig. R.J. Sangosti/Post
An air-quality control commission in Colorado on Sunday passed "tougher air pollution rules for the oil-and-gas industry—the first in the nation to cover methane," a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, Bruce Finley reports for The Denver Post. The rules, which are opposed by many in the industry, "require companies to detect leaks and fix them. They require companies to install devices that capture 95 percent of emissions—both volatile organic compounds and methane." 

"By passing rules aimed at reducing toxic emissions from oil and gas facilities, Colorado officials are trying to allow an energy boom while also protecting health and the environment," Finley writes. "They needed to act because Front Range air already fails to meet federal health standards. The oil-and-gas industry is a growing source of volatile organic compounds that lead to the formation of ozone." Last year four Colorado towns voted to ban fracking.

"Colorado is proving once again that collaboration and compromise help solve important issues facing our state," Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said in a statement. He said the new rules "will ensure Colorado has the cleanest and safest oil and gas industry in the country and help preserve jobs. All Coloradans deserve a healthy economy and a healthy environment, and we're working to ensure that Colorado continues to have both." (Read more)

USDA report finds that in 2010, nearly one-third of the United States food supply went uneaten

The U.S. wasted about 133 billion pounds of food in 2010, according to a report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That was 31 percent of the retail and consumer food supply. The estimated cost of the uneaten food is $161.6 billion using retail prices.

"Retail-level food losses repre­sented 10 percent—or 43 billion pounds—and consumer-level losses represented 21 percent—or 90 billion pounds—of the available food supply of 430 billion pounds of food in 2010," Derrick Cain reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The main foods lost were poultry, fish, vegetables and dairy products. Poultry and fish food losses amounted to 30 percent of the total loss—or $48 billion—vegetables made up 19 percent of losses—or $30 billion—and dairy products were 17 percent of losses—or $27 billion.

"The losses represent the amount of edible food, post-harvest, that is available for human consump­tion but is not consumed for any reason, the study said," Cain writes. "It includes cooking loss and natural shrinkage; loss from mold, pests or inadequate climate control; plate waste; and other causes. Further, the study said it includes edible items going unconsumed, such as food discarded by retailers due to blemishes or plate waste discarded by consumers."

The average amount of food lost "per American was 429 pounds, of which 139 pounds at the retail level and 290 pounds at the consumer level went uneaten," Cain writes. "At the consumer level, 59 pounds of vegetables, 52 pounds of dairy products, and 41 pounds of meat, poultry and fish per capita from the food supply in 2010 went uneaten."

The study states: “Food loss is becoming an increasingly important topic both domestically and internationally. Better estimates of the amount and value of food loss, including food waste, could help serve as quantitative baselines for policymakers and the food industry to set targets and develop initiatives, legislation or policies to minimize food waste, conserve resources and improve human nutrition.” (Read more)

Food stamp recipients increased 2.2 percent in 2013, the smallest growth since 2007

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps, was a key sticking point in the Farm Bill passed that last month. The Republican House wanted to cut the program by $40 billion over 10 years, but cut it by $8.6 billion over the next decade. How important are food stamps to Americans? A report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that participation in the program has risen 13 straight years, though the growth rate from 2012 to 2013 was the lowest since 2007, the beginning of the Great Recession.

In 2013, the program  grew by 2.2 percent, adding 1 million new participants, for a total 47.6 million, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. The average benefit per person fell from $133.41 per month to $133.08, and "Total expenditures on SNAP climbed 1.8 percent to $79.8 billion in fiscal year 2013." (Read more) (ERS graphic)

Monday, February 24, 2014

As rural share of population declines, so does the rural voice in state legislatures

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, is the only farmer
in the Colorado House. (AP photo by Brennan Linsley)
Rural lawmakers are in a shrinking minority in America, which presents a challenge for them to effectively communicate the needs of rural Americans, reports Steve Karnowski for The Associated Press. Rural lawmakers are struggling to get their peers to care about rural problems such as lack of broadband access and the plight of rural businesses. This disconnect is leading to the formation of rural caucuses in an attempt to give rural residents a louder voice.

"Lawmakers and political experts say the dwindling numbers of farmers, ranchers and others who make their living off the land affects not just agricultural policy but other rural concerns—highways, health care, schools and high-speed Internet access," Karnowski writes. "Urban and suburban lawmakers might be sympathetic, but they’re often unfamiliar with particular concerns." Rep. Bill Friend, a hog farmer who is the Republican floor leader in the Indiana House, told Karnowski: “They’re one, two, three generations removed from food production and agriculture. It’s kind of a foreign topic to them."

Tides are turning in states once strongly dominated by rural interests, Karnowski writes. "In ag-centric Nebraska, more than half of the legislators now come from the Omaha and Lincoln areas. Similarly, South Dakota’s legislators are bunched near Sioux Falls or Rapid City—only 11 of South Dakota’s 105 legislators as of last year were involved in agribusiness; in 1987, the figure was nearly three times higher."

Sen. John Sullivan (D-Ill.), the only active farmer in the state Senate said the agriculture committee’s chairman and other members lack agricultural backgrounds. "He expects a struggle to make the farming opinion heard as the chairman pushes legislation to require labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients," Karnowski writes. Sullivan told him, “It just makes it more difficult to explain and talk to my colleagues when they’re only hearing one side of it from opponents of GMO crops.” (Read more)

UPDATE, Feb. 26: The Daily Yonder says this story incorrectly "implies that rural and agriculture are the same thing," and points out, "Agriculture is but one part of the rural economy."

EPA proposes regulations limiting particle pollution from new wood-fired stoves and furnaces

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to reduce the amount of particle pollution allowed from smokestacks of wood-powered residential furnaces is not going over well in rural areas, where some residents rely on wood-burning stoves for heat and hot water, David A. Lieb reports for The Associated Press. While the rule would exempt the 12 million Americans who already use wood stoves, it would affect anyone who adds one in the future. Many low-income people rely on the cheaper costs of wood as a fuel. (AP photo by L.G. Patterson)

"Some manufacturers contend the EPA’s proposed standards are so stringent that the higher production costs would either force them out of business or raise prices so high that many consumers could no longer afford their products," Lieb writes. Missouri lawmakers are fighting back with a bill that declares “All Missourians have a right to heat their homes and businesses using wood-burning furnaces, stoves, fireplaces and heaters.” Reg Kelly, the founder of Earth Outdoor Furnaces, told Missouri lawmakers, “There’s not a stove in the United States that can pass the test right now—this is the death knoll of any wood burning,”

A Missouri House committee "endorsed a revised measure that proposes to ban state environmental officials from regulating residential wood heaters unless authorized by the Legislature," AP reports. Other states have also weighed in on the issue—Washington and New York have already adopted stricter emission rules—while Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert "called for a winter ban on wood-burning in an attempt to improve air quality," and "the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has also proposed its own emission requirements." The EPA has scheduled a public hearing Wednesday in Boston. (Read more)

Remote Area Medical looks to schedule more clinics to focus on 'distressed corridor' of Appalachia

More help could be coming for Appalachian Kentuckians who need health care. Remote Area Medical is launching a two-year campaign beginning in September called "Stop the Suffering in Appalachia," designed to work with community organizations, health-care professionals and volunteers in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and Mississippi to raise funds to provide free care to as many people in the "distressed corridor" as possible, according to the group's website. RAM lists 15 percent of the Appalachian population, or 180,000 people, as needing the services. The cost per patient is $22.22. A clinic is scheduled Oct. 25-26 at Rowan County Middle School in Morehead. (Los Angeles Times photo by Genaro Molina: Patients at a clinic in California)

RAM, which has more than 84,000 volunteers, has provided more than $75 million worth of free medical care in more than 700 mobile clinics to 545,000 patients, according to the organization. Despite those staggering numbers, they say they want to reach even more people in need "to establish RAM Affiliates based in Appalachian states to provide ongoing services and healthcare access beyond 2016." (Read more)

The solution is to "work with local organizations and doctors in each state organizing clinics on a local level by donating two trucks to help with health care procedures," Laura Halm reports for WATE-TV in Knoxville. That means, RAM founder Stan Brock told Halm, that when RAM holds the clinic in October in Kentucky, "those people in the middle of Kentucky don't have to drive all the way down to Knoxville or come and find us in some other part of the country." It also means RAM can hold more clinics each year, raising its average total from one or two to five or six. Brock told Halm, "We really need to have an intense focus on Appalachia in our own backyard, because the need is so great." (Read more) For the clinic schedule click here.

Some fear new corn resistant to 2,4-D will lead to overuse and drift; comment period ends today

Today is the last day for public comment on a draft environmental impact statement for seed corn that is resistant to Dow Chemical Co.'s herbicide 2,4-D, prompting a story from Dakotafire, a cooperative reporting project among rural newspapers in the eastern Dakotas.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” Heidi Marttila-Losure begins the story. “But what happens if a fenceline can’t stop one neighbor’s actions from harming another’s crop? Some agriculture groups are saying new crops resistant to herbicides 2,4-D and dicamba could lead to just those sorts of problems.”

Promoters of the new corn, branded Enlist, say it's needed because of increasing resistance of weeds to glyphosate, which Monsanto sells as Roundup, “which is becoming a stubborn and costly problem for farmers across the country,” Marttila-Losure notes. “Unfortunately, stubborn weeds aren’t the only thing that 2,4-D kills, and gardeners, vineyard owners and even farmers of commodities who don’t switch to the new technology could potentially be affected.”

The Department of Agriculture says the use of Enlist could increase use of 2,4-D as much as sixfold, which could be a problem because the chemical kills all broadleaf plants, “and some of those broadleaf plants, such as tomatoes or grapes, or even commodity crops that don’t have that specific herbicide-resistant technology, we’d prefer not to kill. Second, both 2,4-D and dicamba have a tendency to be volatile, or to turn to vapor. This vapor can then be carried far from where the herbicide was first applied,” depending on weather conditions. “The most important factor in killing Iowa’s grape industry was the use of 2,4-D.”

The Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society opposes Enlist, saying that if many farmers use it, “It may not be easy to tell whose spray has caused the problem on your field,” Marttila-Losure writes. “Dow scientists recognized the potential drift problem, and they say they have addressed it by developing a new formulation of 2,4-D that’s ultra-low volatility. After complaints that just offering a new variety wasn’t enough—especially since it would be more expensive than generic 2,4-D, which is relatively cheap—Dow said they would urge farmers to use the new formulation when they purchased the new Enlist seeds. They also said they’d try to price the new formulation competitively. Whether that’s enough to get farmers to use the more expensive product remains to be seen.”

Marttila-Losure notes in a tagline that she's a member of the NPSAS, through her family's farm. The group's president, Charlie Johnson, “sees herbicide resistance as a signal of a failed technology: After weeds develop resistance to Enlist, scientists will have to come up with something else.” (Read more)

TV producers find a wealth of story lines from rural America's struggles with poverty, other issues

Crime is flourishing in rural America, at least on cable television, with networks having discovered that shifting focus from faceless urban areas and into closer-knit communities offers a greater emotional impact for viewers, Tirdad Derakhshani reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer. That has led to the creation of a handful of shows set in rural areas of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, New Mexico, Wyoming and California.

Jonathan Tropper, co-creator of the Cinemax show "Banshee," about an urban criminal who talks his way into being a sheriff in Pennsylvania Amish country, told Derakhshani, "It's so much more horrifying to be confronted with the evil that exists in an otherwise Norman Rockwellian town. If small towns are the bedrock of America, then it's like showing that bedrock is riddled with termites."

One reasons for rural crime shows' success may be that despite higher crime rates in urban areas, the public perception is the opposite, Emily Owens, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Derakhshani. "Urban-renewal programs in the 1990s were so successful they captured the media's attention, Owens said. When the crack epidemic in the inner cities subsided, more headlines were devoted to the meth problem in suburban and rural areas."

While many shows focus on young, attractive wealthy people living it up in big cities, this new breed of rural crime shows highlight the less than attractive features of rural life, such as poverty. Nic Pizzolatto, creator of "True Detective," an HBO show that takes place in Louisiana, told Derakhshani, "The traditional western presented America as a land of endless opportunities. That optimism, he said, is long gone. These spaces in the country don't get a lot of attention, but that's where the real American story seems to be happening. It's a story of economic collapse, loss of faith in institutions and the yawning inequality between rich and poor. The crisis of the middle class and its effective dissolution is felt throughout the country but is rarely dramatized." (Read more)

Rural children are more likely to be obese, but rural communities have several strategies to fight it

Children living in rural areas are about 25 percent more likely to be overweight or obese than children in urban areas, studies show. Rural communities have come up with several strategies to battle childhood obesity, Sarah Lifsey and Karah Mantinan report for the Altarum Institute, a nonprofit health-systems research and consulting organization.

Many people are surprised to hear that childhood obesity is a rural phenomenon, because they assume that rural kids have more access to the outdoors and physical activity. However, studies have found that there is little open public space in rural areas, often because of a lack of a robust local government to provide and maintain such public spaces, Lifsey and Mantinan write. They also cite research showing that rural families don't use public activity areas partly due to fear of crime in public spaces, even though crime is less likely in rural areas.

Other causes: Rural children are also at increased risk of poverty compared to children in cities or suburbs and face lower access to health care, lower levels of physical activity, lower-quality food and limited options for transportation.

Poorer food and lower levels of activity are often the result of the distance it takes to get to a physical-activity venue or a grocery store in rural areas, the authors write. The time and fuel it takes to get to and from a venue can discourage commitment to transport children or to travel to groceries with better food options, Lifsey and Mantinan write.

Many rural families who lack access to fresh and healthy foods live in "food deserts," Generally defined as those with no grocery with fresh produce within 10 miles. Studies have found poverty and childhood obesity are more likely in rural food deserts.

Rural communities are using several school-based strategies to fight obesity, Lifsey and Mantinan report. They include making sure school-bus schedules and family transportation schedules coordinate to encourage after-school activities; ensuring that schools provide gym class and recess; allowing recreational areas of school grounds to be available to the community after hours; providing alternative transportation options to students who need rides home in order to participate in after school activities; improving school meals to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables; and improving the choices available in soda and vending machines.

Engaging programs and groups that are already in existence, such as 4-H Youth Development and telemedicine programs that focus on childhood obesity intervention, are great places to start when initiating childhood obesity programs, the authors write. Having local farmers teach gardening skills can also improve access to healthy food.

Noting that African-American children are the most likely to be obese, Lifsey and Mantinan say communities must keep minority populations in mind. They also suggest working with employers to start employee wellness programs that encourage parents to model healthy behaviors for their children.

Also, It's important for rural communities to observe, measure and decide how each of them want to attack this issue to increase the probability of success, they say.

Tools are available to help with this planning such as the Rural Active Living Assessment Tools, developed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  Other resources include the Rural Assistance Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Rural Initiative, which features a Rural Obesity Prevention Toolkit developed by the& Nutrition Obesity Research Center’s Walsh Center for Rural Analysis, as well as a resource guide for rural areas developed by the University of North Carolina’s Active Living by Design.

Amtrak asks Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico to help pay for track upgrades to keep historic route

A piece of American history, along with the future of several rural towns in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, hang in the balance in a dispute about who should pay the $200 million bill to upgrade an Amtrak railroad line to allow the Southwest Chief train to travel at faster speeds, Dan Frosch reports for The New York Times. (NYT graphic: Southwest Chief route)
Amtrak has asked the three states where repairs are most needed "to each pitch in $40 million over 20 years to help pay for track upgrades and maintenance it says are needed to keep the route viable. But some state officials are balking, saying that Amtrak, which draws financial support from the federal government, should cover the costs itself." If an agreement isn't reached by the end of the year, "Amtrak says it will potentially drop nine small-town stations in favor of existing track in Texas and Oklahoma."

The route, which has been in operation since 1971 and consistently averages 250,000 passengers a year, runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, stopping at several small towns along the way. Many of those towns rely on the train's passengers to support their economies. Jim Maldonado, chairman of the board of commissioners for Colfax County, where the train stops in Raton, N.M., told Frosch, “We need this train here. Losing it would be devastating for our county. Things have just been dying out here for years.”

Amtrak "says that the tracks that guide the Southwest Chief will soon be unable to withstand the speed that a modern passenger train needs to stay efficient," Frosch writes. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told him, “The train is not viable as a business when it operates at a lower speed, because it ends up being slower than driving.” He said the company doesn't have the funding to pay for the upgrades on its own, a statement that doesn't sit well with the three states being asked to hand over $40 million. New Mexico's transportation secretary Tom Church told Frosch, “We need to look at the cost-benefit of the whole thing. Obviously, we would like to see the route continue, but there is also the issue that Amtrak is funded by Congress.” (Read more)