Friday, December 28, 2007

Obama, Huckabee may ride rural-newspaper endorsements to victories in Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses

Rural newspaper favorites Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama would win the Iowa caucuses if they were held tonight, say the latest "power rankings" of the Iowa Independent, an online news site that is our favorite source of grass-roots information on Hawkeye State politics.

The Independent knows rural Iowa, and says Obama's "wave of small-town newspaper endorsements should enhance his second-choice support in rural parts of the state where he has been perceived as weak." Second choices are important because supporters of a candidate who doesn't get at least 15 percent of the vote in a precinct can then caucus for someone else. The Independent's rankings have Hillary Clinton and John Edwards tied for second.

[This paragraph was updated Dec. 30.] In the Republican race, which has no 15 percent rule, Huckabee had five newspaper endorsements, three from weeklies. John McCain had four dailies and two weeklies; Mitt Romney had three dailies and Fred Thompson had one, the Ottumwa Courier. For a listing of all the endorsements and the newspapers' circulations, click here.

The Independent's rankings put Romney in second and Ron Paul in third. Chase Martyn (in photo below) writes, "Paul broke double digits in at least two polls for the first time this week and he seems particularly strong in areas of the state where the media has less of an impact on political deliberations -- especially in rural northwest and southern Iowa." Because rural precincts tend to be smaller, the rural vote in the caucuses is amplified. For an Independent story on that by John Deeth, click here.

The Independent is spotlighted in the January issue of Wired magazine, in a story about Iowa blogs that quotes former Des Moines Register reporter Chuck Offenburger: "Many times I notice, like with the Iowa Independent or smaller papers, they'll be out in front of the media on some campaign appearance, and then the larger media then works their way around to it."

Sarah Lai Stirland writes, "Founded eight months ago, the Iowa Independent is staffed with a motley mix of part-time contributing bloggers and more-established local writers. Its sole full-time employee is Martyn -- a former Democratic field coordinator and student political blogger who graduated from Grinnell College earlier this year."

The Independent is one of four state political blogs "funded by the Center for Independent Media, a nonprofit group headed by former Wired magazine writer David Bennahum," Stirland writes. The others are Colorado Confidential, Michigan Messenger and Minnesota Monitor. (Read more)

Study suggests farm women who apply pesticides put themselves at greater risk of getting asthma

If you're a farm woman who applies pesticides, you appear to have a much greater chance of developing allergic asthma -- especially if you didn't grow up on a farm. Those are the headline results from the first study of the subject, published in January of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, published by the American Thoracic Society.

The study looked at 25,814 farm women in North Carolina and Iowa, more than half of whom applied pesticides. It "found an average increase of 50 percent in the prevalence of allergic asthma in all farm women who applied or mixed pesticides," says Newswise, a research-reporting service.

About 40 percent of the women in the study did not grow up on a farm. Their greater risk of developing asthma from pesticide application is "due to a protective effect that remains poorly understood," Newswise says. "Growing up on a farm is such a huge protective effect it's pretty hard to overwhelm it," said Dr. Jane Hoppin of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and lead author of the study.

The study "found that most pesticides were associated only with allergic asthma, even though non-allergic asthma is generally more common in adults," Newswise reports. "Even some commonly used pesticides were associated with a marked increase in allergic asthma prevalence. Malathion, for example, a widely used insecticide, was associated with a 60 percent increased prevalence of allergic asthma."

Because the study was a cross-section of data collected from physicians' reports in the 1990s, the researchers cannot definitively say that using pesticides causes asthma. They are planning a large-scale study that will better evaluate the linkage. To read or download the current study, click here.

U.S. coal production down 1.4% from last year, mainly due to 3.6% drop in Central Appalachia

U.S. coal production dropped 1.4 percent this year, largely because of significant declines in Central Appalachia, according to the Energy Information Administration.

As of Dec. 15, production in Virginia was down 10.2 percent from 2006, to 25.8 million tons. Kentucky production was down 5.2 percent, to 110.8 million tons. In the entire Appalachian coalfield, "production dipped 3.6 percent to 364.6 million tons," The Associated Press reported.

Production in southern West Virginia, which comes from many of the same seams as those in Eastern Kentucky, declined 0.4 percent to 105.5 million tons. "Northern West Virginia mines increased output during the period 4.1 percent to 42.6 million tons," AP reported. "In Wyoming, the nation's biggest producer, production is up 1.6 percent to 433.1 million tons."

AP added, "U.S. coal producers faced weak demand from electric utilities and stagnant prices for much of the year. More recently, however, international demand for coal used to generate electricity and to make coke for steel manufacturers has spurred exports, particularly to Europe and South America." To read the EIA reports, click here.

Giuliani and Oxycontin: How much influence?

Last month, we heard from columnist Don McNay that "The mainstream media [have] ignored how [Rudy] Giuliani made his living. Helping a company that sold addictive drugs is worse than being married a few times." McNay started writing about that in May. Today, The New York Times tells the story of the presidential candidate and Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the painkiller Oxycontin (in photo by Toby Talbot of The Associated Press).

"His work for Purdue, the company’s first and longest-running client, provides a window into how he used his standing as an eminent lawyer, a Republican insider and a national celebrity to aid a controversial client and build a business fortune," Barry Meier and Eric Lipton write of Giuliani Partners, the consulting firm of the former New York mayor and U.S. attorney.

They start their story with his final phone call last year to John Brownlee, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, who was about to bring charges against the company and three executives for "perhaps the most aggressive promotional campaign for a high-powered narcotic ever undertaken. It promoted the drug not only to pain specialists, but to family doctors with little experience in treating serious pain or recognizing drug abuse. As a result of the expanded access, critics charged, OxyContin wound up in the high schools and street corners of rural America where curious teenagers crushed the pill, defeating the time-release formula, and ended up addicts, or in some cases, dead."

From June to October 2006, Brownlee and Giuliani met or spoke six times. In the last of those conversations, the prosecutor told Giuliani "that he expected to ask for a grand jury indictment by the end of the month. Plea discussions ensued and Mr. Brownlee ultimately agreed that the three executives would not have to do jail time. . . . After years of denial and a high-profile public relations campaign, the company was forced to admit that it had misled doctors and patients. But to the parents of young people who had died getting high on OxyContin, the absence of jail time was evidence of Mr. Giuliani’s influence."

Not so, U.S. District Judge James Jones said when he accepted the plea agreement, which fined the company and the executives $634 million. “It has been implied that because Mr. Giuliani is a prominent national politician, Purdue may have received a favorable deal from the government solely because of politics,” he said. “I completely reject this claim.” (Read more)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tama County, Iowa, bucks trend of rural decline

At least one Iowa county is bucking the trend of rural population decline in the state, thanks to low housing prices, government-backed home loans and relative proximity to urban hubs, reports Ken Black of the Times-Republican in Marshalltown, in the county to the west.

"Tama County is seeing an increase in population among those whose ages range from 15 to 49, a key demographic of economic health," Black writes, quoting Lindi Roelofse, executive director of the Tama County Economic Development Commission: "We really believe at least part of this may be attributed to the fact that relative to some of the surrounding counties, starter homes are cheaper, specifically in Tama County. Also, there are a lot of programs out there to help first-time home buyers."

Black notes that some of those programs, such as those under the Rural Development umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are available only in rural areas, and every town in the county is eligible for them. "Because of that, the county can be very attractive to young families who may be looking to purchase real estate, especially for the first time," he writes, also crediting the county's low cost of living and its location, "25 to 35 miles from an urban hub such as Marshalltown, Cedar Falls, Waterloo, or Cedar Rapids." The county seat of Toledo is at the junction of US 30 and 63, 23 miles north of Interstate 80. (Read more)

Mine plan pits Alaska traditions vs. modern culture

Karl Vick of The Washington Post reports from Nondalton, Alaska (near center of Encarta map): "The gold mine proposed for this stunning open country might be the largest in North America. It would involve building the biggest dam in the world at the headwaters of the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, which it would risk obliterating. Epic even by Alaskan standards, the planned Pebble Mine has divided a state normally enthusiastic about extracting whatever value can be found in its wide-open spaces."

The proposal by Northern Dynasty Minerals of Vancouver and Anglo-American Corp. also has serious implications for the rural culture of the area. Vick writes, "By tradition and law, natives have the run of the area for the moose, caribou and most of all the salmon that provide sustenance in a place hundreds of miles from the nearest road. But the outside world moves closer with each generation, and appetites change. The only food on the table where [Olga] Balluta sat were oily paper pouches of french fries hand carried on an airplane from a McDonald's in Anchorage. Lined up on the counter behind were jumbo containers of Hills Bros. coffee, CoffeeMate and Lucky Charms. "That's all they learn to eat now," she told Vick, referring to local children. Her favorite foods are bear fat and fish gut salad.

"The mining companies count on that change, dangling the prospect of cash incomes even while bowing deeply to traditions that no native consciously rejects," Vick reports, quoting company spokesman Sean McGee: "If we can't show to the satisfaction of the local people that we can protect the fisheries, we will not advance this project. We have no interest in replacing one resource with another, and we understand the burden of proof is ours." (Read more)

Va. coalfield congressman predicts greenhouse-gas limits, coupled with carbon-capture funding

The Democratic congressman for southwest Virginia, which includes part of the Appalachian coalfield, is telling local newspapers that Congress is "virtually certain" to enact limits on greenhouse gases in the next three years, and he will be part of the effort.

"Ninth District U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher has announced his intention to author legislation that will both mandate the reduction of greenhouse gases and ensure a viable coal economy for years to come," reports Keith Strange of The Coalfield Progress in Norton. Boucher told the weekly newspaper, "My goal is to have a meaningful control on greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time enabling a growth in the use of coal."

"While some people may consider the two goals mutually exclusive," Strange writes, "the congressman said new technology could make coal mining much more environmentally friendly. ... The technology, commonly referred to as “carbon capture,” is not currently commercially feasible, but Boucher said he plans to put the strength of the federal government behind research into the process," which would funnel carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants into underground rock formations or other reservoirs. (Read more)

McCain rides events and endorsements, including a chain of weeklies in rural New Hampshire

When John McCain passed up the Ames Straw Poll last summer, "It was not difficult to find Iowans who proclaimed the Arizona senator's campaign dead in the water," writes Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent. "Recent events, including newspaper endorsements and an assassination on the other side of the globe, have prompted some Iowans to give McCain a second look." (Independent photo)

Mary McEniry of Marion told Waddington, "With the [Benazir Bhutto] assassination today, that just made me think that we need somebody really strong, and he's the one." Waddington reports, "The assassination of Pakistan's former prime minister was at the top of McCain's list when he offered his prepared remarks." (Read more)

Michael Shear of The Washington Post reported yesterday, "McCain still trails in Iowa -- most polls peg his support in the single digits -- in part because of his opposition to ethanol subsidies and his support of immigration reform. But armed with an endorsement from the Des Moines Register and buoyed by his success in New Hampshire, McCain on Wednesday launched a three-day tour of Iowa's rural towns."

Today, McCain returned to New Hampshire, where he has keyed on rural votes. In his comeback since hit campaign hit bottom in early fall, "McCain also worked hard to win endorsements from the state's leading papers, seeing it as a no-cost strategy for building support." Shear reports. "Aides even pursued the Salmon Press chain of small weeklies, inviting its editors to ride on the bus." (Read more) The chain endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Access to its sites requires a subscription; for a story by James Pindell of The Boston Globe on its endorsement, click here.

Congress cuts local drug task force funds by 2/3

Drug-enforcement efforts in many rural areas are likely to suffer from a 67 percent cut in a federal grant program, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports today, in a story that seems ripe for replicating in most jurisdictions around the country. (For an example, see this story by Tom Joyce of the Mt. Airy News in North Carolina.)

The budget bill that Congress passed last week has $170 million for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program, which got $520 million in the last fiscal year, reports the Herald-Leader's Cassonrda Kirby, quoting the executive director of the Kentucky Narcotics Officers' Association and David Steingraber, president of the National Criminal Justice Association.

Kirby writes, "The loss of grant money will mean disaster for small task forces, said Van Ingram, with the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. For those that manage to remain open, the cuts will severely limit their abilities, he said. 'You can't do drug investigations without money for informants, money for overtime and money for salaries.' David Gilbert, director of the Lake Cumberland Area Drug Task Force, which serves Pulaski, McCreary and Wayne counties, said 75 percent of the task force's budget comes from the grant. He says he doesn't know whether the Lake Cumberland task force will survive the cuts. In the past year, Gilbert said, [it] has worked more than 300 felony drug cases. Two years ago, the task force helped make the first seizure of liquid methamphetamine coming into Kentucky on a plane." (Read more)

Battle to improve oral health in Appalachia faces many cultural, economic, governmental obstacles

From southeastern Kentucky, Ian Urbina of The New York Times writes of the poor oral health of Central Appalachians -- "everyday people who are too busy putting food on the table to worry about oral hygiene. Many of them savor their sweets, drink well water without fluoride and long ago started ruining their teeth by chewing tobacco and smoking."

The story also blames "inadequate access to dental care or the inability to pay for a dentist," and notes that less than a fourth of Kentucky's dentists accept clients of the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled, partly because the reimbursement rates for adults and children, respectively, are 65 and 50 percent below market rates. Urbina also cites "widespread use of chewing tobacco and a pervasive assumption that losing teeth is simply part of growing old. West Virginia, for example, which has the highest proportion of people over 65 without teeth, also has one of the lowest percentages of adults who visit the dentist at least once a year."

Dr. Edwin Smith of Barbourville, Ky., "is trying to catch these problems before they progress," Urbina reports. "Each week, he drives his mobile clinic, Kids First Dental Care, up the windy Appalachian roads to visit schools and to provide free check-ups to children in the poorest counties of Kentucky. Dr. Smith paid about $150,000 of his own money to build the mobile clinic inside an 18-wheel truck. The clinic has a staff of seven and operates with private and Medicaid financing."

Urbina relates some of Smith's horror stories, which include tooth-eroding methamphetamine, "the shame of a 14-year-old girl who would not lift her head because she had lost most of her teeth from malnutrition, and the do-it-yourself pride of an elderly mountain man who, unable to afford a dentist, pulled his own infected teeth with a pair of pliers. He has seen the brutal result of angry husbands hitting their wives and the end game of pill-poppers who crack healthy teeth, one by one, to get dentists to prescribe pain medications."

Medicaid doesn't pay for root canals and dentures, so people who lose all or prominent teeth find it hard to overcome the economic disadvantages that may have contributed to their problems in the first place. "Try finding work when you’re in your 30s or 40s and you’re missing front teeth,” Jane Stephenson, founder of the New Opportunity School in Berea, which provides job training to low-income Appalachian women and helps them buy dentures, told Urbina. "She said about half of the women who go through the program, most in their 40s, were missing teeth or had ones that were infected. As a result, she said, they are shunned by employers, ashamed to go back to school and to be around younger peers and often miss work because of pain or complications of the infections." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In Kentucky and West Virginia, most poor kids who could get free dental care don't

"Most of the 200,000 West Virginia children covered by Medicaid don’t see a dentist, even though they’re entitled to a full menu of dental services," Eric Eyre of The Charleston Gazette reports in his latest story on oral health in the state. "At last count, about 64 percent of kids with Medicaid weren’t going to a dentist, according to 2003 data from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid." The figure for Kentucky is similar.

This Gazette photo, of Dr. Bridget Boggs Stevens extracting a tooth from a six-year-old, is emblematic of The Mountain State's oral-health issues. "West Virginia dentists have billed the state more to pull children’s teeth than to clean them" in the last four years, . "From 2003 through last year, the state was billed more than $15 million for children’s tooth extractions, and $13 million for cleanings," Eyre writes. "Last year, the Medicaid office spent $11 million on children’s extractions and fillings, but only $6 million on prevention treatments."

After analyzing more than 3.3 million Medicaid claims submitted by dentists since 2003, the Gazette also found that "The number of cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants all decreased from 2003 to 2006. At the same time, extractions also declined — a positive sign.
Routine teeth cleanings dropped from 95,566 in 2003 to about 87,971 last year. And they’re on pace to decline even further, to about 86,000 at the end of this year."

Shannon Landrum, executive assistant to the state Medicaid commissioner, told Eyre, "A lot of our members access the medical system for crisis, not for prevention. It’s our goal to change that." (Read more)

Hills of N.C.'s Southern Piedmont about to become a major area for commercial blackberry production

In the hills of the North Carolina Piedmont west of Charlotte, where soybeans are the major crop, farmers are about to cash in on a growing national market for blackberries, driven by their antioxidant qualities, reports Rebecca Sulock of The Charlotte Observer.

SunnyRidge Farms of Florida has signed up "about a dozen" Lincoln County farmers with 120 acres for 2008, and plans to double the acreage by 2009 and open a distribution center early next year in adjoining Cleveland County. The growers "will fill a gap in the berry harvesting season, which will last four to five weeks longer than the season in Georgia," the Observer reports.

The company's production manager, Stanley Scarborough, told Sulock, "Lincoln County hopefully someday will be the Napa Valley of blackberries." But she cautions, "The plants aren't easy. They're expensive, require irrigation and are perishable when ripe. All those berries have to be gently plucked and put in coolers." Farmer Ervin Linberger of Kings Mountain told her, "We expect we'll have some problems getting labor for handpicking."(Read more)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Florida tomato workers who got help from Yum! and McDonald's get back of hand from Burger KIng

"A group of farmers who persuaded McDonald’s and Taco Bell to have their tomato suppliers pay their pickers more have seen their effort stall as Burger King has refused to do the same," reports The New York Times. "The main group of Florida tomato growers — calling the farmworkers’ tactics 'un-American' — has threatened a $100,000 fine against growers that cooperate with McDonald’s or Yum! Brands, the parent of Taco Bell, to pay their pickers more."

Lucas Benitez, a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, told reporter Steven Greenhouse, "The only way you can describe this industry is the way it was described 40 years ago: It’s a harvest of shame." The vice president for food safety and regulatory compliance at Burger King, Steve Grover, said, "We’re being asked to do something that we have legal questions about. We want to find a way to make sure that workers are protected and receive a decent wage."

The workers wanted Burger King to follow the lead of McDonald's and Yum! and pay pickers 77 cents, up from 45 cents, for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. "A bigger obstacle to the coalition’s efforts is the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a cooperative representing 90 percent of the state’s growers," Greenhouse reports. "It has threatened large 'noncompliance penalties' for any growers that share information about wages or tonnage picked with third parties like McDonald’s. Florida grows 85 percent of the nation’s winter tomatoes." (Read more)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Demand from China, other nations has greatly boosted U.S. coal prices in the last three months

"Surging demand for coal in Asia is bringing good news all the way to the U.S. coal miners of Appalachia," reports Matthew Dalton of Dow Jones Newswires. "Coal prices in the U.S. have surged 20 percent in the last three months, due largely to the voracious appetite of China and India for coal to generate electricity and make steel. Rising Asian coal consumption has caused European and South American coal consumers, which have relied heavily on coal from South Africa and Asia, to seek out U.S. coal companies for supply."

Jim Thompson, publisher of Coal & Energy Price Report, told Dalton, "The impact of Asian demand in the world market has probably increased the price of U.S. coal by $10 per ton in a three-month period. That's a pretty amazing development." Central Appalachian coal shipped by barge is now selling for $55 a ton, up from $44 a ton in August, Dalton reports, adding, "The price of coal for delivery toward the end of 2008 is even higher, approaching $60 per ton."

The market shifts should help James River Coal Co., International Coal Group and Massey Energy Co., Dalton reports. "These companies have seen their profits suffer over the last two years, as raw materials and labor costs have been rising but coal prices remained flat. Mild weather in 2006 and improved coal shipping from railroads allowed U.S. power plants to stockpile large amounts of coal." Massey's stock price is the highest since July 2006. (Read more)