Friday, May 08, 2009

Obama's budget cuts W.Va.-East Coast road link

Previously, we reported on appropriations for the controversial Corridor H, which would provide a direct route from West Virginia to the East Coast but cross some of the highest, most scenic and most environmentally vulnerable ridges of the Appalachians. The relatively small $10 million appropriated for a short section of the road has been cut from President Obama's budget for next year, and is cited as "wasteful spending." The administration says the highway, part of the Appalachian system planned in the 1960s, should be built by the state, not the federal government. Virginia has refused to build its part of the road to Interstates 81 and 66.

Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports that the project's main supporter, U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, has vowed to get the funding put back into the budget when it goes to Congress. Finn also notes that Gov. Joe Manchin is moving $36 million in the state's federal highway money to the project. (Read more)

Study, kept secret for years, shows cancer risk from coal ash; where's your closest impoundment?

A 2002 Environmental Protection Agency study showing the cancer risks of living near coal-ash disposal sites was released only this year. The study, brought to light by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, showed that up to one of every 50 residents near coal-ash ponds could get cancer due to arsenic leaking into drinking water.

The study looked at 210 lagoons, impoundments or landfills in 34 states, but found that there may be twice as many coal-ash sites as EPA data show, that the pollution from the sites could last 100 years, and that lead and other pollutants found in the waste could cause additional health problems.

"The highest risk is for people who live near ash ponds with no liners and who get their water from wells," reports Renee Schoof of McClatchy Newspapers. "Although the health information mainly came from an EPA study released in August 2007," she writes, "the information was largely neglected and was too technical for most people to understand, the groups said." (Read more)

The study was quietly posted on the EPA Web site in March, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his Coal Tattoo blog. "The 2002 report reveals some incredible new findings about risks to aquatic ecosystems and wildlife," Ward writes. "According to EPA data, ash ponds are predicted to leak boron into surface waters at concentrations 2,000 times higher than what is safe for aquatic life. And, EPA data also shows levels of arsenic and selenium will be 10 times higher than what is safe." (Read more; read the report)

"In an interview with the Iowa Independent in March, [the State of Iowa's] lead staffer on coal ash issues said because there are currently no monitoring wells at these disposal sites to ensure groundwater is not being contaminated, he cannot say definitively that some sort of contamination isn’t taking place," Jason Hancock reports in the Indepenedent, which published this Plains Justice photo of an old Waterloo quarry being used as a coal-ash dump.

The Lexington Herald-Leader's story located six coal-ash impoundments in Kentucky that the study named most hazardous. (Read more; see the list of impoundments studied)

Study: Exercise in school fails to thwart obesity

The increasing problem of obese children won't be reduced by more exercise in school, says a recent study. Instead, children who exercise in school tend to be more sedentary after school, while students who did not have school exercise tended to be more active. "In the end, a child will expend the same amount of energy, whether in school or out, suggesting that his level of activity is set by some kind of internal meter in the brain," The Associated Press reports, on the study led by British researcher Terry Wilkin.

However, Tim Lobstein, director of the International Association for the Study of Obesity's childhood-obesity program, says the study examines only one side of the issue. He says school-based exercise helps children love it later in life, "to set the thermostat, as it were, the activity-stat, at a high level." Wilkin studied 8- to 10-year-old children from 2003 to 2005, and was presented last week at the European Council on Obesity in Amsterdam. (Read more) In the U.S., rural children have a higher rate of obesity than their urban counterparts.

Local chemical-risk data is again available, this time from an improved Web site

What possible chemical accidents could happen in your area? Journalists looking to report on local chemical risks again have a great tool for gathering government data for their region: the newly redesigned Right-to-Know Net. The Web site offers powerful tools to help journalists discover stories in their area, thanks to data from the Environmental Protection Agency's Risk Management Program and facility-specific histories of accidents covering the past five years. The data were concealed during the Bush administration.

The site does not identify specific facilities in its chemical risk assessment, but "the new RTK NET makes it easy to see which cities face the worst chemical risks, and what chemicals are involved," says the WatchDog TipSheet for the Society for Environmental Journalists. "Starting with this information, it is easy to zero in on specific facilities using other tools." (Read more; visit the RTK NET website)

Louisiana dentists trying to ban mobile clinics

Mobile clincs are a key source of dental care for the rural poor in many states, but dentists in Louisiana want to outlaw them. A bill is currently before the state legislature that would ban school-based mobile clinics, but it is stalled in committee after a close vote.

"Supporters of the bill, led by the Louisiana Dental Association, said mobile dental clinics amount to 'Third World' care and that children are best served in fully equipped dental offices," writes Jan Moller in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Mobile-clinic supporters say the clinics provide good care, and are necessary for children who are unable to afford other dental care. They "make some valid arguments," said state Health and Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine. "The underlying issue here is access." (Read more)

Isolated area in Idaho will keep mail via air drop

Postmaster General John Potter has reversed a decision to cut the last backcountry air-drop mail service in the country. The proposal was an attempt to save money; eliminating the weekly delivery would have cut a relatively miniscule $46,000 from the Postal Service's yearly budget. Although free post offfice boxes were offered in the closest town, it is far away and critics argued that the Idaho region served by the maildrop was practically inaccessible except by plane.

Howard Berkes of National Public Radio notes that the decision proved embarrassing for the Postal Service, especially in light of Potter's testimony before a Senate subcommittee this January. "We must serve every customer and every community equally," he testified. "We must provide the same access … in both easy-to-serve locations and locations so remote they can only be reached by mule, by swamp boat or by bush plane." (Read more)

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Obama once again calls for farm subsidy cuts, but OMB says he is 'standing with rural America'

Cuts in farm subsidies are among a list of spending cuts President Obama proposed yesterday, despite congressional rejection of a similar proposal on farm subsidies soon after he took office.

"The president wants to maintain a strong safety net for farm families and beginning farmers while encouraging fiscal responsibility," a White House statement said. The proposed cuts would put set the cap at $250,000 for farms eligible to receive subsidies and would phase out the "direct payment" subsidies to large operations.

"Farm subsidy spending, estimated at $9.25 billion this year, would be cut by $1 billion a year under Obama's proposals, which include a reduction in crop insurance subsidies and an end to cotton storage payments," reports Reuters. (Read more)

The Office of Management and Budget said Obama's budget would "support rural economic development ... rural revitalization and education ... fight rural crime ... improve rural health ... develop and strengthen rural broadband, telecommunications, and electric services ... expand rural homeownership opportunities ... promote rural America’s leadership in developing renewable energy" and "provide critical support for family farmers." The points are made in "Standing With Rural America," one of OMB's "five fact sheets on key issues."

Publication of gun-permit data in Tennessee leads to bill making it largely secret

We reported here that the Memphis Commercial Appeal's posting on its Web site of a database of Tennesseans who had concealed gun permits had raised the ire of pro-gun advocates. Now the state House has passed a bill that would that make the names of permit holders largely secret and one to allow guns to be carried in restaurants that serve alcohol without curfew restrictions. The vote was 83-12, perhaps signaling passage in the Senate.

"Advocates for keeping the records public argue they allow media outlets to report on handgun permits that should not have been issued, including a 2008 Tennessean analysis that found the state had renewed permits for almost 200 felons," reports Colby Sledge of The Tennessean. "Anyone convicted of a felony is prohibited from owning firearms unless the person gets their rights restored in court."

Permit information will be available to the public only if introduced as evidence in a criminal case or child-support hearing. "The bill would still allow the Department of Safety to report how many permits had been issued and revoked, along with the ZIP codes where such actions occurred," Sledge reports. (Read more)

Cotton increasingly replaced by corn, soybeans

The South has long been associated with King Cotton, but there are growing signs of the crop's decline in the region because of lower use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects exports of U.S. cotton to fall by $1.2 million this year.

"As with other commodities, prices and acreage have gone up and down on economic cycles. But cotton farmers and farm economists say they have never seen a downturn quite like this, one that started during the global boom and has quickened in the recession," reports Clifford Krauss of The New York Times. "The Agriculture Department estimates that 8.8 million acres of cotton will be planted in the United States this year, down 7 percent from 2008 and 42 percent from 2006."

Farmers are planting corn and soybeans instead of cotton. Corn and soybean prices have continued to rise due to the need for vegetable oil and feed grains, and "Expanding federal mandates for ethanol prompted farmers to plant more corn to keep up with its growing role as an energy feedstock," writes Krauss. "Also, new corn strains have made the crop more practical in Mississippi’s hot climate." The price of cotton has dropped nearly 23 percent since 2003, while the price of soybeans has gone up more than 38 percent and corn has risen nearly 65 percent. (Read more)

Organic food sales grow despite poor economy

"U.S. sales of organic products, both food and non-food, reached $24.6 billion by the end of 2008, growing an impressive 17.1 percent over 2007 sales despite tough economic times, according to the Organic Trade Association, which has made available final results from its 2009 Organic Industry Survey," reports Seed Daily. Organic food now accounts for approximately 3.4 percent of U.S. food sales.

"The survey, conducted by Lieberman Research Group on behalf of OTA, measured the growth of U.S. sales of organic foods and beverages as well as non-food categories such as organic fibers, personal care products and pet foods during 2008," adds Seed Daily. (Read more) To see a map showing where organic foods are grown, click here.

Biodiesel makers say new EPA standard too strict

"The government and the biodiesel industry are at odds over the impact of the soy-based fuel's failure to meet standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions," reports Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register. The biodiesel industry fears that combining fuel sources, as EPA wants, could be impractical.

Brasher writes, "Producers would have to make biodiesel from waste restaurant grease and animal fats as well as soybean oil, a far more abundant feedstock but one that doesn't score well on the agency's climate-impact test, said Margo Oge, an EPA official who testified before the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday."

Manning Feraci, vice president of federal affairs for the National Biodiesel Board, said some producers may lack access to alternate feedstocks, and could have distribution problems because biodiesel made from animal fat doesn't perform as well in the winter as that made from soybeans. But EPA says biodiesel should have 40 percent to 50 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional diesel fuel. "The theory is that diverting soybeans or corn to produce fuel will lead to forests being cut down or peat bogs being drained elsewhere to grow crops," Brasher explains. "Biodiesel made from fats or grease easily meets the emissions target because there are no land-use impacts from those feedstocks." (Read more)

Dan Looker of Agriculture Online and Successful Farming writes, "EPA appears to be counting increased soybean acreage devoted to biodiesel production as an incentive to clear rain forest and grasslands to grow soybeans in Brazil, even though Brazilian soybean production decreased from 2004 to 2008 while the U.S. biodiesel industry was ramping up from 25 million gallons to 690 million." Looker's story offers good details on soybean farmers' point of view.

Rural sociology department is on the chopping block at Washington State University

Budget cuts are affecting universities around the nation, and at Washington State University, one casualty will most likely be the rural sociology department. While official layoffs won't come until June, the university plans to cut 370 jobs and eliminate several departments, including the Department of Community and Rural Sociology.

The department is widely known in the field for its work in research, extension and teaching. Professor Don Dillman is an internationally known expert in survey research. Emmett Fiske began some of the first extension programs in conflict resolution. Washington State is the state's land-grant university, meaning service to rural areas is supposed to be part of its mission.

Jose Garcia-Pabon, an extension agent working out of the department, has spent two years working to increase educational opportunities for Latinos in rural communities in the area. He hoped to expand the program across the state, but says that he's no longer certain it will happen. "I'm pretty concerned about it because we take Latino outreach very seriously, and we want to feed the pipeline of Latino students and want to see that they go to college," he told Michelle Dupler of the Tri-City Herald. "It is a really important aspect of the university's work to have a community relations person working with the Latino community." (Read more)

Terminal patients in rural Washington look for doctors willing to help with suicide

In Washington state, where legalized physician-assisted suicide took effect just two months ago, debates over the rural-urban divide in health care have taken a twist: Many terminally-ill patients say they cannot find doctors willing to prescribe the lethal dosage of barbituates allowed by state law.

The law, which went into effect March 5, allows the medication to be prescribed if two doctors attest that a patient will die of a disease. "But outside the larger population centers around Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia, many physicians are unwilling," writes Kim Murphy in the Los Angeles Times. "That leaves residents east of the Cascades who choose to utilize the statute with the same problem women seeking abortions in conservative rural communities have faced: It's legal, but health providers' moral qualms mean it's essentially unavailable."

The American Medical Association and other critics say pain management is a better solution, while supporters of the law contend pain management is not always realistic. In rural Kennewick, Wash., information about the law was presented by the Benton Franklin County Medical Society at a gathering of doctors, but the presentation was met with silence. "There was no feedback," said executive director Nicole Austin. "We're trying to walk a very neutral line. It's their decision as physicians if they choose to participate. I sense that it will be a challenge in this community." (Read more)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Flu slows visas for Mexican temporary farmworkers

Concern over the flu outbreak has led to a delay in visas for temporary agricultural workers from Mexico, reports Rosa Moore of the Todd County Standard in Elkton, Ky. This is a national story, reported by a weekly newspaper with a circulation of 2,300.

"Paperwork that allows visas for H-2A workers from Mexico to work for local tobacco farmers have been suspended until May 11 because of concerns over the swine flu (H1N1 virus)," Moore writes. She quotes Sarah Farrell, president of International Labor Management Corp. of Vass, N.C.: “The U.S. government has decided to close all U.S. consulate posts in Mexico until May 11 in response to the swine flu. Visa processing in its entirety has ceased, this includes tourist visas, H-2A and any type of work visas.” She said the delay could be extended beyond May 11.

A Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman disputed Farrell's account, saying she had no readon to believe it was accurate, but the Standard reports: "However, according to information released by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, visa processing has been suspended until May 6, but Farrell told the Standard Tuesday that the deadline had been extended to May 11."

Moore's story offers an ideal blend of local and national information: "Although the U.S.-Mexican border is technically not closed, Todd County farmers say it seems that way to them." It comes at a bad time for tobacco farmers like Ronald Stokes, who need to transplant seedlings now. "Stokes ... said he’s trying to set tobacco and doesn’t have any help," Moore writes. "He said he was expecting 10 workers. Stokes said he’s getting what he needs to do done because he and the one worker are working to midnight or later." (Read more)

New report summarizes issues in rural health care

Need a few bullet points about the state of rural health care? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published a five-page summary called "Hard Times in the Heartland" on its Web site.

It's not just about health care, but related issues. "The rural economy is dominated by small businesses, which are struggling as the cost of health care continues to skyrocket," the report says. "In the current recession, the rural economy is losing jobs at a faster rate than the rest of the nation, and loss of jobs can lead to loss of health coverage."

Coverage is generally harder to get in rural areas: "Rural residents pay on average for 40 percent of their health care costs out of their own pocket, compared with the urban share of one-third. ... Rural adults are more likely than urban adults to report having deferred care because of cost."

A lack of specialists and other doctors is the most longstanding problem in rural health: "There were 55 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents in rural areas in 2005, compared with 72 per 100,000 in urban areas. This decreases to 36 per 100,000 in isolated, small rural areas. There were half as many specialists per 100,000 residents in rural areas compared with urban areas, and a third as many psychiatrists."

Lack of doctors can lead to poor health. The prevalence of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure is greater in rural areas. To read the report, click here.

Lawmakers seek federal help to fight bat disease, which could have bad ramifications for humans

In a letter to the Obama administration the Vermont congressional delegation asks for funds to investigate the disease known as white-nose syndrome, which has been linked with the deaths of 500,000 bats in the Eastern U.S.

There could be serious consequences for humans if the bat population continues to dwindle and the disease spreads. "The bats prey almost exclusively on insects such as mosquitoes, which spread disease, and moths and beetles, which damage crops," reports the Burlington Free Press. "A single bat can eat more than 3,000 insects a night and an entire colony will consume hundreds of millions of crop-destroying and disease-carrying pests every year. Bats reduce the need for pesticides, which cost farmers billions of dollars every year and may harm human health." (Read more)

Rural residents less likely to have health coverage

"The nation's top health officials were on hand this week for a one-on-one meeting with stakeholders to talk about reforming rural health care," reports the Public News Service. "One of those in attendance was Jon Bailey with the Center for Rural Affairs, who was author of a recent report ... on the prevalence of uninsurance and under-insurance" in rural areas.

The report, "Causes and Consequences of the Rural Uninsured and Underinsured," says rural residents are twice as likely to be uninsured as urban residents. "Rural communities are not well served by a health insurance system that relies on employer-based coverage," the center says. "Many more rural families are forced to purchase from the individual insurance market where they all too often wind up underinsured, with coverage that costs too much and provides too little. Those who cannot afford the significantly more expensive individual insurance packages must go without or rely on public insurance." (Read more)

Ky. needs more tax revenue, but is coal off limits?

Kentucky, like many states, is facing a large budget shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year. While the state has been willing to raise taxes on signatue industries like tobacco and alcohol, and make cuts in education, raising taxes on coal appears to be off limits. Kentucky's coal severance tax rate and mine-permit fees have not changed in 30 years and some see raising those taxes as a way to help with the state's budget crisis.

"Tobacco and alcohol taxes jumped again just this year, and the cost of getting a driver's license rose from $1 to $12 over the last three decades," reports John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "But coal still pays rates that were established in the disco era." Other coal-producing states are considering raising some taxes on the coal industry. "Tennessee lawmakers, for instance, sent a bill to their governor April 24 hiking that state's coal severance tax from 20 cents a ton to $1 a ton over four years," writes Cheves.

Coal advocates argue that raising taxes on coal could cost jobs and hurt rural economies that depend heavily on mining. "If you try to raise the severance tax, we'll squeal," said Bill Caylor, Kentucky Coal Association president. "Coal's squeals are hard to ignore in Frankfort," adds Cheves. "The coal industry spent more than $1 million on state political donations in recent years and $255,145 to lobby the last two legislative sessions."

Some urban lawmakers have argued that now is the time to revisit the coal severance tax rate, set in 1978 at 4.5 percent, and mine permit fees, set in 1982 at $375 per application plus $75 an acre. The state Division of Mine Permits collected $1.6 million last year , but its operational budget last year was $8.6 million. (Read more)

Organic food producers and hopefuls get a boost

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced Tuesday a $50 million initiative to provide financial assistance to organic farmers. The initiative is designed to help not only existing organic producers but producers going through the process of organic certification as well. Janie Gabbett of Meatingplace reports "Funding for the initiative is being made available as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program."

"Assisting organic producers is a priority of the 2008 Farm Bill as well as for Secretary Vilsack and the Obama administration," said Merrigan. "The objective of this initiative is to make organic food producers eligible to compete for EQIP financial assistance." (Read more)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Montana gets a law to encourage horse abbatoirs, but U.S. Humane Society calls it unconstitutional

A bill to encourage establishment of horse slaughterhouses in Montana, and restricting lawsuits to stop such abbatoirs, is law after Gov. Brian Schweitzer refused to sign or veto it. About a month ago, Schweitzer vetoed the lawsuit-limiting section, but legislators overrode the veto and sent him the original House Bill 418. Its sponsor "said the safeguards were needed to avoid the types of legal appeals that shuttered the country's last horse slaughterhouses, in Illinois and Texas in 2007," reports Charles Johnson of the Billings Gazette.

The Humane Society of the United States predicted that the law will be struck down because the limitiation on legal actions is unconstitutional. "Beyond that, it would be a losing proposition to attempt to open a horse slaughtering plant in Montana since the Congress prohibits inspection of horse meat for human consumption. That meat cannot move in interstate and foreign commerce," HSUS Vice President Nancy Perry told the Gazette. (Read more)

"Other legislative efforts in support of the horse industry are being considered for introduction in a number of states, including Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Washington and Tennessee, according to's Stock and Land publication," reports Michelle Saltzer of MeatingPlace. "Many legislators and others agree, Stock and Land reported, that it is unlikely that foreign investors will risk investing in U.S. horse harvesting plants until other bills pending in Congress are defeated." (Read more)

A Million Horses is a Web site that keeps track of the horse crisis and related legislation. It has a point of view, opposing federal legislation to outlaw horse slaughter, but is a good source of information.

Obama stands by ethanol; EPA says it doesn't meet renewable standard, but should in future

During his campaign, President Obama was a supporter of ethanol made from corn, and he stuck to that stance today as three of his cabinet lieutenants announced "a plan to shield corn ethanol producers from the credit crisis, work with them to cut their use of natural gas and coal in ethanol production, and nudge the auto industry toward production of vehicles that can use ethanol at concentrations of up to 85 percent," reports Matthew Wald of The New York Times. (Read more)

Obama ordered the Agriculture and Energy departments and the Environmental Protection Agency to "aggressively accelerate the investment in and production of biofuels," according a press release from the Department of Agriculture. (Read more) Obama put Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in charge of a working group that includes Energy and EPA, which Wald calls "a strong signal that the ethanol program remains a program for rural economic development."

However, the administration did "a balancing act," MSNBC reports, because EPA announced its conclusion that corn-based ethanol does not meet the new Renewable Fuels Standard set by Congress, which requires a fuel for emit 20 percent less greenhouse gas than gasoline. "But it also touted developing sources and promised a final decision would be made only after a science-based review," the network reports. "Future improvements in production technologies are expected to make ethanol and other biofuels more climate friendly so they can meet the legal requirement, said ... Administrator Lisa Jackson. The EPA found that ethanol produces 16 percent less greenhouse gases than gasoline — even if worldwide land-use changes are taken into account. The requirement for a 20 percent improvement in climate impact applies only to ethanol from future production plants and exempts fuel made at existing facilities."

For a good, succinct summary of the state of the ethanol business, from Liam Denning of The Wall Street Journal, click here.

New Kansas governor 'splits baby' on power plants

"In a stunning reversal from his predecessor," fellow Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson has "signed an agreement ending a two-year fight over plans to build coal-fired power plants in western Kansas," writes David Klepper of the Kansas City Star. "The compromise allows Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build one 895-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Holcomb, instead of two 700-megawatt plants that were repeatedly blocked" by Sebelius before she became President Obama's secretary of health and human services.

The deal calls for Sunflower to "build more wind turbines and agree to more pollution controls and a greater investment in energy efficiency," Klepper reports. "The game-changing deal came on Parkinson’s sixth day in office and as lawmakers were preparing yet another attempt to overrule Sebelius’ veto of legislation to authorize the plants." Still, the deal doesn't mean the plant will be built; it still must be financed, amid increased likelihood of restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. (Read more)

Farmers are less likely to have dental insurance

Farmers have always recognized the impact medical costs can have on their finances, but a new study by The Access Project found that dental care accounts for more than 25 percent of those medical costs.

Among farmers and ranchers, 42 percent had dental insurance, compared to the national average of 60 percent. "The researchers also found that when factoring in the estimated costs of dental premiums, having dental insurance did not result in a major reduction in average costs," writes Lynda Waddington for The Iowa Independent. "It did, however, make dental expenses more predictable, made it less likely that people delayed care and made it less likely that health care costs contributed to financial problems."

"A lot of attention has been paid to the high cost of prescription drugs," said Carol Pryor, the report's primary author and The Access Project's policy director. "We hope this report grabs the attention of the policymakers since it shows that average dental costs can consume an even greater part of the family’s budget." (Read more; read the report)

Pork lobbyists fight rearguard action vs. 'swine flu'

As the virus dubbed "swine flu" began making international headlines, lobbyists for the pork industry found themselves working overtime to convince the public of the safety of their product.

The lobbyists are making some headway; federal officials began referring to the disease as flu strain H1N1 last week. But most media outlets are sticking with the porcine nomenclature. "They're not following the science," Dave Warner, communications director for the National Pork Producers Council, told Philip Rucker of The Washington Post. "It's a respiratory illness. It's not a food illness."

Pork producers are feeling the strain. Exports are down, with many countries banning pork imports. Since the outbreak was first reported, pork prices have dropped by $5 per head. While Rucker was visiting the lobbying group's offices, Warner told lobyist Kirk Ferrell that the World Health Organization had named the disease "influenza A." "Well, [expletive]!" Ferrell replied. "If they only did that at the beginning." (Read more)

Monday, May 04, 2009

Tennessee sees dramatic increase in meth labs

We reported here that there are signs that meth is making a comeback as manufacturers of the drug find new ways around laws that limit the sale of the ingredients used to make the drug. Nicole Young of The Tennessean reports, "The resurgence began when tighter border security made it increasingly difficult to import meth from Mexico, and when producers here discovered they could make meth more quickly and efficiently by using new ingredients and new methods."

In Tennessee the record number of labs busted was 1,559 in 2004. That number shrunk to 589 in 2007 but law enforcement officials say they are on course to bust about 1,300 labs in 2009.

To circumvent laws that limit the purchase of some of the ingredients used to make meth makers are using a practice called smurfing. "The meth manufacturer, or cook, hires people to travel to several stores and sometimes other states to buy the legal limit of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine," writes Young. "They take the supplies to the cook, who in turn offers the smurfer a discount on meth." Tennessee also struggles with the problem because of the ease of traveling to neighboring states for supplies.

New techniques, commonly referred to as "shake and bake," "one bottle" or "one pot" are making the process of cooking meth faster, harder to detect and more dangerous for users. Due to the difficulty of securing ingredients some makers are adding new products, "which include batteries, particularly those containing lithium, Icy Cold packs, rubber tubing, duct tape, camping fuel or ether," adds Young. (Read more)

Air-pollution controls lead to more water pollution

Based on new evidence that power plants across the country are dumping toxic chemicals into waterways, the Environmental Protection Agency has said it intends to impose new restrictions for the level of contaminants plants can dump. But the problem stems from an existing cleanup measure; power plants are using scrubbers to comply with stricter air pollution standards, and putting the pollutants in the water. (AP photo)

"Plants in Florida, Pennsylvania and several other states have flushed wastewater with levels of selenium and other toxins that far exceed the EPA's freshwater and saltwater standards aimed at protecting aquatic life, according to data the agency has collected," reports Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. "While selenium can be beneficial in tiny amounts, elevated levels damage not only fish but also birds and people who consume contaminated fish."

As air pollution standards continue to get tougher it is expected that the level of chemicals in the waterways will also continue to rise. "Scrubbers will help clean our air, but let's make sure that the toxic metals stripped out of coal-plant smokestacks don't end up in our water," Eric Schaeffer, who used to lead the EPA's enforcement office and now heads the Environmental Integrity Project. "It's crazy not to have limits on toxic discharges this big."

The danger is that the pollutants collect in fish, which "can trigger a range of effects in birds and humans," writes Eilperin. "Birds that eat selenium-contaminated fish experience effects such as deformation of their beaks and jaws and problems producing viable eggs, while humans can suffer neurological damage as well as hair and nail loss."

Contamination from fish is a threat for rural residents who may have river fish as a signiifcant part of their diet. For example, Duke Energy once let let residents near Princeton, Ind., fish in the lake it created as a cooling reservoir for its coal-ash ponds. The practice was stopped after test showed elevated levels of selenium in the pond. (Read more)

County jail offers coal-mining courses to inmates

In a small classroom at the Harlan County [Ky.] Detention Center, Southeast Community and Technical College coal-mining instructor Terry Gilliam meets with around 20 inmates once a week, teaching them skills that will allow them to get state certification to work in one of the state's most well-known industries.

Hoping to help these low-risk inmates break the cycle that landed them in prison, Jailer Curtis Stallard contacted the college about offering the training and will provide references for those who finish. "These guys are not rapists, murderers or hardened criminals," Stallard told Roger Alford of The Associated Press. "They're people who have taken wrong turns in life. People who need a second chance. And I believe this will provide them that chance." (Encarta map)

"You have to look at everyone as individuals," said Paul Matney, human resources director of TECO Coal Corp. "You don't just wholesale not consider applicants because they have a criminal record." Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Caylor says, "It's a fascinating concept," but nonetheless warns that the struggling economy may provide a bigger challenge than criminal records when it comes to finding a job. (Read more)

Vilsack's first 100 days surprise early critics

As most media scrutinized President Obama's first 100 days in office, Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register turns his attention to former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's first 100 days as agriculture secretary. "Vilsack has surprised his early detractors, who feared he would be too close to agribusiness," writes Brasher. The creation of an organic vegetable garden outside the Department of Agriculture; the installation of Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who helped create national organic certification standards; and the proposal of a farm-subsidy cut to help fund child nutrition programs (so far unsuccessful) have all contributed to the image of Vilsack as someone willing to buck conventional agribusiness interests.

But he still sees a place for traditional farming models. "To me it isn't about either-or," he told Brasher. "It's about how do you figure out ways for folks to co-exist and how do you figure how to take the best of all of it and move an agenda forward that repopulates the rural community, that focuses on good stewardship, on sustainability, on getting the most of our resources."

Brasher also notes some mistakes Vilsack has made in his tenure, such as the proposed subsidy cut, but writes, "Vilsack has made clear that he believes he has a mission to change the public perception of the USDA as an agency that mainly dispenses subsidies to large farms in his home state and elsewhere." Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, says, "One of the thing's you're going to be seeing this president and this secretary do is to make the Department of Agriculture more real in people's lives who don't ever see a farm." (Read more)

Colorado weekly's owner donates it to the local historical society, in an effort to save it

When the Silverton Standard & the Miner, a 1,000-circulation weekly in Colorado, found itself dangerously close to going out of business, owner Randy Miller decided that, instead of shutting it down, he would donate it. Now the local historical society has found itself in the newspaper business, determined not to let the paper die.

"It's very much a part of our history. That's the reason we're doing it," San Juan County Historical Society chair Bev Rich told Nancy Lofholm of The Denver Post. The paper will now be run as a non-profit business, and the historical society is seeking $10,000 in grants to cover start-up costs. Lofholm writes that this approach is "just beginning to get widespread discussion as one way to save the country's ailing newspapers." (Encarta map)

Editor Mark Esper says that the paper, founded in 1875, is necessary in a town which is frequently isolated in the winter, when avalanches close the passes that provide access to the town. "We have no other media out here -- no radio or TV station covering the town. So the newspaper serves a function that is irreplaceable," he says. (Read more)

Caves closing in 33 states to fight bat-killing fungus

In the past two years, a fungus has spread through U.S. bat populations at an alarming rate, killing almost a half-million of the flying mammals. In an attempt to curb the spread of "white-nose syndrome," the Forest Service will close caves and former mines in 33 states. "Researchers believe the fungus is spread from bat to bat, but they have not ruled out a human connection," The Associated Press reports, citing a Forest Service biologist.

The fungus affects hibernating bats, and appears as a white powder covering the face and wings, hence the name. Twenty states already went under an emergency protection order last week, and 13 states in the South are expected to be closed this month. The closings could last for a year. Peter Haberland, a member of the Northeastern Cave Conservatory board, doesn't expect objections from organized caving groups: “For a period of a year, most people can deal with that." (Read more)