Friday, June 26, 2009

House in floor debate on climate bill; Democrats say they have the votes to send it to the Senate

UPDATE: The bill passed 219-212, getting one vote more than a constitutional majority, with 44 Democrats voting no and eight Republicans voting yes.

"The House neared a decisive vote on sweeping climate-change legislation Friday afternoon — with Democratic leaders still working to corral votes as Republican opponents accused them of promoting economic disaster," especially in rural areas, Politico reports. Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., called the bill “economic colonization of the heartland” by New York and California, while Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said that without the bill, the U.S. would have to keep getting its energy from those who want to “fly planes into our buildings.”

"A vote is expected by late afternoon," Lisa Lerer and Patrick O'Connor report. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told Politico this morning that the bill has the votes to get to the Senate. Just barely; 30 Democrats voted against the rule allowing consideration of the bill. Some liberals think it is too weak, more conservative and many rural members think it is too strong, and some first-term members are scared of being defeated next year iof they vote for it. Some of the latter "voted with Democratic Party leaders on the procedural roll call — not a guarantee that they will back the measure when it comes to the floor, but a clear signal that they are open to working with their leadership," Politico reports, in a detailed story with lots of individual House members' names. It's worth a look, as Politico usually is.

Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute has a good snapshot of the bill in his "Al's Morning Meeting" column today, with plenty to links to resources. Also this morning, the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives, whose members get almost all their power from coal, issued a statement calling for the bill's defeat, saying the measure "would dramatically increase electricity costs for Kentucky homes, farms, and businesses."

Would bill to aid unions also help rural areas?

Business interests say the hotly debated Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for labor unions to organize workplaces, would be bad for the American economy by making it less competitive. Most rural areas are less friendly to unions than metropolitan areas, and many have have often attracted factories by assuring employers with that fact -- and sometimes a promise to help the prospect keep it that way.

But in a commentary in the Bemidji Pioneer of north-central Minnesota, a 9,000-circulation daily, Richard Levins, a professor emeritus of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, argues that access to the benefits of unions, including wages that build a strong middle class, is key to making rural economies solid. He says rural localities have tempted businesses with words he calls careless: “Bring your factory to our town. People will work for less here, and we’ll throw in tax cuts for good measure.” He argues, "These efforts have done nothing to halt the economic decline of most of our rural communities."

Instead, Levins endorses the view of Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist Paul Krugman, who said “Falling wages are a symptom of a sick economy.” The medicine is labor unions, which work most aggressively to keep wages at levels that support economic stability, Levins contends. “What we should be competitive in is our standard of living. Attractive rural areas are built on quality of life, not cheap wages.” (Read more)

Towns swap streetlighting for stars to save money

In an effort to cut down on taxes and revive the childhood inspiration of dazzling night skies, some rural towns in Rhode Island are shedding streetights. Town officials hope cutting back on the lamps will save thousands of tax dollars while re-establishing the rural character of such places, Ethan Shorey reports for The Valley Breeze in Cumberland, R.I.

In North Smithfield, pop. 11,294, the view of the night sky once featured whole constellations, but widespread use of electricity created decreased visibility from what astronomers call the “bounceback effect” of light pollution. But faced with increasing taxes and a tight economy, the motivation for decreasing electricity usage has gotten town planner Robert Ericson and administrator Paulette Hamilton to be creative. "Our town spends $160,000 per year on street lighting," Hamilton and Ericson told Shorey. "By limiting use to village commercial intersections, we can minimize light pollution and energy consumption, restoring rural character and leading the way as a green community."

Other Rhode Island towns are following North Smithfield’s lead and incorporating utility cuts. In Woonsocket, a plan was approved Monday to shut off certain lights from 3 to 6 a.m. – shaving 25 percent from the annual $448,000 electricity bill. Some areas will continue to have light because of safety concerns, but Hamilton says changes like this will make small towns more competitive in environmentally sound practices, and told Shorey that "This is just another step to becoming a green community.” (Read more)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Senators hold hearing on mountaintop removal; spotlights new studies by EPA, other experts

"A federal regulator joined a university expert, a West Virginia activist and a Tennessee environmental commissioner in criticizing large-scale strip mining's impacts" today, at the first congressional hearing on mountiantop-removal mining, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. A West Virginia regulator defended the controversial practice and his agency's handling of it.

The hearing was held by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, chairman of a subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Cardin and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander have introduced a bill to keep coal companies from burying stream channels with valley fills, a practice required by mountaintop removal and also used in "area mining," in which the land is supposed to be reclaimed to its approximate original contours.

Alexander, a Republican, "noted that his home state has already banned valley fills, and Tennessee Deputy Commissioner of Environment and Conservation Paul Sloan encouraged lawmakers to expand that prohibition to protect the region's vital headwaters streams," Ward reports. "Cardin said that, among other concerns, he is worried that the environmental damage from mountaintop removal may be hindering other economic development efforts in the Appalachian region." Randy Huffman, secretary of West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection said "Many in the state are concerned about losing the opportunities for future economic development associated with mountaintop mining."

On his Coal Tattoo blog, Ward debunked a claim by Huffman and the coal industry that the only evidence of significant ecological impact downstream is reduced numbers of mayflies. "As I tried to explain in a story about this study more than a year ago, this isn’t just about mayflies — it’s about mayflies as one measure of overall stream health. We care about mayflies because they are an indicator species that helps us understand broader environmental impacts.

Randy Pomponio, director of environmental assessment for the mid-Atlantic region of the Environmental Protection Agency, said mountaintop removal buries about 120 miles of streams a year "and studies show valley fills not only eliminate those waterways, but also degrade water quality downstream," Ward reports. University of Maryland ecologist Margaret Palmer told the subcommittee, "There is no evidence to date that mitigation actions can compensate for the lost natural resources and ecological functions of the headwater streams that are buried." Maria Gunnoe of West Virginia, who won the international Goldman Prize for her battles against mountaintop removal, called on Congress to "change the history of energy in this country."(Read more) For audio excerpts of testimony by Huffman and Gunnoe, with reporting by West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Tanya Snyder, click here.

Ward notes in a later post that the hearing offered "some major disclosures, and also the public release of two new independent reports [from Pomponio and Palmer] that detail the growing scientific evidence about this practice’s environmental impacts."

Republicans make climate bill an issue for 2010

As Democrats move the climate-change bill to the House floor for a vote Friday, Republicans have served notice that they will try to make it a voting issue in next year's elections. The impact of the bill is likely to be greater in rural areas, which depend more on coal for electricity and have many animal-agriculture operations for which power is a major cost factor. The bill is "the single, largest, economic threat to farmers and rural Americans in decades," claimed Rep. Frank Lucas, ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee. Chairman Collin Peterson told CQ Politics that the vote might be delayed until Saturday because "There are still some things that are being worked out." Democratic leaders are "hoping to build a big enough margin so that vulnerable Democrats can be freed to vote against it," Lisa Lerer and Patrick O'Connor report for Politico.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association is still not supporting the bill, though co-ops and other small, coal-dependent utlities got a break in the negotiations that brought the bill to the floor. The co-ops get 80 percent of their electricity from coal-fired power plants; for all utilities, the figure is just under 50 percent. Former Rep. Glenn English, CEO of NRECA, said “We still have concerns about this bill [but] will not stand in the way of passage.”

The National Pork Producers Council said it "anticipates significant increases in energy prices and in pork production costs under the House climate change bill. The hikes would be overwhelming to pork producers, who for the past 21 months have been losing an average of $22 per hog" and have been hit hard by the H1N1 influenza virus, which some media outlets are still calling "swine flu." NPPC said it "doesn’t believe that revenues from the sale of offset credits for the majority of pork producers would counterbalance the energy and input cost increases associated with bill.”

The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives also opposes the bill, saying, "NCFC continues to have serious reservations about the impact that HR 2454 will have on the cost of production for farmer cooperatives and their producer members across the country. This is especially true of farmer cooperative-owned petroleum refineries, which supply nearly two-thirds of on-farm fuel, and of domestic fertilizer producers." However, the National Association of Wheat Growers and the National Farmers Union support the legislation. Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network has a roundup.

CNN spotlights a rural school's dropout preventer

The Southern Education Foundation reports that only six in ten students in Butler County, Alabama, graduate from high school within four years. Fighting such statistics is Willie Thornton (at left with Desmond Dunklin in Greg Kilday photo), a dropout prevention coordinator at Greenville High School. Thornton's job is to oversee 70 at-risk students and help them graduate, Soledad O’Brien and Michelle Rozsa report for CNN's "Black in America 2" documentary.

The national high-school graduation rate is 70 percent, and a study by America’s Promise Alliance, a group founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, points out that rates are lower for some ethnicities. Approximately 57 percent of Hispanic students and 53 percent of African American students graduate within four years. "Finishing high school is absolutely basic to being a success at any place in our society. We can't afford this," Powell has said.

In Greenville, pop. 7,000, Thornton has come to the rescue of students like Dunklin, who should have graduated last year. He has met with Dunklin several times to mentor, counsel and encourage him to finish school. "My mama wants me to graduate, tells me I can't get a job if I don't graduate,” Dunklin tells Soledad and Rozsa. He walked with his graduating classmates in late May, but still needs to complete more classes and tests to receive an actual diploma. Until then, Thornton won’t give up. "What we do here [in the dropout prevention program] is try to gain some sort of success story that they own. And we try to build story by story. That gains a lot of energy and hope," he said. "When you lose hope, you lose everything." (Read more)

Coal has a net cost to Kentucky, study contends

The costs of coal production in Kentucky far outweigh the benefits, says a study by the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development, based in Berea, Ky. It argues that the Kentucky treasury pays out $115 million more than the coal industry brings in.

The study examined direct revenues related to coal (severance tax, taxes on miners’ pay and mining companies) as well as indirect revenues from “sectors that serve those directly employed by coal,” finding Kentucky’s annual coal revenue is $527 million. The ability to produce such figures has long been the main basis for the industry’s support in the state capital of Frankfort. However, MACED contends there are costs of coal that go unaccounted for in public debate like those of mine safety, mine-reclamation enforcement, publicly funded coal research and development, and the cost of maintaining Kentucky’s coal-haul road system, which has higher weight limits for coal trucks. The report concludes that the coal industry costs the state $643 million a year.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, told John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader that he's sure such figures are inaccurate, and called the report "voodoo economics." MACED President Justin Maxson "said MACED favored the coal industry in several ways while conducting its study," Cheves reports. "It did not account for costs related to air and water polluted by mining and coal-fired power plants, or workers sickened or crippled by coal jobs." While MACED admits that estimates of "indirect" costs and benefits are difficult and should be considered cautiously, the organization says it hopes to to add a discussion of the total cost of coal to the public debate.

The study recommends that policymakers compare future investments in coal to investments in energy alternatives, pursue economic diversification and examine the way coal is taxed and subsidized in the state, saying, “Taxation theory suggests higher taxes on activities, like the mining of coal, which cannot be relocated to other states.” Cheves notes, "Of top coal-producing states, Kentucky gets the least from severance taxes — 2.9 percent of its tax income, compared with 7.1 percent for neighboring West Virginia."

The study's controversial message will likely lead to criticism and dissent in an economy where mineral extraction is so important. (Read more)

What makes a good rural school? Ala. finds out

In a quest to discover what makes a good rural school, the Center for Rural Alabama had researchers Gerald Carter, Larry Lee and Owen Sweatt find 10 schools thriving in their small communities, despite the harsh economic times. Bill Bishop reports for the Daily Yonder that their findings were recently published in a report, “Lessons Learned from Rural Schools.”

Bishop reports that 61.9 percent of students in Alabama qualify for a free lunch, up from 54.2 percent a decade ago. Poverty is a negaitve indicator for school success, but Carter, Lee and Sweatt found 10 elementary schools that fit their criteria: test scores well above the state average, at least 65 percent of students eligible for free lunch; and schools from all areas of the state. Results indicate that successful rural schools have certain attributes that set them apart from other institutions. Bishop found four key points the 10 schools share:

(1) These are community schools. “Education goes beyond the walls of instruction and much of our school success is determined by the community’s ownership,” Lee wrote. Whether community support manifests in classroom visitors, community fundraising, or local cooperation and partnerships with other institutions, these schools emphasize learning outside of the classroom.

(2) These schools have “something in the air,” Lee wrote. The institutions promote creativity through hallway murals and events. For example, at F.S. Ervin Elementary in Pine Hill, Ala., has an annual parade. “We started six years ago because our kids rarely get to see a parade,” said principal Richard Bryant (Daily Yonder photo). “It is 20 miles to go to see a parade at Wilcox Central High School in Camden and most of our students don’t get to go.”

(3) The best teachers “have a visceral understanding of what it’s like to live in a rural community.” In each successful school, teachers had a deeper understanding of students because of their own rural history. Bishop reports that at W.S. Harlan Elementary in Lockhart, 18 of the 26 faculty members graduated from the county high school. “It appears that a critical factor in the success of these 10 schools is that a majority of teachers grew up in the area in which they teach, or one very similar, and understand the local culture,” Gerald Carter wrote.

(4) Teachers will resist change. After administering a Myers-Briggs personality test to all the teachers, the researchers discovered that the majority are introverted individuals who resist change. (Read more from Bishop or go to the report)

Pot growers target rural areas south of Charlotte

Four rural South Carolina counties near the metropolis of Charlotte, N.C., have become hotbeds for marijuana farming, based on some recent busts. "Operations that supply Charlotte and cities along the interstate have been increasing in size in recent years in Chester, York, Lancaster and Fairfield counties, state and local officials say," Christopher D. Kirkpatrick reports for the Charlotte Observer. (Police photo)

The marijuana was discovered in Chester, York, Lancaster and Fairfield counties, all south of Charlotte and near Interstate 77. All have been targeted by pot growers before. In 2008, most of the 30,400 pot plants seized in South Carolina came from the four counties. "The counties are popular growth sites because they're less populated, close to the interstate and within 50 miles of Charlotte, which is filled with potential customers," Kirkpatrick reports. “It's easy-in, easy-out and good soil. It's very good farmland,” Jennifer Timmons, a police spokeswoman, told Kirkpatrick. “Whether you're growing corn or marijuana, you're going to have a good yield.” (Read more)

N.Y. farmers protest bill that would make them pay overtime and unemployment insurance

New York farmers fighting a bill that would subject them to state labor laws on overtime and unemployment staged a slow-drive protest on the New York State Thruway in Genesee County yesterday, reports Howard Owens of The Batavian.

"Le Roy dairy farmer Dale Stein, who helped lead the protest, said it appears the protest was effective," Owens writes. "He received a call this evening and was told Gov. David Paterson heard about the protest and immediately called a meeting with the agricutlure commissioner to discuss the legislation."

Assembly Bill 1857 would "require farmers to pay time-and-a-half for over time, allow farm workers to join labor unions, require a day off during harvest season, will require farmers to pay into the unemployment system, among other provisions," Owens reported when it passed 85-57 on June 8. He noted yesterday that it still "awaits consideration by the dysfunctional Senate," Owens notes. Here is the latest from the Senate, via The New York Times.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

National workshop on local food systems fills up, so it will be telecast online Friday

Consumer interest in food that is locally and regionally grown has increased sharply. While locally grown food still accounts for a small share of total sales, it is one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture. On Friday, June 26, issues related to local foods will be examined at a one-day workshop in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture and Farm Foundation. Since registration has filled the capacity of the meeting room, a live, online broadcast of the workshop is planned for the day of the event. To register for that live broadcast, click here.

There are many questions about the impacts of local food systems on environmental and human health, food safety, marketing arrangements, and rural development. It also remains unclear what types of economic tradeoffs are associated with growth in local foods, and no consensus exists on the appropriate role for government programs and policies in local food systems. The workshop is designed to describe the size and scope of local food systems; discuss how performance of local food markets is evaluate; critically examine measures of local food market performance, including price and product availability, impacts on rural economic development, environmental consequences and sustainability, food safety and quality, and social welfare issues; assess the economics of local foods by discussing supply and demand issues related to local food systems, as well as marketing considerations involved in the industry; explore the range of current government involvement in local food systems, including existing programs that foster local food distribution at the federal, state, and local levels, potential unintended consequences arising from public sector involvement, and barriers to growth in local food systems; and examine the appropriate role for future government involvement in local food systems.

Farm groups, rural electrics, ethanol and Vilsack prevail in talks that move climate-change bill

Farm groups, rural electric cooperatives, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and ethanol producers came out the winners in negotiations that have scheduled the bill to fight climate change for a Friday vote in the House.

The co-ops, which get 80 percent of their electricity by burning coal, will get a break on emission allowances, though not as much as they and other small, coal-dependent utilities wanted. "The bill gives 0.5 percent of all emission allowances to small utilities that produce less than 4 million megawatt hours of electricity annually," reports Darren Goode of Congress Daily. "The concern has been that these smaller utilities would have to purchase surplus emission allocations given to larger, cleaner utilities on the coasts. But now the bill distributes excess allowances to all local electricity distribution companies based on their emissions."

The part of the deal that got the most media attention will give Vilsack's Department of Agriculture the authority to award carbon credits to farmers and landowners for agricultural and forestry practices that leave more carbon in the ground and thus prevent emission of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming. Farm groups and Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota pushed hard for the change, which Vilsack also wanted. "Environmentalists and the bill's main sponsors feared that the Agriculture Department might use lax standards, which would blow a hole through the nationwide cap on carbon dioxide emissions," reports Steven Mufson of The Washington Post.

Allison Winter's story for ClimateWire and The New York Times reflected the same concerns in greater detail, but also the other side. "Some advocates for farmland conservation programs say that USDA's work in the field and its relationships with farmers could make the difference in actually getting a carbon offset program off the ground," she wrote, quoting American Farmland Trust lobbyist Dennis Nuxoll: "If the objective is to sequester carbon and turn around the situation on the planet, if that is the objective ... then we have to get practical, and one of the practical things is to encourage that behavior," said "We have got to have people that farmers trust, in all honesty, that is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the Environmental Protection Agency."

As part of their anti-EPA push, Peterson and farm groups objected to "a recent EPA proposal to take international land-use changes into account when determining the greenhouse gas emissions of corn-based ethanol," Goode notes. The bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, "agreed to suspend that proposal for five years to allow for a federal study on the issue and time for Congress to weigh in. That study -- likely to be done by the National Academy of Sciences -- would have to be approved by EPA and the Energy and Agriculture departments. But the heart of the deal for Peterson is that USDA would have veto power 'if they didn't agree where that study was heading,' he said." (Read more)

Looking ahead to debate in the Senate, where rural states have more influence, Majority Leader Harry Reid has added Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin to talks among Democrats about the bill. "Agriculture is going to have a seat at the table," Harkin told Alexander Bolton of The Hill, who also quotes Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska: “Every farm-state senator is aware of what the cap-and-trade proposals could do to their agriculture base. ... Agriculture is a big user of electricity. There’s a recognition that when electricity costs go up it can add, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars in costs at a time when commodity prices are not what they were. So we have to be very concerned.” (Read more)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tightening credit hurts rural businesses more

Tighter credit has disproportionately affected rural areas because they have a large number of small businesses, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in its quartely publication, The Main Street Economist.

Economist Brian C. Briggeman writes in "Monitoring Credit Conditions in Rural America" that there were severe credit shortages for non-farming businesses in rural America in 2008 and early 2009. A survey by the National Small Business Association found that 41 percent of small business owners said their credit limits had been reduced, and many expect conditions to worsen. Briggeman says revenue can decrease by as much as 45 percent for small business owners who are denied credit.

Federal initiatives like the Farm Service Agency and Small Business Administration, in addition to stimulus funds, are helping rural businesses continue, but loans are often based on number of years experience and net worth. In response, public-private partnerships are becoming more common, especially as demand for agricultural products has recently fallen. Briggeman reports that the rural credit market appears to be improving, but that rural business owners should continue to monitor the global economy. (Read more)

NASA climate-change scientist agrees to debate Massey Energy chief after W.Va. protest this week

UPDATE, June 24: The debate appears unlikely to happen, as the adversaries can't agree on a time and place. For details and a report on the protest, click here. For Ken Ward's thoughtful reflections on the protest and the issue of mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal, click here.

James Hansen of NASA, perhaps the most prominent scientist on a crusade to slow global warming, the economy, has accepted a challenge from Massey Energy Co. President Don Blankenship to debate the issue and the role the coal industry does or doesn't play.

In a letter to to Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, Hansen commended Blankenship for taking an active role in discussing climate change, global warming and the coal industry -- primarily mountaintop-removal mining. Hansen is in West Virginia this week for a protest at a Massey site and offered to stay for a debate if Blankenship could secure a location. (Read the whole letter here)

Simultaenously, Hansen released a new commentary on Yale’s Environment 360 blog called “A Plea to President Obama: End Mountaintop Removal.” Among other things, he describes coal as the linchpin in mitigating global warming and criticizes the Obama administration for seeking renewable energy policies while supporting mountaintop removal -- "an undeniably catastrophic way of mining" that has "buried more than 800 miles of Appalachian streams in mining debris and by 2012 will have serious damaged or destroyed an area larger than Delaware." (Read more)

Homelessness grows on Cumberland Plateau in Tenn., but new shelter gets fewer than expected

While homelessness is often regarded as only a plight of the urban poor, rural areas are suffering from the problem too. in Scott County, Tennessee, homelessness appears to be increasing but a new shelter is having trouble attracting homeless people, Christina Davidson reports for The Atlantic. (Davidson photo)

In Scott County, local unemployment rates have jumped from 7.5 percent in 2007 to 18.3 percent today, and a growing number of individuals are unable to afford their homes and household expenses. Last summer, Voiles and the Morgan-Scott Project for Cooperative Christian Concerns appealed to the county commissioners to help fund a homeless shelter for county residents. The building is open today, but Voiles says the number of residents who use its services is lower than anticipated. "The close-knit family relationships in this area contribute to the lack of homeless using this shelter. If they're nice to their families, their families take them in," he explains to Davidson. "I know of people who now have two, three, even four families living under one roof."

In the past year, the Morgan-Scott Project, Appalachia Habitat for Humanity, Housing Opportunities and People Enterprises (HOPE, Inc), and Section 8 housing have all encountered more use by the homeless. Appalachia Habitat for Humanity generally receives 70 applications a year; since February, 52 have been filed, and Cammie Music, Section 8 manager for the region, estimates that there has been a 40 percent increase in requests for housing assistance so far this year. (Read more)

Study publicizes problem of rural homelessness

A recent study by the Maine State Housing Authority has shed light on the little-publicized problem of homeless people in rural areas. “The Cost of Rural Homelessness” concludes that the problem likely affects large numbers of people, but limited numbers of and access to shelters makes the population difficult to study, Clarke Canfield reports for The Associated Press.

Melany Mondello of the Shalom House mental-health housing organization headed the study and calls the rural population “the hidden homeless.” Results of the study found that providing subsidized housing with mental health, employment and other support services is less costly than serving people when they are without a home. Canfield writes, “Without housing, the average six-month cost to support the homeless was $18,629, according to the study; with the housing, the cost was $17,281, for an average savings of $1,348 per person.”

Although the numbers of urban homeless far outweigh the rural, the latter have unique challenges. Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told Canfield that rural homelessness faces less transitional housing options, fewer employment and social services programs, and more limited access to healthcare than what is found in cities. Nationally, an estimated 60,000 of the average 675,000 homeless people come from rural areas. (Read more)

Telemedicine could transform treatment of patients with Parkinson's disease in rural areas

A new telemedicine project has proven effective in offering care for Parkinson’s disease patients who do not have easy access to traditional medical care, like many in rural areas. ScienceDaily reports that the project, a collaboration between the University of Rochester Medical Center and a nursing home, the Presbyterian Home for Central New York, has the potential to transform treatment for Parkinson’s.

“This study shows that we can effectively deliver care for Parkinson’s patients via telemedicine,” said URMC neurologist Ray Dorsey, one of the researchers. Prior to the study, nursing-home patients would typically travel ten times a year for Parkinson’s treatment. Using a telemedicine approach changed that system drastically; care became more accessible, elderly patients were not affected by extended travel, and doctors could still effectively diagnose and care for patients. ScienceDaily writes that the system, in the most basic sense, “is essentially low tech, low cost solution and consists of a laptop, software, and a web camera that allows the physicians to interact with and visually assess patients.”

The potential of the telemedicine approach in cost-cutting and more efficient medical care is undisputed, but current reimbursements are limited to certain regions for those who use the technology. Dr. Kevin Biglan, another researcher on the project, told ScienceDaily that expanding the practice of telemedicine is a big prospect. “Telemedicine represents a tremendous opportunity to expand access to specialized care and improve the quality of life of patients regardless of where they live." (Read more)

Tennessee county moves toward turning strip mine into landfill for TVA's coal ash from Kingston

"In a sardine-like packed courtroom," comisssioners in Cumberland County, Tenn., voted 11-5 last week to allow a company to seek a permit that would transform a former strip mine into a dump for coal ash, Gary Nelson of the Crossville Chronicle reports. Smith Mountain Solutions LLC is attempting to use the 300-acre strip mine along the border of Cumberland and Morgan counties, on the Cumberland Plateau.

The coal ash would primarily come from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant, and the landfill would store other coal byproducts. Advocates of the plan say it would create jobs, reclaim land, and provide more than $5 million in county revenue, but environmentalists object, Bob Fowler reports for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Nargie Buxbaum, told Fowler that she is disappointed in the commissioners: "The few million dollars the county might expect in the future is putting our air, water and land at risk.” (Read more)

The opponents are dominating a self-selected, onlline survey on the Chronicle Web site. About five of seven who chose to register an opinion said they don't like the proposal, while about one in seven say they like it and slightly fewer said they needed more information before deciding. (We wish news outlets that run online "polls" would remind readers that they are not scientific samples of public opinion.)

Democrats send climate bill to the floor, as House committee chairmen keep negotiating

Two House committee chairmen, one the chief sponsor of the climate-change bill and the other its biggest intraparty obstacle, have reached some sort of limited agreement that will allow the bill to get a floor vote as early as this week, "but it remains to be seen whether the measure has the votes to pass," reports Jared Allen of The Hill.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) apparently still have some things to work out. A spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an e-mail to Politico's Patrick O'Connor, "There are some issues still under discussion, but we are confident we can resolve them by the time the bill goes to the floor on Friday." (Read more)

In an earlier feature story, Allen reported that Peterson [Getty Images photo] "is seen as someone who is finally giving voice to the voiceless – dozens of rural and middle America Democrats who feel that their interests are being ignored by an urban-minded set of leaders of Pelosi, Waxman, Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.), and even President Obama. ... Beyond climate change, Peterson has tapped into a larger well of dissent over the lack of a Democratic farm agenda, something that a large portion of the caucus – and a number of senators – are noticeably frustrated by. Peterson publicly has wondered if Obama was cool to him at an event at the White House earlier this year because of his rejection of the economic stimulus package. Peterson this year has also rejected the Democrats’ omnibus bill and voted against the tobacco prevention bill that the president signed into law on Monday." (Read more) For a profile of Peterson, from Stephen Power of The Wall Street Journal, click here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Farm groups reject Waxman's offer to have USDA make carbon-credit payments but not certify them

"Farm and commodity groups have rejected House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman’s latest attempt to drum up agricultural support for his cap-and-trade climate bill," Julie Harker reports for Brownfield Network.

In a meeting late Friday, Waxman and co-sponsor Ed Markey offered funding for a Department of Agriculture program "that would make payments to farmers for carbon-reduction activities" as certified by the Environmental Protection Agency. "EPA would then issue offset credits to USDA to be sold, with all proceeds reinvested in the compensation program."

But National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson told Harker that NFU wants USDA scientists to do the certification and “We don’t want USDA or EPA to be determining the value. We want the market place to do that. ... We are concerned about adding a heavy load, an additional distribution mechanism and maybe a whole new bureaucratic function on top of a USDA that’s already struggling with the ability to timely deliver services." (Read more)

Stephen Power of The Wall Street Journal reports that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has asked the White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Volsack Mr. Peterson on Friday "to intervene in negotiations," telling reporters, "I'm getting tired of going around in circles." (Read more)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Coal costs Appalachia more in early deaths than it provides in economic benefits, researchers say

"The human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits," Michael Henrdryx of West Virginia University and Melissa Ahern of Washington State University in Spokane conclude in a study reported in Charleston, W.Va.'s Sunday Gazette-Mail. Reporter Ken Ward Jr. gives the bottom line: "Coal mining costs Appalachians five times more in early deaths as the industry provides to the region in jobs, taxes and other economic benefits."

The study, "Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost," is published in the July-August issue of Public Health Reports, a subscription-only journal of the U.S. Public Health Service and posted online by Ward with the journal's permission. It is "far from a complete cost-benefit analysis of the coal industry, the authors report. But, the things it leaves out, they say, are mostly costs that they haven't been able to completely account for yet," Ward writes.

The study "tries to do what a lot of political conservatives and folks in the coal industry say needs to be done: Weigh coal’s costs and benefits against each other when considering government policies that would impact the industry," Ward writes on his Coal Tattoo blog. "You have to kind of wonder why more research like this hasn’t been done across the Appalachian region."