Saturday, February 27, 2010

Graham-Kerry-Lieberman bill would cap power-plant emissions, boost carbon capture and drilling

UPDATE, March 2: "Several moderate senators today welcomed moves to pare back comprehensive energy and climate change legislation by dealing with different sectors of the economy in different ways," reports Darren Samuelsohn of Environment and Energy News (subscription only). March 3: Samuelson reports, "Key senators are weighing a request from Big Oil to levy a carbon fee on the industry rather than wrap it into a sweeping cap-and-trade system that covers most of the U.S. economy. If accepted, the approach -- supported by ConocoPhillips, BP America and Exxon Mobil Corp. -- could rearrange the politics of the Senate climate debate and potentially open up votes that may not be there otherwise."

"Three key senators are engaged in a radical behind-the-scenes overhaul of climate legislation, preparing to jettison the broad 'cap-and-trade' approach that has defined the legislative debate for close to a decade," Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson report for The Washington Post. "The sharp change of direction demonstrates the extent to which the cap-and-trade strategy -- allowing facilities to buy and sell pollution credits in order to meet a national limit on greenhouse gas emissions -- has become political poison."

The senators are Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Democrat John Kerry of Massachsetts and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a former Democrat who caucuses with that party. "They plan to introduce legislation next month that would apply different carbon controls to individual sectors of the economy instead of setting a national target," the Post reports. The plan could face strong opposition, but environmentalists "said the shift in strategy represents the best shot at getting something done this year."

According to the reporters' "sources familiar with the process," power plants would have an overall limit on air emissions, which would gradually become more stringent; "motor fuel may be subject to a carbon tax whose proceeds could help electrify the U.S. transportation sector; and industrial facilities would be exempted from a cap on emissions for several years before it is phased in. The legislation would also expand domestic oil and gas drilling offshore and would provide federal assistance for constructing nuclear power plants and carbon sequestration and storage projects at coal-fired utilities." (Read more)

Does your locality have a state-capital lobbyist? Here's an example of how to cover the story

Some rural towns, counties and economic-development groups are hiring lobbyists to advance their interests in state capitals and perhaps even Washington. One of the latest localities is Marion County, Kentucky, population about 18,000, and its county seat of Lebanon, which pooled $20,000 for an annual fee to a native who has become one of the leading contract lobbyists in Frankfort.

The coverage by Stephen Lega of The Lebanon Enterprise is an example of how to cover a story like this. In this week's follow-up to the story about the hiring, Lega gets local legislators' opinion (they support the move) and finds that very few small communities in Kentucky have hired lobbyists. He got the information online from the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. Most other states have similar agencies. Here is his story.

Friday, February 26, 2010

New survey offers picture of U.S. organic farming

New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has offered a better glimpse at where and how organic farming is conducted in the country. USDA released the 2008 Organic Production Survey earlier this month, revealing California as the top state for organic farming. "This was USDA’s first wide-scale survey of organic producers, and it was undertaken in direct response to the growing interest in organics among consumers, farmers, businesses, policymakers and others," Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said in a release. "The information being released today will be an important building block for future program and policy development."

The survey includes a number of tables including one breaking down the amount of organic farming in each state. California leads the country with 2,714 certified or exempt organic farms; the only other state with more than 1,000 is Wisconsin, with 1,222. Wyoming leads in land area, with 677,147 acres of organic farm land. Thirteen other states had more than 100,000 acres of organic farm land: California (470,903), Texas (314,279), Wisconsin (195,603), New York (168,428), Montana (167,800), Colorado (153,981), North Dakota (152,728), Idaho (148,425), Nebraska (146,188), South Dakota (132,047), New Mexico (117,676), Minnesota (106,066) and Oregon (105,605).

Biodiesel struggles to gain truckers' approval

The continued reluctance of truckers to use biodiesel continues to pose a significant threat to the renewable fuel, and one trucking company is lashing out against an Iowa biodiesiel group's misinterpretation of its report on a test of the fuel. In a letter read Thursday at the state Capitol, Decker Trucking of Fort Dodge reported its 2-million-mile study "proves that biodiesel is not a cost effective solution at this time," Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register reports. Iowa lawmakers are considering a bill that would mandate biodiesel use.

Decker launched the study in 2007 to examine "the impact of regular use of the fuel, particularly in winter where biodiesel has been prone to gel in colder temperatures," Piller writes. That remains a significant problem for the fuel, the study concluded. The company also criticized several industry groups for misrepresenting the study's findings. "Iowa Biodiesel Board, Iowa Soybean Association and REG [Renewable Energy Group] are promoting the Two Million Mile Haul as a success. But, if the report is read, the true results are buried in a mountain of data," Steve Lursen, a special projects manager who managed the study, told Piller. (Read more)

Columnist: Universal rural broadband years away

The economic stimulus package will help bring more broadband Internet access to rural areas, but the idea of universal rural broadband is at least years away, writes one telecommunications columnist. "Out here in the stunningly beautiful but sparsely populated ridges and valleys of southwestern Wisconsin, as for much of the rural United States, the dream of ubiquitous broadband is likely to remain just that -- a dream -- for years to come," David Haskin writes for Computer World.

Haskin terms rural America as "the land that telecommunications forgot," and explains a combination of geography, market forces, the limitations of broadband technologies and sheer bad luck will lead to the continued lack of broadband in many areas. Areas of low population simply don't present enough economic promise for telecom companies looking to expand broadband, Haskin writes."While universal broadband coverage is an admirable goal, it is not a feasible one for the near-term future," Joseph P. Fuhr Jr., a professor of economics at Widener University, told Haskin.

Fuhr cited an Federal Communications Commission study that "calculated that truly universal high-speed access in the U.S. could cost as much as $350 billion, a number that dwarfs the $7.2 billion in the stimulus package," Haskin reports. Rural broadband becomes especially difficult in areas still hoping for any type of reliable Internet. "In our markets, the higher priority is availability, not necessarily speed," Brian Peterson, vice president of engineering at rural telephone provider Frontier Communications, told Haskin. "Our rural market customers are looking for high-speed Internet at 1Mbit/sec. as a necessity and are excited when we can offer 3Mbit/sec." Reads like an interview conducted via e-mail. (Read more)

Fracking boosts domestic oil to an annual gain

Fracturing deep rocks with water and chemicals, the drilling technique known as "fracking," has been in the news because of its use to get natural gas, but it is also boosting the U.S. oil industry. Drillers "drill down thousands of feet and then turn and go horizontally through the gas-bearing rock—allowing a single well to reach more gas," Ben Casselman of The Wall Street Journal writes from Killdeer, N.D. (WSJ map) While oil molecules are larger than gas molecules, and don't flow as easily through the cracks, several companies thought the same process could work on oil-bearing formations, and they were right.

Companies including EOG Resources Inc. are fracking the Bakken Shale in western North Dakota. "The first three or four wells, it was not clear that there would be a viable economic solution," EOG Chairman and CEO Mark Papa told Casselman. "But we just felt like, well, it's worth investing $20 to $40 million in this because if it works there's a huge upside." By 2006, EOG was turning a profit on its Bakken wells and in the past two years companies have "honed drilling techniques, leading to bigger wells, faster drilling and lower costs," Casselman writes.

The new Bakken oil production, along with big discoveries in California and the Gulf of Mexico helped the U.S. post its first yearly oil production rise in 2009, for the first time since 1991. The boom is having a measurable impact on rural communities near the wells. Several ranchers have turned millionaires after leasing their land, Casselman reports. "Oil-field workers have flooded the western city of Williston, leaving it with a chronic shortage of hotel rooms and making housing scarce," Casselman writes. "In Dickinson, three hours to the south, a labor shortage has the local McDonald's offering $300 signing bonuses." (Read more)

Ky. environmentalists: Legislature 'unacceptable'

Prominent Kentucky environmentalists declared Thursday they've had enough of the state General Assembly. "We have petitioned, marched, sung, written, lobbied, testified and pleaded — all to no avail," said Kentucky author and farmer Wendell Berry, left. "But today we declare that business as usual in Frankfort — long intolerable — has now become unacceptable." Berry and other members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth took turns reading a Declaration of Independence-type statement Thursday in a room adjacent to a research presentation on the health effects of coal, Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

The declaration listed desires including a request for "the state's political leaders to break their close ties with coal, remove legislators with ties to coal companies from leadership positions, and call for an end to 'extreme and sometimes violent speech' directed at people who speak out against coal in the coalfields," Mead writes. The KFTC members said coal demand was ebbing, but Kentucky was not taking appropriate steps toward alternative energy sources and jobs. "Environmentalists characterized the declaration as a major step," Mead writes, "but its effectiveness is doubtful." (Read more)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vilsack: Plan for farm payment cuts better than last year's 'ill thought out and inappropriate' idea

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said yesterday that the Obama adminmistration's latest proposal to cut direct payments for some farmers is very different from the one it offered last year, a plan he called “ill thought out and not appropriate.” Vilasck told the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee, “We calculate of the 1.4 million farmers who currently qualify for direct payments and things of that nature, only about 30 thousand across the country are going to be impacted.”

The proposal seems unlikely to pass, but Vilsack said the issue needs action in light of the federal budget. “Somebody could make, in theory, about $600 [thousand] to $700,000 and still get a check from the government,” he said. “You know, if we’re going to be serious about deficits we’ve got to look someplace and this was one place to look.”

Julie Harker of Brownfield Network reports, “Vilsack says the 2011 budget has a strong safety net when you look at the 'whole package' which includes research money, export promotion money, and efforts for commodity purchases as well.” (Read more)

Rural community colleges air troubles to feds; some mount lobbying campaigns at state level

Community colleges are having trouble as state governments cut education funding, but leaders of rural community colleges say their schools are facing even more challenges. They met with Department of Education and congressional staff members as part of "Rural Community College Day," a meeting convened by the department and the Rural Community College Alliance. The meeting was the first time the department had met specifically with rural-college leaders, Libby Nelson of The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching reports rural community colleges make up 64 percent of the nation's 820 community-college districts, Libby writes, and "are often in areas in which few adults have college degrees." John White, deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach, told Lilly that Education Department officials hoped the meeting would signify the importance of rural colleges in President Obama's education plan after some of the presidents "expressed concern at the meeting that they were often left out in policy discussions related to community colleges," Lilly reports. "Our funding streams are very, very limited," Blair Montgomery, president of Pierpont Community and Technical College, in Fairmont, W.Va., said during the meeting. "We are invisible. But we get the job done." (Read more)

UPDATE, Feb. 26: Community-college systems in at least four states -- Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington -- have launched lobbying campaigns, reports Nancy Rodriguez of The Courier-Journal in Louisville. In Kentucky, "The campaign — which includes billboards and advertising — is being paid for with $1.3 million originally designated for student recruitment. With a 13 percent increase in enrollment — to 100,348 students this past fall — system officials say the money is better spent on advocating for more state recognition, and higher education funding." (Read more)

Environmental groups say they have found 31 more coal-ash contamination sites

Pollution of nearby groundwater, wetlands and streams has been found at 31 more coal-ash impoundment sites in addition to the 70 previously identified by the Environmental Protection Agency, says a new report from two environmental groups. Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project say they found 31 contaminated sites in 14 states. Pennsylvania and North Carolina led the list with six each. Florida and South Carolina each had three. Tennessee, West Virginia and Indiana had two each, and Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico each had one.

"The data are overwhelming, and these 31 sites sound a clear warning that the EPA must heed before much more damage is done," Jeff Stant, director of EIP's coal combustion waste initiative, told Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. A spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection told Ward it would be "premature" to say whether the report's information about West Virginia was correct.

EPA has delayed a formal ruling on disposal and handling of toxic waste from coal-fired power plants, indicating it may come in April. Contamination has already migrated off power-plant property at 15 of the 31 sites identified, Ward reports. "The remaining 16 show evidence of severe on-site pollution," he writes. "Off-site monitoring data for 14 of these 16 was not even available." Contamination was also found at 11 "dry landfills" and at two sites where the coal-ash is said to be put to "beneficial reuse," for structural fills for highways and building construction.

"This kind of damage could easily have been prevented with sensible safeguards such as phasing out leak-prone ash ponds and requiring the use of synthetic liners and leachate collection systems," the report said. "Yet, incredibly, ash and other coal combustion wastes are not subject to any federal regulations." (Read more)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Census having trouble finding workers in some rural areas, especially Central Appalachia

As the U.S. Census Bureau prepares for another decennial census this spring, it is again struggling to find enough applicants for census-taking jobs in some rural areas. Applicant shortages have been reported from remote northern Michigan to Central Appalachia. The shortages could add to the potential problem of undercounting rural population.

“There are some localized areas like in Eastern Kentucky where we aren’t having the number of applicants we would like,” B. J. Wellborn, a media-relations team member for the bureau’s Charlotte region, told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Census officials blame the shortages on factors such as poor winter weather, confusion about a census job's effect on unemployment benefits and the temporary duration of most jobs.

One factor they say isn't discouraging Kentucky applicants, at least not now, is the highly publicized death of rural census worker Bill Sparkman in Clay County, Ky., last fall. Sparkman staged his death to look like a victim of anti-government sympathy, but it wasn't ruled a suicide for two months, long after news stories had painted him as a possible victim of marijuana growers, methamphetamine makers, or haters of President Obama.

Althea Francis, head of the census office in Somerset, Ky., said it had trouble recruiting after Sparkman’s death, but most of those problems had been erased by the suicide ruling. Nevertheless, every county in her 24-county region of southeastern Kentucky remains short of applicants. (Read more)

Florida tomato growers drop opposition to funding wage increases with money from tomato buyers

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has dropped its opposition to passing along higher wages from grocery stores and restaurants to migrant workers, starting a program to increase wages for tomato pickers. The exchange had challenged agreements between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and companies such as Burger King, Subway, McDonald's and Whole Foods that would pass along an extra penny per pound from such companies as wage increases, Elaine Walker of The Miami Herald reports. Those agreements had never been implemented because the growers refused to participate. (See our most recent item from September.)

"This is an opportunity to partner with our customers and meet their social accountability needs,'' Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the FTGE, which represents growers of about 75 percent of the tomatoes grown in Florida, told Walker. Under the new program "each restaurant or retail chain will decide on a weekly 'supplemental wage' payment to be made to the grower based on the amount of Florida tomatoes it purchased," Walker writes. "The payment will also include an additional 15 percent for administrative, insurance and payroll tax expenses."

Growers will then divide the total money among the migrant workers on the payroll for that week. "Two years ago, the (growers) testified before the U.S. Senate that the penny-per-pound raise was not just impossible, but illegal," Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the workers' group, said in a statement. "Today they are embracing the program and calling it their own. But while a wage increase is important, it can't be a license for continued labor abuse." Benitez was not convinced the new program was a cure-all: "The growers' code leaves the foxes squarely in charge of the henhouse, and sadly, Florida tomato growers have never demonstrated the ability to police themselves.'' (Read more)

As states loosen gun laws, control advocates worry about inaction of Obama administration

In September we reported that a widespread bullet shortage across the country had resulted, in part, from unfounded fears of impending Obama administration gun regulation, and last month we posted our most recent update about a Tennessee guns-in-bars law. Those two stories appear to be related and part of a spreading trend of states pushing for expanded gun rights before the administration makes any move on the issues. Virginia, Arizona, Wyoming, Tennessee, Montana and at least three other states have all expanded gun rights or are considering such legislation, Ian Urbina of The New York Times reports.

Virginia recently passed its own law allowing concealed weapons to be carried in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Arizona and Wyoming are considering at least a dozen gun laws, Urbina reports, including one that would allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Tennessee and Montana passed laws last year supposedly exempting "their states from federal regulation of firearms and ammunition that are made, sold and used in state," Urbina writes, and three states are considering similar measures. Meanwhile, gun-control advocates have been critical of the lack of action from Obama.

"We expected a very different picture at this stage," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which last month issued a report card failing the administration in all seven of the group’s major indicators. Still gun rights groups aren't backing down. "The watchword for gun owners is stay ready," Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, told Urbina. "We have had some successes, but we know that the first chance Obama gets, he will pounce on us." (Read more)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Texas agriculture race is at intersection of farming, energy, the environment and politics

Environmental concerns long prevalent in national campaigns recently have come to the Texas agriculture commissioner race. Buzzwords like green energy, biofuels and sustainable development "are fast becoming the jargon of agriculture workers and the politicians who support them," Jessica Meyers of The Dallas Morning News reports, and the strengthening link between environmental awareness and agricultural development has been reflected in the early political campaigns.

"The farmer and environmentalist have often been trying to do the same thing but approaching it from different angles," Tom Smith, the director of Public Citizen's Texas office, which focuses largely on environmental and energy concerns, told Meyers. "And the farmers and ranchers are the people who have really watched the changes appearing in the climate and are beginning to sound the alarm."

Two Democratic candidates for ag commish have included promises to increase water conservation efforts and promote bioenergy production in their platforms, Meyers reports, while the Republican incumbent is endorsed by the Texas Wildlife Association for his role in "promoting the state's 'Go Texan' labeling, pushing ecotourism and pulling conservation groups into public discussions."

David Griggs, chairman of the Sierra Club's Texas political committee, told Meyer the group has declined to make an endorsement in the Democratic primary because both candidates are so strongly advocating green positions. Griggs credited the Obama administration for increased environmental focus because the president has made "global warming a household phrase and climate-change talks an international discussion." (Read more)

CBS joins other nets in charging stations for highly rated shows, likely leaving less money for news

CBS has joined other networks in asking local affiliates to pay for its highly rated evening programs, TVNewsCheck reports. in an interview with Editor Harry A. Jessell, CBS Affiliates Relations President Diana Wilkin said most, if not all affilates have accepted the new reality and "acknowledges that affiliates are being asked to pay a bit more to tap into the CBS Newspath news services."

Jessell notes that Wilkin once ran CBS affiliates in West Palm Beach and Jacksonville, Fla., but she surely knows that taking money from affiliates will probably leave them less money for their news departments.

Appeals of coal-mine safety citations jam system

Appeals of coal-mine safety citations are dramatically up in several states, swamping the appeals process. "Some members of Congress contend that the vast backlog of cases under review — more than 15,000 — is the result of potentially unsafe mines gaming the system to stay in business," James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal in Louisville reports. In Kentucky, 80 percent of the 536 fines for "significant and substantial" violations, the most severe category, are being contested, and 86 percent of the 288 such fines in Indiana are being contested.

"This growing backlog indicates that certain mine operators are abusing their right to challenge a violation," California Democratic Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which is holding a hearing today on the issue, told Carroll. "These appeals are clogging the system and putting miners in danger." The Mine Safety and Health Administration defines "significant and substantial" violations as those "likely to result in serious injury or illness."

Violations are required to be fixed when cited, Carroll reports, but "safety advocates say the delay in imposing financial penalties undercuts the deterrent effect that those penalties are intended to have." Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, told Carroll in an e-mail that "mine safety is not in any way jeopardized by the increasing decisions to appeal citations," and much of the appeal increase can be attributed to escalating penalty cost and number of citations issued. (Read more)

UPDATE 2/24: MSHA boss Joe Main pledged Tuesday to revamp the enforcement process that has resulted in 16,000 backlogged citation appeals. "We need a better system here," Main said during a hearing about the backlog. MSHA plains to simplify the citations, Carroll reports, and is "studying the possibility of additional financial incentives beyond the current 10 percent reduction in civil penalties for operators who fix violations." Only after citations are finalized can MSHA issue a "pattern of violations" finding that could close a mine. The agency says 48 mines could currently face such a ruling if not for the appeal backlog. (Read more)

UPDATE 2/25: The New York Times says in an editorial, "The jam means that the worst offenders can delay or avoid the reform law’s toughest penalties, including being shut down once a pattern of repeated violations has been proved. . . . The companies respond that there would be no problem if the former process of informal “conference” with regulators were still used to clear violations without litigation. That, of course, was one of the ways King Coal reigned supreme as an industry coddled by political appointees drawn from its own management ranks." (Read more) The Times editorial may skirt a few of the key issues, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his Coal Tattoo blog. The Times refers to a proposed 27 percent increase in financing for MSHA, but Ward explains that increase is actually proposed in the budget for the Mine Safety Review Commission, to help it deal with the backlog in cases, and Obama has only proposed a slight increase to MSHA's budget. Ward concludes spending on mine safety will actually drop by about $2 million under the proposal and notes some of MSHA's budget will be devoted to its new "Rules to Live By" public relations campaign. (Read more)

EPA promises to gradually phase in carbon limits

Responding to pressure from both political parties, the Environmental Protection Agency promised yesterday to gradually phase in climate regulations for industrial sources. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said stationary sources of greenhouse gases will not be subject to permitting regulations until 2011, and small sources would not face regulation any earlier than 2016 (perhaps presuming President Obama will get a second term). Stationary sources include power plants, factories, oil refineries and other heavy emitters. Jackson added that EPA's final tailoring rule, which would exempt more facilities from requirements that they minimize their greenhouse gas emissions, will include a "substantially higher" threshold than the previous proposal.

Jackson's comments came in response to a letter expressing concerns about the effects of EPA action on state economies and energy security, written by eight Democratic senators from Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Montana. West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, one of the letter signers, told Robin Bravender and Darren Samuelsohn of ClimateWire, reporting for The New York Times, that the move "helps," but he still plans to introduce legislation to circumvent EPA action. Rockefeller would block EPA regulation for two to five years.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski welcomed Jackson's announcement, but maintained that her proposed legislation, which would use the Congressional Review Act to block EPA, remains a better option than Rockefeller's proposal. "A temporary timeout isn't sufficient," Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon told the reporters. "Bad regulations today are bad regulations tomorrow." (Read more) Energy and Environment News (subscription only) reports that Jackson's announcement gives more negotiating room for senators trying to fashion an energy-and-climate bill.

Survey ranks states on children's dental health; time to ask your local dentists some questions

One in five U.S. children each year go without dental care, and states vary widely in their use of Medicaid and other programs for pediatric oral health, according to an analysis by the Pew Center on the States. "A 50-state report card shows that just six states earned an A and that 36 states received a C or lower," the center reports. Much of the problem is in rural areas.

"Rural and low-income urban locales have little chance of attracting enough new dentists to meet their needs," the report says. "Just 14 percent of dentists nationwide practice in rural areas, according to a report by the National Rural Health Association. . . . Only 3 percent of all dentists are pediatric practitioners who are skilled at caring for young children and trained to handle the highest-need cases." Also, "Not enough dentists are willing to treat Medicaid-enrolled patients. Dentists point to low reimbursement rates, administrative hassles and frequent no-shows by patients as deterrents to serving them."

There may be other reasons. Which dentists in your locality are in Medicaid, the federal-state program for the poor and disabled? Do some take it only for children? What reasons do they give for accepting or not accepting it? Do they fear that their more well-to-do customers don't like sitting in a waiting room with poor people and their children? If they say that's not a factor, why do some dentists schedule Medicaid patients for certain days of the week? What do they think is the state of pediatric oral health in your community, and what do they think could be done to improve it? What other questions should you ask?

The analysis found four successful strategies that states are using: "Preventive strategies such as school sealant programs and water fluoridation;" expansion of Medicaid; "workforce innovations that can expand the pool of providers; and tracking and analysis of data to measure and drive progress." The report is titled "The Cost of Delay," pointing to the long-term health-care cost of ignoring oral health in youth. It was produced with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the DentaQuest Foundation. Here is a PDF.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Meatpackers, vets, some states not happy with proposed system for tracking livestock

At the beginning of the month we reported the Department of Agriculture had abandoned plans for a national animal identification system to track livestock from "birth to the butcher shop." Now some meat-industry officials and state governments are rallying against the new system, Scott Kilman of The Wall Street Journal reports. "Meatpackers worry that a narrower program proposed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack could exacerbate worries abroad about U.S. meat exports," Kilman writes. "State officials are concerned the federal government is creating a new regulatory burden for which states have scant resources."

Federal officials maintain the six-year-old voluntary animal ID program never "attracted enough participation from farmers and ranchers to be effective," Kilman reports, adding that they are "hoping to placate small farmers leery of federal oversight." The National Animal Identification System was launched after a U.S. mad cow disease scare in 2003, when animal-health experts said a national ID system was essential for rapidly containing livestock diseases.

The new program would require states to track livestock moving across state borders, but would exempt those "slaughtered in the states where they are raised, even if the meat will go into interstate commerce," Kilman reports. The switch "fails to meet the need of meatpackers and their customers to swiftly and accurately trace livestock to the farm of origin," Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for meat giant Tyson Foods Inc., told Kilman. Ron DeHaven, who was USDA's chief veterinarian during the mad-cow scare and is now executive vice president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, added, "We are disappointed by the decision. The ability to trace is only becoming more important to our trading partners." (Read more)

Advocates mixed on new mine-safety program

Reviews from mine-safety advocates are mixed about the Mine Safety and Health Administration's new fatality prevention program, which calls for inspectors to look for the most common citations that lead to fatalities. "We could have had two guys sit down in a room for 15 minutes and come up with the types of issues that are raised in this campaign," Kentucky lawyer and longtime mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard told Jessica Lilly of West Virginia Public Radio. "We don't need more slogans and compliance assistance. I understand that education is always a part of mine safety and that's ok but ... it's really nothing different than anything we saw in the last 25 or 30 years."

West Virginia's chief mine safety officer, Ron Wooten, commended MSHA for recognizing specific standards that, if not met, can lead to fatalities. "Any time any agency, federal or state, raises the specter of increased initiatives towards prevention of fatalities that's a positive," he told Lilly. "Even if it's not followed up that's a positive." Wooten promised West Virginia would commission a similar review of its standards to find possible improvement in fatality rates.

Oppegard said MSHA should have looked to Kentucky for guidance on new regulations. He told Lilly, "In 2007 we passed a mine safety law that had a dozen provisions in it that exceed the federal law, and there's no reasons why those can't be made in the federal law; they're all common sense." He advocated "a revamped special investigation program, more subpoena power in fatality cases, and 48-hour notification before starting the most dangerous type of mining: retreat or pillar mining," Lilly reports. (Read more)

Environmentalists not happy with Obama's record on adding species to endangered list

While President Obama has received praise from environmentalists for many of his initiatives, some have taken issue with his record on endangered species. The administration added just two new species to the federal endangered list in 2009, fewest of any president in his first year since Ronald Reagan in 1981. "We're coming off eight years of the Bush administration where they actively worked to cripple endangered-species programs," biologist Noah Greenwald, endangered-species program director for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, told Paul Rogers of The Mercury News in San Jose. "We would have liked to have seen a strong effort by the Obama administration. But we just haven't seen it." (Read more)

States may need to adopt new school standards to boost federal funds for the disadvantaged

The Obama administration announced a new proposal Sunday as part of its recommendations for an overhaul to the No Child Left Behind Act that would require states to adopt "college- and career-ready standards" in reading and mathematics to be eligible for Title 1 funding, which goes to schools with students from disadvantaged families. The current law requires states only adopt "challenging academic standards" and lets each state define what those standards, Sam Dillon of The New York Times reports. The result was a highly varied set of state educational standards.

"Because economic progress and educational achievement go hand in hand, educating every American student to graduate prepared for college and success in a new work force is a national imperative,” the White House said in a statement. “Meeting this challenge requires that state standards reflect a level of teaching and learning needed for students to graduate ready for success in college and careers." Since last year, "48 states have been collaborating to write common standards in math and reading," Dillon reports, with Texas and Alaska chosing not to participate.

So far only Kentucky has formally pledge to replace its state standards with common national standards. Adopting the new rules may be the easiest route to Title 1 funding. The White House statement explained the rewrite of No Child Left Behind would "require all states to adopt and certify that they have college- and career-ready standards which may include common standards developed by a state-led consortium, as a condition of qualifying for Title I funding." (Read more)

Almost half of rural households lack broadband, but many of them say they don't need it

New data released by the U.S. Commerce Department shows only 54 percent of rural Americans subscribed to home broadband Internet in October, compared to 66 percent of urban households. The information comes as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Commerce Department, and the Rural Utilities Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which are in the middle of handing out $7.2 billion in stimulus funding for broadband, Joelle Tessler of The Associated Press reports.

"We're at a point where high-speed access to the Internet is critical to the ability of people to be successful in today's economy and society at large," Larry Strickling, head of the NTIA, told Tessler. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said Tuesday he "wants 100 million U.S. households to have access to ultra high-speed Internet connections, with speeds of 100 megabits per second, by 2020. That would be several times faster than the download speeds many U.S. homes with broadband get now — 3 megabits to 20 megabits per second," Tessler reports.

The data from a Census Bureau October survey of 54,000 households also revealed that among households without broadband access, 38 percent said they don't need it or are not interested, and 26 percent said it is too expensive. "Only 3.6 percent said they do not subscribe because it is not available where they live," Tessler reports. Twenty-nine percent of Americans with a household income less than 15,000 had a broadband subscription in October. (Read more)

The survey data also includes state-rankings of total Internet access, rural Internet access, total broadband access, rural broadband access and several other factors.

Non-binding Ky. measure would encourage coal companies to help bees with blooming trees

Some Kentucky lawmakers have sent a message to coal companies regarding strip mining: Account for its effects on bees, unless you don't want to. "Coal companies usually plant grasses on mined land -- not the native sourwoods, tulip poplars, goldenrods, asters and other blooming trees and plants that bees need," Roger Alford of The Associated Press reports. Thursday at a meeting of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment, Tammy Horn, a bee researcher at Eastern Kentucky University, urged lawmakers to pass legislation encouraging coal companies to plant a variety of nectar- and pollen-producers on mined land.

The committee's response was a non-binding measure "asking coal companies to plant pollen-producing vegetation when they finish digging," Alford writes. Democratic Rep. Fitz Steele, sponsor of the measure, assured fellow lawmakers that it would not require coal companies to comply: "It's totally at their option if they want to do it," he said. Still, Horn saw the measure as a step toward helping to stabilize decreasing bee populations because it "puts state regulatory agencies on notice that reclamation plans aimed at helping bees should be approved," Alford writes. (Read more)