Friday, June 11, 2010

N.Y. Times blows story on Main Street vs. Wall Street in financial regulation; we can do better

We have said that The New York Times often provides the best rural coverage of any national news organization, because it has the staff and the editorial interest required to do the coverage. But sometimes the paper misses by a mile. That seems to be what happened with today's business-page story pegged to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's comment that the financial-regulation bill about to pass Congress "punishes Main Street for the sins of Wall Street."

Reporter David Herszenhorn came to Main Street in McConnell's hometown of Louisville, and concluded that in Kentucky's largest city, "Main Street seems to be an extension of Wall Street" because national and international financial institutions have offices there and a new, publicly owned arena on the street is "financed through a bond deal underwritten by Goldman Sachs." But what about the housing-loan debacle that prompted the reform bill? Herszenhorn writes, "Main Street seems less an innocent victim of Wall Street in the financial crisis of 2008 than a savvy counterparty, whose own dealings contributed to the days of easy credit and overinflated real estate prices that led to the collapse."

"How did he come to that conclusion?" small-town Kentucky columnist Don McNay asks on The Huffington Post. "Sounds like he wrote it on the plane before he got here."

The 1,245-word story devotes all of two paragraphs to the real contrast McConnell was talking about, between Wall Street banks that precipitated the debacle and community banks in smaller towns that played little if any role but seem likely to bear a disproportionate burden from the bill. “Congress is painting them both with the same brush,” Ballard Cassady, president of the Kentucky Bankers Association, told Herszenhorn. “Being a community bank is more a state of mind than size. Even the largest of banks in the state of Kentucky are community-minded.”

Cassady said he told the Times some other things that didn't make the paper: "Banks in Kentucky didn't fall for" the idea of making home loans with 10 percent or nothing down; most of the bad loans were made by largely unregulated entities, such as mortgage companies; and the "most costly" feature of the reform bill will be the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which will require more recordkeeping, a greater burden for small banks. He also said all loan instruments will be subject to approval by the agency, making it more difficult for community banks to tailor loan arrangements with borrowers in specialized industries.

Writing for The Atlantic, former banker Daniel Indiviglio says, "There are a number of provisions that would hurt community banks due to their costs increasing disproportionally to those at larger institutions." He quotes Steve Wilson, Chairman and CEO of LCNB National Bank in Lebanon, Ohio: "It's amazing how they've called this the Wall Street rein in act, and yet the overall bill is more targeted towards additional regulatory burdens -- additional regulations on the Main Street banks. We have identified, within the bill proposed in the Senate now, we have identified 27 new regulatory burdens that come to us."
Federal regulation has often made allowances for smaller entities, including banking, but Cassady said Congress appears to be accepting the argument of Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren, who said that creating such provisions for smaller entities would encourage large banks to circumvent the regulation by creating subsidiaries.

We encourage rural journalists to talk to their local bankers about financial reform, and to seek out the perspectives of others who may see its benefits. For example, in the Charlotte Business Journal, Adam O'Daniel says Thad Woodard, president of the North Carolina Bankers Association, "compares pending financial-services reforms to a pendulum swinging toward an extreme point before returning to its equilibrium. But while he believes reforms will ultimately be good for the industry, Woodard and North Carolina’s community bankers are fearful of the unknowns they say could harm small lenders in the meantime." (Read more)

Wis. judge says papers can't videostream high-school games covered by pay-TV contracts

Apparently for the first time, a federal judge has ruled that a state high-school sports group can limit local news coverage of games, an issue that has surfaced in several states. Ruling in the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association's lawsuit against the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and Gannett Co. Inc., U.S. District Judge William Conley "struck down the newspapers’ argument that the arrangement violated the First Amendment right to freedom of the press," the Pierce County Herald writes. Conley wrote, “This is a case about commerce, not the right to a free press.”

The WIAA filed suit after the Appleton Post-Crescent, a Gannett daily, live-streamed video of four high-school football playoff games on its website in 2008. The group cited its contract with the production firm When We Were Young to show games for a fee. The judge ruled that paper could interview participants and show limited highlights, but can only show live coverage of games not covered by the contract with When We Were Young. Bob Dreps, attorney for the newspaper association, said his clients were disappointed that Conley approved "the continued commercialization of high school sports." (Read moreUPDATE, July 9: The newspapers are appealing.

New federal food-safety rules pose a serious threat to small producers, farmer writes

New U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations aimed at making food safer may sound good, but will be devastating for small producers, a farmer-columnist writes. On the surface, USDA's food safety program, "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point Principles," sounds great, northwest Missouri farmer Richard Oswald writes for the Daily Yonder. "Everyone wants safe food, but it assumes that food suppliers are all large corporations involved in producing, processing, and merchandising," Richard Oswald "The requirements of HACCP generate mountains of paper, the kind of detailed reporting that only resource-rich big business can handle."

"Small farms work a little differently than big corporations do," Oswald writes. "Farmers do bookwork on rainy days, weekends, or evenings after supper. Hiring a fulltime bookkeeper is something few can afford." While the Obama administration has been a staunch advocate of local food, Oswald writes new HACCP regulations threaten to derail the movement by treating small local producers like "big multinational corporations." The problem with HACCP is that it "fails to recognize that a lot of food ills are cured simply by doing it right, locally, in the first place," Oswald writes.

"Food is not inherently dangerous any more than air or water is dangerous. They’re only dangerous when man or nature has polluted them," Oswald writes. "The way to stop pollution may not be to put more laws on the books but to enforce the laws we have." Farmers across the country have voiced support for USDA-administered "Good Agriculture Practices," a farmer-produced, seven-page rulebook, as an alternative. "HACCP assumes food producers and processors need strict rules to follow, but GAP relies on basics combined with ethical standards of food production by caring local providers," Oswald writes. "Oversight isn’t removed, but it's carried out in a better, less costly context for more effective outcomes." (Read more)

BLM reveals its plan for managing wild horses

In October we reported that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar planned to announce a broad plan to relocate and sterilize Western wild horses. Last week his Bureau of Land Management unveiled the formal proposal for the program, opening the proposal for a 60-day public comment period, Phil Taylor of Environment & Energy Daily reports. BLM "manages 38,000 free-roaming horses across 10 Western states and another 35,000 horses in short-term corrals and long-term pastures, warned that herd numbers could grow to nearly 325,000 by 2021 without enhanced use of fertility control," Taylor writes.

"We need a fresh look at the Wild Horse and Burro Program," BLM Director Bob Abbey said in a statement. "As part of this effort, we want all those with an interest in wild horses and burros and their public lands to consider our initial ideas and offer their own." Among the proposals are "a regime that contemplates the increased use of an infertility drug, the adjustment of male-to-female ratios in herds and introducing or retaining biologically sterile male mules to reduce the number of mares foaling on the range," Taylor writes.

"The BLM proposal also includes a controversial plan to establish both federal and private preserves in the grasslands and plains of the Midwest, where operating costs are considerably less than in the arid West, according to the agency," Taylor writes. Deniz Bolbol of the California-based group In Defense of Animals, objected to the plan, saying, "This appears to be a continuation of the ill-conceived Salazar proposal from last October. It makes no fiscal sense whatsoever to remove wild horses from the public lands where they originate." (Read more, subscription required)

Wind-industry lobby, Steelworkers announce alliance to encourage U.S. turbine production

The American Wind Energy Association has a powerful new ally in its quest to increase U.S. wind production: the United Steelworkers Union, whose members make much of the industry's equipment and want to make more. The two groups announced a partnership Thursday "to expand U.S. wind power production and related domestic manufacturing, with programs to build up the domestic supply chain for the growing industry," Jenny Mandel of Environment & Energy Daily reports.

"We jointly recognize that the deployment of wind energy facilities are vital to this nation's energy security, but that deployment must be linked, to the maximum extent practicable, with the development and utilization of domestically produced materials, original-equipment manufacturers and component parts," the groups said in a joint statement outlining the partnership. As recently as March AWEA had fought legislation that would have punished companies for looking abroad for turbine equipment.

"That collaboration will include "results-oriented targets" for the growth of existing and new domestic suppliers, the establishment of an inventory of domestic suppliers, identification of supply chain gaps to be filled and jointly developed training programs to ensure that workers have the skills needed for wind-related manufacturing," Mandel writes. Denise Bode, the CEO of AWEA, described the steelworkers as "the wind union," saying, "we're well-positioned to recapture leadership in a brand-new manufacturing sector: wind." (Read more)

Illinois 12-year-old starts paper, joins press group

Keith Davis, 12, of rural Annawan, Ill., population about 900, began publishing his own newspaper almost two and a half years ago, and is now an accredited member of the Illinois Press Association. In addition to the print edition of his newspaper, The Annawan Times, Davis designed and operates, reports Rocky Stuffelbeam of the Star Courier in Kewanee. Davis runs the entire production from his home computer. In April he was named an honorary member of the IPA.

"We were intrigued by his inquiry about membership in our organization," David Porter, communications and marketing director for the IPA, told Stuffelbeam. "To be honest, we really had no category for him, but we did not want to discourage him. We looked at what he is doing and felt any young person pursuing journalism should be encouraged. We felt strongly he should be recognized for his effort and service to his community." Davis said his newspaper "is eight pages pretty much every week and includes Annawan news, events, advertising, weather, puzzles (yes, Sudoku), a comic strip and anything else that strikes the 12-year-old’s fancy," Stuffelbeam writes. The newspaper is distributed at the local IGA and has three subscribers. Annawan is on Interstate 80 in Northern Illinois. (Read more)

S.C. man gets two years for attending cockfights

"For the first time in memory in South Carolina, a county magistrate judge has sentenced someone to prison on the state misdemeanor charge of just being present at a cockfight," reports John Monk of The State newspaper in Columbia. "Lexington County Magistrate William Shockley of Swansea on Wednesday sentenced Chad Gable, 36, of Orangeburg, to two years in prison for attending two cockfights in the Swansea area in 2008 and 2009."

Each of the two misdemeanor counts carried a maximum one-year prison sentence. The sentence "was just the latest step in a two-year probe of illegal cockfighting operations in South Carolina," Monk reports. State and federal authorities say they are committed to stamping out the "active and widespread cockfighting subculture" in South Carolina. Two undercover videos of the cockfights were shown during the trial, including one showing Gable refereeing a fight.

According to a state Department of Natural Resources spokesman, "If he had pleaded guilty, Gable could have avoided prison and, at most, paid $4,200 or so in fines and court costs on the two charges," Monk writes. "This is a serious crime," spokesman Robert McCullough told Monk. "Along with dog-fighting and other blood sports, it’s just not going to be tolerated anymore. The law is out there, and we are going to enforce it." (Read more)

Ashley Judd, in D.C., hits mountaintop removal

Actress and Eastern Kentucky native Ashley Judd told a National Press Club luncheon Wednesday, "I am here to tell you, mountaintop removal coal mining simply would not happen in any other mountain range in the United States." Her remarks were reported by Rob Perk at the National Resources Defense Council Staff Blog. (Jesse Hamilton photo)

"It is utterly inconceivable that the Smokies would be blasted, the Rockies razed, the Sierra Nevadas flattened, that bombs the equivalent to Hiroshima would be detonated every single week for three decades," Judd said. "The fact that the Appalachians are the Appalachians makes this environmental genocide possible and permissible."

"I am very proud to be a Kentuckian," Judd said. "And, of the many things my Creator has seen fit to allow me to accomplish, being an Eastern Kentuckian is the simple fact that brings me the most honor, the greatest sense of self. I love and am proud of being a hillbilly." You can see Perk's post here or watch C-SPAN's video of Judd's speech here, or on the press club site here.

UPDATE, July 4: Political leaders in Eastern Kentucky are upset with Judd, WYMT-TV in Hazard reports. News Director Neil Middleton posted excerpts that generated many comments objecting to Judd's speech.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Booms and berms offer only partial protection from Gulf oil-well blowout

Booms and berms, the main strategies to protect marshes and beaches from the oil-well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, are getting mixed results and may be even less effective as tropical storms enter the gulf, April Reese of Environment & Energy News reports from Venice, La. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

"For weeks, workers have encircled barrier islands in the Mississippi River Delta with floating containment booms -- long, linked sections of PVC fabric -- designed to keep oil from reaching the marshes, with mixed success," Reese notes. "More recently, Louisiana officials are undertaking a new project to construct 6-foot-high sand berms on the seaward side of barrier islands fringing the delta to protect sensitive shorelines, fish nurseries and other wildlife habitat further inland. But with such large volumes of oil spreading through the Gulf -- between 12,000 and 25,000 barrels continue to spew each day from BP PLC's damaged well 50 miles offshore -- many experts doubt whether such efforts will be effective. . . . And last week's beginning of hurricane season only increases the odds of more oil reaching land. . . . Even with hundreds of miles of booms and berms in place, oil will continue to reach land, and experts say there are no clear answers for how best to clean up oil-soaked areas."

"If we have a tropical storm that really starts to break the oil up, we would have to ... prioritize, putting booms in one area but not another," John Anderson, a professor of coastal geology and oceanography at Rice University in Houston, told Reese. "We don't have enough booms to stretch from Louisiana to south Florida. ... "This is a very serious catastrophe, and I don't think even professionals have grasped the sheer magnitude of this event." That's one reason we call it a blowout, not a "spill." (Read more, subscription required)

USDA sees more corn being used for ethanol

The Department of Agriculture has raised its estimates of corn used for ethanol, reflecting "the continued record pace of ethanol production and usage through March based on the latest data from the Energy Information Administration," Rita Jane Gabbett reports for, a news service for the meat industry, which keeps a close eye on ethanol's effect on corn prices.

In its monthly World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates, USDA raised the corn-for-ethanol number in the marketing year that ends in September by 150 million bushels to 4.55 billion bushels, and its forecast for ethanol use in the 2010-11 marketing year by 100 million bushels, to 4.7 billion.

"Higher ethanol production is also supported by record production of gasoline blends with ethanol as indicated by weekly data from EIA through May and forecasts for rising gasoline demand during the summer driving season," Gabbett reports. "USDA said the increased ethanol use will more than offset reduced feed and residual use, which was lowered by 25 million bushels due to increased availability of distillers' grains."

Meanwhile, the department forecast slightly lower corn prices in the current year, based on prices reported to date, but higher prices next year. It cut the projected average for the current year 5 cents on both ends of the range, to $3.45 to $3.65 per bushel, but raised the 2010-11 average by 10 cents on both ends of the range, to $3.30 to $3.90 per bushel.

Pork looks to step out from behind label of "The other white meat," needs to address taste issues

In an effort to rebrand the industry, the National Pork Board may soon abandon its 23-year-old tagline and refer to pork as something other than "The Other White Meat," board Vice President Ceci Snyder said at the World Pork Expo on Wednesday, Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register reports. "New consumer surveys show that the line has little bite," and Snyder added that the industry is concerned about consumer suggestions that pork lacks taste.

"Consumers want healthy food, and pork definitely is healthy," Snyder told Piller. "But they want taste and variety as well, and we have to communicate that." Snyder said the board will continue to use "The Other White Meat" in a limited way to preserve its trademark, but offered no glimpse at what the new campaign would look like. "I tell the pork people that they're the Oreo cookie, caught in the middle between beef and chicken," Wes Jamison, professor of communications at Palm Beach Atlantic University, told Piller. "That gives them an identity problem."
The tagline was "developed in 1987 as pork's response to concerns about the effects of red-meat consumption on weight and heart health," Piller writes. Red-meat consumption has dropped by 25 percent since 1960, but much of that market is believed to have gone to poultry and fish. Even if the pork industry decides to change its tagline, it will still need to address the underlying issues surrounding the meat's popularity. "The pork people should ask themselves why the 'white meat' line isn't working anymore," Drew McClellan of McClellan Marketing in Des Moines told Piller. "Taste may be a problem. I was in my 20s before I learned that pork could taste good." (Read more)

Fight against Western grasshopper infestation looks much different than in previous years

Farmers are fighting this year's Western U.S. grasshopper outbreak, which we have covered here and here, in new ways. "Bug wars have long punctuated life in the nation’s grassy midsection, but this year is an exclamation point," Kirk Johnson of The New York Times reports. At least $25 million in hay, wheat and alfalfa alone is at risk in a 7,800-square-mile section of Wyoming with portions of Montana and South Dakota also at serious risk.

"The grasshopper fight of 2010 is different from past plagues in money, tactics and science," Johnson writes. "With low farm prices last year, many ranchers decided to forgo the $1-an-acre spraying fee for prophylactic grasshopper control." That failure to spray, combined with ample spring rains this year and last fell left more adults to lay more eggs. "Largest project in my lifetime — nothing even close," Dean McClain, 56, owner of Wyoming-based Ag Flyers, which is contracted for pesticide treatment work, told Johnson. "Average year for me is about 2,000 acres. This year, I’ll do just short of a million."

"The federal government, which led the grasshopper counterattack during the last big outbreak, in 1985 — and before that in the early 1970s — has also retreated under financial pressure and is focusing its bug-killing firepower this year on federal and American Indian tribal lands," Johnson writes. Spring rains, which some had hoped would kill many of the grasshopper nymphs, were too early or too late to cause significant damage to the population. The technology surrounding the kill has improved since the 1980s outbreak, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture sprayed fields with a broad-spectrum insecticide that also wiped out many other species and has been linked to human health concerns. Now pilots use Dimilin, which kills grasshoppers indirectly, by hampering their ability to molt between growth stages. (Read more)

Musical showing aftermath of 1960s W.Va. mine disaster opens in New York to mixed reviews

As the Appalachian coalfield continues to deal with the aftermath of the April mine explosion that killed 29 West Virginia miners, the aftermath of a similar but fictional disaster is playing out in a musical that debuted in New York in May. The disaster "recalled an era half a century ago when such catastrophes were more common – the era depicted in 'The Burnt Part Boys,' set in the coal country of West Virginia in 1962," Jonathan Mandell writes for The Faster Times. "But that was also the era of boys’ adventure stories and movie Westerns, family and fantasy TV series. All are part of 'The Burnt Part Boys,' now opened at Playwrights Horizons, an odd mash-up of a musical – somewhere between 'Floyd Collins' and Harry Potter — that might have worked better had it stuck to one genre."

The musical follows two boys 10 years after a mine explosion and fire that killed their father and a dozen other miners. The central drama arises from the older brother's decision to work in the same mine and the younger brother's attempts to stop him. Early reviews have been mixed at best. "There are unquestionably moving moments in 'The Burnt Part Boys,' helped along by good acting and singing as well as several memorable dramatic tableaux, most of them involving a chorus of dead miners," Mandell writes. "There is just too much else there that feels like filler." (Read more)

A slow-moving plot through much of the production, just over 90 minutes, seems to be the most consistent criticism of the play, though little mention has been given to its portrayal of mining culture. Charles Isherwood, reviewer for The New York Times, took issue with the play's seemingly bland title, but writes "This small flaw is not, unfortunately, the only one made by the creators of this warm-spirited and family-friendly but dramatically static new show." (Read more) The play is directed by Joe Calarco with book by Mariana Elder, music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen.

As Tenn. lets guns in eateries with booze, states' gun-death and -ownership rates are compared

"As Tennessee prepares again to allow guns in restaurants that serve alcohol, a nationwide survey by gun-control advocates claims more guns mean more crime and more deaths, with Tennessee near the top of the list. Gun-rights supporters say it's all a numbers game and that guns actually drive down crime," Matt Lakin reports for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

The state Legislature has overridden Gov. Phil Bredesen's veto of a bill that will allow holders of gun-carry permits to take their weapons into any restaurant selling alcohol, though they can't legally drink while carrying and restaurant owners could still ban guns on their individual properties. An earlier law was declared unconstitutionally vague.

Lakin reports that the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based group that wants to ban handguns, "ranks Tennessee in seventh place nationally for gun-related deaths, at a rate of 15.03 per 100,000 people. That's above a national average of about 10 gun deaths per 100,000, according to the survey. Tennessee's household gun ownership rate is about 46 percent, the VPC estimates." The data are based on statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for causes of death in 2007, the most recent year available. (Read more)

VPC lists gun-death rates by state here but does not list gun-ownership rates, except for the five states with the lowest rates (Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York) and the five highest rates (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, Alabama, Nevada). Its critics say some states with high gun-ownership rates have low gun-death rates. At our request, VPC gave us the study with the state-by-state chart of gun ownership, which we have put into a sortable Excel spreadsheet file and posted here. The data are from 2002; VPC, citing an author, says the data are the most recent available.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Hospitals say funds to encourage digitization of medical records come with too-strict rules

In February 2009 the Obama administration made available tens of billions of dollars to help doctors and hospitals buy equipment to computerize patients’ medical records, but now some of the country's top medical facilities are joining with smaller hospitals in saying the initial eligibility rules for the funds are too strict. "Doctors and hospital executives, who have expressed their frustration in meetings with White House and Medicare officials, said the issue offered a cautionary tale of what could happen when good intentions meet the reality of America’s fragmented health care system," Robert Pear of The New York Times reports.

The funds are distributed through Medicare and Medicaid as incentives to use electronic records, and when the law was passed the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the incentive payments would total $34 billion. "It is no surprise that tiny hospitals in the Midwest and doctors practicing by themselves would grumble about the White House proposals," Pear writes. "But elite institutions have similar concerns." Institutions like Kaiser Permanente, Intermountain Healthcare and the Mayo Clinic have voiced concerns about the requirements.

"At this date, Intermountain could not meet 36 of the 48 meaningful use requirements," Dr. Brent E. Wallace, chief medical officer at the Utah-based company, which President Obama has pointed to several times as the shining example of health care done right, told Pear. "To qualify under the administration plan, doctors would have to meet 25 criteria, or objectives, and hospitals would have to meet 23," Pear writes. Jonathan D. Blum, deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told the Times, "We want to strike a balance. We will provide flexibility for doctors and hospitals, but push them to elevate their performance. Final rules will be out in early summer." (Read more)

Unsure of how the administration's programs will affect them, many in rural health care have been skeptical of the switch to electronic records, Teryn Schaefer of KOMU-TV, the University of Minnesota-owned station, reported earlier this month. But some like Dr. Karen Edison, director of UM's Center for Health Policy, say "Electronic records are the future and that rural health care will have to convert soon or later and they are there to make it happen," Schaefer writes. (Read more)

Number of Roundup-resistant weeds is rising

We most recently reported the increase of Roundup Ready-resistant weeds in early May, and now some of the specific problems arising from the resistance affecting farmers are coming to light. In the South, Roundup-resistant pigweed is choking out cotton, Tom Beyerlein of the Dayton Daily News reports. Ohio has just three resistant weed species, marestail, giant and common ragweed, but they are spreading. The International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds has identified 346 different resistant species worldwide, Beyerlein reports. (Daily News graphic showing number of resistant species by year)

"We can go back to the old ways, but do we want to do it, environmentally?" Jeff Stachler, who led several Ohio weed studies, told Beyerlein. "How do we want to harm the environment the least?" In addition to the cost-saving and productivity benefits of using Roundup Ready seeds, many Roundup advocates say the herbicide is more environmentally friendly that other older weed killers. (Read more)

White House delaying release of report identifying Mexico as key to meth problem

In an apparent effort to sooth relations with the Mexican government, the Obama administration has delayed releasing the 2010 National Methamphetamine Threat Assessment, The New York Times reports. The report obtained by the Times "describes a 'high and increasing' availability of methamphetamine mainly because of large-scale drug production in Mexico," Charlie Savage and Michael R. Gordon report. The report was completed in mid-May, but administration officials first delayed its release because Mexican President Felipe Calderón was scheduled to come to Washington on a state visit, and have since delayed its release more than once.

"The report was particularly touchy because it came less than two months after the distribution of another National Drug Intelligence Center study that had portrayed the drug trafficking situation in Mexico in stark terms, prompting complaints from the Mexican government," the Times writes. A Justice Department spokeswoman told the Times there was no intention to suppress the report by the NDIC and that the department was delaying its release for administrative reasons.

The center sent advance copies of the report to the White House and to Justice Department headquarters and printed about 300 copies and shipped them to San Diego for distribution at a conference about efforts to block the flow of chemicals used to manufacture meth, the Times reports. An official in the Office of National Drug Control Policy then pointed out Calderón's visit, prompting the first delay. For now, "the report remains in official limbo," the Times writes. (Read more)

USDA to survey 13 states, seeking extent and causes of bee-colony collapse disorder

The Department of Agriculture has launched a 13-state survey aimed at determining the cause and extent of Colony Collapse Disorder among bee populations. The $550,000 survey of 320 apiaries "is not a census of the total bee population," Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers reports. "Instead, it will focus on mortality and troublemakers." Some beekeepers have reported losing 30 to 90 percent of their hives to the disease.

"Whatever kind if research we can get, it's a good thing, because bees are such a valuable commodity," Janet Brisson, treasurer of the Nevada County Beekeepers Association in Pennsylvania, told Doyle. The survey will be conducted by the Agricultural Research Service and Penn State, and specialists will collect samples from selected apiaries. "The samples will then be tested for evidence of pests or pathogens, including foreign mites known as Tropilaelaps," Doyle writes.

"California's almond crop alone requires more than 1.4 million colonies of bees annually, amounting to more than half of all bees in the United States," Doyle writes. "The state's lawmakers have been at the forefront of the legislative effort to find out more about what's gone awry." In addition to California the survey will be conducted in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. (Read more)

Duke Energy asks suppliers for prices on mountaintop-removal coal and otherwise

One of the country's top coal-burning utilities is asking its suppliers to submit price estimates for coal mined by mountaintop removal and coal not mined through the controversial process. The request, from North Carolina-based Duke Energy, "comes amid growing pressure from lawmakers and environmentalists to stop the practice of removing the earth above coal seams," Bruce Henderson of the Charlotte Observer reports. "The practice is cheaper and safer than underground mining, but can level mountain peaks while filling valleys with debris."

"Duke is under state mandates to provide the cheapest possible electricity," Henderson writes. Duke spokesman Dave Scanzoni told Henderson the data will help Duke determine financial impacts that may be reviewed by regulators. Duke spends about $3 billion per year on coal to burn in power plants in the Carolinas, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, Henderson reports. Duke released its annual environmental report in April, which said "Our goal, as always, is to strike the right balance between economic, environmental and social considerations." (Read more)

Biomass industry says new EPA regulation would be devastating, wants break for being green

A top biomass industry official said Tuesday the Environmental Protection Agency's new proposal governing emissions standards would cost the industry $50 billion. "The ruling announced last Friday would apply strict emissions limits on a wide variety of the boiler types used in burning material for energy, including biomass material," Darius Dixon of Environment & Energy Daily reports. In a conference call Tuesday Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association, said the regulation "lacks economic rationality," and while the federal government "has its heart in the right place," the new regulation would be "impossible to comply with."

"The new regulations would cover several pollutants, including particulate matter, cadmium, mercury and carbon monoxide, in addition to greenhouse gases," Dixon writes. "Cleaves said industry leaders believed that biomass power producers might be allowed certain exemptions from new emissions regulations because, in principle, biomass is 'carbon neutral.'" Instead the proposal makes little distinction between biomass and dirtier coal or garbage incineration, Cleaves said.

Franz Matzner, climate legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said last month that EPA's rule must distinguish between those biomass techniques that are carbon-neutral and those that are not. "The science around biomass continues to make clear that not all biomass is good from a carbon footprint perspective," Matzner said. The 45-day public comment period on the rule began on Monday. (Read more, subscription required)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Rural advocate: Summit must be beginning, not end, of Obama plan for rural America

Last week's Rural Summit held by the Obama administration in Hillsboro, Mo., has been described by some as the culmination of the administration's Rural Tour, but the event must demonstrate more than good faith, writes one rural advocate. "Will the Administration be able to deliver on its good intentions?" asks Timothy Collins, assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, in the Daily Yonder. "If not, it won’t be for lack of effort." The summit began with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlining the framework for a potential rural revitalization bill, garnered from information learned on USDA's 2009 Rural Tour.

"Vilsack hoped the Rural Summit would gain the attention of urban and suburban residents so they will appreciate rural America’s contributions to the economy, water conservation, energy, and to the nation’s values," Collins writes. "According to Vilsack, revitalizing rural America is not only about job creation. It’s also about water, which carries an obligation for rural landowners." Vilsack said the rural revitalization bill would expand on current initiatives including foreign trade, biotechnology, the "Feed the Future Initiative," the "Know Your Farmer Know Your Food" program, biofuels, renewable energy, 21st century infrastructure, forestry, outdoor recreation, and conservation.

"The Rural Summit illustrated the Administration’s rural priorities and the complexity of rural issues and opportunities," Collins writes. "The subtext of [Vilsack's] remarks throughout the day was that farms, towns and regions needed to cooperate in order for rural areas to compete in a global political economy." Vilsack ended with a promise the summit would "not [be] the end of the conversation," and Collins writes we'll soon know if that's true as USDA's good intentions shift to action. (Read more)

USDA set to approve soybean variety genetically engineered to improve healthfulness

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is set to approve a genetically modified soybean engineered to contain healthier oils, expanding seed engineering into the realm of public health. "The high-oleic soybean, developed by DuPont and pending deregulation since 2006, is one of the first in a wave of bioengineered cash crops that are being altered for nutritional purposes," Paul Voosen of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. "Currently, nearly all biotech crops grown in the United States have been altered for resistance to weedkiller or insects, traits that are rarely felt by consumers or commercial businesses."

The USDA deregulation is the final step in the approval process for the soybean, which is already approved in Mexico and Canada. A spokeswoman for Pioneer Hi-Bred, DuPont's biotech seed business, said the soybean will continue commercial testing this year and should be ready for global use by 2012. "DuPont's biotech soybean could be welcome news for soy farmers, who have seen food companies move away from standard soybean oil as they work to eliminate trans fats, which are linked to coronary health risks, from their ingredient," Voosen writes.

The USDA deregulation is also seen as the first play in the ongoing battle between DuPont and seed giant Monsanto for market supremacy. Monsanto "has two varieties of biotech soybeans pending approval with USDA that also seek to modify the nutritional value of soybean oil, promising to eliminate trans fats and produce oil with omega-3 fatty acid (fish oil) for use in yogurt, granola bars and spreads," Voosen writes. Rob Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer, told Voosen with advances like this companies like Monsanto "can start to take on some of the most complex physiological traits in terms of crop quality and health and nutrition." (Read more)

Pennsylvania Democrats call for fracking regulation after natural-gas well blowout

A blowout at a natural gas well in the Marcellus Shale in Western Pennsylvania last week has led to renewed calls for greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing. The state Department of Environmental Protection Monday ordered EOG Resources Inc. to halt all gas drilling activities until the agency investigates last week's blowout that saw at least 35,000 gallons of drilling fluid gush out of the well and into the forest before the well could be capped, Katie Howell of Environment & Energy Daily reports.

In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency Monday, Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak, also the state's Democratic nominee for the Senate, urged EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to boost the agency's authority to "to the maximum extent possible to protect the health, safety and environment of Pennsylvania and our neighboring states." Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey echoed Sestak's concerns and highlighted the need for new regulations to ensure "drilling is done in a way that provides greater protection for Pennsylvania," Howell reports.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," injects water, sand and other chemicals into the ground to release natural gas in dense shale formations, unaccessible through other techniques. Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Howell the blowout illustrates the need for full disclosure of fracking fluids. "A million gallons blew all over the place," Mall said. "It's important to know what's in them." The industry-backed Marcellus Shale Coalition said in a statement, "MSC members are constantly working to enhance their operations, as well as working alongside regulatory agencies at all levels of government, to make certain that every stage involved in the shale gas production process is performed safely and responsibly." (Read more, subscription require)

Ky. district with three schools in poor shape surprised by inquiry from People magazine

School officials in Clark County, Kentucky, had become used to the added attention they had received since a 2009 Lexington Herald-Leader story revealed the county had three schools on the Kentucky Department of Education’s list of worst facilities in the state, but they were surprised by a call from People magazine. The magazine had chosen Fannie Bush Elementary as one of the six worst school facilities in the nation for an upcoming story, Bob Flynn of the The Winchester Sun reports. "I thought the call was a joke at first. Surely People magazine wouldn’t be calling us," Fannie Bush Principal Angie Taylor told Flynn. "But after the interviews, I feel good about the article because they focused on the conditions and difficulties of educating the kids in these conditions."

Taylor said she was completely honest with the reporters in listing challenges of working at the facility, including having only one entrance for traffic, having a gymnasium that also serves as the cafeteria and having only one set of bathrooms to serve more than 300 students, Flynn reports. "The thing that is surprising to me more than anything is for Clark County, in the area that it sits in Kentucky, to have three category 5 schools, is very unusual for this part of Kentucky," Clark County Schools Superintendent Elaine Farris told Flynn. Category 5 is the designation given to the oldest and most decrepit schools by the state.
"I try to use the resources the best I can to the best of my ability for these kids, but you are still limited in what you can do. You can’t magically make a cafeteria appear, but we are still providing a good education," Taylor said. "We are meeting our Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals set by No Child Left Behind. How much better could we do if we were in better conditions?" (Read more)

Massey miner who spoke out on safety is fired

UPDATE, June 12: NPR reports that a federal judge has ordered Campbell to be reinstated.

Ricky Lee Campbell, a former Massey Energy miner, has filed a federal whistleblower complaint after he was fired following complaints about unsafe conditions at two Massey mines in West Virginia, including Upper Big Branch, site of the April explosion that killed 29 miners. On April 7 Campbell spoke to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about conditions at Upper Big Branch, where he worked until shortly before the explosion. A week later he was given a five-day suspension "subject to discharge" and was fired on April 23, Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports. Cambell also provided information in the federal investigation of the explosion.

Campbell's complaint alleges that "His persistent safety concerns, his media interview and his role in the federal probe prompted his termination," Berkes writes. A preliminary investigation by the Labor Department concluded that Campbell's complaint "is not frivolous" and "there is reasonable cause to believe that Mr. Campbell's dismissal was motivated by his exercise of protected activities." NPR obtained court documents detailing the case and "additional information was disclosed at a June 4 hearing in Beckley before an administrative law judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which was witnessed by an NPR reporter," Berkes writes.

In the interview with the Post-Gazette, a portion of which can be seen here, Campbell described UBB as "one of the worst [mines] I've ever been in." Campbell also said he repeatedly "told his supervisors about failing brakes on the coal shuttle cars he drove at the Slip Ridge Cedar Grove mine," Berkes writes. The Labor Department removed its claim that Campbell's participation in the federal investigation was one reason for his dismissal before the hearing, but reserved the right to revive that part of the complaint in the future. "Labor Department attorney Samuel Charles Lord declined to comment," Berkes writes, "but the move prevented Massey Energy from trying to learn details about the federal investigation in its questioning of Campbell."

Massey said in a statement, "Mr. Campbell's claims are completely without merit. As the facts in this matter come to light, it will be very clear why Mr. Campbell was terminated and that his termination had nothing to do with him raising concerns about Massey Energy’s safety practices." Massey attorney Thomas Kleeth added, "There's no evidence tying Campbell's complaints to the adverse actions. There's no evidence his supervisors were aware of the news stories" in which Campbell was quoted. (Read more)

New York Times: Don't delay mine-safety reform

Yesterday we reported Massey Energy was using a Charleston Daily Mail editorial calling for patience in mine-safety reform to lobby against West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller's call for immediate reform. Now The New York Times has joined Rockefeller's plea. "Rather than wait months for the formal investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion to play out, the West Virginia Democrat is appealing to President Obama for sensible immediate fixes," the Times writes in an editorial. "He is calling for new criminal penalties for the firing of miners who blow the whistle on neglected safety rules. He wants regulators to stop giving management a heads-up before inspections, and to have working miners walk the tunnels with federal safety inspectors so they can share their expertise about the real dangers."

"President Obama can order some of these changes immediately," the Times writes. "Reforming the appeals process also requires Congress to approve more funds to hire more hearing judges. Congress should also mandate that mining companies disclose their history of safety violations to shareholders, as a further market prod. Instead of waiting for the next tragedy, the White House and Congress should be working right now to make mining safer." (Read more)

Monday, June 07, 2010

State and federal agencies closing caves to slow the spread of bat-killing disease

We've been following the spread of the mysterious white-nose syndrome affecting bat populations across the eastern U.S., most recently here, and now state and federal agencies across the country are closing caves in hopes of stopping the spread. "Wildlife agencies in 17 states have issued cave closings, saying that people may be contributing to the spread of the disease by tracking the fungus on shoes and other equipment," Oren Dorell of USA Today reports. "Caves are popular destinations for Boy Scouts, mineral clubs and 'cave junkies' who try to visit as many caves as possible in one day."

The disease was first detected in Upstate New York in 2006 and has been detected as far south as Virginia and as far west as Missouri. "Caver Peter Haberland, of New York, said caving groups should not object to the closings," Dorell writes. "For a period of a year, most people can deal with that," he said. Peter Youngbaer of the National Speleological Society, a group of cave enthusiasts, told Dorell that widespread cave closings are counterproductive because organized cavers who get the message may follow the ban, but casual cavers are "not in the loop."

NSS "says that bats are spreading the disease on their own and that closing caves prevents responsible cavers from learning more about the disease," Dorell writes. Jeremy Coleman, the national white-nose coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told Dorell while no one has found proof that people are spreading the disease, "nobody has been able to prove they haven't." Despite closings in some states, the disease has been found in New York, New England, Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri and most recently in western Oklahoma. (Read more)

Study: Race and poverty are factors in southern rural graduation rates

New analysis from The Rural School and Community Trust reveals alarmingly poor graduation rates among high-poverty school districts in 15 southern states. "The districts studied include 616 rural school districts that are among the 800 rural districts nationally with highest student poverty rates," RSCT reports. "Just over 6 in 10 students can be expected to graduate from these districts, compared with 70 percent among other rural districts and 67 percent among non-rural districts nationally." Nearly three in five of students in the districts studied were people of color and the poverty rates of those districts was nearly twice that of other rural or non-rural districts.

"Even among these high-poverty districts, those with the lowest graduation rates are more likely to serve children of color," RSCT writes. "Nearly half (47 percent) of the students who attend districts in the bottom fifth in graduation rate among these 616 districts are African American." Twenty of the 616 districts studied were listed as high performing because they had graduation rates in the top 20 percent of their respective states.

"Not surprisingly, the 616 high-poverty rural districts in these 15 states operate with less state and local funding per pupil ($7,731) than for all other rural districts nationally ($8,134) or all non-rural districts nationally ($9,611)," RSCT writes. "The funding gap is caused by a gap in local revenue shortages that is only partially offset by somewhat higher state revenue." RSCT suggests "high dropout rates in high-poverty rural districts may converge at the intersection of larger districts and higher percentages of African American and Hispanic enrollment." (Read more)

Ohio proposal would ban farmers from using sewage sludge on winter fields

Ohio officials have proposed a ban to prevent farmers from spreading sludge on fields during the winter. The process is believed to pollute nearby streams, but the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency ban would restrict the practice only between Dec. 15 and March 1, Spencer Hunt of The Columbus Dispatch reports. A stricter proposal, which would have expanded the ban by 45 days, was abandoned three years ago.

"The state says the proposal is intended to prevent incidents in which sludge that was spread on frozen farm fields runs off and poisons streams during sudden thaws or unseasonable rainstorms," Hunt writes. Sewage treatment plants were among those that objected to the original proposal three years ago, and David Brewer, a sludge manager for Montgomery County's sewer systems. Brewer told Hunt the new proposal would still "raise costs for public sewer systems that would have to either store sludge during the winter or pay to dump it in landfills," Hunt writes.

"(The EPA) drew a big line in the sand ... They said, 'We're just not going to compromise anymore on winter (sludge) application,'" according to Brewer. About 140,000 tons of sludge is spread on as many as 8,800 fields across Ohio each year, Hunt reports. The ban applies only to sludge sprayed on the surface as sludge injected into the soil is less likely to runoff into streams. Still, injection is not likely to work in the winter as the ground is usually frozen. (Read more)

Conservation Stewardship Program will focus on broad agricultural plans

Last week the Obama administration finalized rules for the long-anticipated Conservation Stewardship Program. The program will "pay farmers for having strong overall conservation plans, rather than focusing federal support on specific conservation practices or plots," Allison Winter of Environment & Energy Daily reports. The program was first authorized in the 2002 farm bill, but has been slow to develop, Winter writes.

There have been years of pent-up demand for this program," Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told Winter. Other U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs "pay farmers to idle cropland or offer cost assistance for landowners who build fences, terraces or other structures to improve resource protections," Winter writes. These programs will continue, but lawmakers and advocacy groups have said the $1 billion Conservation Stewardship Program should play a larger role.

"To participate in the new program, landowners must submit overall conservation plans that outline methods of animal management, fertilizer use and water management," Winter writes. "USDA will award five-year contracts to farms with the best overall plans, based on scores on criteria set by the department; payments will rise or fall with scores." Operation size, type of crops produced and location will not affect producers' eligibility for the program.(Read more, subscription required)

Massey cites W.Va. editorial to lobby for delay in mine safety reform

The Charleston Daily Mail editorial Wednesday called for Congress to delay any mine safety reforms until the investigation into the April explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine is complete. Now representatives from Public Strategies, a public relations and lobbying firm hired by Massey, has been circulating the editorial on Capitol Hill, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his blog Coal Tattoo. The editorial took issue with Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller's assertion that there was work Congress could do to improve mine safety now.

"We agree with the overall premise of the editorial that there should be no rush to judgment by state or federal lawmakers on which legislative initiatives may be adopted until all of the facts are ascertained as to what caused the UBB accident," Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater told Ward.
Rockefeller sent a letter to President Obama in which he listed several recommendations for mine safety reform suggested by the families of victims of the UBB disaster. Among his recommendations was "requiring each mine to have a certified mine safety team comprised of miners, requiring inspectors to choose miners to accompany them on safety inspections, improving rock dusting standards, requiring inspectors to conduct inspections during evening and weekend shifts, rather than just during day shifts and piercing the corporate veil to hold upper management, Directors, and CEOs accountable for the safety of miners." (Read more)