Friday, December 03, 2010

Blankenship out as head of Massey Energy; may have been against proposed sale of the company

UPDATE, Dec. 4: "The unexpected departure comes amid unconfirmed reports that Blankenship opposed the Massey board's consideration of a sale of the giant Appalachian coal producer," Howard Berkes reports for National Public Radio. Dec. 6: The Wall Street Journal says Blankenship's departure may spur a sale; Kris Maher and Joann Lublin take a detailed look. Also, here is Jeff Goodell's profile of Blankenship in Rolling Stone, "The Dark Lord of Coal Country."

Don Blankenship, who ran the biggest coal company in Central Appalachia and perhaps the most controversial in America, is retiring as CEO of Massey Energy, the company said around 6 p.m. today -- without giving a reason, beyond quoting him thusly: "After almost three decades at Massey, it is time for me to move on."

"The move comes amid persistent rumors that Richmond, Va.-based Massey will be sold to another mining firm, and as the company struggles to recover from the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in April, which killed 29 workers and was the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than 40 years," writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, Blankenship's primary journalistic adversary. There were many others. UPDATE, Dec. 10: Ward reports Blankenship will cite his rights against self-incrimination and refuse to testify at a hearing on the disaster.

"Blankenship's tenure has been marked by bitter disputes with the United Mine Workers union, a series of workplace and environmental disasters, and controversial political involvement that has increasingly drawn negative national attention for Massey," Ward writes. "In the past two years alone, Massey has paid the largest fines ever for a coal-mining death case and for water pollution violations by a mining operator -- $4.5 million for the fatal Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire and $20 million in a water pollution deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

This week, Massey said it would close an Eastern Kentucky mine that the U.S. Department of Labor had gone to court to seize for its pattern of dangerous violations, the first time the department had taken such a step. UMW President Cecil Roberts said Blankenship's departure "brings to a close a long and difficult chapter in the history of the coal industry, one that has all too often been associated with human tragedy."

Blankenship poured millions of dollars into elections, unseating a West Virginia Supreme Court justice whose replacement was a deciding vote in dismissing a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Massey. In a precedent-setting decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said the judge should have recused, but Massey won again after a replacement justice was appointed.

Roberts said in his prepared statement that Blankenship and Massey were much to blame for "the negative image that has cast a pall over our industry." Others made similar comments. "He was like a caricature of all that was wrong with the industry today," Cindy Rank, mining chair for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, told Ward, adding that Blankenship may have perversely helped environmentalists by attracting attention to mountaintop-removal mining. West Virginia Coal Association executives seemed stunned; one called the announcement "unreal." (Read more) For the company's release, via Ward's Coal Tatoo blog, go here.

Main ethanol tax break would be extended one year and cut by one-fifth in new Senate tax bill

"The major U.S. ethanol incentive would be cut by 20 percent but given one more year of life in a Senate tax bill that also would revive a biodiesel tax credit that died a year ago," reports Charles Abbott of Reuters. The bill offered by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is "very unlikely to pass" in a rare Saturday session tomorrow, but would kick off negotiations on many tax issues, the Washington Research Group, a consultancy, told Abbott.

"With ethanol supporters under fire by livestock producers, foodmakers and environmental groups, ethanol leaders say the best chance to extend biofuel supports is to attach them to a must-pass tax bill," Abbott writes. The bill would reduce the 45-cent-per-gallon tax credit — set to expire at the end of teh year — to 36 cents, the level House Democrats have called for, "and it is supported by the Obama administration, which feels it must address calls to reduce federal spending during the next Congress," reports Manu Raju of Politico.

"Baucus also proposed extending for a year the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol, as well as extending a small ethanol producer’s tax credit through next year at 8 cents per gallon," Raju reports.

Calif. county can make builders protect farmland

California courts have upheld a law requiring large-scale residential builders to protect an acre of farmland for every one they develop in Staniuslaus County, which has a $1 billion agricultural economy, reports Bettina Boxall for the Los Angeles Times. (Wikipedia map)

The county ordinance, which was put on hold by a lawsuit filed by the Building Industry Association of Central California, gives developers of fewer than 20 acres the option of paying a mitigation fee or buying mitigation credits. But the county wants builders using more land to acquire farmland conservation easements for an equivalent amount of land.

Attorney Matthew Zinn, who represented the county, said "The Court of Appeal recognized the county's right to protect farmland as part of its well-established authority to regulate land use." Attorney Dave Lanferman, who represented the builders, responded, "Basically the county has set itself up as a land broker and set the price." (Read more)

Budget woes leave some in jail too long, some out too soon, and many unemployed

Are criminals being let go, or released from jail early, or being denied justice because of budget cuts to your local and state judicial and corrections systems? It's probably time to ask. "Courtrooms and jails have become crowded to the bursting point, allowing justice to languish in many locations," Keith Matheny reports for USA Today. Experts told Matheny three factors are contributing to the sluggish distribution of justice:

• Tougher law enforcement without expansion of jail and court infrastructure;
• Failure to improve court procedures over many years;
• Overworked judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys continually postponing hearings.

Matheny cites examples: In Texas, 10 percent of all felony cases had no court date scheduled; in North Carolina, the continuance rate in cases involving child abuse and neglect or termination of parental rights topped 40 percent in nearly a quarter of the state's 100 counties; in one California county, 18 criminal cases, including two felonies, were dismissed because no judges were available to hear the cases.

Some states are addressing the problem by sending non-violent misdemeanor offenders to treatment programs rather than jail. South Carolina ended mandatory minimum sentences for first-offense simple narcotics possession, and expanded the use of probation, house arrest and work-release programs, reports Matheny. (Read more)

In several states, convicted felons used to go to state prisons, but now are serving their time in county jails. That leaves counties holding the financial bag for overcrowded state prisons, reports Deb Gruver of the Wichita Eagle. "As the state has downsized the number of beds in their prisons, we're kind of in a situation where we're ending up having to cover for them," Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn told Gruver. "It ties in to jail overcrowding."

Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, chairman of the Kansas DUI commission and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the overarching problem is that people want criminals to be punished but don't want to see their taxes go up to pay for doing so. "Is it fair to shift the problem from the state to the locals without some kind of financial assistance? ... I don't think it is fair. But both sides have to balance it," said Owens. (Read more)

Inmates who are released early have more difficulty finding work, reports Alana Semuels for the Los Angeles Times. More inmates are competing for the same low-wage, low-skill jobs. The lack of work could lead back to criminal activity and ultimately back to jail. "As difficult as the recession has been on people, it's twice as difficult for people with a felony to make it in this economy," said Marc Mauer of the nonprofit Sentencing Project. The reduction of job opportunities in manufacturing and construction and a rise in the number of former inmates looking for work as state prisons and county jails reduce their inmate populations, make for an even more crowded job market and many unemployed former inmates. (Read more)

Outspoken Iowa congressman calls for probe of black farmers' discrimination claims

On Wednesday we reported Congress had sent President Obama legislation to pay $4.6 billion in settlements with American Indians and black farmers who say they faced discrimination and mistreatment from the government. Some Republicans have raised objections to the bill, and not just because of its price tag. Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King "argues that the eligibility standards in the case are too lax, because claimants don’t have to prove they were discriminated against," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog. King called for a federal investigation into possible fraud in the claims

Complaints from King and other Republicans about the bill "have kind of a funny smell about them," Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin told Brasher. King countered, "Their first line of defense is to call me names, so that tells me they’ve already lost the argument." A Republican-controlled House of Representatives in 2011 could hold hearings about the claims, but King said negotiations were ongoing about how to deal with the issue. He acknowledged the issue made southern Republicans uncomfortable, telling Brasher "They cringe because they don’t want to have to deal with the subject."

Harkin said there is no evidence of fraud in regards to discrimination claims and the bill has adequate safeguards to protect against such concerns. "The legislation includes provisions requiring various reviews and audits of the settlement’s implementation," Brasher writes. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who said he was disappointed by King's comments, told Brasher, "We’re obviously going to be sensitive and aware of the need to make sure that those who have been discriminated against receive their appropriate measure of justice and that we do our very level best to make sure that people who are not entitled to relief don’t get relief." (Read more)

Senator on debt commission opposes reduction plan, saying it paints 'big red target' on rural

A leading Democratic senator says he will oppose the federal debt reduction recommendations from the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform because they are anti-rural. Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a congressional representative on the commission, said the proposal paints a "big red target on rural America," Jackie Calmes of The New York Times reports on The Caucus blog. Baucus is "chairman of the Senate committee that would deal with the sort of tax changes and spending cuts the plan proposes," Calmes notes.

Baucus said the recommendations would  lead to reduced retirement and health care benefits for older Americans and veterans, raise gasoline taxes and cut farm subsidies. "Baucus’ decision was long expected – he opposed the 18-member commission’s creation and participated little in its deliberations — but as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee he holds out-sized influence over the prospects for any debt reduction legislation," Calmes reports. His opposition all but ensures the 18-member commission's proposal will fall short of the 14 votes needed to send it to a vote in Congress, Calmes writes. (Read more)

Montana attorney general stands out as state official working for agricultural competitiveness

Most of the attention to the fight against anti-competitive practices in the agriculture industry has involved federal policymakers, but one rural state's attorney general is making a name for himself in the fray. Roughly a third of Montana's economy remains tied to agriculture, and Attorney General Steve Bullock's "concern with anti-competitive practices in the agricultural industry has prompted him to take a front-and-center role on the issue both within the state and nationally," Jason D. B. Kauffman of the online journal New West reports for the Daily Yonder.

Bullock added one attorney to his Office of Consumer Protection to deal solely with agriculture issues, and joined in a roundtable discussion with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter Jr., U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey of Colorado and other top-level agriculture and antitrust officials at a workshop focused on anti-competitive issues in the cattle industry in Fort Collins, Colo., in August. "My principal concerns are those impacting Montanans on the ground," Bullock told Kauffman, such as "whether our grain growers can get a fair price for their product, get that product to the market and whether there’s sufficient competition and opportunity for our beef producers."

Less competition in meatpacking and railroading are hurting Montana's cattle industry, Bullock said. Bullock and Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, a Billings-based group of ranchers and their allies, see reason for hope in the Obama administration's emphasis on agricultural competitiveness. "This administration is the first to recognize that the hollowing out of rural America that is occurring all across the nation is being accelerated by the loss of competition in agricultural markets," Bullard told Kauffman. "It is the economic cornerstone for most rural communities. And it is the vehicle by which to revitalize the rural American economy." (Read more)

'Historic' child-nutrition bill has provisions for helping school kitchens use local farm products

A bill to renew and revamp federal child-nutrition programs is on its way to President Obama, with provisions that would "help schools and other entities implement farm-to-school programs, improving access to local foods," reports Dani Friedland of MeatingPlace. "The act also establishes national nutrition standards for all foods available on school campuses during the school day with the goal of decreasing childhood obesity and promoting student health." (Read more)

The bill is being hailed as historic. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Amanda Paulson of the Christian Science Monitor, "This is not a baby step. This is a huge step forward in improving nutrition for children, especially low-income children." (Read more)

The bill would "authorize the establishment of nutrition standards for all food and beverages sold on school grounds throughout the school day," Nick Anderson of The Washington Post reports. "This provision, advocates say, would force out sugary beverages and snacks and clear the way for more healthful food and drinks to be offered through a la carte sales at snack bars and vending machines." School administrators' groups opposed the bill, calling it an unfunded mandate. For the text of the bill, click here.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Northern Vermonters vote to welcome Walmart

The voters of Derby and Newport, Vt. (MapQuest image) voted in a referendum last month to support a Walmart superstore, according to a staff report in The Chronicle of Orleans. Several rural New England communities have shunned Walmart, but in Vermont's self-described Northeast Kingdom, the electorate was welcoming, voting 2,592 to 411 to support the store. A small complication, though: Walmart has no plans to build there.

Local developer Jeff Davis told Chronicle reporter Joseph Greeser in September that Walmart officials were thinking about building in Derby, but had made no commitment. Brian Smith, chairman of the Derby selectmen, promoted the referendum in an attempt to lure the discount chain to the area. The company showed interest in building a large store in Derby in 2005, but failed to move forward on the project. Smith told his fellow selectmen that if the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the store, he would try to persuade other municipalities to follow Derby and Newport’s lead.

Agriculture secretary gives Stephen Colbert farm facts, official opinion and a cheese head

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," sparred with faux-conservative host Stephen Colbert (right) about farm programs, nutrition and cheese. Questioned about subsidies, Vilsack said, "The reality is we do have to have a safety net for our farmers because it’s a tough business. You have no control over weather, you have no control over markets. You need to know probably 90 percent of America’s farmers are just barely making it. Ten percent are doing pretty well. But there are a lot of farmers out there who struggle, so it is important to have a strong safety net." At the end of their conversation, Vilsack presented Colbert with a 25-pound bust of Colbert's head carved from organic cheese. Colbert told Vilsack that he liked his likeness: "It may be cheddar, but I have to say, I look Gouda." (Read more from Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register; view the video)

EPA denies FOIA request for mine permit review

The Environmental Protection Agency has noted that alternatives exist to reduce the environmental impact of the controversial mountaintop removal plan for the Spruce Mine site in West Virginia. After filing a Freedom of Information Act request of EPA's analysis of the Spruce Mine permit, the agency has refused to provide those alternatives to Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. Ward was told the analysis is protected from FOIA release under a legal exemption meant to cover inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums. Ward notes the FOIA exemption doesn't require EPA to withhold the documents, it just gives the agency that option.

In October, we reported that EPA had moved closer to blocking the Spruce Mine permit, which is the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history. The analysis is "a report prepared by Morgan Worldwide, the firm headed by mining engineer John Morgan," Ward writes on his Coal Tattoo blog. "EPA said the report would eventually be made public, but not until the agency finishes the process of considering whether to veto the Spruce Mine permit." Ward concludes, "If John Morgan came up with a way for Arch Coal to mine its reserves without burying more miles of streams, wouldn’t it benefit EPA to make this information public? Wouldn’t that put more political pressure on Arch Coal and the industry in general in the ongoing dispute over EPA’s crackdown on mountaintop removal?" (Read more)

Obama gets bill to list bighead carp as invasive

The U.S. House approved a bill yesterday that would add bighead carp to the national list of injurious wildlife, fish and plants. Bighead carp are the only of the four Asian carp species not on the list, Paul Quinlan of Environment & Energy News reports. The Senate passed the same bill by unanimous consent earlier this month so it now goes to President Obama for his approval. "The U.S. Congress took an important step today in the effort to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes," Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, who wrote the bill, said. "The devastating effects Asian carp could have on the Great Lakes are not fully known, and I want to make sure they are never realized."

"Listing the bighead carp ... will prohibit the interstate transportation or importation of live Asian carp without a permit," Quinlan writes. Asian carp have infested the Mississippi River system after escaping from Southern catfish farms, which used them to eat underwater vegtation, but they also eat other things and there are fears that they would devastate the Great Lakes ecosystem if they enter it through a Chicago canal. "Bighead and silver carp are the species that pose the greatest, most immediate threat to waters not yet infested, although black carp also pose a risk," Quinlan writes. (Read more, subscription required)

Study finds much arsenic in sediment downstream from TVA coal-ash spill

The environmental risks of coal ash may be worse than previously thought, says a new study from Duke University. Researchers found arsenic in water samples drawn below sediment downstream after the 2008 coal-sludge spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tenn., Paul Quinlan of Environment & Energy News reports. In more than 220 samples drawn from sediment 18 months after the spill, the water had arsenic levels of 2,000 parts per billion. EPA's safety threshold for arsenic is 10 parts per billion in drinking water and 150 parts per billion for protection of aquatic life.

"The take-away lesson is we need to change how and where we look for coal-ash contaminants," author and geochemist Avner Vengosh told Quinlan. "Risks to water quality and aquatic life don't end with surface water contamination, but much of our current monitoring does." He added, "It's like cleaning your house. Everything may look clean, but if you look under the rugs, that's where you find the dirt." EPA is expected to release in the coming months its final ruling on whether to classify combustion ash from coal-burning power plants as hazardous waste.

Vengosh calls the EPA's impending decision as the "defining moment" in the coal-ash debate. "At more than 3.7 million cubic meters, the scope of the TVA spill is unprecedented, but similar processes are taking place in holding ponds, landfills and other coal ash storage facilities across the nation," Vengosh told Quinlan. "As long as coal ash isn't regulated as hazardous waste, there is no way to prevent discharges of contaminants from these facilities and protect the environment." (Read more, subscription required) Opponents of greater regulation have argued that high levels in sediment should not be cause for great concern because sediment is rarely disturbed.

States vary widely in their abilities to make health-insurance companies justify rates

How ready is your state to use an important part of the federal health-reform law, which makes health-insurance companies justify their rates? Maybe not very ready, according to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has long been a good source of information about health reform.

"It finds dramatic variations across states, with some states having with no authority at all and others with robust authority to review and approve or disapprove rates before they are implemented," Kaiser says. "Many states do not have enough trained actuaries to review all filed rates. In addition, statutory clauses can 'deem' rates approved if not acted on within 30 or 60 days, limiting states’ ability to conduct thorough reviews."

Kaiser gives many other shortcomings of state insurance regulation. For a PDF of the full report, click here. For a sortable table that gives rate-filing requirements and review authority for each state, go to this page on Kaiser's State Health Facts site.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Massey to close mine feds threatened to seize

Massey Energy told Howard Berkes of National Public Radio today that it will close an underground coal mine in far Eastern Kentucky that was in line to be the first ever seized or shut by the federal government for a pattern of dangerous safety violations. "The Freedom Energy Mine No. 1 in Pike County is the focus of an unprecedented federal court action in which the Labor Department is seeking to have the court seize control of the mine," Berkes notes. (Map by Nelson Hsu, NPR)

Mine safety experts told NPR that the feds can claim victory. "I don't think Massey would have closed the mine without the government's action," said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Ky., lawyer. The department says it "will continue to seek a court order to ensure that miners who continue to work in any capacity at Freedom are safe." Some workers will remain to remove equipment; the rest will be transferred to other Massey mines, Berkes reports.

Congress sends Obama bill to pay black and Native American farmers for discrimination

Congress has sent President Obama legislation to pay $4.6 billion in settlements with American Indians and black farmers who say they faced discrimination and mistreatment from the government. The package would award $3.4 billion to American Indians who say they were cheated out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department and another $1.2 billion would go to African Americans who claim they were unfairly denied loans and other assistance from the Agriculture Department.

The lead plaintiff in the Native American case is Eloise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Browning, Mont., who claimed that at least 300,000 Indians were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887. The plaintiffs originally said they were owed $100 billion, but were willing to settle for less as the case dragged on. The lead plaintiff in the African-American case is Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who claimed widespread discrimination by the local office of USDA. (Read more)

Shirley Sherrod, the former USDA Georgia Rural Development director who was mistakenly forced out of her job, said of the settlement: "Sixty-thousand-plus farmers have been waiting all this time to get their claims filed, and I'm just really happy that we're finally getting to the point where something is happening." reports Ben Evans for The Associated Press. "This doesn't solve everything. But at least this brings some type of resolution to the matter. It's good to see that -- at the least -- this country will do something for these farmers out there who still need justice." (Read more)

Farm income forecast up 31%, to all-time record

The Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service projects U.S. farm income will reach a record $81.6 billion this year, up 31 percent from 2009 and 26 percent higher than the last decade's average of $64.8 billion, Bob Meyer of Brownfield reports.

"The value of livestock production in 2010 is expected to be up 16.6 percent compared to 2009 led by a 29.6 percent increase in dairy products, 16.4 percent improvement in meat and 9.9 percent increase in poultry and egg value," Meyer writes. "Crop production value is projected at 3.1 percent higher thanks to strong gains in corn, soybean and cotton receipts." USDA projects a 1.5 percent increase in government payments from 2009 to $12.4 billion. (Read more)

The latest  DTN/The Progressive Farmer Agribusiness Confidence Index also reports, "As the 2010 harvest wrapped up, outlook among American agribusinesses has become even more optimistic," Pat Hill of DTN writes. Rising corn and soybean prices combined with good weather, led to a quick harvest and more cash for farmers, Hill reports. The index combines comments from 100 agribusinesses in 23 states "about current and future sales of products and services to farmers and ranchers, current and future profitability and overall business prospects for the next 12 months." (Read more)

New foes lobby against ethanol subsidies, due to expire Dec. 31 amid budget-deficit concerns

The latest challenge to federal ethanol subsidies comes from a coalition of conservative and liberal groups. "Strange bedfellows including the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, liberal network MoveOn and even a Catholic missionary group came together on a letter urging Congress to let $6 billion in ethanol tax credits lapse at the end of the year," Jenny Mandel of Environment & Energy News reports. In total, 58 groups signed the letter urging Congress to let the subsidies expire.

"At a time of spiraling deficits, we do not believe Congress should continue subsidizing gasoline refiners for something that they are already required to do by the Renewable Fuels Standard," the coalition wrote. The groups added, "Letting the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit expire will help control deficit spending without in any way hindering the development of advanced biofuels, which can help us meet our energy, environmental and food security needs in a fiscally responsible manner." (Read more, subscription required)

With bleak prospects for a renewable energy standard, advocates for renewables are fighting alongside ethanol proponents for extending tax credits. “If the RES doesn’t pass, and that’s a long-shot right now, and clearly we’re not going to have a price on carbon for a number of years, we’re left with tax policy as the only federal policy of any significance to promote renewable electricity generation,” Richard Glick, director of government affairs for Iberdrola Renewables, the country's second-largest wind developer, told Amy Harder of National Journal. Many ethanol producers predict if the tax incentive is extended it will be at a lower level than the 45 cents-per-gallon current level, perhaps 36 cents, Harder writes. (Read more)

Ethanol subsidies garnered another high-profile opponent recently as former Vice President Al Gore changed his previous position in favor of the subsidies. "It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first-generation ethanol," Gore told a gathering of clean-energy financiers in Greece this week. He added that the benefits of ethanol are "trivial," The Wall Street Journal reports. Gore said of his previous support for ethanol, "One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president." (Read more)

FCC chairman proposes Internet rules that fall short of 'net neutrality' but draw GOP opposition

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski today outlined a framework for broadband Internet access that prevents service providers from blocking lawful content but allows them to charge different prices based on levels of service.  The approach appears to split the difference between advocates of "net neutrality," a policy that would ban Internet service providers from discriminating among types of information when it comes to price or access, and those who favor a completely free-market approach. "The fight may continue as neither side in the net-neutrality debate is expected to be completely satisfied with the outcome," Marguerite Reardon writes for CNET News. For rural residents, net neutrality is intended to guarantee that smaller, locally-owned internet users -- be they businesses or consumers -- would not be squeezed off the internet by companies that had paid a premium for unlimited Internet access.

"The proposal will allow broadband providers to impose usage-based charges so that customers using more bandwidth would get charged more than customers using less," Reardon reports. "The FCC will also allow providers to experiment with offering specialized services that could provide higher-quality access to consumers rather than sending applications and content over the public Internet. Broadband providers will also be required to justify why these services require dedicated bandwidth rather than being delivered over the public Internet." Also, broadband companies would not be able to give preference to "their own services or their customers' premium services."
"The agency scaled back its goals in the face of stiff political resistance," Jeffry Bartash reports for MarketWatch. "Genachowski has decided not to use the commission’s telephone regulatory powers to govern broadband Internet service, a move that he proposed in May that would potentially open Internet service to heavier government regulation," Edward Wyatt of The New York Times reported, based on an advance copy of the speech provided to the newspaper. Wyatt said the plan would "allow broadband companies to impose usage-based pricing, charging customers higher prices if they make heavy use of data-rich applications like streaming movies. The FCC would also allow companies to provide separate highways outside the public Internet for "specialized services" like health care or home security.

Wired and wireless broadband providers would be treated differently. Wireline companies "will be prohibited from blocking lawful content, applications, services and the connection of non harmful devices to the network," Genachowski said, adding that rules for wireless should be more flexible. "For wireless broadband, the fastest-growing segment of the industry, the proposal includes a transparency requirement and 'a basic no-blocking rule' covering Web sites and certain applications that compete with services that the broadband provider also offers," Wyatt writes. He reports that it is unclear whether the proposal has the support of the majority of the five-member FCC, because another Democratic commissioner favors stronger regulation. (Read more)

The proposal is expected to meet Republican opposition in Congress. U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee launched a preemptive attack, vowing to fight to overturn any net-neutrality order that the FCC may vote on at its Dec. 21 meeting, Eliza Krigman of National Journal reports. "This is a hysterical reaction by the FCC to a hypothetical problem," Blackburn said. (Read more)

Interior opens door to fracking disclosure as enviros cite bigger issues in shale gas drilling

The Obama administration says it has big hopes for natural gas as part of the U.S. energy future but is planning new regulations for shale gas drilling including disclosure of chemicals used on federal lands, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday. "The potential regulations would set general fracking standards and mandate companies leasing Bureau of Land Management lands for such exploration disclose the list of chemicals they employ to unlock shale gas," Dina Fine Maron of Environment & Energy News reports. Shale gas drilling uses horizontal hydraulic fracturing, which some say can contaminate drinking water.

"In hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a chemical and water mixture is injected deep underground under high pressure, breaking up shale rock formations that contain natural gas," Maron explains. The Interior Department reports about 11 percent of U.S. natural gas reserves are on public land, controlled by Interior's Bureau of Land Management, and 90 percent of gas wells on those lands use fracking. Regulatory power over fracking currently belongs to the states.  "We want to make sure that natural gas is developed on BLM lands and is developed in a way that is going to be protective of the environment," Salazar said. (Read more, subscription required)

"We have not yet settled on how exactly we are going to move forward with respect to that issue," Salazar said. "Natural-gas companies and drilling operators say fears about fracking chemicals contaminating water supplies are exaggerated," notes Tennille Tracy of The Wall Street Journal. "They are reluctant to disclose the chemicals because they say the composition of those fluids are trade secrets." (Read more)

The incoming chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, sent Salazar a letter criticizing his plans and asking him to explain them before the committee. "The request is the first of what Hastings has vowed will be many investigations into Interior's energy policies when he takes the committee gavel," Phil Taylor of E&E reports.
The Environmental Defense Fund notes fracking isn't the only element of shale gas drilling people should be worried, saying other facets have caused more problems. "If people over-emphasize hydraulic fracturing as a risk, they are doing industry a favor," Scott Anderson, senior policy adviser for EDF, told Mike Soraghan of E&E. "They're shortchanging attention that could be focused on practices that cause the bulk of the problem." Anderson said most documented problems with shale gas production have been spills of fracturing fluid, flowback or other toxic substances and methane leaking into water supplies. (Read more, subscription required)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

N.Y. legislature approves fracking moratorium

The New York Assembly has approved a six-month moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to release natural gas and oil from dense rock formations. Mireya Navarro reports for The New York Times' Green blog that the state Assembly voted 93 to 43 last night to put a temporary moratorium on the process. The Senate passed a similar bill in August, and the legislation now awaits the signature of Gov. David Paterson, who has said he supports a moratorium. It would be in effect until May 15, 2011, and apply to new drilling permits for horizontal hydraulic fracturing.

"This is the first time any state has ever taken this kind of action to protect the health and safety of its residents from the consequences of gas drilling," Kate Sinding, deputy director of the New York Urban Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Navarro. "It sends a powerful message that New Yorkers don’t want new fracking here unless the industry proves it can be done safely." One proposed fracking area overlaps the watershed for New York City.

Navarro reports that the actual effect of the moratorium is uncertain. "The state Department of Environmental Conservation is already reviewing the potential environmental impact of the drilling in upstate New York, where natural gas companies are buying up leases and applying for permits to tap the Marcellus Shale, site of one of the largest natural gas fields in North America. The department is not likely to come up with regulations governing drilling on the Marcellus Shale before May, some state officials said."

Nevertheless, the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York warned that the legislation as written could halt hydraulic fracturing that is already going on elsewhere in the state and could jeopardize 5,000 industry jobs and the $1 million in annual revenue that the state collects from drilling permit fees. (Read more) Marie Baca of ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news outlet that has closely followed fracking, reports, "The broad language of the measure does not differentiate between the different ways that fracking can be used. Industry experts say it could lead to the suspension of nearly all oil and gas drilling in the state." (Read more)

Electric companies seem to be speeding their switch from coal to natural gas

Utility companies are trying to predict the future of coal and natural gas, and their reckoning could have serious, damaging effects on the coal industry.

Electric companies must soon choose between building new gas-fired plants and retrofitting old coal-fired plants to meet new pollution regulations, Clifford Krauss of the New York Times writes in a story about utilities  "breaking away from coal." Over the last year and a half, at least 10 power companies have announced plans to close more than three dozen coal-burning generators by 2019, with most being replaced by gas-fired plants, Krauss reports. Frank Prager, an executive at Minneapolis-based utility Xcel Energy, told him, "It will be more cost-effective to get off coal and turn toward natural gas than it is to retrofit a lot of these facilities." Xcel has proposed replacing four or five coal-fired plants in Colorado with two gas-fired generators.

Coal still produces almost half of the country’s electric power, but gas has been gaining on it for the last decade or so, reports Krauss. Among the reasons to switch: Gas burns cleaner than coal, helping utilities meet state and corporate goals for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. "Older coal plants, on the other hand, require expensive upgrades, including scrubbers and other controls, to meet coming compliance rules to reduce mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions. Energy specialists estimate that compliance with new federal regulations alone could require $70 billion of investments over the next decade for replacing or retrofitting the coal power fleet."

Another reason: Gas prices, which often fluctuate wildly, have remained at depressed levels over the last two years, while coal prices have increased by more than a third this year because of higher production costs and increased demand from China. The proliferation of gas drilling in shale fields across the country over the last five years has kept availability high and cost low. Though environmentalists tend to favor the switch to gas, some worry that more gas drilling could pollute groundwater because of the chemicals and high pressures used in breaking up deep, dense shale. (Read more)

In one rural Washington school district, all the children are above average

Rural Washington schools generally outperform their urban counterparts, but one rural school district is experiencing unprecedented success. The 82-student Bickleton School District boasts a 100 percent graduation rate. "Seventy-eight percent of the students in seventh through 12th grades achieve a 3.0 grade-point average or better and 90 percent of the students move on to higher education," Jody Lawrence-Turner of The Spokesman-Review reports. Thanks to added tax revenue from nearby windmills, the district plans to construct a new state-of-the art K-12 school.

"In Bickleton, you have to want to fail. Their teachers get on them, their coaches. We pull them aside, talk to the parents," Superintendent Ric Palmer told Lawrence-Turner. "We find solutions so they have a successful education experience." The district requires students to complete 26 credits, which exceeds the requirements of both the state and Spokane Public Schools. Bickleton uses an extended school day, from 8 a.m. to 3:40 p.m., to accommodate the larger credit load, but it went to a four-day school week last winter to cut transportation costs.

"The average class size in so-called 'rural remote' districts is five to 10 students, which can be an ideal teaching environment, many educators say," Lawrence-Turner writes. A recent study from Rural Education Center at Washington State University revealed rural schools in the state have the highest average of on-time graduates, but Bickleton's rate still stands out above the 77.4 percent average for all "rural remote" schools. The Bickleton School District approved a $10.4 million bond to build a new school last year, largely because new wind turbines in the area had increased property values there by about $600 million in four years. (Read more)

New book draws attention to the difficulty of farm work and the shortage of laborers

An upstate New York agriculture reporter recently set out to determine if farm work was too hard for most Americans, as some claim. Tom Rivers, a reporter with the Batavia Daily News, decided "in the course of one long Western New York summer, he would find employment at as many local farms as he could. He would work as hard as he could. And he would write about the experience as it happened," Charity Vogel of The Buffalo News reports. His six-month journey turned into numerous stories for the newspaper and a book, "Farm Hands."

"People have these radically old-fashioned ideas about what farms are," Rivers told Vogel. "I don't want to be disparaging -- but it would take an exceptional American to be able to do these jobs today. I'd be curious to see whether any of the Buffalo Bills could last until noon." Rivers said he hoped to draw attention to labor troubles for farmers who say they have a tough time finding reliable labor. Some argue migrant labor and the legalization of immigrant workers is the only solution, Vogel writes.

"We are in challenging immigration waters," Rivers told Vogel. "The big issue here was just drawing attention to the workers." When contacted by The Buffalo News, executives at the American Farm Bureau offices in Washington, D.C., said they already had copies of Rivers' book. "Any time you make stuff real and valid, and explicit, it helps people understand it. There's no question about that," Paul Schlegel, the bureau's director of public policy, told Vogel. "It can only help people to get an accurate understanding." (Read more)

Ky. Fish and Wildlife boss accused of retaliating against radio host for reporting on agency

A Louisville talk-radio host and outdoors journalist has filed a lawsuit against the head of Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, alleging retribuition for reporting on the agency.

Jim Strader, a former columnist for The Courier-Journal and a host on WHAS, claims Commissioner Jonathan Gassett refused to allow Fish and Wildlife personnel on his radio program or allow department staff "to set up a booth at Strader’s fish and wildlife expo, meaning hunting licenses couldn’t be sold there," Beth Musgrave of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. The agency is funded by license sales.

Strader reported on his radio show about a host of problems at the department, including "that Gassett, before he was appointed commissioner, had issued elk hunting permits even though then-Gov. Paul Patton had prohibited them, that a commission board member had pleaded guilty to hunting elk out of season, and that the department’s self-reporting system for deer harvesting was used to circumvent game limits," Musgrave writes. Strader sued Gassett as both a public official and private person, and a legislative committee recently voted not to pay Gassett's personal legal bills.

The legislature's Government Contract Review Subcommittee "voted unanimously to send the lawsuit to Attorney General Jack Conway’s office for further investigation," Musgrave reports. State Rep. Brent Yonts, a member of the committee, told Musgrave, "In reviewing the allegations, it looks like personal bad behavior. It looks like an agency out of control." Gassett, who has headed the agency since 2005, has denied all of Strader’s allegations and asked that the lawsuit be dismissed. (Read more)

Palin, who knows big- and small-town media, should get off conspiracy kick, Ala. paper says

Author-TV host-former Alaska governor-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin is "off base" when she says a news-media conspiracy is out to get her, and she needs to at least acknowledge that her employer, Fox News, has an agenda, writes H. Brandt Ayers, right, an unabashed liberal and publisher of The Anniston Star, one of America's best small daily newspapers. (Photo from The Associated Press)

"Sarah should step out of her comfy rightwing bunker and examine her own network with the same critical eye she applies to the lamestream media," her term for "the institutions of established journalism," Ayers writes in a column that brings such issues down to the local level.

"Her degree in journalism would move her to assure me that there is a wide gulf between 'the media' and the thousands of daily and weekly community newspapers like The Star," he writes. "She and I would agree . . . that there is an almost interstellar gap between the media giants like Fox News’ parent, News Corp., and local papers where the owners and editors are familiar faces around town." (News Corp. does own some small-town papers, in the Ottaway group it bought as part of Dow Jones.)

Ayers recalls that Star Editor Bob Davis assembled "a reader panel of mostly our critics, who had a lot of ideas about what we did wrong and how we could improve. At the end he asked, 'Is there anyone who does NOT believe us?' Not a single hand was raised. Sarah would have to answer for herself whether Fox could meet the same standard of credibility." (Read more)

Small farms gain exemption in food safety bill, headed for final passage after Senate vote

UPDATE, Dec. 1: "The measure is now stuck in a constitutional quagmire as the House challenges certain fees included in the legislation as revenue-raisers, which must originate in the lower chamber," Megan McCarthy of National Journal reports. Sen. Tom Harkin tells Politico that Plan B is to have the House pass its own version of the bill and send it back to the Senate. "The snafu is a major setback for the Senate," Scott Wong writes, but Harkin says, "Nothing is going to kill this bill."
This morning the Senate approved an overhaul to the nation's food-safety system that would increase Food and Drug Administration inspections and other government oversight of farms and processors. An amendment by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana exempted small farms but drew the ire of the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association, which withdrew their support of the bill because of the amendment, Lindsey Layton of The Washington Post reports. House of Representatives leaders have indicated they will accept the Senate version of the bill to ensure enactment by the current Congress.

The bill, which was a rare example of bipartisan support, drew complaints from some Tea Party activists, who said it was an example of government overreach. "The bill places greater responsibility on manufacturers and farmers to prevent contamination -- a departure from the current system, which relies on government inspectors to catch contamination after the fact," Layton writes. "The measure also gives the FDA authority to recall food; now, it must rely on food companies to voluntarily pull products off the shelves. And it gives the FDA access to internal records at farms and food production facilities." (Read more)

"All Senate Democrats supported passage of the bill," Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent reports. "They were joined by Independents Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont as well as 14 Republicans, including Iowa’s Chuck Grassley." The bill's lead sponsor was Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Waddington's story includes a summary of the bill, provided by Harkin's office.

Monday, November 29, 2010

As EPA nears 40, its boss has to explain its mission to those who weren't around back then

Thursday, Dec. 2 is the 40th anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agency. It was created at a time when rivers caught fire and pesticides were killing bald eagles, writes Gabriel Nelson, for Environment & Energy News(EPA photo: Polluted Androscoggin River near Maine-New Hampshire state line.)

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson is speaking this week about the agency's past and justifying its future to Americans not old enough to remember those earlier days. Jackson is also preparing for the arrival of Congressional Republicans who say they intend to increase oversight of the agency's programs and try to rein in rules they consider excessive. They say the cost of new regulations is pushing existing jobs overseas and preventing companies from investing in new facilities.

Jackson is "absolutely adamant," writes Nelson, that the government can provide a cleaner environment to Americans without stopping economic growth, especially after a quarter in which American businesses made record profits. "I don't think that this should ever be framed to people as, 'OK, it's time to choose: Do you want a job, or do you want a clean environment?'" Jackson said. "We are not there. We are nowhere near that line, and we can have both." (Read more, subscription required)

The EPA website has interactive timelines with 40 Years of Milestones, 40 Years of Achievements, and 40 Years of Images.

Rural Colo. ambulance services running on empty

Colorado's rural ambulance services have been operating at a loss for years, but they may soon reach a breaking point. The Morgan County Ambulance Service gets back just 7 cents an hour on its numerous Medicaid runs and receives nothing for many of the uninsured patients it serves, Michael Booth of The Denver Post reports. The ambulance service receives no tax revenue from the county. Rural counties across the state are hoping for more stable revenue sources to support the emergency services, Booth writes.

"We're acutely aware that rural areas will be struggling more and more," Randy Kuykendall, chief of trauma services for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told Booth. "At the end of the day, it comes down to local decisions about what level of service they want to maintain." In Morgan County, ambulance director Bob Walter is using a cheaper Chevy Suburban ambulance for many runs. The Suburban is "blown around less than the regular boxy ambulances, can perform all life-saving functions for one patient and save significant money on the Morgan County service's average of six trips a day," Booth reports.

"We're out of ideas, and we're out of cuts," Walter said. "In a year, we're out of funding." In Summit County, some patients have begun a payment plan for $20 a month for five years. Ambulances still serve everyone, but patients on the membership plan receive large discounts on services. "Some local officials ask ambulance services whether they could move to a volunteer system," Booth writes, noting recruiting reliable volunteers is a challenge. "We get lots of four-hour calls," said Morgan County paramedic King. "It's hard to talk your boss into letting you leave for half a day." (Read more)

Upcoming redistricting could lessen rural representation in state capitols, not just Congress

Upcoming redistricting could accelerate a decline in rural influence in state capitols, not just Washington. "With the once-a-decade redistricting process, state legislatures will be charged with redrawing the nation’s political lines to reflect where people live," Josh Goodman of Governing reports. "A proportionally smaller rural population will mean that fewer state legislators and congressmen represent rural areas in the next decade -- and likely for many decades to come."

"The shift will leave rural areas grappling with a future in which the fate of issues they care about are at the mercy of people who rarely catch a glimpse of a cow," Goodman writes. Texas has been predicted the early winner of the 2010 Census count as it stands to gain as many as four new seats in reapportionment of the U.S. House, but those seats will likely come from the state's metropolitan areas. At the state level, redistricting will likely mean a a 35- to 40-county area of West Texas will have only one state senator in Austin.

"Rural areas aren’t just losing some of their population -- they’re ceasing to be rural at all," Goodman writes. Much of the population growth since 2000 across the country has come in suburbs that were rural areas 20 years ago. "The shift has major implications for a variety of policy issues, most of which have little to do with counting cows," Goodman writes. "Will education funding formulas favor urban districts or rural ones? Will states spend on mass transit or rural roads? Will rural broadband and telemedicine be priorities?"

The remaining rural legislators may try to preserve some of their power by banding together with other rural colleagues. Goodman writes that "the creation of the Maryland Legislature’s Rural Caucus about a decade ago helped check the power of lawmakers from Baltimore and the big Washington, D.C., suburbs," according to a rural House member. The days of rural lawmakers controlling state legislatures are over, Goodman writes, concluding, "To get anything done going forward, rural lawmakers will have to find common interests with suburban colleagues or even urban ones." (Read more)

Invasive grass poised to take over Western fields

The invasive weed medusahead has growth advantages over most grass species and could devastate grasslands as it spreads across the west, says a new study. The research, by scientists from Oregon State University and the Agricultural Research Service, found that the weed "has a faster growth rate, a longer period of growth and produced more total biomass even than cheatgrass -- another invading species that is a major problem in its own right, but not as devastating as medusahead," ScienceDaily reports. (OSU photo)

"Medusahead is now spreading at about 12 percent a year over 17 Western states," said Seema Mangla, a researcher in the OSU College of Forestry. "Once established, it's very hard to get rid of. It displaces native grasses and even other invasive species that animals can still eat. Unless we do more to stop it, medusahead will take over much of the native grassland in the West." Mangla noted some research has identified candidates like crested wheatgrass and Sandberg's bluegrass that might be able to compete with medusahead.

"So far, medusahead has received very little attention compared to other threats such as cheatgrass, even though it ultimately poses a far greater threat to ecosystems across the West," ScienceDaily reports. Grazing animals can still eat cheatgrass, but medusahead eliminates more than 80 percent of the grazing value of land. Medusahead was imported to the U.S. in the 1880s but is now found on 2.5 million acres across the country. "This plant is easier to keep out than it is to get rid of," Mangla said. "The time to stop it from taking over the West is now, before it becomes much more widely established. And it has not gotten the attention it deserves." (Read more)

Decline in number of large-animal veterinarians is expected to continue, study finds

We've been following the shortage of large-animal veterinarians in rural America, most recently here, and now there are hard data to support widespread reports of the problem. The number of large-animal vets is expected to decline as more students opt for small-animal practices, says a study by the American Veterinary Medical Association. "The study found that only 2 percent of veterinary school students in 2010 graduating class said they planned to work mostly with large, non-pet animals," Olivia Munoz of The Associated Press reports. "Another 7 percent studied a mixed curriculum that included all types of animals but the majority of responses leaned toward practicing pet care."

AVMA spokesman David Kirkpatrick told Munoz, "We have known for years anecdotally that vets were having a difficult time finding people to work at their practice or selling it when they retire. But now we know how big the problem is and how that will magnify over the years." Munoz reports, "Current vets said they already drive for hours to meet with clients, and officials are worried about the impact on food safety, as large-animal veterinarians serve as inspectors at ranches and slaughterhouses."

The number of small-animal vets rose from 30,225 in 1998 to 47,118 in 2008, but farm-animal vets fell from 5,553 to 5,040 in the same period. A 2008 AVMA survey reported small-animal vets made $64,744 on average, compared to $57,745 for large-animal vets. Half of farm-animal vets are over 50 while just 4.4 percent are under 30, Munoz reports. More than a dozen states offer some incentives for vet students who pledge to work in an area in need of large-animal vets. (Read more)