Saturday, April 13, 2013

EPA delays finalizing greenhouse-gas limits for new power plants; could separate gas, coal

Today was the Environmental Protection Agency's self-imposed deadline to finalize its proposed greenhouse-gas limits on new power plants. As expected, it did not meet it.

A spokeswoman told Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post that EPA was still reviewing more than 2 million comments on the proposal. "EPA is likely to alter the rule in some way in an effort to make sure it can withstand a legal challenge, according to sources familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the standard has not been finalized," Eilperin writes. "One possibility could include establishing a separate standard for coal-fired power plants, as opposed to gas-fired ones." Gas is overtaking coal as the main feedstock for generation of electricity.

EPA's draft rule would require any new plant "to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced," Eilperin notes. "The average U.S. natural gas plant, which emits 800 to 850 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt, meets that standard; coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds." (Read more)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Obama budget would bar use of federal money for inspection of horse slaughterhouses

The Obama administration has come out against re-establishment of horse slaughter in the U.S., through the president's proposed budget for the Department of Agriculture, which would bar spending of money on inspection of horsemeat processing plants. While there is no market for horsemeat in the U.S., there is in Japan and Europe, but only with government inspection. The inductry has moved to Canada and Mexico.

"The proposal was greeted enthusiastically by horse lovers and animal advocacy groups," Stephanie Strom reports for The New York Times. "But it was met with dismay by those who have been working to get slaughtering facilities up and running again." The budget means the issue will again be decided by Congress.

Led by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., Congress banned inspections for horse slaughterhouses in 2007, but reversed itself in 2011, after a study suggested that the ban had worsened the unwanted-horse crisis by taking the bottom out of the market. "The issue became prickly this year, after Ikea, Nestlé and other food companies found traces of horse meat mixed in with ground beef in products sold in Europe," Strom writes. Valley Meat Co. of New Mexico has sued the department over delays in approval of its application for inspection.

Older adults can offset young-adult migration from rural areas that have recreational amenities

A study that looked at age and migration patterns from 2000 to 2010 found that many young people are moving from rural counties to urban areas, but some adults 30 and older are becoming rural, reports the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. 
During the decade, nearly 3 million emerging (age 15-24) and young adults (25-29) moved to large urban areas that offered social, lifestyle, and economic opportunities, while suburbs gained only 370,000 from these two groups during this period, the study found. Some family-age (30-49) and older adults (50-74) moved into rural areas, but not enough to offset the loss of younger people. A larger number of family-aged people moved to the suburbs, and more older adults migrated to recreational or retirement areas. (Read more)

Rural areas that saw the highest migration were ones that offered recreational activities. There are several examples in this county-by-county map showing older adults' migration; one is the eastern half of Kentucky, where some counties that have falling or stable populations but are in recreational areas, are attracting older migrants. For a larger version, click on the map.
Migration of older adults (age 50-74) from 2000 to 2010

Cable channels hit jackpot with 'redneck reality' shows, filling a niche the big networks don't

"Duck Dynasty" cast members
Rural-based television was once a staple of the major networks, mostly in the form of CBS sitcoms like "Green Acres" and "The Andy Griffith Show," but more recently reality shows such as "Duck Dynasty," "Swamp People," "Moonshiners," "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" and the just canceled "Buckwild" have drawn big ratings on cable while often portraying rural people in a less than positive light. Major networks tend to focus on urban settings and workplace sitcoms, and "have no room for rural, working-class Southerners (or rural working-class anyone, really), cable outlets like Discovery, TLC, and History are more than happy to pick up the slack" with "redneck reality" shows that feature real people in what are basically reality sitcoms, Scott Von Doviak opines for A.V. Club, an entertainment newspaper.

"Some of these programs aim no higher than pure 'let’s laugh at the white trash' hixploitation," Von Doviak writes. He calls "Duck Dynasty" a manufactured "reality show with contrived setups and one-liners that often come off as scripted and rehearsed," but said that the appeal of these shows is that "they offer a window into a captivating world of colorful characters, rugged individualism, strong family ties, and off-the-grid lifestyles" that can't be found on the major networks and "for rural, working-class viewers, these shows offer the opportunity to see 'people like us' on television."

"While the rural-themed programming of days gone by tended to depict the small Southern town as a bucolic haven for good-hearted folk, redneck reality is more apt to acknowledge the social and economic ills of the subcultures it depicts," Von Doviak writes. "Still, the ratings are a pretty clear indication that redneck reality is filling a need that isn’t being met elsewhere." (Read more)

New gun-law proposal might not stop most criminals from purchasing a firearm

The Senate will begin deliberating new gun laws next week, with the main issue being the expansion of background checks to include any sale that takes place at a gun show or is advertised in print or online. It would not include private sales, which somewhat defeats the purpose of trying to deny criminals the opportunity to purchase a firearm, Brad Plumer reports for The Washington Post. He notes that a survey from 2004 reported that 39 percent of criminals say they bought a gun from a friend and 37 percent on the street.

New laws "would make it marginally harder for people who are prohibited from owning guns to acquire them," Plumer writes. "But it would still leave the vast majority of private transfers untouched — including many of the most common ways for criminals to get guns."

Another proposal would make "it a federal crime to buy a gun and then give it to someone whom the buyer has 'reasonable cause' to believe is prohibited from owning one," Plumer writes. "The new proposal would increase the penalties, with a maximum of 20 years in prison. Those stiffer sentences, say former law enforcement officials, could end up increasing the number of prosecutions." (Read more)

Merit system based on work skills could be a key factor in new immigration bill

The new immigration bill could include a merit-based system that rewards illegal immigrants who are skilled workers, making it easier for those trained in specific jobs to gain citizenship, Julia Preston and Ashley Parker report for The New York Times. "Over time the program would open up many new opportunities for foreigners to settle in the United States based on their skills, a shift from the focus on family ties that is the main foundation of the current immigration system."

The bill could also include a measure that lets the nearly five million immigrants "who have applied to come here legally and have been languishing in the system" to be able be united with family members in the U.S., they write. The Gang of Eight, the octet of U.S. senators working on an immigration deal, ironed out all issues on the bill Thursday and are waiting for it to be drafted. (Read more)

We reported earlier this month that agriculture could be the biggest beneficiary of immigration reform. Farm lobbies are working with the presumption that "farmers want to hire a legal work force  . . . a pretty big change," Charles Conner, CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, told Agri-Pulse. He said a key remaining issue is minimum wages for immigrants or guest workers. The Washington newsletter also notes another key issue, limits on the number of guest-worker visas. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free trial here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Maps and charts show coal's decline

Through a series of illustrations, Brad Plumer of The Washington Post details how a recent study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration examined the drop in U.S. coal production and forecast a continuation of the trend. "Plant owners and operators are getting ready to retire 27 gigawatts’ worth of coal generation, or about 8.5 percent of the coal fleet, between now and 2016," he reports. (EIA map shows where plants are closing)

Between now and 2020 the U.S. will probably see 17 percent of its coal-fired power plants retired, Plumer reports. Already, cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing and stricter rules on air pollution mean "Natural gas is now tied with coal as America’s top source of electricity — with each fuel now providing 32 percent of the nation’s power. . . . This turn of events has helped drive down America’s global-warming emissions, with carbon pollution declining 7.7 percent since 2006," Plumer reports. "That’s a bigger drop than anywhere else in the world." (EIA chart shows generation by source)

Obama's proposed budget suggests the possibility of selling the Tennessee Valley Authority

President Obama's new budget proposal suggests his administration would consider selling the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is the nation's largest public power provider and provides electricity to 9 million people in parts of seven states. TVA was established in 1933 as a regional development agency for the Tennessee River watershed under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, and now distributes power well beyond that area (but not in some parts of the watershed, primarily western North Carolina).
TVA map: service region and electric distributors (click on image for larger version)
Republicans and Democrats in the region have always shot down suggestions that it be sold, and Obama is the most liberal president since Roosevelt. However, "The budget document cited concerns that TVA may need to exceed its borrowing limit as it works to modernize its power generation system. The authority's debt is capped at $30 billion under current law," Ryan Tracy reports for The Wall Street Journal. "TVA reported a $60 million net income in 2012 on $11.2 billion in revenues. Its income is reinvested and doesn't go back to taxpayers. To be profitable to taxpayers in the long run, the sale price for TVA may have to exceed its outstanding debt. That debt was more than $24 billion in 2012, according to the administration's budget." (Read more)

Journalist says new head of EPA should make it more open to news media and the public

Charleston Gazette Reporter Ken Ward Jr., who spent more than a decade as chairman of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Freedom of Information Task Force, opines on his Coal Tattoo blog that the woman nominated to head of the Environmental Protection Agency needs to put to rest the organization's history of making it difficult for journalists to obtain pertinent information. Gina McCarthy, above, who was scheduled for a confirmation hearing today, "has chosen in the past to defend EPA’s secrecy and its arrogance in ignoring the press," Ward writes.

Journalists struggle to get information from EPA, and according to a statement from SEJ "are regularly required to submit written questions, even on the simplest daily stories," Ward writes "Interview requests are rarely granted. Delays are routine. Replies, when they do come, are from press officers, not scientists or policymakers. Answers to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act also are routinely delayed. The policy is counterproductive to accurate reporting and inimical to the American public’s right to know about important health and environmental issues."

The EPA should "allow more open and direct access to administrators, policymakers and the scientists whose research guides government decisions," SEJ said. Ward concludes, "As journalists, we are working on behalf of our readers, viewers and listeners to produce timely, accurate and complete reporting on important environmental and health issues. The administration works for them, too. Shouldn’t it have the same goals?" (Read more)

Writer says musicians flub attempt to discuss sensitive issues about slavery and the South

Brad Paisley (Wade Payne, AP)
Musicians Brad Paisley and LL Cool J missed the mark in their attempt to duet about race relations, the legacy of slavery in the South, and the meaning of the Confederate flag, David Graham opines for The Atlantic. The duo released a song called "Accidental Racist," which Graham says turned out to be, well, accidentally racist.

In the song, Paisley sings "When I put on that T-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan. The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the South." (Lynryd Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" replied to Neil Young's "Southern Man.")

LL Cool J
In response, LL Cool J sings, "If you don't judge my do-rag, I won't judge your red flag. If you don't judge my gold chains, I'll forget the iron chains." Graham writes, "It's pretty insane to compare an inoffensive piece of headgear to a flag that represents a treasonous secession movement devoting to maintaining the practice of slavery. It's even more insane to compare jewelry to slave shackles."

Jocelyn Neal, director of the Center for the Study of the American South, told Christian Science Monitor reporter Mark Guarino that country musicians sometimes feel an obligation to address Rebel pride. “Country music as a genre carries with it this association with Southern identity, specifically the Southern white identity, even though radio surveys continue to show the country music audience is more highly educated and better paid than record company executives assume they are," Neal told Guarino. “There is a tension right now in country music between a lot of songs producing a defiant stance saying, ‘We are Southern, we are redneck’ … even though there are plenty of people who live in the South who see the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate." (Read more)

UPDATE, April 13: "There is a history to "Accidental Racist," the history of how white Southern musicians — heatedly, implicitly, at times self-servingly and not always successfully — try to talk about who they are in answer to what others dismissively assume they are," Eric Weisbard writes for NPR. "Ever since white Northerners started putting out their records, Southern whites have represented a backward rural mindset in a national culture of jazzy modernity." Weisbard digs deeper, linking Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and the Drive-by Truckers, "whites raised on rockabilly and black R&B. . . . But that moment of reconciliation, a time of redneck rock and smoking pot on the roof of Jimmy Carter's White House, proved equally short-lived." (Read more)

'Obama phones' started under Reagan but expanded recently with few safeguards

A federal program offering phone service discounts to lower-income residents has been in effect since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, and was expanded under George W. Bush to include cell phones, but critics of President Obama have dubbed the devices "Obama phones" as an example of how the government is handing out too many freebies, Karen Tumulty reports for The Washington Post. (Above: Glenda Pate talks on her Lifeline phone. Talequah Daily Press photo by Rob Anderson)

As part of the program, 13 million low-income subscribers receive an average discount of $9.25 per month on phone service, Tumulty reports. Senior republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee say the program "has nearly tripled in size from $800 million in 2009 to $2.2 billion per year in 2012." The committee is holding a hearing this month to discuss the program, which is funded by the Universal Service Fund, supported by fees on telephone bills. The fund also subsidizes rural phone service.

"When it was expanded to cover cellphone service in 2008, regulators included few safeguards against fraud, Tumulty writes. "As a result, there have been widespread reports that cellular providers, eager to collect a subsidy for each low-income subscriber, signed people up without verifying their eligibility. Some recipients also snapped up multiple phones in violation of a one-per-household rule." (Read more)

MTV cancels 'Buckwild' in wake of star's death, but producer vows to keep filming

MTV has canceled the reality series "Buckwild" one week after the death of one of its stars, but the show's producer insists he will keep filming, reports The Hollywood Reporter. Shain Gandee, 21, right, died April 1 of carbon monoxide poisoning while four-wheeling.

In a statement, MTV said, “We love the cast and the show and this was not an easy decision, but given Shain’s tragic passing and essential presence on the show, we felt it was not appropriate to continue without him," Lisa deMoraes reports for The Washington Post. The show was in the process of shooting a second season when Gandee died. MTV plans to run a "Buckwild" marathon Sunday.

Producer J.P. Williams said MTV told him Friday that the show would continue with four more episodes and a special tribute to Gandee, then told him Tuesday they were canceling the show, reports The Hollywood Reporter. "Williams, who manages eight of the show’s cast members, including Gandee, does not intend to move on to other projects. He suggests that he will continue shooting the series and will look to produce a film, which he would self-finance if need be." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Postal Service defers to Congress on Saturday mail for now; issue remains in play

After months of pushing for an end to Saturday delivery of mail other than packages, the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors temporarily backed off on its plans Wednesday, saying the recently passed stopgap budget prohibits the move, Josh Hicks reports for The Washington Post. Saturday mail will continue until at least Sept. 30, when the stopgap expires, but the board said it still hopes to end Saturday mail after that date, Donna Leinward Leger and Doug Stanglin report for USA Today.

The board's statement said it believes "Congress has left it with no choice but to delay this implementation at this time," Hicks reports. "Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe announced in February that the Postal Service planned to halt Saturday mail delivery — but not Saturday parcel delivery — starting in August. He said the move would save the agency $2 billion a year. The Postal Service lost $15.9 billion last year."

"Members of both parties who represent rural districts praised the latest Postal Service move," Carolyn Phenicie reports for CQ Roll Call (subscription only).

We wrote about the issue when Congress passed a continuing resolution to keep the government running through September and here when House Republicans gave the green light to deliver only packages on Saturdays, here and here when the House was considering, and then passed, a resolution requiring six-day delivery, here when the postal service claimed only small newspapers would be affected by eliminating Saturday mail, and also covered the issue here, here, here, and here.

Senators reach deal on background checks; sheriff's accused shooter wasn't supposed to have gun

UPDATE, April 11: The Senate voted 68-31 to stop a Republican filibuster and proceed to debate on the bill, which is expected to last two weeks.

Background checks on guns would be expanded to all commercial sales, but not to private transactions unless there was advertising or an online service involved, under an agreement reached Wednesday by a bipartisan group of senators, Ed O'Keefe and Tom Hamburger report for The Washington Post. The deal is expected to clear the way for Senate debate on a broader gun-control bill, but only the background check is one of few measures expected to pass.

"Background checks would need to be conducted by federally licensed gun firearm dealers, who would need to verify the validity of a purchaser’s gun license and record that a check was performed," the Post reports. "Background checks would need to be completed within three days, except at gun shows, where they would have to be completed within two days for the next four years, and then within 24 hours." Current law only requires background checks on purchases made through licensed dealers. For a backgrounder on background checks, from Matthew DeLuca of NBC News, click here.

President Obama wanted one that would expand checks to nearly every kind of sale. He issued a statement saying in part, "There are aspects of the agreement that I might prefer to be stronger. But the agreement does represent welcome and significant bipartisan progress. It recognizes that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and we don’t have to agree on everything to know that we’ve got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence."

The National Rifle Association responded to the agreement by saying, "Expanding background checks will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe," The Post reports.

Manchin, left, and Toomey
The deal was struck by two senators who have top ratings from the NRA. "The common ground rests on a simple proposition and that is that criminals and the dangerously mentally ill shouldn’t have guns," said Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia said gun owners "understand this is common sense. This is gun sense. We are not infringing on their rights as an individual citizen but basically if you are going to go to a gun show you should be subjected the same as if you went to the gun store."

UPDATE, April 11: Manchin, a former governor "was not known for crafting complicated legislation" in Washington, Ed O'Keefe and David Farenthold write for the Post. "He was known for shooting it," namely Obama's cap-and-trade climate bill, in a campaign commercial. But he has built relationships in the Senate, partly through excursions with colleagues on a boat he owns with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

Meanwhile, a prosecutor in the killing of West Virginia sheriff Eugene Crum says the suspect bought a gun despite being legally prohibited from possession one, John Raby reports for The Associated Press. Tennis Maynard's father has said his son had mental problems and had previously been in an institution. West Virginia does not require background checks on individual sales. (Read more)

Immigration deal looms; wages and visa limits for guest workers are among remaining issues

The Gang of Eight, the octet of U.S. senators working on an immigration deal, could release their proposal as early as Thursday, though some are saying not to expect the deal until next week, Mike Allen reports for Politico. Senators are waiting for legislative language from the Senate Office of Legislative Counsel before releasing the bill.

Today, thousands of immigrants and their supporters are rallying outside the Capitol in anticipation of the deal, Alan Gomez reports for USA Today. "Immigration bills have been filed and killed repeatedly since the last major bill, allowing up to 3 million illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens, became law in 1986," he writes. "But organizers of Wednesday's rally say the political stars are finally aligned for another one."

We reported earlier this month that agriculture could be the biggest beneficiary of immigration reform. Farm lobbies are working with the presumption that "farmers want to hire a legal work force  . . . a pretty big change," Charles Conner, CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, told Agri-Pulse. He said a key remaining issue is minimum wages for immigrants or guest workers. The Washington newsletter also notes another key issue, limits on the number of guest-worker visas. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free trial here.

Climate change could turn much of Northwest into wine country, but that could threaten wildlife

A warmer climate could turn some rural areas in the northwestern U.S. into wine meccas by 2050, but converting those regions into wine country could have a negative impact on wildlife, according to a study published by the National Academy of Sciences.

"California’s wine-growing regions could lose more than 50 percent of their suitable territory, while the Canadian border country of Montana, Washington and Idaho could see a 200 percent boost in vineyard potential," Rob Chaney reports for The Missoulian in Missoula, Mont. Warmer temperatures could force wine growers to cooler areas with higher elevations. California currently accounts for about 90 percent of the nation's total wine production, NBC News reports.

The problem, the study finds, is that the prime places to grow grapes to produce wine are already inhabited by wildlife such as the gray wolf, pronghorn antelope and grizzly bears, Will Oremus reports for Slate. The most promising area is north of Yellowstone National Park, which is the "very type of wildlife corridor that scientists say may be needed to allow animals like grizzly bears to respond to climate change themselves," Oremus writes.

Lee Hannah, lead author of the study, said wine growers typically haven't had to look at the wildlife habitat impacts of vineyards, "but with climate change, that's going to become more prevalent. Planning that in conjunction with wildlife concerns takes collective action,” Brian Handwerk reports for National Geographic.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Some fruit tree farmers say they're getting a raw deal from proposed FDA regulations

A Food and Drug Administration proposal to prevent food-borne illnesses has upset some tree farmers, who say the strict new standards could significantly increase their costs and responsibilities, leading to higher costs for consumers, Brady Dennis reports for The Washington Post. The new rules are in response to the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act, which directs the FDA to build a new food-safety system.

The proposal would mostly include foods that are consumed raw, while foods usually cooked or processed would not be included, Dennis reports. Rules could include "regular testing of irrigation water, sanitizing canvas fruit-picking bags, and keeping animals away from crops."

Some farmers say they don't see the point of the proposed regulations, Dennis writes. "Many tree fruit farmers worry about the cost of such measures and say they would offer few safety benefits. They argue that the FDA should focus more on foods that have caused deadly outbreaks and less on fruits that have a virtually flawless safety record, grow above the ground and, in some cases, have protective skins or rinds." (Read more)

Rural health expert says report on critical-access hospital deaths drew wrong conclusions

The study that found death rates were on the rise for Medicaid patients who have heart attacks, heart failure and pneumonia at critical-access hospitals, which we reported last week, drew the wrong conclusions and should have said that researchers found no difference in survival between hospitals with 25-beds and larger hospitals, Dr. Wayne Myers opines for The Daily Yonder.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study found that in 2002, critical-access hospitals had a death rate of 12.8 percent for such ailments, compared to the 13 percent rate at other hospitals. But from 2002 to 2010, mortality rates at critical-access hospitals increased 0.1 percent each year, to 13.3 percent, while the rates at other hospitals fell 0.2 percent each year, to 11.4 percent.

Myers, who was first director of the federal Office of Rural Health, argues that the study used faulty information: "Medicare keeps statistics on deaths at large hospitals for patients being treated for heart attacks, pneumonia or heart failure, but doesn’t track these death statistics for critical-access hospitals. Since they aren’t getting measured, the argument goes, critical-access hospitals don’t perform as well." He also said that most critical-access hospitals don't have intensive care units or keep patients with life-and-death issues, and that often people who have "decided that they are through paying all the human costs of the miracles of modern medicine" make the decision to remain in a critical-access hospital to "stay in familiar surroundings near home and family."

When patients show up at a critical-access hospital with symptoms of heart attack, pneumonia or heart failure, "The emphasis will be on making the diagnosis and arranging a speedy transfer to the regional medical center with its cardiac catheterization facilities," Myers writes. "For a person who wants the best chance of survival the large, regional hospital is the best bet. On the other hand, if it sounds as if the patient is likely to die even with intensive care, the large medical center is likely to resist taking him and risk getting a bad mark on the hospital’s statistics." (Read more)

Too many snow days leave rural Minn. schools struggling to prepare for assessment tests

Rural Minnesota schools have had so many snow days, and late starts due to snow, that some officials said they are worried students won't be prepared to take required assessment tests that judge schools on how well they perform, and require older students to pass the reading, writing and math portions to graduate, Tim Post reports for Minnesota Public Radio. Western Minnesota, where districts can cover hundreds of square miles, has been particularly hit hard by snow, which remains in the forecast in the state through the rest of the week.

Rural district superintendents said starting school before Labor Day would help give them an extra week or two to prepare for tests, Post reports. Minnesota law requires school to begin after Labor Day, although 30 districts have special waivers to begin early. "A bill in the K-12 education omnibus bill at the Capitol this session would allow schools to start before the end of the summer holiday. The issue has come up many times before but failed after opposition from the state's tourism industry." (Read more)

Duke law prof suggests requiring cameras in confined-feeding houses and slaughterhouses

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Duke law professor Jedediah Purdy suggests requiring cameras at key stages of operations in confined feeding houses and slaughterhouses, allowing people to see for themselves what's going on behind closed doors in the meat industry. The required cameras would prevent activists from going undercover in slaughterhouses, and put an end to complaints that footage is doctored, Purdy writes. He also suggests listing the video feeds' Internet addresses on meat packages.

Purdy, who slaughtered cattle on the West Virginia farm where he grew up, and in 1999 went undercover in a slaughterhouse for The American Prospect, wrote the piece in response to a rash of "ag-gag" laws, which would "make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups," Richard Oppel wrote for the Times in a story we covered Monday.

"Emotional response is part of moral reasoning, and in this case we need more information, not less," Purdy writes. "The images need to be supplemented by brain studies and other efforts to understand what animal suffering is like — for instance, whether mammals experience trauma when confined and exposed to slaughter. But the images would motivate us to ask the right questions. Open-slaughterhouse laws would not force anyone to look at anything. They would just increase our resources for thinking and arguing." (Read more)

Monday, April 08, 2013

'Ag-gag' bills to protect animal agriculture, meatpackers and others gain momentum in states

Animal-rights activists trying to expose animal cruelty through undercover video are more likely to face the threat of criminal penalties. Richard Oppel reports for The New York Times that several state legislatures have "proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups," and most of the bills would apply to livestock handling and processing facilities. (Humane Society of the United States video: beating a horse)

"Critics call them 'Ag-Gag' bills," Oppel writes. Iowa, Utah and Missouri passed bills last year making it nearly impossible to produce undercover videos. Similar bills died in New Mexico, New Hampshire and Wyoming.

Indiana and Tennessee are expected to vote on similar measures in the next few weeks, and a bill in Texas would place violators on a terrorist registry, Oppel writes. "In Indiana, a new bill would require job applicants to disclose material information or face criminal penalties, a provision that opponents say would prevent undercover operatives from obtaining employment. And employees who do something beyond the scope of their jobs could be charged with criminal trespass." (Read more)

Most such issues deal with animals destined for slaughter, but the Humane Society has also used undercover video against some owners of Tennessee walking horses. We reported in July about the controversy over soring, which Duane Gang of The Tennessean accurately described as "the practice of using chemicals and other methods, including putting foreign objects in the horses’ hooves, to produce a higher gait."

NRA quashes all ideas but background checks but still faces challenge from stricter gun-rights group

Republican and Democratic senators appear to be near a deal on gun-sale background checks, but the National Rifle Association is working with other lawmakers to change the rules on how checks are conducted, and another gun-rights lobby says the NRA isn't strong enough.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) "are developing a measure to require background checks for all gun purchases except sales between close family members and some hunters, which addresses concerns of some conservatives," Ed O'Keefe and Philip Rucker report for The Washington Post.

But expanded background checks are likely to be the only big change sought by gun-control advocates because they "acknowledge that the NRA is getting the better of them, both in Congress and state capitals across the country," Tom Hamburger reports for the Post. His object example is Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who said after the Connecticut school shooting that it would cause a "sea change" in gun-control politics, but is now working with the NRA on a bill "that would change the way mental illness is reported in the background check system — a measure that critics say could make firearms more easily available to the mentally ill." Begich told Hamburger, “The NRA is one of the most important groups in my state.”

Even so, the NRA is facing stiff competition from Gun Owners of America, Jennifer Steinhauer reports for The New York Times. "The group has already been successful in both freezing senators, particularly Republicans, who have appeared to be on the fence about supporting bills to expand background checks and increase penalties for illegal gun purchases, and empowering those who have a strong gun rights background." Steinhauer writes, "Many lawmakers and gun safety advocates believe Gun Owners of America’s rising profile and heavy membership drive has led the NRA to take a more aggressive stance against measures it once supported, like an expansion of background checks to include private gun sales," something the NRA once said it could support.

Reacting to repeated malfeasance, newspaper publishes all local government salaries

A small daily newspaper in Kentucky says it has covered so many financial irregularities in local government lately that it felt compelled to reveal the names, positions and salaries of every city, county and school employee. While the information is public record, The Ledger Independent, a Lee Enterprises paper in Maysville,explained itself in an editorial, saying it felt the information needed to be published so readers could see where their tax dollars are going.

Controversies included the Mason County school superintendent retiring "amid accusations he received salaries in excess of his contract, filed duplicate expense reports and was reimbursed for expenses that had conflicting or no documentation," the editorial notes. "In December, the executive director of the Buffalo Trace Gateway Area Narcotics Task Force was dismissed after allegations of fraud and misappropriation of money and material came to light. The final straw may have been a dust-up between Maysville Mayor David Cartmell and City Manager Ray Young about access to city employee salaries. In some versions of the story, Young is quoted as telling Cartmell he could view the salary schedule only in the city manager’s office, and he could not make copies because some city documents have been left 'in a bar.'"

The editorial said, "Some may consider individual salaries as excessive, while others may find them appropriate. Some may agree with our decision to print the salaries while others may find that publication to be intrusive and unwarranted. But the fact remains that public employees, including those who work for local government and the public school system, are paid with taxpayer dollars. They are employed by the taxpayer and the taxpayer has a right to know how his/her money is being spent." (Read more) For the salary list, click here.

Methane leaks might mean natural gas is not more climate-friendly than coal, but no one really knows

A study by the World Resources Institute found that we have no idea how much methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide, is leaking from the 500,000 natural-gas wells and hundreds of thousands of miles of pipeline in the U.S. "Technologies to plug those leaks are readily available, but new regulations may be necessary to make sure they’re widely adopted," Brad Plumer reports for The Washington Post. And that may not be all.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that only about 2.4 percent of methane leaks into the air, but that "is essentially an educated guess, based on a number of assumptions rather than direct measurements," Plumer reports. The study says the "next step is to try to reduce the leakage rate to around 1 percent — which would ensure that natural gas is cleaner than coal when used for electricity, and cleaner than diesel fuel when used for transportation."

Plumer writes that reducing the leakage to 1 percent could be accomplished using plunger lift systems that "allow drillers to remove excess liquid from their wells without letting a whole bunch of methane escape into the air" and low-bleed pneumatic devices, which can "cut down on leaks throughout the system. As could better monitoring and repair systems." (Read more) "That's all well and good, but new regulations won't mean anything unless they are enforced," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and former oil-and-gas reporter. "Such regulation is up to the states, which have a spotty enforcement record, and whose main interest is prevention of visible environmental harm, not limiting greenhouse gases."

Coal industry funds research on health and environmental effects of mining in Appalachia

A two-year, $15 million project to study the health, environmental and economic impacts of coal mining in Appalachia will hold a five-day symposium in Charleston, W.Va., next week for its funded researchers to present their work. For the "Environmental Considerations in Energy Production" program, click here.

The Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science at Virginia Tech is funded in large measure by the coal industry and its allies, but "the industry's role in funding the work has not been clearly disclosed" and its overseer, Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research Director Michael Karmis, has "offered conflicting statements about the purpose of the project," at least in the funding stage, Ken Ward reports for The Charleston Gazette. "Company-backed reports are pointing out some potential flaws in earlier research" cited by environmental opponents of the industry.

Initial funders of ARIES included Alpha Natural Resources, International Coal Group, TECO CoalPatriot Coal and Norfolk Southern Railway, a major Appalachian coal hauler.

"Three ARIES-funded papers have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals," Ward writes. "One looked for ways to adequately measure damage to forests from mountaintop-removal mining. Another focused on toxic selenium runoff, and concluded that mine operators might be able to find ways to keep the material from leaching into waterways." A third criticized studies that "linked living near mountaintop-removal mining to increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death," complaining that studies were produced mostly by West Virginia University's Michael Hendryx or researchers working with Hendryx, and that more studies by others were needed to confirm or disprove the findings. "So far, the published studies have not disproved previous work that linked mountaintop removal to water pollution, deforestation and the risk of serious illnesses."

The industry funders "were given the ability to help choose the broad research topics for the project, but are not supposed to be directly involved in the actual studies," Ward writes, citing Virginia Tech officials. "This is not consulting work and this is not advocacy," said John Craynon, a former U.S. Office of Surface Mining official who directs the ARIES program. Ward reports, "While working for the federal government, Craynon said, he always felt like agencies never had adequate science to properly deal with questions that citizens groups were increasingly asking about large-scale surface coal mining. Now, he's trying to fill that gap." (Read more)