Friday, July 12, 2013

How 'red' or 'blue' is your congressional district?

The final numbers are in: Democrats won the total vote for the U.S. House in November 2012 by almost 1.4 million votes, 1.1 percent of the total. But the voters elected 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats, largely because Republicans controlled the redistricting process in most states following their 2010 electoral victories and drew districts that helped their candidates.

The numbers were compiled by David Wasserman, right, House editor of the Cook Political Report, the most widely respected source for non-partisan analysis of House and Senate races. For his Excel spreadsheet, in a Google Docs document, click here. It also includes the Cook Report's Partisan Voting Index for each district, which uses recent election results to measure the relative "red" or "blue" of each district.

Supreme Court ruling on wetlands and property taking is 'a legal blow to sustainable development'

Rules that a Florida water management district "used to protect wetlands from development interfered with a Central Florida landowner’s constitutional rights," the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in a 5-4 vote, reversing a Florida Supreme Court ruling. Steve Patterson reports for the Florida Times-Union, "The ruling could shift standards nationally about how governments can regulate development, and it was cheered by property-rights advocates." (Legal Planet photo: The property at issue)

When Coy Koontz "sought to develop 3.7 acres as commercial land beside the highway in 1994, the district asked for a conservation easement on the rest of the family’s land, to which he agreed," Patterson writes. "It also wanted him to pay for environmental work done elsewhere, which he refused. The district said it had to ask for off-site work, because state rules required creating 10 acres of wetlands for every wetland acre that would be filled in. In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the Florida decision "violates the Fifth Amendment, which protects private property from being seized for public use without compensation." Koontz's son, Coy Koontz Jr. now owns the land, and he brought the suit against the St. Johns River Water Management District. (Read more)

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Vermont Law School Professor John D. Echeverria writes that the decision "will result in long-lasting harm to America’s communities. That’s because the ruling creates a perverse incentive for municipal governments to reject applications from developers rather than attempt to negotiate project designs that might advance both public and private goals — and it makes it hard for  communities to get property owners to pay to mitigate any environmental damage they may cause."

Echeverria notes Justice Elena Kagan's dissent, saying the decision will encourage local officials to avoid any discussion with developers related to permit conditions that, in the end, might have let both sides find common ground on building projects that are good for the community and environmentally sound. Rather than risk a lawsuit through an attempt at compromise, many municipalities will simply reject development applications outright — or, worse, accept development plans they shouldn’t."

"In the wake of this under-the-radar ruling, the cost of protecting a community from a harmful building project now lies not with the developer but with the local residents and taxpayers," Echeverria opines.. "It’s hard to fathom that the framers of the Constitution would call this either fairness or justice." (Read more)

Another Iowan dies in grain bin; newspaper says more education needed on dangers

Most farm-related casualties have declined, but grain bin injuries and deaths remain steady, with 74 percent of reported entrapments resulting in fatalities. Within the past few weeks two Iowa men fell into grain bins. One survived. The other died. On Tuesday 30-year-old Brandon Mullen died in a grain-bin accident in Webster County, in the north-central part of the state. Two weeks ago, 23-year-old Arick Baker beat the odds, surviving five hours in a bin two counties east. (Register photo by Bryon Houlgrave: Bin where Mullen died) 

Thanks to university research and farm-safety groups, there is more knowledge than ever about grain entrapments, but that education hasn't resulted in fewer accidents, with the estimated number of entrapments rising from 24 in 2002 to 57 in 2010, the Des Moines Register notes in an editorial.

According to Charles Schwab, an Iowa State University professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, "Historic increases in grain prices and production explain the increased numbers of grain bin accidents ... but the numbers of entrapments and deaths also tend to rise with the moisture condition of the grain. That’s because wet grain tends to spoil, and clogs augers on the grain bin floor used to remove the grain. Workers in these situations who enter the bin to break up a clogged auger can be deceived by what looks like the surface if a crust has formed on the top of the grain. Voids can develop below that crust. The worker can fall through and quickly be buried by grain. Emergency techniques have been developed, such as building a dam to prevent grain from filling back as rescuers dig, but rescuers battle a powerful physical force in a race against time."

More education and increased safety measures -- including having someone outside the bin when someone is inside, and turning power off to the auger -- are needed to keep workers from taking unnecessary risks, the Register opines. "Unless or until better equipment is developed for managing grain bins, farm workers will put their lives at risk. Iowa and other Midwest states have stepped up education efforts, but the job obviously is never finished. In addition to continuing to warn farmers about the dangers, however, Iowa should do a better job of documenting the number of grain bin accidents. Action to improve grain bin safety will happen only when the total cost in human lives is known." (Read more)

Alabama rural investigative unit is recovering stolen farm equipment and making arrests

Alabama is going after criminals targeting farms and farm equipment. The Agriculture Rural Crime Unit, formed June 4, has already made big headlines. By the end of June, the 10-member team had made 14 felony arrests and recovered $500,000 in stolen equipment, Brad Harper reports for the Montgomery Advertiser. (Advertiser photo: A recovered tractor)

Last month Republican Gov. Robert Bentley introduced the unit, which is part of a consolidated group of agents from the Department of Public Safety, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Department of Agriculture and Industries, Mike Cason of the Alabama Media Group calls it the state's "first example of a plan to consolidate law enforcement under a bill passed this year by the Legislature. The consolidation effort is one of the initiatives of the Republican-led Legislature to streamline government."

Lt. Gene Wiggins, head of the unit, told Cason that the unit is an assistance agency that collaborates "with sheriff’s offices and police departments to help them investigate cases, such as stolen farm equipment and stolen livestock." The state set up a hot line, 1-855-75-CRIME, to report suspicious activity that could be of interest to the team, but emergencies should still be reported to 911. (Read more)

Federal report warns that climate change is causing strain and problems in U.S. energy systems

Climate change is putting nuclear reactors and barges transporting coal to oil rigs and power lines at risk, while "heat waves, droughts, flooding, and wildfires could all put a heavy strain on key energy services in the decades ahead, costing Americans billions," according to an assessment by the U.S. Department of Energy, Brad Plumer reports for The Washington Post.

The report says "many coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants will have to shutdown partially or fully during the summer if the air gets hotter and certain rivers start to warm, since they won’t be able to cool as efficiently," Plumer reports. More frequent coastal storms or hurricanes could hamper oil and gas production in places like the Gulf of Mexico. Warmer air means the "transmission lines in the electric grid won’t be able to carry as much current and will operate less efficiently. Solar panels will be able to squeeze out less power if ambient air temperatures rise. Gas fracking operations in places like Texas could face restrictions if water becomes scarce. Oil and gas operations in Alaska may prove vulnerable to melting permafrost, which could damage existing infrastructure."

Warmer temperatures mean people will use more air conditioning, and with the risk of more frequent power-plant interruptions, the western U.S. "will need an additional 34 gigawatts of generation capacity by 2050 to keep the lights on," according to a study by Argonne National Laboratory, Plumer reports. "That’s an extra $45 billion. On the flip side, however, some parts of the United States, like the Northeast, will have fewer heating needs in the winter. (Read more) Map from the Energy Department shows recent events showing energy-sector vulnerabilities to climate change. The key to the map is on pages 2 and 3 of the study.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

House passes Farm Bill without food stamps

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 216-208 this afternoon to pass a Farm Bill that does not include food stamps and other nutrition programs, ending a 40-year alliance between rural-agricultural lobbies and urban-hunger interests. The vote was mainly along party lines, with 12 Republicans voting against it and no Democrats supporting it. For the roll call, click here. A 223-195 procedural vote clearing the way for passage was almost entirely partisan.

The bill's prospects in a conference with the Senate are anything but clear. The food-stamp program is an entitlement and can be continued through appropriations bills. A fight over food-stamp cuts last month led to defeat of the bill and a move by leaders of the House's Republican majority to separate the nutrition portion. Majority Leader Eric Cantor said after passage that the GOP would "move with dispatch" to bring a nutrition bill to the floor so a House-Senate conference could begin.

The other major change in the bill from the version that failed last month is language repealing basic farm laws passed in 1938 and 1949. David Rogers of Politico notes that the laws have provided "political leverage for commodity groups" because they made passage of farm bills imperative to avoid reversion to, for example, big dairy price supports that would raise milk prices. "They are largely impractical today and the new commodity title will now take their place as the new permanent law going forward."

Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, "said the risk now is that if a modern commodity tittle is substituted as permanent law, the winners will be less willing to compromise. As a result he said conservation and research programs will be sacrificed," Rogers reports.

Interactive, county-by-county map shows data on obesity, exercise, hypertension, life expectancy

Want to see in a few glimpses how your county stands in obesity, physical activity, high blood pressure and life expectancy? Check out the new interactive map from the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which gives data from 2001 through 2011. Here's a screen grab showing the worst areas (the Black Belt, Indian Country and Central Appalachia) for obesity among women:
For a larger version of this map, click on it, or better yet, use the interactive version, available here.

Rural hospitals may hold key to success or failure of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

"The Affordable Care Act’s success or failure will depend in large part on the efforts of rural hospitals" such as $173 million state-of-the-art Poplar Bluff Regional Medical Center in the 17,000-population town of Poplar Bluff, Mo., Jim Doyle reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The hospital also operates seven family clinics in four counties in southeast Missouri. (Post-Dispatch photo by Erik Lunsford: The $173 million hospital that opened in January)

"It may be in a shiny new building, but it has a long way to go to provide efficient, low-cost medical care in its market. And like other rural hospitals, Poplar Bluff has special challenges," Doyle writes. Missouri has some of the country's highest rates of obesity, diabetes, heart failure and smoking, with many residents having multiple chronic conditions. "About 70 percent of Poplar Bluff’s patients are Medicare or Medicaid patients, and the number of uninsured and under-insured patients is growing. The health reform law promised hospitals a windfall of expanded Medicaid coverage," but Missouri lawmakers have said they will not expand Medicaid.

The hospital is already struggling financially, with an annual revenue exceeding $720 million and a net income of about $24 million, Doyle reports. "But the hospital’s charity care and bad debt also have climbed significantly in recent years." The hospital is struggling to win over new patients, and without expanded Medicaid, drawing new patients could be even more difficult, because the hospital "will need to find new ways to triage their services for the poor and uninsured. To bridge that gap, hospital charges would surely increase for self-pay patients, and individuals covered by an employer’s health plan would need to chip in higher insurance premiums." (Read more)

Rural businesses adding on-site clinics, which may ease access but raise privacy concerns

Some companies are making it easier for rural employees to get basic medical care without having to use sick days or take time off from work to see a doctor by "adding onsite medical clinics that dispense bandages, handle infections and occupational injuries, and, increasingly, monitor and treat the chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension that account for 65 percent of all corporate healthcare spending," Lauren Weber reports for The Wall Street Journal. But some fear that the clinics lead to an invasion of privacy, and that companies are pushing treatment on employees to prevent paying insurance claims. (WSJ photo by Jeremy Lange: A clinic at Hanesbrands Inc. in Winston-Salem, N.C.)

Wayne Farms LLC, a chicken processor with plants in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina, has two onsite clinics and plans to open more, Weber reports. It saves employees money; they pay $10 at the onsite clinic, compared to their $20 co-pay at off-site locations. Helen Nelling, director of benefits and compensation, told Weber, “We have facilities in the middle of nowhere so if you have to see a provider, it takes a very long time away from work." That's beneficial to employees, who are paid hourly, and don't get paid when they leave work for personal reasons. Plus, they are penalized for lack of attendance. (Read more)

Wayne Farms isn't an oddity when it comes to on-site medical services. According to Towers Watson, a company that says it helps organizations improve performance through effective people, risk and financial management, 28 percent of U.S. companies had workplace clinics in 2012, and 39 percent are planning to have them by 2014.

But some clinics are also used "to aggressively nudge employees about long-term, expensive conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol," Weber writes in another story for the Journal. "The clinics, which are generally staffed by nurses and health coaches and run like a regular doctor's office, also raise concerns about privacy and the deeper intrusion of employers into workers' health and personal lives. While treatment is voluntary, clinic operators—most on-site facilities are operated by third parties—review employees' health screenings and surveys to target those who have, or are at risk for, chronic conditions. The clinic operators call and email employees, and sometimes lure workers with gift cards or discounts on premiums to get them into the clinic."

The clinics have been instrumental for some companies in saving large amounts of money. Hanesbrands Inc., which opened a clinic two years ago at its Winston-Salem, N.C., headquarters, said it saves $1.4 million annually on money it would have paid on claims -- having seen a 30 percent drop in emergency-room visits among insured workers, and a 39 percent drop in inpatient hospital admissions, Weber reports. (Read more)

'Courageous' editor steps down after dedicating 40 years to community newspapers

Bob Gorman
Community newspapers have long had a responsibility to cover every aspect of their territories, from the smallest, seemingly trivial story to the hard news, with a reporter covering a beauty pageant one day to crime and injustice the next. And sometimes those less pleasant stories involve people the reporter knows, or sees on a regular basis. It's not always an easy job for a reporter to uncover wrong doings knowing they might run into that person, or their friends and family, at the local grocery store. But someone has to do it if the paper wants to succeed and be taken seriously.

That's exactly what Bob Gorman did. He spent 40 years covering the communities in which he lived and worked with pride, while never backing down from exposing injustices. He "printed the truth as he saw it, let the chips fall where they may, then made himself as publicly accountable as possible, participating fully, and often spearheading, the essential civic institutions at the heart of small town America," contributor Bob Deans writes for the Watertown Daily Times in upstate New York. Gorman, who also worked in papers in South Carolina, retired June 21 as managing editor of the Times.

"In nearly 30 years as a newspaper reporter, I never saw more courageous journalism," Deans writes of Gorman, 62."It’s one thing to write biting critiques of presidents, cabinet members, senators and congressmen you seldom see in person and never come across socially. It’s another to throw a spear at the king of a community with a few thousand people, knowing you’re certain to run into them at the PTA, the Rotary Club or the deacon’s meeting. That’s what makes what Gorman did for 40 years so extraordinary."

The Times was recently nominated for best digital-media article in Syracuse University's Mirror Awards for an article exposing factual errors and poor reporting by the national magazine The Atlantic on a story the magazine wrote alleging that new agribusiness in St. Lawrence County was hurting the Amish community to the point that they were digging through the trash for food and that many families were leaving town.

"Gorman’s signal contribution to the communities he served was to bring them the unflinching and unvarnished truth, in black and white," Deans writes. "There was, and is, no substitute for Gorman’s brand of journalism. It informed his readers, and the decisions they made, large and small. It provided a starting point for uncounted thousands of conversations that provided the impetus for needed change. And it reminded the people in the communities he served that they were part of a larger whole, a unique civilization of people with a shared identity, a common story and far more to gain from cooperation than conflict." (Read more)

Gorman's new job is president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Northern New York. He started his career at the Georgetown Times in South Carolina in 1974. After 20 years as a reporter and editor at South Carolina papers, he became assistant managing editor for news at the  Daily Times in 1994 and managing editor in 2001, the Times reports.

ExxonMobil says manufacturing defect in pipeline is to blame for its crude-oil spill in Mayflower, Ark.

ExxonMobil is blaming manufacturing defects for the spill that sent 150,000 gallons of crude oil into the small town of Mayflower, Ark., in March. A cracked seam is to blame, according to an independent report conducted by Hurst Metallurgical Research Laboratory Inc., Chuck Bartels reports for The Associated Press. Bartels said Exxon Mobil and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration declined to release the report to the media. (AP photo from April 1 of water and oil in a drainage ditch in Mayflower)

In a news release ExxonMobil said, "Based on the metallurgical analysis, the independent laboratory concluded that the root cause of the failure can be attributed to original manufacturing defects — namely hook cracks near the seam. Additional contributing factors include atypical pipe properties, such as extremely low impact toughness and elongation properties across the ... seam."

The spill dumped 12,000 barrels of oil on the 2,300-population town, and there was some concern that ExxonMobil didn't respond properly to the spill, with contradictions in its timeline of events. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and U.S. Atty. Christoper Thyer last month filed a lawsuit seeking $45,000 per day in penalties for the effects of the spill, with McDaniel saying the spill itself was a violation of state and federal law, and that it disrupted the lives of the residents of the 22 homes that were evacuated, Bartels reports.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Immigration reform heads for slow death in House

"In private conversations, top Republicans on Capitol Hill now predict comprehensive immigration reform will die a slow, months-long death in the House," Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write for Politico. "Like with background checks for gun buyers, the conventional wisdom that the party would never kill immigration reform, and risk further alienating Hispanic voters, was always wrong — and ignored the reality that most House Republicans are white conservatives representing mostly white districts."

The writers cite this example: "Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) held a town meeting last week where 25 of the 100 people spoke out on immigration — and every single one of them argued for staying clear of anything remotely resembling the Senate-passed bill," which has been a priority for agricultural interests since most U.S. farm workers are believed to be in the country illegally.

House Republicans are meeting today to discuss strategy on bills, but "After holding countless listening sessions, it is clear to these leaders that getting even smaller, popular pieces of reform will be a tough sell," Politico reports. "The House plans a piecemeal approach: a border-security bill this month, maybe one or two items a month in the fall."

But don't look for anything to become law soon. “The belief among House Republicans is that they’re going to do well in the midterms, and that instead of negotiating now from a position of weakness, they should wait until 2015,” an unnamed lobbyist close to House GOP leaders told Politico. “They’ll be stronger in the House and maybe control the Senate.” Also, the writers add, "Most Republicans in the House and Senate just don’t believe Hispanics will vote for them in 2014, 2016 and perhaps ever — simply because they backed immigration reform." (Read more)

Urban areas recover jobs lost in recession, but rural areas lag along with population

Urban areas have recovered most of the jobs lost from the 2007 recession, but more than 90 percent of the net loss of jobs are in rural areas or counties with small cities, Bill Bishop reports for the Daily Yonder. One contributing factor could be that population is declining in many non-metropolitan counties. Last year, non-metro population declined for the first time since the Census Bureau began estimating county populations.

Overall, the U.S. has 718,000 fewer jobs today than it did when the recession began, Bishop reports. Rural counties have 263,000 fewer jobs than in 2007, a decline of 3 percent, while unemployment has increased by 198,000. Counties with small cities have 388,000 fewer jobs, and the number of unemployed has increased by 314,000. Cities have 67,000 fewer jobs, but they have 3.76 million more unemployed, a 90 percent increase in unemployment. (Read more(Yonder graphic from  Bureau of Labor Statistics data)

Motorcycle deaths rising again, more than overall highway fatalities; no driving test in some states

As summer vacation time heats up, roads begin to become more crowded with motorcycles. U.S. highway deaths rose 5.6 percent last year, but motorcycle fatalities rose 9 percent, and rose in 34 states, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. (GHSA graphics)

The highest number of fatalities was in Texas, with 358. That was followed by California (318 fatalities), Florida (287), Pennsylvania (184), New York and Ohio with 150, North Carolina (141), Illinois (132), Indiana (130), Michigan (120), Tennessee (114), Arizona (107) and Wisconsin (101). (Read more)

In South Dakota, where first-time motorcycle riders only need to take a written test to get a license, there have been more than 5,000 motorcycle accidents, and 230 motorcycle fatalities since 2002. The state Safety Council hopes those numbers will decrease if more people take the statewide Motorcycle Rider Education Program in cooperation with the state Department of Public Safety's Office of Highway Safety, Andrea Cook reports for the Rapid City Journal. The same course is offered in Wyoming, which also does not require a driving test for a motorcycle license. (Journal photo by Kristina Barker: Jeanette Lawhorn of Chadron, Neb., starts up a bike during the beginner riding class in Rapid City)

The course, which began in 1977, has trained more than 33,073 beginning motorcycle riders, or 41 percent of the 80,410 licensed motorcyclists in South Dakota, Cook reports. The course seems to help. Last year 25 people died in South Dakota in motorcycle accidents, but Vince Pfeifle, a Safety Council rider-coach, said none of those riders were state residents. (Read more)

Some states are already seeing an increase in deaths this year. Twenty-six riders have died in Minnesota, compared to 18 at the same time last year, according to KBJR 6 in Northland. There have been five deaths in July, including three on July 4. There were 10 fatalities in June. State Department of Public Safety officials said there was many of the same contributing factors as last year, "including motorcyclist’s error and failure to yield the right-of-way." (Read more)

Writer goes from one end of nation to other to see what holds it together; ruralites stand out

Philip Caputo, a novelist and former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, where he won a Pulitzer Prize, set off across the country on a four-month trip -- visiting mostly rural areas -- to interview Americans about what they feel holds the country together. What he found was that most people, especially those in rural areas, felt a sense of family and community was the binding force in the country, Kevin Nance reports for the Tribune. Caputo's finding can be read in The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean. (Random House photo)

Caputo said of ruralites: "They were less likely to identify something abstract, like our system of government, or the government itself, or the U.S. Constitution or whatever. They were much more likely to point to their town, their family or the neighbors, all of them pulling together in hard times and sharing good times," Nance reports. Other topics people wanted to discuss included immigration, jobs and politics.

Caputo said he got the idea for the book in 1996 when he visited a remote island off the Alaskan coast, Nance writes. Caputo said, "I happened to go by a school where most of the students were Eskimo children. They were pledging allegiance to the flag, and it struck me that they were doing so under the same government as the children of Cuban immigrants down in Key West, where I had been earlier in the year. It just astonished me that in a country so vast those children were under the same government, spoke the same language and were united in the same kind of society. Obviously there are cultural differences between the two, but the American society is the same. And I just thought to myself, what holds a place so vast and diverse together?" (Read more) The map, from Caputo's website, details his journey from Key West north; click on it for a larger version.

Pa. festival has celebrated rural life for 24 years

A festival in southern Pennsylvania has been celebrating rural life for 24 years. The Rural Life Festival is scheduled for this weekend in Newburg, about 37 miles west of Harrisburg. Free events focus on cultural history and Americana, Denny Clopper reports for the Valley Times-Star in Shippensburg, Pa., about 11 miles from Newburg. (Photo by Matthew O'Haren of The Sentinel in Carlisle, Pa.: Making butter at the 2012 festival)

Organizer Omar Barnhart told Clopper, “Back in July 1989 it began with some people who wanted a special day. It's a great event for the community, so the people can come out and learn how things were done in the older or past days."

The highlight of this year's festival is old-fashioned butter making, which Barnhart says "starts at the beginning – milking the cow – and follows through the churning process after an old-fashioned hand-cranked cream separator is used to separate milk and cream," Clopper reports. Other attractions consist of farming displays and demonstrations, broom-making, grain threshing, turning raw grain into bread, sheep dog herding, a working blacksmith, a horse drawn binder, a functioning steam engine, plowing demonstrations, quilting, sheep shearing, homemade foods, a pedal tractor pull, horse drawn wagon rides, and a bluegrass and gospel concert. (Read more)

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

New firm looking to buy rural telephone companies

If you’re a customer of an independent, rural telephone company, there’s a good chance it will be getting a buyout offer soon. Five rural telcos -- based in South Dakota, North Dakota and Texas -- in March teamed up to form USConnect Holdings, a company designed to acquire other rural and independent communications providers, Joan Engebretson reports for Telecompetitor, which describes itself as "a community of professionals with a passion for telecom and broadband."

A spokesperson for USConnect told Engebretson, “As the industry consolidates and evolves, the way to keep rural America a viable place to live, work and play is with a strong communications infrastructure. This group does that today and wants to make sure these types (of communications services) are available for rural consumers.” The spokesperson declined to say which companies USConnect was interested in purchasing.

The spokesperson said, “The existing business models of rural telecom companies (are) changing. There are new opportunities and challenges and every communications company in America is aligning (its) resources with solid business plans. As (the industry) evolves, the company will evolve with it,” Engebretson reports. (Read more)

House Republicans plan test votes to split Farm Bill

UPDATE, July 11: "House leaders became convinced Wednesday they have enough votes to pass a farm-only version," Chris Clayton reports. "Congressmen will debate and vote on the farm-only bill without a chance to amend it on Thursday." (Read more)

UPDATE, July 10: "Clearly there was some sort of problem for House leaders in whipping votes because as of Wednesday morning, there was no bill posted on the House Rules Committee website suggesting a new farm bill is coming to the floor," Chris Clayton of DTN The Progressive Farmer reports. The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union came out against the split, "a political high-wire act that has split the agriculture community badly and helped to solidify Democratic opposition," Rogers reports.

House Republicans continue to move toward splitting their farm bill, putting food stamps into a separate measure and breaking the rural-urban alliance that has passed such bills for almost 50 years. Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma said today that he agrees with the strategy, but only if it can gain a House majority of 218 votes, which is in doubt.

"Prodded by his leadership . . . Lucas said Tuesday he would support splitting his farm bill to allow separate votes on the nutrition title to appease conservatives — a strategy promoted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the Heritage Foundation," David Rogers reports for Politico. But Rogers notes that senior Republicans on the committee may not be on board, and Lucas said later, "If there is no assurance of success, why try the effort?"

To see if they have the votes, House GOP leaders planned to hold some test votes this afternoon, "and it was still too early to know the outcome," Rogers writes. He notes that splitting the bill could "throw away what leverage the House has with the farm bill to demand some reforms in food stamps from the Senate," which is controlled by Democrats and has voted for much smaller food-stamp cuts.

"The Rules Committee is expected to post the text Tuesday night and meet Wednesday," with a vote before the August recess, reports Matt Fuller of Roll Call, citing a leadership aide. The bill would include "a repeal of the 1949 law that requires the passage or extension of a farm bill."

The top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, told The Hill that splitting the bill would get more House votes but kill it in a House-Senate conference, which would endorse only $5 billion in food-stamp cuts, not enough to pass the House, which wants about $20 billion. He also noted that a broad coalition of farm lobbies wants a combined bill, and "When 532 groups send you a letter saying don't do this, it's pretty stupid to do this I think." Peterson said. (Read more)

Oil and gas sites reported over 6,000 spills last year

More than 6,000 spills and other mishaps were reported at onshore oil and gas sites in 2012, an average of 16 each day. That was a 17 percent increase since 2010, a period in which drilling rose 40 percent. However, the actual number of spills could be higher, because many states exclude spill amounts, and other states don't require all spills to be recorded, Mike Soraghan reports for Environment & Energy News. Overall, 15.6 million gallons of oil, fracking fluid, wastewater and other liquids were reported spilled at production sites last year. About 33 percent of the spill volume from well sites was reported to be recovered.

"North Dakota had the highest number of spills last year, 1,129, and one of its dominant producers, Continental Resources Inc., had more reported spills than any other company," Soraghan reports. "But industry officials say that's likely because companies in North Dakota have to report more spills than in other states. In North Dakota, they have to report any spill of more than 1 barrel (42 gallons). In Texas, the threshold is five barrels. And in Oklahoma and Montana, it's 10 barrels." States such as Colorado, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania often exclude spill amounts in reports.

North Dakota officials said nearly 80 percent of the state's spills were contained to the well site, while Utah companies reported that 78 percent were contained, and only 38 percent were contained in Colorado, Soraghan reports. Continental had the most reported spills, 233, with 90 of those being less than five barrels. Occidental Petroleum had the second-highest with 207, followed by BP PLC with 190, XTO and Exxon Mobil with a combined 172, and COG Operating at 122. (Read more)

La. councilman wants to ban gay flags on city land

It may be okay to fly Mardi Gras flags on government property in Lafayette, La., but one local Republican politician is drawing the line at rainbow-colored gay pride flags. "City-Parish Councilman Andy Naquin is drafting a proposal that would limit the types of flags that could be flown on government property" after receiving a complaint from a veteran about the recent hoisting of a rainbow flag Jun 30 during a gay pride gathering, Claire Taylor reports for The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette. (Advertiser photo by Leslie Westbrook: The gay pride flag is raised during Pride in the Park in Lafayette)

Naquin told Taylor, "I had to agree with him. Government flag poles really should be meant to fly only government flags." But he said that he "expects the ordinance would allow only the flying of American, Louisiana and Acadian/LCG flags, and possibly Mardi Gras flags, on LCG property," the Advertiser reports.

Amanda Kelley, president of the Acadiana OUTspoken Alliance, a group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people, said the proposal "seems like a violation of freedom of speech.” Part of the veteran's complaint was that the American flag was taken down to make room for the rainbow flag, but Kelley said the American flag was not taken down during the gathering, and that some of their members are veterans. (Read more)

Kentucky dairy farmers, state program team up with Wal-Mart to create, promote in-state milk brand

A program in Kentucky is partnering farmers with a major retail chain to help promote local foods while returning money to local agriculture producers. Monday, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer unveiled Udderly Kentucky milk, which "is 100 percent sourced from Kentucky dairy farms and completely processed in Kentucky," and will be sold in 32 Wal-Mart stores in the central and southern parts of the state.

Comer said he hopes the program, which returns a 7-percent-per-gallon premium to every participating farmer, will revitalize the dairy industry in a state where the number of dairy farmers has dropped from 1,500 to around 800 in the last 13 years. Prairie Farms Dairy in Somerset, which processes the milk, is buying milk from 105 farmers.

 Udderly Kentucky milk is part of the state's 10-year-old Kentucky Proud program, which promotes buying food produced in the state. "This initiative has the potential for more direct farm impact than any program in Kentucky Proud history," Comer said. "A lot of people don’t know that milk that is processed in Kentucky may still be milk that is shipped in from surrounding states." (Read more)

Deadline to apply for Mining Country Institute in northern Wis. and Mich. extended until Friday

The Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources has extended the deadline to register for its Mining Country Institute until Friday. The institute, which will be held Aug. 20-24, is described as an expenses-paid learning expedition that will cover environment, natural resource and economic issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Participants will travel to mines, communities and reservations, and discussion topics include hydraulic fracturing and hard-rock sulfide mining, the politics of extraction, the back story of the mining boom, Native American lands and tradition caught in the crossfire, and concerned scientists and citizens who became active in monitoring the environment.

Wisconsin is close to opening its first open-pit iron mine, which has drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists and Native Americans in the area. West-central Wisconsin has also become the center of sand mining, also called frac sand. For more information on the Mining Country Institute, or to apply, click here.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Veteran reporter offers Congress some ideas for Farm Bill compromises on SNAP, crop insurance

Congress needs to come to a compromise on the recently failed Farm Bill, veteran congressional reporter David Rogers writes for Politico, and he offers some granualr ideas after starting with the big picture: "After two seasons of failure, American agriculture is at a genuine crossroads in Congress. Will it continue to be whittled down by the left and the right? Or can it go up the middle with compromises that revive the urban-rural coalition so important to past farm bills?"

Rogers, left, notes that since the 1985 Farm Bill set a $2,000 limit on assets to receive for food stamps, that number remains the same, while during that time Iowa farmland has gone from $1,000 an acre to $8,000 an acre, and a top-selling John Deere tractor has gone from costing $54,000 to just under $200,000.

"Twenty-eight years later, the whole political and agriculture landscape has changed," Rogers writes. "But the $2,000 asset test remains, ignored by most states but now resurrected by House Republicans to wring savings from food stamps. Hundreds of thousands of households, who that otherwise qualify for food aid, would no longer be eligible. Parents, wanting to preserve some savings to meet unanticipated housing or medical costs, would have to spend down their cash reserves to below $2,000 to get back SNAP benefits for their children."

Adjusted for inflation, the $2,000 asset test would be $4,300 today. "Among all the contradictions in the Farm Bill, this stands out the most," Rogers writes, "because of the impact on the working poor and because assets are something all farmers understand — given the fickle nature of their livelihood and the bankers who control the loans needed to plant each year."

Last year the House Rules Committee blocked an amendment by Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), which "included a provision to double the allowed assets from $2,000 to $4,000 and exempt family cars needed to get to work, for example," Rogers writes. This year Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) created an amendment that "opened the door for states to toughen work requirements for food stamp recipients and share any savings that might result from culling the rolls," that helped lead to the bill's failure to pass.

"Finding some compromise through the food stamp asset test poses its own challenges," Rogers concedes. "An update could require as much as $5 billion in new offsets to keep faith with the House’s 10-year goal of $40 billion in new deficit reduction," Rogers writes. "But the House only narrowly rejected far bigger cuts from crop insurance subsidies last month. And there is the potential that a reform amendment could draw back support from both parties for passage." To make his case, Rogers analyzes crop insurance:

In 2012, taxpayers paid $264 million to cover almost $7.8 billion in liability for sometimes large, wealthy operations, Rogers writes. Catastrophic policies "would almost certainly have to be included in any attempt to find savings from crop insurance." President Obama’s 2014 budget "estimates that $4.2 billion could be saved over 10 years by asking all farmers to pay 3 percentage points more on any premium that is now subsidized at a rate of more than 50 percent. Together with changes in [the program], this would go a long way toward offsetting the cost of updating the food stamp asset test. . . . A 3 percentage point drop in the subsidy rate would be about a 9 percent increase for the farmer, but still a matter of pennies per bushel." (Read more)

Fungal disease with no cure spreads in Southwest; each year it kills about 160 and disables thousands

A disease with no cure is spreading in the Southwestern U.S. Each year there are more than 20,000 reported cases of Coccidioidomycosis, "an insidious airborne fungal disease in which microscopic spores in the soil take flight on the wind or even a mild breeze to lodge in the moist habitat of the lungs and, in the most extreme instances, spread to the bones, the skin, the eyes," and sometimes the brain, Patricia Leigh Brown reports for The New York Times. (NYT photos by Monica Almeida: No one knows how 8-year-old Kaden Watson, who spent six months in the hospital, contracted the disease, but the guess is that he was digging in the dirt.)

The disease, commonly called as "cocci," has been labeled “a silent epidemic” by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Brown reports. Most people exposed to the fungus don't get ill, but about 160 people die each year, and thousands face years of disability and surgery. About 9 percent contract pneumonia and 1 percent experience serious complications beyond the lungs.
The numbers are probably larger because some states, including huge Texas, don't require public reporting of deaths from it; and a 2010 survey from New Mexico found 69 percent of clinicians did not consider it in patients with respiratory problems. Hopefully, that number is smaller now. Cocci is most prevalent in California and Arizona.

Effects of the disease are alarming. One man dropped from 220 to 145 in two weeks and had lesions on his face and body. Another, who's been told he has 10 years to live, lives in constant pain, and wakes up retching every day. A study by Arizona's Department of Health Services showed African Americans have a a 25 percent risk of developing complications, while Caucasians' risk is only 6 percent. (Barbara Lundy dropped to 71 lbs. at one point; it has affected her ability to think, remember, walk, or live independently)

Last year 13,000 cases were reported in Arizona, with more cases reported when rainfall is followed by dry spells, Brown reports. Many scientists say the increase is related to changing climate patterns, while state epidemiologist Kenneth K. Komatsu told Brown another factor might be urban sprawl: “digging up rural areas where valley fever is growing in the soil,” he said. (Read more)

Food bank in Northeast Tennessee delivers summer lunches to rural, low-income children

Nearly 500 low-income children in Northeast Tennessee won't go hungry this summer. Second Harvest Food Bank's Lunch Express program, which was launched last year through a $50,000 grant from the ConAgra Foods Foundation, provides sack lunches five days a week from June 1 to Aug. 2 to children in Washington, Sullivan, Carter, Unicoi and Greene counties, Sue Guinn Legg reports for the Johnson City Press.

The program received another $20,000 this year, Legg reports. Funds were used to purchase four retired school buses, pay drivers, and cover the cost of fuel "to make daily lunch deliveries to 11 congregate feeding sites and 29 neighborhoods . . . where children do not have close access to other feeding programs."

Rhonda Chafin, executive director of the regional food bank, told Legg, “We’re the only food bank that’s doing this. And we’re one of the first to operate a program like this. . . . We’re serving 475 to 500 children a day. We focus on a lot of trailer courts and rural areas where kids can’t walk into a town where there are places they can eat.”

Eli Saslow of The WashingtonPost wrote it up like this: "It was the first day of summer in a place where summers had become hazardous to a child’s health, so the school bus rolled out of the parking lot on its newest emergency route. It passed by the church steeples of downtown and curved into the blue hills of Appalachia. The highway became two lanes. The two lanes turned to red dirt and gravel. On the dashboard of the bus, the driver had posted an aphorism. “Hunger is hidden,” it read, and this bus had been dispatched to find it." It's a great read, and a lesson in how to write about poverty; for more, click here.

AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers ride along with the drivers, make contact with the children’s families, and provide educational nutrition information. Children receive a different sandwich each day, along with fresh vegetables or fruit, and milk, and once a week get a prepackaged lunch of meat and cheese and crackers, Legg reports.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Crude-oil derailment in southern Quebec kills at least 5; about 40 missing, 30 hours after blast

UPDATE, July 8: The death toll is now 13. The Wall Street Journal reports the disaster "threatens to ratchet up scrutiny of rising crude-by-rail shipments on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, amid a boom in North American oil production" and the debate over Trans-Canada's Keystone XL pipeline for Canadian tar-sand oil. (Sûreté du Québec photo)

At least five people are dead, 2,000 evacuated and 40 buildings destroyed following the derailment of an unmanned crude-oil train in southern Quebec. "About 40 people are reported missing, according to the Sûreté du Québec," the provincial police, The Montreal Gazette reported this morning. "That number could go up or down at any time."

The train had been parked six miles from the town but got loose. "Somehow, the locomotive’s air brakes appear to have failed, allowing the train to roll forward under its own weight, the Gazette's Christopher Curis writes. "The freight train then rapidly gained momentum as it travelled down a slope in the tracks, derailed and exploded near downtown Lac Mégantic. There are fail-safes in place to ensure no one could have tampered with the brakes or the train’s controls, according to a spokesperson for the company that owns the locomotive," the Maine--based Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.
MapQuest image locates Lac Megantic (Click on map for larger version)
The rail line runs from Montreal through Maine to Saint John, New Brunswick. It carries crude oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota to a refinery at Saint John, reports Tux Turkel of the Maine Sunday Telegram. "Strong opposition by environmental activists has stalled the construction of new pipelines to move the oil to North American refineries, and that has created an opportunity for freight railroads. But the new activity also carries some risk," such as a list of accidents Turkel cites in his story.

UPDATE: The disaster hasn't kept Lac-Mégantic’s local weekly newspaper, L’Echo de Frontenac, from publishing, reports Jacques Gallant of The Toronto Star. The paper's website, which is in French, is here. Outside journalists were given a tour of the blast area Tuesday, July 10; "the experience was overwhelming," Christopher Curtis of The Gazette in Montréal reports.