Saturday, December 21, 2013

Kentucky congressman and lobbyist wife, animal lovers, push for more specific ban on horse soring

The congressman representing a rural Western Kentucky district "is leading the charge" on legislation to tighten the rules against mistreatment of show horses, in harness with his wife, "a paid lobbyist for the Humane Society Legislative Fund," John Bresnahan and Anna Palmer of Politico report. "The pair’s efforts have included sessions in which they have jointly lobbied lawmakers and aides to support the legislation, according to sources who have met with the couple."

Associated Press photo
Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield "hasn’t been shy about mentioning the connection with his wife’s employer, even noting in statements on the House floor that the Humane Society — among other organizations — supports his legislative initiatives," Politico reports. "It’s uncommon for a lawmaker to work so closely with a lobbyist on legislation, especially with a spouse who is paid to lobby on the issue. The Whitfields have caught the ire of opponents of the legislation who allege their activity is inappropriate, since the congressman’s wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, has worked as a registered lobbyist for the fund since 2011."

Whitfield told Politico, “I don’t view that as an ethics violation because it’s an issue that I’ve been involved in since I’ve been in Congress and this is a practice that must be and should be stopped. There’s a big difference in my mind of getting financial gain for some financial institution, to trying to prevent cruelty to animals.” He said he has a 62 percent rating on the Humane Society's latest scorecard.

Whitfield's legislation would require the Department of Agriculture to more specifically ban soring, the use of irritants, chains or other devices to alter the gait of Tennessee walking horses. Earlier, Whitfield successfully pushed for a ban on USDA inspection of horse slaughter plants, putting them out of business. Congress repealed the ban in 2011, and two horse slaughterhouses plan to open soon, having cleared almost all legal obstacles.

Whitfield's wife "is credited with playing a major role in instituting the U.S. and worldwide ban on the elephant ivory trade" as an assistant interior secretary under President George H.W. Bush, Politico reports. Originally from California, she married Whitfield in 1990 when he was a Democrat and a Washington lobbyist for Jacksonville-based CSX Corp. He was elected as a Republican from Kentucky's First District in 1994. They were featured in a 2010 Washington Post story about dogs on Capitol Hill, including this photo in his office:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Farm Bill said to cut food stamps relatively little; payment limits, insurance-conservation link at risk

Congress has gone home for the holidays, but details about the Farm Bill keep leaking out as negotiators approach agreement on a compromise between the House and Senate versions.

The bill "is likely to cut the food-stamp program by $8 billion over a decade, a key Democratic senator said on Thursday, an amount that is a fraction of the cuts demanded by many Republican lawmakers," Reuters reports. "While conservatives want stricter eligibility rules that would disqualify up to 4 million recipients and save $40 billion over 10 years, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, said the expected $8 billion in savings would be generated by . . . by setting a higher threshold of government assistance to pay utility bills, a program that can trigger food-stamp aid."

Kristina Peterson of The Wall Street Journal reports, "A household would have to receive at least $20 in annual payments through a federal energy assistance program to qualify for a utility allowance which, when deducted from a household's income, can result in a larger food-stamp benefit. Some states currently give food-stamp recipients a nominal 'heat and eat' payment of $1 or another token sum to help households leverage larger food-stamp benefits."

The Senate bill called for food-stamp cuts of $4 billion over the next 10 years. What remains unclear about food stamps, officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is whether there will be any other language to limit eligibility. "A Republican aide has said that tighter work requirements were imperative if spending cuts were $10 billion or less," Reuters reports.

On farm subsidies, conflict between the South and Midwest continue. "Southern interests are fighting to remove the caps on payments to farmers that were championed by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D," reports Denise Ross of The Daily Republic in Mitchell.  "Johnson said he worked with other senators to craft language that placed a hard cap on direct payments to farmers and would 'ensure that only individuals actually engaged in the operations of a farm are able to receive payments.'"

South Dakota's other senator, Republican John Thune, "said a provision linking crop-insurance subsidies to participation in conservation programs is under siege. Both spoke to reporters Wednesday during separate conference calls." (Read more)

Pa. Supreme Court OKs anti-drilling local zoning

Local governments in Pennsylvania have the right to zone out drilling operations, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The 4-2 decision was a major victory for opponents of horizontal hydrsulic fracturing of the Marcellus Shale and other deep rock strata opened for development by fracking.

The court also sent back to the next lower court "for review and disposition challenges by a physician to the Act 13 provisions that would have prevented doctors from telling patients about health impacts related to shale gas development, and a constitutional challenge that the law benefits a single industry," Don Hopey reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Key senator suggests letting USPS cut Sat. mail if volume or revenue dips to a certain level

Sen. Tom Carper
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Senate committee that oversees the U.S. Postal Service, says the service doesn't need to end Saturday delivery of first-class mail to save money, but needs to work harder to increase profits, Angela Greiling Keane reports for The Washington Post. Carper told Keane, “I’m attracted to the idea of a volume trigger that will incentivize postal employees to work harder, sell harder and incentivize mailers to mail more." The trigger would allow USPS to cut Saturday service if volume or revenue fall below a certain level.

USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer told the Post that the agency was open to Carper's idea: “This is a very interesting and creative solution that Chairman Carper’s developed, and could be part of a comprehensive legislative package to resolve our financial situation.” The service has proposed ending Saturday delivery except for packages, on which it makes a profit.

Postal unions aren't thrilled with either idea. Jeanette Dwyer, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, told Keane, “Bottom line is, you ought to be talking about how to increase your business. The Postal Service was never intended to be a business that made huge money. It was intended to be a service to the American public. That’s why it was created.” (Read more)

N.M. attorney general files last-ditch lawsuit to keep horse slaughterhouse from opening

In a last-ditch effort to stop a horse slaughterhouse from opening in New Mexico, state attorney general Gary King announced Thursday he's suing Roswell-based Valley Meat Co., "saying the plant's horse meat could constitute an adulterated product, which is prohibited" in the state, reports KRQE in Albuquerque. King told the station, "I believe that the operation of this plant in New Mexico is antithetical to the way that we do business in New Mexico. I think that we don't eat horses in New Mexico."

Gary King
King claims Valley Meat has a poor record of compliance with environmental and safety laws, and said, "We believe that horses not being raised as food animals in New Mexico are subject to having a lot of various drugs in their bodies that are not allowed for human consumption." A federal judge rejected similar arguments, and Valley Meat owner Rick De Los Santos, who said he plans to open on Jan. 1, said "The attorney general doesn't have any proof that this meat could be contaminated."

Last week a federal court lifted an emergency stay on Valley Meat and plants in Missouri and Iowa, paving the way for the companies to begin processing horse meat for export. The Missouri plant expects to get a "federal permit within a week and the state permit should follow soon after," and is expected to begin operations in the next few weeks, Deirdre Shesgreen reports for the News-Leader in Springfield, Mo. The Iowa plant has switched to beef, but is struggling against more established competition and might ride the horse again, so to speak. (Read more)

Chesapeake subsidiary agrees to $3.2 million fine for fracking operations that polluted W.Va. water

Chesapeake Appalachia, a subsidiary of Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp., "will pay a civil penalty of $3.2 million for clean-water violations in West Virginia," one of the largest penalties handed out for violations of the Clean Water Act, according to the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency, Tory Parrish reports for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Most of the discharges subject to the consent decree are related to the construction of fracking facilities, but none of them involved actual fracking, said Donna Heron, spokeswoman for the EPA's Mid-Atlantic region."

"In addition to the penalty, Chesapeake Appalachia will spend an estimated $6.5 million to restore 27 sites the federal government and West Virginia allege were damaged by unauthorized discharges of fill material into streams and wetlands, the federal agencies said," Parrish writes. "The consent decree is subject to a 30-day public-comment period and court approval."

Chesapeake said in a statement: “Chesapeake Appalachia LLC has reached a key milestone in the settlement process to resolve federal and state claims relating to surface construction activities that occurred in West Virginia prior to November 2010. The company is fully committed to regulatory compliance and is working with the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to restore the impacted sites.” (Read more)

Tax revenue in more than 2/3 of states has yet to reach level seen just before Great Recession

Tax revenue in more than two-thirds of the states had not recovered from the Great Recession by the first quarter of this year, with total tax collections 1.6 percent below the record set just before teh recession began, according to a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts. "For every $1 states collected at their 2008 revenue peak, they took in the equivalent of 98.4 cents in the first quarter of 2013. It means most states had less purchasing power from their tax dollars while simultaneously coping with a sharp drop in federal stimulus aid, still-high unemployment, and rising demand for costly services such as Medicaid and education."

Some states, though, have made strong recoveries, according to the study. "North Dakota’s tax revenue was 100 percent above its highest point during the recession, thanks to an oil boom that sent severance and sales taxes soaring." But in 13 states, "Tax revenue remained down 10 percent or more from their peak, in today’s dollars." Those states were Alaska, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, South Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey; most have large percentages of rural populations. (Read more)
(Pew graphic: Changes in tax revenue from peak quarter in 2008 to first quarter in 2013)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Studies find USDA has 'serious weakness' in poultry inspection measures, needs recall authority

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's meat inspection process is seriously flawed , according to the Pew Charitable Trusts and Consumer Reports, Kimberly Kindy and Brady Dennis report for The Washington Post. At least 523 people have been reported as having been sickened with salmonella because of tainted chicken linked to Foster Farms. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that since many cases go unreported, "as many as 15,000 people could have been sickened by the contaminated meat." (CDC map: The agency says the official number of people infected with salmonella is 389, in 23 states and Puerto Rico)
The Pew study said the salmonella outbreak shows "serious weaknesses" in USDA's "oversight of poultry plants" and "criticized the government’s failure to push more aggressively for recalls of contaminated meat," the Post reports. Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s Food Safety Campaign, told the Post, “When more than 500 people get sick from a food-borne illness outbreak, that means the system we have in place wasn’t working to protect public health. This many people should not be getting sick.”

The study "includes sharp criticisms of the response by the (USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service) to the outbreaks, which it called 'insufficient to protect public health'," the Post reports. "In both cases, the department never asked Foster Farms to recall or stop shipping potentially contaminated chicken. The study also faults the department for failing to issue a public-health alert for the first outbreak, which lasted from June 2012 to April 2013. An alert was issued for the second outbreak, which began this March."

The Consumer Reports study, funded by Pew, "suggested that those lapses have contributed to the prevalence of potentially harmful bacteria that lurk in store-bought chicken," the Post writes. "The magazine independently tested more than 300 raw chicken breasts purchased from stores across the country and found that every major brand contained 'worrisome amounts' of pathogens such as salmonella and E.coli, including some strains resistant to treatment with antibiotics."

They found that "more than half the chicken breasts it tested were tainted with fecal contaminants, which can cause problems such as urinary tract infections in humans," the Post notes. "Half the samples contained at least one multidrug-resistant bacterium. In addition, researchers found no significant difference in the presence of troublesome bacteria between conventional chicken breasts and those labeled 'organic' or 'no antibiotics'."

Both studies "called for USDA to be more aggressive in pushing for recalls and alerting the public to potential outbreaks," the Post reports. "The groups said Congress should pass legislation to give the USDA mandatory recall authority. Currently, the department can put pressure on companies to recall products but, unlike the Food and Drug Administration, cannot force recalls." (Read more)

Texas researchers suggest link between drilling and earthquakes; state officials not quick to agree

While the debate about a possible link between drilling and earthquakes has become heated in states that have seen an increase in seismic activity, the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas in the state, says on its website that "staff has not identified a significant correlation between faulting and injection" of waste from drilling operations, which has increased with the advent of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, Mike Soraghan reports for Environment & Energy News.

Texas has had four earthquakes in the past week, 21 this month, and 37 total in 2013, according to Earthquake Track. Adjoining Oklahoma has also had a rash of quakes. After North Texas had more than 20 in November, residents called for an inquiry into drilling and earthquakes, Eva-Marie Ayala reports for The Dallas Morning News. The state has "more than 50,000 disposal wells in Texas servicing more than 216,000 active drilling wells, according to the Railroad Commission," reports State Impact.

Azle News photo and caption: "NetQuakes seismometers
are bolted to concrete foundations to ensure they are well-
coupled to a structure and accurately record ground motion."
The latest edition of the Azle News, in an area where many of the recent quakes have occurred, shows a seismometer and reports matter-of-factly, "The latest earthquake in the area occurred Saturday evening, Dec. 14, at 10:54 p.m. about a mile south of Springtown. That was just a day ahead of the installation of four NetQuakes instruments provided by the United States Geological Survey in the area."

But an inquiry doesn't appear to be going anywhere, Soraghan writes. George Conley, a commissioner whose district includes Azle, "said he warned his constituents when they sought an investigation." He told Soraghan, "They're not going to say anything negative about the industry. That's their bread and butter. It's going to be very difficult for the Railroad Commission to say it's the oil and gas industry and shut those wells down."

Texas is having the same problem as Oklahoma, where officials are reluctant to admit disposal and injection wells might have anything to do with earthquakes, Soraghan writes. Cliff Frohlich, senior research scientist at the University of Texas' Institute for Geophysics, told Soraghan, "Probably 100 percent of seismologists would agree that it can happen," but Frohlich "said there's far less agreement on whether specific earthquakes are caused by injection. He compares it to smoking and lung cancer. It's accepted that smoking causes cancer, but harder to say what caused cancer in a particular person. So it's much harder to say there's a 'definitive' link to specific quakes in specific places." (Read more)

Can the U.S. learn from Canada's decision to end all door-to-door mail delivery?

While the U.S. Postal Service seeks ways to save money, including its continued push to eliminate Saturday delivery of first class mail, our neighbors to the north have come up with a way to solve their post office's financial difficulties. Within five years, door-to-door mail delivery in Canada will be obsolete, replaced "with community mail boxes in central locations" and Canada Post "will also cut 6,000 to 8,000 jobs in the postal industry, and raise the price of the postage stamp by 22 cents," reports NPR. The delivery change is easier up there than it would be down here; only 5 million of the more than 15 million addresses in Canada get home delivery. (CBC photo: Community mailboxes)

Rosemary Barton of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation told NPR's Jeremy Hobson, "The thing that is going to make the most savings is stopping this door-to-door delivery. Most people will transition now to those big super mailboxes that you have at the end of a few streets, and they are also going to, as you've said, raise the price of stamps."

As in the U.S., other proposed solutions by Canadian officials included cutting the number of delivery days, Barton said. "This way, they think that they're helping people. You can still get your mail every day. You just won't get it at your door." (Radio Canada International graphic: Mail delivery in Canada)
The move, though, is not popular among postal employees and their union, Barton said. "They've got 15,000 workers set to retire in the next five years. . . . They are extremely well-paid jobs with big, fat pensions attached. And so the union is already up in arms, because they'd like to keep the positions, obviously, and they say that people should stand up and fight to keep their mail coming to their doors." (Read more)

FBI in New Mexico focusing on corruption in rural and remote areas, where it often goes unreported

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is cracking down on corruption in rural New Mexico towns, with a no-acceptance policy aimed at rooting out any amount of corruption, no matter how small, Patrick Lohmann reports for the Albuquerque Journal. "Officials are tackling what they say is a perception that a certain amount of corruption is acceptable, especially in small towns, so they’re asking rural-community residents to think critically about how money is being spent and contracts awarded by their public officials."

A study released earlier this year found that state capitals in remote or rural areas tend to be more corrupt, because of their isolation, and lack of media coverage. FBI lawyer Stephan Marshall cited similar reasons for the crackdown in New Mexico, Lohmann writes. "Marshall said the state’s larger metropolitan areas are better protected against public corruption because bureau offices are often located in them, and because news-media outlets in cities are generally more aggressive. Smaller towns are vulnerable to devastating losses and reduction in services, Marshall said, even if the amount of money misspent pales in comparison to corruption in places like Albuquerque or Santa Fe."

The FBI is also asking citizens to be active in reporting corruption, providing a phone number where people can report suspected corruption, Lohmann writes. The FBI also has "a page on its website that lists possible ways officials could be abusing their power, including whether contracts awarded benefit a public official, whether officials’ relatives are getting contracts and if contracts are being awarded without a bidding process." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reform should make Medicare, Medicaid more interested in prevention, rural health expert says

Dr. Wayne Myers
While some rural areas may not have enough doctors (or those who accept Medicaid patients) to treat new patients generated by federal health reform, the key to healthy living is more education, not more physicians, rural medical expert Dr. Wayne Myers opines in The Rural Monitor. As an example, Myers points to Perry County in Eastern Kentucky. The Appalachian county leads the nation in shortest average life span for women (72.65 years) and is third shortest for men (66.52 years) despite having an abundance of doctors and health facilities. The reason, Myers says, is bad habits that lead to unhealthy lives, something no amount of medical attention can cure.

"In Perry County, as in much of America, medical care is losing to unhealthy behavior," Myers writes. "Clinicians aren’t trained, nor is our clinical system structured, to accomplish changes in long-term cultural behavior, or to respond to the needs of groups of people. Certainly the 15-to-20-minute acute-care visit is a poor situation to try to work with a person on diet, level of activity, his/her addictions. We can’t modify family and social patterns with tools developed to treat strep throat, sprained ankles or breast cancer."

Myers said the solution is education at the local level, with "a lot more health educators, community health nurses and nutrition educators" that are trained within the community. Areas with community colleges can build partnerships with schools to receive training, he suggests. His hope is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will provide the resources and motivation necessary to bring about changes.

As the law generates enrollees, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ "book of business will shift from old people on Medicare toward younger people on Medicaid," he writes. "When the main business of CMS was Medicare, the rational business strategy was to seek the most economical quality care for those with only a few years to live. As the business shifts toward Medicaid and subsidized private insurance customers, the rational business strategy for CMS shifts toward preventing chronic disease. From an insurer’s point of view, a 70-year-old obese hypertensive diabetic is a self-limited problem. She’ll die soon. A 30-year-old with the same diagnoses will be a very long-term financial drain.  It will be good business for CMS to keep their 'covered lives' healthy."

This, he said, is kind of forward thinking we need to ensure young Americans get healthy. "We need new approaches to keeping people healthy, instead of trying to heal them after they get sick," Myers writes. "Clinicians can’t change the way people live and raise their kids, even if some of the choices the parents make turn out to be pretty dangerous for the kids. These are sensitive life and death issues. We need to tackle them." (Read more)

Federal court lifts emergency stay on two horse slaughter plants, so they could open soon

The on-again, off-again battle to open horse slaughter plants in New Mexico and Missouri appears to have taken a swing in favor of the plant owners, after a federal appeals court late Friday "lifted an emergency stay on the companies’ plans," but it could still be months before a final decision is issued, Jeri Clausing reports for The Associated Press. "The judge said the U.S. Department of Agriculture followed proper procedure in issuing permits" to the three companies."

Blair Dunn, the attorney for plants in Roswell, N.M., and Gallatin, Mo., "said the plants are ready to open, although they could agree to remain shuttered if the plaintiffs agree to post a sufficient bond to cover the companies’ losses should they ultimately prevail," Clausing writes. A third proposed plant in Iowa had already switched to beef, but its owner said the plant was struggling against other established companies, and would make a decision about horse slaughter by early January. (Read more)

We have covered the horse slaughter debate here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Deadly Ariz. fire prompts claims against three governments, one state agency fining another

Prescott Fire Dept. spokesman Wade Ward, left, talks with David
Turbyfill, whose son died. (Times-News photo by Ashley Smith)
Phoenix news outlets dropped their effort to get photos and documents relating to the forest fire that killed Arizona 19 "hotshot" firefighters on June 30, but now the search for answers has resumed. Last week the state Forestry Division released a video and thousands of pages of documents even including text messages and photos taken by other fire crews, Brian Skoloff reports for the Associated Press.

"Additional claims are being filed against the state, Yavapai County and the city of Prescott," the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson reports. Property owners blame negligence for the loss of their homes, Dennis Wagner and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez report for The Arizona Republic. The discussion about this disaster is far from over.

After a "swift and superficial original investigation report and other obfuscation of evidence, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health has cited the Arizona Forestry Division and fined it $559,000," saying  non-defensible structures were prioritized over firefighters' lives and that supervisors behaved irresponsibly., Billie Stanton writes for the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho, reporting that some have begun to suspect there is more to the story.

"The Granite Mountain Hotshots' bodies were moved off the site within 24 hours," Stanton writes. Following the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., on July 6, 1994, Missoula smokejumper Wayne Williams insisted the bodies not be moved because if they were, "any opportunity to learn from the event would be lost," Stanton notes. Evidence in such cases includes body locations and conditions, locations of fire shelters, condition of clothing and tools, and the direction of firefighters' steps and travel.

The state closed off the Prescott site. "They were trying to protect the sanctity of that site, of our guys," said Wade Ward, public information officer for the Prescott Fire Department. Stanton writes, "But a closed site yields no answers that could protect the sanctity of other firefighters' futures." Some wildfire professionals think that the hotshots tried to get to a place where they could continue to battle the fire to save Yarnell. "I think they took a calculated risk," said Randy Skelton, deputy fire staff officer on Idaho's Payette National Forest. (Read more)

Rural delivery rooms increasingly induce labor for no medical reason

Births in which labor was induced for no medical reason increased much more at rural hospitals from 2002 to 2010 than at urban hospitals, according to report by researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health published in the latest issue of Medical Care, Larry Hand reports for MedScape.

Researchers examined 6.3 million births in urban areas and 837,772 in rural areas based on information from the National Inpatient Sample, a 20 percent sample of U.S. hospital admissions. In rural hospitals, the share of deliveries in which labor was induced for no medical reason increased from 9.3 percent in 2002 to 16.5 percent in 2010, in the same period, the share at urban hospitals rose from 10.3 percent to 12 percent. Cesarean births at rural hospitals rose to 16.9 percent from 14.3 percent; at urban hospitals, they rose to 17.8 percent.

"With approximately 4 million births per year in the United States, a 1-percentage-point difference in the use of a procedure affects 40,000 women and infants annually," the researchers wrote. "Based on our findings, we estimate that differences due to rural or urban location — rather than differences in patient or hospital characteristics — may affect between 24,000 and 200,000 mothers and their babies each year." (Read more)

Researchers suggested that financial concerns may have contributed to the rise in rural areas, reports Connie Hughes for EurekAlert, an online science news service. Researchers wrote, "This analysis indicates that women giving birth in rural and urban hospitals may experience different childbirth-related benefits and risks. Due to Medicaid's important role in financing childbirth care, particularly in rural hospitals, Medicaid payment policy has great potential to inform and catalyze quality improvement in obstetric care." Researchers note that more than half of babies born at rural hospitals are covered by Medicaid. "However, such reforms may 'face different implementation challenges' at rural versus urban hospitals, according to the authors," Hughes writes.

Amid protests from gun advocates, BLM reverses ban on recreational shooting in national monument

In another example of the power gun advocates have over government officials, Emily Guerin reports for High Country News about the failed attempt by managers of the Sonoran Desert National Monument to ban recreational shooting on its 487,000 acres. The Bureau of Land Management reversed the decision after receiving complaints from Washington, D.C.-based hunting and shooting advocates who toured the monument. (Photo: A bullet-ridden sign at the monument)

Former monument manager Rich Hanson banned shooting because of the damage caused by shooters, Guerin writes. "In just one cleanup, he and his staff gathered 12,000 pounds of bullet-riddled oil drums, fast-food garbage and computer monitors. 'Slob shooters,' as Hanson, who retired last spring, calls them, have also harmed the very resources he was sworn to protect – amputating saguaro [cactus] limbs, shattering rock faces and splintering the trunks of palo verde, mesquite and other desert trees. Visitors to monument wilderness areas or the popular Anza National Historic Trail often pass unsightly roadside dumps."  

Wilderness Society attorney Phil Hanceford, who sued the BLM over its reversal in September, told Guerin, "This is not just turning a blind eye to someone else's science. It's looking straight at their own science and completely disregarding their own recommendation." High Country News is subscription only, but can be accessed by clicking here.

After the tour, John Tomke, chair of the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Council, wrote a letter to BLM Director Robert Abbey, saying: "When then-[Interior] Secretary Bruce Babbitt recommended BLM keep management of the SDNM, it was understood that these special landscapes would remain open to the traditional recreational activities that had taken place for decades. Recreational shooting is one of those traditional activities. Dispersed recreational shooting is a valued recreational activity unto itself and is also a gateway into more formal shooting sports and hunting. Recreational shooting is a critical element in the process of becoming a hunter and shooting sports enthusiast, and given the importance of hunting and recreational shooting in the funding of wildlife conservation in America it is imperative that we do all we can to further recruitment and retention of hunters and recreational shooters." Tomke argued that there aren't enough public shooting areas in the Phoenix area for the number of recreational shooters who live there, better clean-up plans could be instituted, and the monument has enough room for specific shooting-only areas, or re-routing hiking trails to accommodate shooters. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Rural school districts dominate second round of federal 'Race to the Top' grants

Three rural school districts or groups, and an Arkansas district that retains much of its recently rural character, were among the five winners in the latest round of "Race to the Top"  grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, totaling $120 million.

The winners were a consortium of 18 rural districts in Eastern Kentucky, to get $30 million; a consortium of four in South Carolina, $25 million; and districts in Clarksdale, Miss. ($10 million), Springdale, Ark. ($25.9 million), and Houston, Texas ($30 million). The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative "narrowly missed winning last time," Education Week reports. Springdale, "near the Tyson Foods headquarters, enrolls 20,500 students, including many English-learners."

"These winners particularly shine a light on the innovative work going on in rural school districts across the country to tailor education for all students and provide school leaders and teachers with key tools that support them in meeting students’ needs," a department news release said. "The grantees were selected from 31 finalists, representing 80 school districts across 21 states. The department received more than 200 applications."

Michele McNeil of Education Week reports the South Carolina group, led by Clarendon County District 2, "wants to increase access to digital devices for students and create individualized learning plans for each student. Springdale plans to expand career academies, require ninth graders to take an online course, and improve its data dashboard. Clarksdale will focus on expanding its ninth- grade academy. And the Kentucky Valley co-op will expand distance learning and better train teachers to use technology." (Read more)

The release said the grants are intended to help personalize and improve student learning, increase student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare all students for success in college and careers. For more information on Race to the Top from the department, click here. UPDATE, Jan. 5: For a roundup and highlights from Michele McNeil of Education Week, go here.

In year after Newtown massacre, 2/3 of new gun laws eased restrictions or expanded owners' rights

The school massacre in Newtown, Conn., one year ago last weekend, opened up debate about the need for stronger gun-control laws. But in the year since the shooting, "Nearly two-thirds of the new laws ease restrictions and expand the rights of gun owners," reports The New York Times. "Most of those bills were approved in states controlled by Republicans. Those who support stricter regulations won some victories—mostly in states where the legislature and governorship are controlled by Democrats—to increase restrictions on gun use and ownership." (NYT graphic: Gun laws passed since Newtown shooting)
But even in states that put more controls on guns, politicians have faced backlash. Colorado, which passed stricter gun laws earlier this year, has since kicked out two Democratic state senators who supported gun-control in a recall election, and another facing a recall resigned, allowing her party to name a replacement.

Meanwhile, Colorado sheriffs like John Cooke of Weld County (Colorado Springs Gazette photo by Michael Ciaglo) "are refusing to enforce the laws, saying that they are too vague and violate Second Amendment rights," Erica Goode reports for the Times. "Many more say that enforcement will be 'a very low priority,' as several sheriffs put it." In May, 57 of the state's 62 sheriffs in Colorado joined a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of federal gun laws. Police officials in some other states have also said they will refuse to enforce any new gun laws.

Some gun-control supporters have gone to extremes to get their message out. Stop Handgun Violence has a billboard near the heavy traffic area around Fenway Park in Boston that keeps a running daily tally of the number of gun deaths since Newtown, with the number at 32,833 last weekend, Peter Schworm notes for The Boston Globe. But with about half the states weakening gun laws, and an Associated Press poll finding that support for stricter laws has fallen since January, the campaigns don't seem to be working. (Read more) (Globe photo by David L. Ryan)

The Times put together a list of how laws in each state have fared that dealt with gun permits, guns in schools, mental health, background checks, assault weapons, gun access, lost/stolen firearms, nullifying federal law and other laws proposed or passed. For the list, click here.

Writer wonders why we need a Farm Bill

House and Senate conferees say they will soon agree on a five-year Farm Bill to replace the one that expired Sept. 30, 2012. But why do we need a farm bill, when we have plenty of relatively inexpensive food, are too fat, and farmers are doing well? Charles Lane asks in The Washington Post. "Is there something about farming, as opposed to other businesses, that makes market economics uniquely inapplicable?"

The chief aim seems to be food security, ensuring that affordable commodities are available to cities and suburbs where most of the population lives. Maybe that was necessary during the Great Depression, but it's ridiculous now, Lane argues: "This obesity-plagued nation is ankle-deep in cheap food." The Agriculture Department says the average U.S. household spent only 6.4 percent of its income on food eaten at home, and the average American ate 474 more calories each day in 2010 than in 1970.

The department predicts net farm income for 2013 will be $131 billion, and the proceeds are divided among many fewer farmers than in the 1930s, when the first Farm Bill was enacted. Now farms can produce 262 percent more food than they did in 1950 with basically the same amount of labor, seeds and fertilizer, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. "U.S. agriculture is so productive that even natural disaster doesn't threaten food supply as much as it once did," Lane writes.

Food-supply panicking can actually be a part of farm-lobby propaganda, Lane writes. The lack of a new farm law and reversion to an old one could raise milk prices to $8 per gallon, but Lane says that threat has been exaggerated, mainly because the agriculture secretary can delay the effect, but also because transportation and other relevant costs won't be affected. "For the ag lobby, though, the point is to keep people worrying about a price hike instead of questioning the absurd legal quirk that makes it possible in the first place," he contends.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would get rid of the "egregious subsidy of direct payments that automatically award growers of certain favored commodities $ billion per year," which is real reform, Lane acknowledges. He says one argument for a Farm Bill is that around 80 percent of its money funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. "Sooner or later, though, Congress will have to find a balanced alternative to the old log-rolling link between help for the poor and corporate welfare for agribusiness," he writes.

Falling coal prices nix, threaten port projects

The continuing drop in coal prices is hurting U.S. export business on which the industry had been banking. Three proposed coal terminals in Washington and Oregon have already been abandoned, and three more are in jeopardy, Rob Davis reports for The Oregonian. And he doesn't even mention local opposition to the terminals. Last week, the Port of Corpus Christi announced it was canceling plans for a terminal, the second such instance this year, Emily Atkin reports for Climate Progress. (Oregonian graphic: Abandoned and proposed terminals in Oregon and Washington)
Richard Morse, managing director at SuperCritical Capital, an energy-finance consulting firm, told Davis, “Certainly, higher prices globally are supportive of these investments. To the extent we don’t have higher prices, it’s harder to make these work. U.S. exporters will have a harder time competing with lower-cost international competitors.”

With coal prices dropping, "U.S. companies face strong competition from suppliers like Australia and Indonesia that are closer to big buyers like China," Davis writes. "The United States has historically been a swing exporter. When prices were high, U.S. producers profitably exported because buyers were willing to cover the costs of extracting and shipping coal. But when prices drop, the U.S. supply becomes less attractive, and buyers turn elsewhere." Kristoffer Inton, a Morningstar analyst who follows the coal industry, told Davis, “The international price matters. There are a lot of other places that can supply coal.” (Oregonian graphic: Proposed ports in Washington and Oregon)

So as U.S. coal exporters play the wait-and-see game with China while looking for other buyers such as South Korea, the three proposed ports in Washington and Oregon remain in limbo. Jonny Sultoon, a coal markets analyst for Wood Mackenzie, told Davis, “The difficulty if you’re looking at a 25-million to 30-million ton project, who are you going to sign those contracts with? To get that kind of volume upside, you need participation from Chinese buyers. It’s going to be quite hard to get those kinds of agreements set up.” (Read more)

EPA's proposed cuts would put pressure on states

According to the Environmental Protection Agency's draft strategic plan, EPA plans conduct fewer inspections and initiate fewer cases against industrial polluters in the next five years, Neela Banerjee reports for the Los Angeles Times. These cuts in federal funding would put significant financial pressure on the states, Bernadette M. Rappold of the McGuireWoods law and lobbying firm writes on Mondaq.

EPA proposes to decrease annual federal inspections and evaluations from 20,000—what it was in 2012—to 14,000 between 2014 and 2018. It has also figures to start 2,320 civil judicial and administrative enforcement cases against violators as opposed to 3,000 in 2012 and conclude 2,000 civil and administrative enforcement cases, down from 3,000 in 2012, Laura Sesana reports for The Washington Times.

EPA's decision was part of a new emphasis on the biggest polluters to clean the country's air and water most effectively, Sesana writes. EPA spokesperson Alisha Johnson said, "From our work on the biggest enforcement cases, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, to aggressively pursuing smaller cases that can reduce harmful health impacts and have the greatest environmental benefit, our enforcement work will continue to save lives and protect our environment."

Because of these federal cuts, states will have to shoulder much more financial responsibility, Rappold writes: "While the agency appears to be counting on state, local and tribal governments to pick up the slack, it may be impossible for them to do so, given the lingering effects of the Great Recession on state and local budgets. As a result, various groups are calling on the agency to find money from elsewhere to cushion the blow." Even though the plan is still a draft, it may cause uncertainty among some companies because weak federal enforcement may cause "an uneven approach to environmental enforcement," Rappold writes.

Colo. study of fracking spill sites finds chemicals linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer

"Water samples collected at Colorado sites where hydraulic fracturing was used to extract natural gas show the presence of chemicals that have been linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer," according to a study by researchers from the University of Missouri and the U.S. Geological Survey published in the journal Endocrinology, reports Neela Banerjee for the Los Angeles Times. "The study also found elevated levels of the hormone-disrupting chemicals in the Colorado River, where wastewater released during accidental spills at nearby wells could wind up."

Researchers tested samples of surface water and groundwater in western Colorado's Garfield County, which has about 10,000 wells, Banerjee writes. Tests were done "at five natural gas sites where spills of fracking wastewater had occurred over the last six years." Tests of 39 water samples found that 89 percent had estrogenic properties, 41 percent were anti-estrogenic, 12 percent were androgenic and 46 percent were anti-androgenic. Samples from the Colorado River showed higher levels than the control samples. Tests at sites where no fracking was conducted found lower levels of hormone-disrupting chemical. (EPA map)

Researchers also "conducted laboratory analyses of 12 fracking chemicals that are used in Colorado to extract oil and gas. They found that the chemicals were endocrine disrupters that could interfere with human sex hormones," Banerjee writes. "Katie Brown, a spokeswoman with the industry advocacy group Energy In Depth, dismissed the study as 'inflammatory'." (Read more)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Farm-paper editor identifies self-employed folks' problems with Obamacare, and hers with Congress

Farmers and other self-employed people may have special trouble maneuvering through the process of obtaining health insurance on or a state-run exchange, writes Sharon Burton, editor and publisher of The Farmer's Pride, Kentucky's statewide agricultural newspaper.

Sharon Burton
"The first thing I realized is the system doesn’t know how to deal with people who are self-employed," Burton writes. "I figure that’s just about every farmer in the commonwealth" of Kentucky, which is operating its own exchange, Kynect.

"My husband is a owner/operator commercial truck driver, so his income can fluctuate from year to year. When I adjusted our income based on that fluctuation, the system was not happy with me because I estimated our 2014 income to be different than our 2012," Burton writes, adding that her kynector, a state-paid adviser who helps people use the exchange about it, "She said she too had problems signing up anyone who was self-employed. She also warned me that we should notify Kynect if our income varied even within $1,000 or could face serious ramifications at the end of the year."

Kynect spokeswoman Gwenda Bond told Kentucky Health News, "If self-employed individuals have variable incomes there might be an extra step for them to accurately verify income. They would have to submit additional information, in some cases, because the income verification system accepts the amount reported only if it is within 10 percent of what the IRS has on file for the most recent year."

Burton adds, "There are a lot of bugs in the system. For one, if your spouse’s employer offers family coverage – even if they don’t pay any portion of it – you are not eligible for any subsidies. We all know insurance offered through companies often provides family coverage but it isn’t affordable.
Now you will be disqualified from Obamacare because that unaffordable plan is out there."

Burton has also lost patience with Congress. "The ones who voted for it spend all their time defending it, and the ones who voted against it spend their time trying to make sure it fails," she writes. "Just fix it people. Get on with it. It’s like starting a business. You have a plan, but where you end up often looks a lot different than where you start because you make changes as needed. This is a starting point; let’s move on to the next stage and stop bellyaching." (Read more)

House Democrats say they won't support Farm Bill unless unemployment benefits are extended

Farm Bill negotiators talked optimistically on Friday about getting a bill through Congress next month, despite a mountain of hurdles, but then House Democrats signaled that they will refuse to support the bill — which will almost certainly need Dem support to pass the House — unless Republicans agree to restart unemployment benefits with the Farm Bill’s savings," Greg Sargent reports for The Washington Post. Unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans will expire Dec. 28.

Chris Van Hollen
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told Sargent, “Under no circumstances should we support the Farm Bill unless Republicans agree to use the savings from it to extend unemployment insurance. This is a potential pressure point. We’re going to have to resolve differences in the Farm Bill because otherwise milk prices will spike. If past is prologue, they are going to need a good chunk of Democrats to pass the Farm Bill. I’m confident that the House Democratic leadership will look for every opportunity to extend unemployment insurance, helping struggling families and the economy. The farm bill re-authorization may be the first such opportunity.”

Van Hollen "said that a 'minimum of $15 billion in savings' was expected from the Farm Bill, much of it 'from the elimination of direct subsidies,' and said it would be unconscionable not to use this money for some form of an extension of unemployment benefits [rather than deficit reduction], which would not only help 1.3 million people, but the economy, too," Sargent writes. Van Hollen told Sargent, “The priority should be to help those struggling families not only because it helps them but because it also helps local economies throughout the country." (Read more)

Environmental groups sue EPA over new Kentucky selenium rules that the coal industry supports

Four environmental groups filed a lawsuit Friday against the Environmental Protection Agency over its decision last month to approve changes, favored by the coal industry, in the way Kentucky measures selenium in its water, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. The groups said the standard "will not adequately protect fish and other wildlife in streams from selenium pollution" and are seeking "to bar the state from putting the standard into place," Bill Estep writes.

"Selenium is an element that can be released into streams during surface mining, road-building and other activities involving excavation," Estep notes. Under old regulations, "Kentucky’s water quality standard for selenium is based on the amount of the substance that’s in the water," Erica Peterson reports for WFPL Radio in Louisville. Under the new rules, "If water testing reveals levels that are above a certain benchmark, that will trigger fish-tissue testing."

The environmental groups—Kentucky Waterways Alliance, the Sierra Club, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and Appalachian Voices, "argue that approach is wrong because it would exempt streams where there are no fish but where there may be other aquatic life," Estep writes. "The rule wouldn't protect salamanders and crayfish, for instance, the lawsuit said." Eric Chance of Appalachian Voices told Estep the new rule is "just a novel way of letting polluters off the hook for poisoning our fish and waterways."

Kentucky regulators disagreed, Estep reports: "The rules are based on sound science and will protect the state's streams, Bruce Scott, commissioner of the state Department for Environmental Protection, said in April when a legislative panel approved the change." (Read more)

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North Carolina town. state legislature and PETA battle over New Year's Eve possum drop

A battle is raging in a small town in Appalachian North Carolina over a traditional event that locals say is harmless fun intended to show the spirit of rural life, but that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calls cruel and inhumane.

While thousands crowd Times Square in New York every New Year's Eve to watch a giant ball drop to the ground to signify the beginning of a new year, Brasstown, N.C., holds a similar event, replacing the ball with a live opossum. (Reese News Lab photo by Eliza Kern)

Last year, PETA successfully blocked the state from issuing a permit for the event, Valerie Bauerlein reports for The Wall Street Journal. In response, state lawmakers passed a law, signed earlier this year by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, called the Opossum Right to Work Act. "The state hopes its new law—which allows it to grant a permit for a wild animal to be held 'for scientific, educational, exhibition or other purposes'—will bolster its case in a two-year legal battle with PETA," which said that "While the new law clears up technicalities about handling wild animals, it doesn't change state standards on the humane treatment of animals."

When they passed the law, "State legislators called the opossum drop wholesome fun, an economic boost in a poor county—the event has drawn thousands of people to the small town—and an honor to the humble opossum, which is captured shortly before the drop, kept in a clear box with air holes and set free immediately afterward," Bauerlein writes. A judge is expected to make a decision soon, though town officials said the drop will go on with or without approval, with the live opossum "officially" replaced with a stuffed one. It wasn't clear if the town used a stuffed opossum last year, or went ahead and used a live one without approval. For details, click here.

Rural artist creates, curates art from Google images

Bill Guffey, an artist in Burkesville, Ky., on the Cumberland River where John Muir called it "a friendly stream," enjoys turning Google Earth Street View images into paintings. The site provides street-levels view of countless locations, and Guffey saw in it the opportunity to paint anything with a perspective "almost as good as being there in person," Cheryl Truman writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The first place Guffey decided to paint was a Chinese restaurant in New York City. "I thought it was an interesting building, thought I would try to paint it, and I was hooked," Guffy told Truman. "In Street View, you can find any kind of building, tree or landscape you want."
Herald-Leader photos: Anne Arsenault painted Venice (left) based on a Google Street View image of the Italian city (right).
After Guffey discovered this opportunity, he wanted to share his work, and got permission from Google. An attorney for Google even purchased 50 paintings, one from each state, and the Google itself purchased seven, three for a London office and four for California.

"Almost five years into the project, Guffey's Virtual Paintout has seen 3,900 submissions. The first month's subject was Baltimore. This month's subject is Venice," Truman writes. Click here to see the artists' work. Each piece of art includes a link to the Google image on which it is based.

Guffey likes painting using Street View because it allow him to look at locations from different distances and angles. "It's just like you're walking up and down the street, and you decide," he said. He has painted about 150 pieces based on Street View since 2008. New participants join the project each month. Guffey said, and "There are a couple of people who have been with me since nearly the first time." (Read more)