Saturday, January 25, 2014

Transportation safety board recommends tougher standards for shipping crude oil by rail

On Thursday the National Transportation Safety Board said "that transportation regulators should work with railroads to reroute oil trains and should ensure that railroads have plans in place to handle 'worst-case' accidents or spills. It also called for new testing practices for oil being shipped by rail, in the wake of several serious accidents recently in which crude oil exploded after trains derailed," Besty Morris, Paul Vieria and Laura Stevens report for The Wall Street Journal. More crude oil was spilled in U.S. railway accidents in 2013 than in the previous 37 years. The Association of American Railroads urged U.S. regulators in November to require retrofits and upgrades for nearly 100,000 cars.

In 2008, about 9,500 carloads of crude oil traveled by rail, but the number surged to 400,000 last year, Clifford Krauss and Jad Mouawad report for The New York Times. Domestic oil production is also on the rise, at 7.5 million barrels a day in 2013, an increase of 50 percent in the last five years. Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the NTSB, told the Times, “This is an industry that has developed overnight, and they have been playing catch-up with the infrastructure. A lot of what we’ve seen could have been a lot worse.” (Read more)

The NTSB, which can't enforce its recommendations, said "they stem from findings of the investigation into the July derailment of a crude-oil train that destroyed much of Lac-M├ęgantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people," the Journal reports. Canada's Transportation Safety Board has issued a similar set of safety recommendations.

The NTSB called on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration "to require shippers not only to test but to document the physical and chemical characteristics of their hazardous shipments. Currently, it said, shippers don't have to keep records of testing," the Journal reports. "It said shippers aren't required to provide documentation of how they determined the classification." (Read more)

Friday, January 24, 2014

New measuring stick gives clearer picture of how size of farms in U.S. is increasing

An August report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture could be one of the keys to solving the continued debate over limits on farm payments, a contentious subject in the struggle to pass a new Farm Bill, David Rogers reports for Politico. But beyond that, it gives a clearer picture of how farm size is increasing, says USDA's Economic Research Service, which did the work.

The ERS report "introduces a measure of midpoint acreage in which half of all cropland acres are on farms with more cropland than the midpoint, and half are on farms with less. Midpoint acreage is revealed to be a more informative measure of cropland consolidation than either a simple median (in which half of all farms are either larger or smaller) or the simple mean (which is average cropland per farm)," the study's authors write. (ERS graphic: Measures of average farm size)

Researchers found that "the midpoint acreage for U.S. cropland nearly doubled between 1982 and 2007, from 589 acres to 1,105, and midpoint acreages increased in 45 of 50 States and more than doubled in 16," according to the report. "The largest increases occurred in a contiguous group of 12 Corn Belt and Northern Plains states; midpoint acreages more than doubled in each of 5 major field crops (corn, cotton, rice, soybeans, and wheat) and increased in 35 of 39 fruit and vegetable crops, where the average increase was 107 percent; the shifts were persistent, with a general pattern of increase between each Census of Agriculture conducted between 1982 and 2007."

The report, though, states that  "less comprehensive evidence from annual surveys suggests that the pace of consolidation slowed between 2007 and 2011, the last year for which data are available. Data from the 2012 Census will provide more definitive evidence of recent trends; and larger crop farms continue to realize better financial performance: average rates of return on equity increased with farm size in five major commodity categories analyzed in this report (corn, soybeans, wheat, fruits, and vegetables). In turn, larger farms utilize labor and capital more intensively, which provide them with the primary source of their financial advantage."

Rogers writes, "The new midpoint index is a more telling measurement than simply averaging the size of all farms nationally." He also says Mississippi "stands out, going from 950 acres to 1,950 acres. But the Midwest saw the greatest change. The weighted median values for harvested acres in North Dakota went from 882 acres to 2,240 in the same 25-year period. Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota all saw a better-than-100-percent jump. Government commodity payments appear to have had less to do with this consolidation than other factors — the search for higher profits, greater efficiencies of scale and an abundance of flat land making it easier to merge farms." (Read more) (ERS graphic: Changes in midpoint acreage for cropland from 1982-2007)

Rural-urban life-expectancy gap grew as smoking and obesity became more rural, study finds

The gap in life expectancy between rural and urban areas continues to widen, with rural residents living shorter lives than their urban counterparts, according to a study published in the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Researchers looked at county-level data from 1969 to 2009, finding that residents in metro areas lived an average of 70.9 years, while those in non-metro areas averaged 70.5. From 2005-2009, the average life expectancy in metro areas was 78.8 years, and in non-metro areas it was 76.8 years. (Life expectancy in U.S. from 2005-2009)
Author Gopal K. Singh, Ph.D, of the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, told Science Daily: "When compared to urban areas, rural areas have higher rates of both smoking and lung cancer, along with obesity, yet reduced access to health care services. Additionally, rural residents have a lower median family income, higher poverty rate and fewer have college degrees." (Read more)

Smoking has become more rural in the last 45 years, the study found. In 2010, 26.9 percent of non-metropolitan adults smoked, compared to 19.7 percent in small metro areas and 16.9 percent in large metro areas. In 1976, the rates were 25.1 percent on farms, 36.5 outside central cities, and 37.8 percent in central cities. Obesity has also become more rural. The obesity rate in 2010 was 25.9 percent in metro areas and 33.2 percent in non-metro areas, In 1976 it was 9.2 percent in metros, 9.5 percent in non-metros.

In 1970, median family income in non-metro areas was $2,892 less than in metros; in 2009, the gap was $16,842. The percentage of college graduates in metro areas rose from 17.7 percent to 29.5 percent from 1970 to 2009, and in non-metro areas from 10.9 percent to 17.3 percent. Among major indicators, only the poverty gap between metro and non-metro remained the same from 1970 to 2009, but non-metro areas were higher than metro areas, the study notes. To read the study click here.

Ky. to spend $100 million to expand broadband; Minn. state senator calls for expansion there

Kentucky lawmakers this week introduced a $100 million plan to expand high-speed Internet access in the state, stating that the early emphasis will be on rural Eastern Kentucky, John Cheves reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Also this week, state Sen. Matt Schmitt (D-Minn.) wrote an opinion piece in the Kenyon Leader in the southeastern part of the state, calling for his state to stop talking about expanding broadband and get the job done.

Gov. Steve Beshear
The plan in Kentucky, introduced by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, "will rely on $60 million from state bonds and $40 million from federal and privately raised funds, including a portion of $10 million that Congress approved last week for rural broadband Internet expansion through the federal Appalachian Regional Commission," Cheves writes. Only 62 percent of Kentucky homes, mostly in urban areas, had access to broadband in 2012, compared to 73 percent of all U.S. homes, according to the University of Kentucky Center for Business and Economic Research.

"The first phase of broadband expansion under Beshear's plan could take as long as three years to lay nearly 3,000 miles of fiber infrastructure above and below ground, including about 600 miles in Eastern Kentucky," Cheves writes. (Read more)

Sen. Matt Schmitt
Scmitt calls broadband the "great transformative technology of the 21st Century," but says that the state has been slow in adopting it universally. He writes: "Over the past decade Minnesota has named three separate governor’s task forces on the subject. We’ve identified policy recommendations and set statewide speed goals. Our local providers and cooperatives have invested in new technology and infrastructure to meet rising demand for faster service and new applications. Yet, in many parts of the state this hasn’t been enough."

"Despite the best efforts of our local providers and cooperatives, poor broadband connectivity remains a real problem in many parts of the state; for too many of our communities and rural areas, scarce resources and limited private return-on-investment, as well as outdated and unclear state laws, serve as barriers to improved broadband connectivity; and folks are ready to do something about it," Schmitt writes. He calls on the 2014 legislative session to find a way to expand high-speed Internet, writing "many states have stepped up to meet this challenge; Minnesota should, too." (Read more)

Mo., one of states blocking help for Obamacare signups, can't do that, federal judge rules

Rural Americans have been more likely to lack health insurance, but more than a dozen of the 22 states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid under Obamacare have made it difficult for the uninsured to buy subsidized insurance or enroll in Medicaid. "Some have required criminal background checks or added requirements for training or a state license," The Wall Street Journal reports.

On Thursday, a federal court "temporarily blocked Missouri officials from restricting organizations in the state from helping people sign up for health insurance as part of the federal health-overhaul law," Louise Radnofsky writes. The move stops the state insurance department from enforcing a law passed "last year that limited the activities of people seeking to enroll the uninsured through new insurance exchanges."

The plaintiffs in the case were the St. Louis Effort for AIDS and Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, both "approved by the federal government to assist consumers in using the exchanges to compare health plans and apply for coverage," Radnofsky reports. The state law "required anyone offering advice about insurance or providing any information related to health plans to hold a license from the state." (Read more)

Rural sheriffs use e-cigarettes to calm inmates, make profit; businesses target rural jails

Sales and use of electronic cigarettes are heating up in rural jails and prisons, but there is some concern that manufacturers are pushing the product on inmates, Timothy Williams reports for The New York Times. "Though traditional cigarettes are prohibited from most prisons and jails because of fire hazards and secondhand smoke, a growing number of sheriffs say they are selling e-cigarettes to inmates to help control the mood swings of those in need of a smoke, as well as address budget shortfalls, which in some jails have meant that guards are earning little more than fast-food workers." (NYT photo by Christopher Berkey: Inmate Logan Smith smokes an e-cigarette)
Gage County, Nebraska, Sheriff Millard Gustafson bought 200 e-cigarettes in December for his 32-prison jail, and soldout almost immediately, Williams reports. Gustafson told him, "They’ve been selling like hot cakes. I look at this as something to control their moods. And so if they’re not a good boy or girl, I’m going to take them away, just like I do with the TVs.”

Sheriff Mark Gammons, of Macon County, Tennessee, has seen a similar interest among prisoners, saying "that at least half of the jail’s 150 inmates were smokers and that many had turned to e-cigarettes."He said selling e-cigarettes has been profitable for a business whose highest paid guards are only making $10.58 an hour, and haven't seen raises in some time, Williams writes. The prison buys each e-cigarette, the equivalent of three to four packs of cigarettes, for $2.75, and sells them to prisoners for $10. That has Gammons hopeful he can profit between $20,000 to $50,000 this year on the sale of e-cigarettes, and use that money for pay raises.

While Gammons says he doesn't encourage e-cigarette smoking among prisoners, distributors make no bones about pitching the product to inmates, Williams writes. "Behind the scenes, e-cigarette distributors have been lobbying local officials at state sheriffs’ association meetings, and dropping by penitentiaries and leaving behind samples."

The market is being targeted. Bill Anderson, owner of Precision Vapor in Lexington, Ky., says on the company's website that it is "a leading designer and manufacturer of electronic cigarettes for the prison systems. We were at the forefront of the introduction of electronic cigarettes to the prisons and continue to expand into all 50 states, with the goal of producing a top quality cigarette that achieves unparalleled success in jail after jail." (Read more)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

As talks near end, Farm Bill comes full circle, to fundamental questions of national policy

UPDATE: Rogers reports that Farm Bill conferees have been told to be ready for a meeting Monday to adopt a compromise measure.

"Farm Bill negotiators are struggling with two final issues — dairy and payment limits — each of which takes Congress back full circle to the question asked when the whole debate began two years ago," writes David Rogers of Politico. "How far should government go to protect farmers from bad times — and, sometimes, themselves?"

House Speaker John Boehner has blocked a tentative House-Senate agreement "to manage future milk supplies to protect farmers’ margins. Corporate giants like Kraft Foods and Nestle back the speaker," Rogers reports, giving details of a workaround. "In the case of payment limits, it’s a very different set of players. But the question is again one of balancing government’s role and the risks of modern agriculture." Reformers want to require that recipients be "actively engaged" in farming, but defining that is proving difficult.

Some advocates of limiting payments "are often doing so in opposition to large farms, period. Others make their pitch on equity grounds since most farm subsidies now go to households earning well above the median income for the nation," Rogers notes. "Midwest moralists eager to impose their vision on the sometimes feudal land structure of Southern agriculture. But the debate affects a much wider swath of family farms, which still constitute 87 percent of the value of crop production in the U.S. And given the rise of corn and soybeans, North and South Dakota now rival Arkansas and Mississippi in the size of their own farm operations."

As usual, Rogers gives plenty of details without getting lost in them. Read his story.

Amid continued debate, expansion of Medicaid is dream come true for many poor people

Though enrollment in private insurance plans under federal health reform has been slower than advocates hoped, Medicaid enrollment has skyrocketed in states that chose to expand the program. In West Virginia, which has high poverty rates and short life spans, more than 75,000 people have enrolled in the federal-state program for the poor and disabled. Although some who have signed up for private insurance through the new exchanges had some type of health insurance before, most signing up for Medicaid were not previously insured. In West Virginia, the number of people lacking health care coverage has gone down by a third, Sabrina Tavernise writes for The New York Times.

"America ranks near the bottom of developed countries in health and longevity, and many public health experts believe that improving that ranking will be impossible without paying more attention to poor Americans," Tavernise writes. That is being debated, but in the short-term, many who have gained coverage have shown improvements in mental health, because they don't have to worry about paying unmanageable medical bills or finding a doctor's office that will accept the uninsured. "You see it in their faces," said Janie Hovatter, a patient advocate at Cabin Creek Health Systems, a southern West Virginia health clinic. "They just kind of relax."

Some in rural areas resist signing up because they don't like President Obama; in West Virginia, he is blamed for decimation of the coal industry. "Recruiters trying to persuade people to enroll say they sometimes feel like drug peddlers," Tavernise writes. However, many people are putting their need for healthcare over their dislike of the president. Rachel Williams, a McDonald's worker from Mingo County who didn't have insurance, would not fill out insurance forms when she went to the emergency room because of kidney stones. But later, when she found out she qualified for Medicaid, she signed up right away.

Studies show that 10 percent of premature deaths in the U.S. are caused by lack of access to medical care, while 40 percent are caused by behaviors like smoking and eating unhealthy food. "The rest is linked to genetics and social and environmental factors," Tavernise reports. Lavetta Hutchinson, a nurse in McDowell County, told her the law won't do much to improve health, especially that of the many people who have turned to drugs because of a lack of education and economic opportunity. "People don't see the value of prevention," Hutchinson said. Living better is more expensive, Tavernise notes: "Poverty is short-term thinking—what can I do today to survive," said Sister Janet Peterworth, a charity worker in Mingo Country who is enrolling people.

Others see the new accessibility of health coverage as a stepping stone for increased health among the poor. Many Mingo County Diabetes Coalition patients could previously afford only food or medicine, social worker Gina Justice told Tavernise. "If you can take away that stress because now you've got a medical card, then you can focus on healthier eating that will help with these medical issues," Justice said.

The old income limit for Medicaid eligibility in West Virginia was one-third of the federal poverty threshold, a meager 4,000 per year. That limit left most people out of luck, such as former nurse Sharon Mills, who could no longer work after suffering a back injury at work; she had been surviving on $12,000 per year in worker's compensation and the generosity of others to pay for treatment of her diabetes and eventual renal failure. The new limit is effectively 138 percent of poverty, which is about $15,200 for an individual. For Mills, "permanent eligibility for Medicaid was a godsend," Tavernise writes. "It's going to change her life," said Hutchinson, the nurse who sometimes treats Mills. (Read more)

While there are success stories in West Virginia, 21 states decided not to expand Medicaid, leaving millions of people without access to health care. See story below.

In states that didn't expand Medicaid, millions and their helpers scramble to get coverage

In states that did not expand Medicaid under federal health reform, millions of residents are having trouble qualifying for affordable insurance. Julia Buckner, a health insurance navigator, travels around meeting with rural people from poor counties in North Carolina to help them sign up for health coverage, but many fall into the "coverage gap," which means that while they do not make enough money to qualify for a subsidy, they also do not qualify for Medicaid, Jenny Gold writes for Kaiser Health News.

That's because North Carolina—along with 22 other states—did not expand Medicaid to people with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty threshold. Above that level, the law gives people subsidies to buy private insurance, but the Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the law, and many did, creating the gap.

"I take someone who's working poor, I ask them to come see me, and then I find out that not only are they poor, but they're too poor for me to help," Buckner told Gold. "It's almost as if I wished I hadn't seen them." Buckner has worked with some people to come up with a way for them to reach the poverty line, which is annual income of $11,500 for a single person; that way, they can qualify for a subsidy. People often don't realize that income can come from many sources. "Folks are trying to use every source of income, whether it's selling tomatoes from their garden, or perhaps they've never actually sold the hay off of their field; they've just always let their nephew cut it for free," Buckner said.

While many struggle to qualify for insurance, some success stories make Buckner hopeful for the future, Gold writes. Chuck Cantley, 62, learned his premium would rise to $1,100 a month from $240, so he applied for reduced Social Security benefits, which put him at the poverty level and qualified for health coverage. "The folks that have been able to sign up—they are ecstatic," Buckner said. "And as long as we keep hearing success stories, that energy and excitement are going to grow." (Read more)

In response to claims of over-regulation, OSHA says it will work to clarify regulations for small farms

After being accused by Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) of "ignoring 35-year-old provisions in fining a small Nebraska farm for improper grain storage," the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Wednesday that it "will work to clarify its regulations regarding grain storage on small farms," Aarian Marshall reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

Grain-bin accidents and deaths have been a major concern in recent years, with 57 entrapments and 31 deaths in 2010, which has led to a greater call for education and awareness, and while numbers have dropped, there were still 19 entrapments and eight deaths in 2012, Marshall writes. Last year, within weeks of each other, two Iowans were trapped in grain bins, with one dying.

"At issue is language included in appropriations bills since 1976 that exempts farming operations with 10 or fewer employees from regulations enforced with OSHA funds," Marshall writes. "Johanns says many of these small farms have grain storage bins, and use them as part of standard post-harvest activities exempted by the rider."OSHA says most small farms, even those with grain storage facilities, should be exempt from regulations because of the appropriations language. But the agency says it is also working to make the rules clearer for government inspectors and producers alike." (Read more; subscription may be required, but a trial is available)

CDC says pregnant W.Va. women should have been told more about risks of drinking water

Pregnant women should have been warned sooner about the dangers of drinking tap water after the chemical spill in West Virginia, according to a top scientist for the federal Centers for Disease Control, Ken Ward reports for The Charleston Gazette. Dr. Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer for the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, also said "West Virginians should have been given clearer information that the 1-part-per-million screening level for the toxic chemical 'crude MCHM' was not a 'bright line' between what exposures are safe and unsafe." (Getty Images photo by Tom Hindman: Bottled water distribution) 

Kapil said "the CDC was working with very limited data and in an emergency situation, but that agency officials could have communicated the uncertainties more carefully to the 300,000 residents whose water was contaminated," Ward writes. Kapil told him, "It would have been probably preferable to provide that kind of information up front."

The spill occurred Jan. 9, and "state officials and West Virginia American Water cleared residents to begin drinking the tap water starting on Monday evening, Jan. 13," Ward writes. Two days later, on Jan. 15, "the state Department of Health and Human Resources announced that it was warning pregnant women to drink only bottled water -- at least for now." Initially, officials said "they added the advisory to pregnant women only out of 'an abundance of caution' to protect developing fetuses. But a letter from the CDC to the DHHR suggested federal officials had obtained some additional studies that led to the advisory."

Still, Kapil expressed confidence "that the 1-part-per-million guidance is protective for most people, and that the region's water is safe, given that state sampling continues to show decreasing levels of crude MCHM, with more and more samples listed with 'non-detect' results," Ward writes. West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said in a statement Wednesday "that 'the majority of samples' are reading non-detectable." (Read more)

Appeals court disallows Alaskan offshore oil leases

UPDATE, Jan. 31: "Royal Dutch Shell has delayed plans to drill in Alaska’s Arctic waters as it slashes capital spending and awaits the repercussions of a recent appellate court ruling challenging the validity of the lease sale in the Chukchi Sea," Steven Mufson reports for The Washington Post. "Shell, which issued earnings Thursday and said that it would be cutting global capital spending by about $9 billion, will not drill in Alaska during 2014, despite having made extensive preparations with upgraded rigs and support vessels. (Read more)

"A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that the U.S. Interior Department wrongly awarded offshore oil leases in the Chukchi Sea near Alaska in 2008 without considering the full range of environmental risks posed by drilling in the Arctic," Steve Quinn reports for Reuters. "A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the on-going dispute -- pitting environmental groups and Native Alaska tribes against the federal government and energy companies -- back to U.S. District in Anchorage." (Photo: Noble Discoverer prepares for initial Chukchi Sea drilling in 2012)

While it's not clear how the decision impacts Royal Dutch Shell, which planned to continue exploratory drilling this summer, or Shell, the major leaseholder, the plaintiffs' attorney Mike LeVine told Quinn "It's unlikely that the government could authorize drilling activities on leases the court says were improperly awarded." (Read more)

"The court challenge was based in part on an estimate by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, that 1 billion barrels of oil was 'economically recoverable' from the Chukchi Sea leases," Lisa Demer reports for the Anchorage Daily News. The appeals court said the estimate was too low. They wrote: "In the case before us, BOEM was fully aware from the very beginning that if one billion barrels could be economically produced, many more barrels could also be economically produced."

The judges said "BOEM based its estimate of 1 billion barrels on the amount of oil that could be produced from the first Chukchi field developed, not the whole lease area," Demer writes. "BOEM analyst Jim Craig developed the number 'off the top of (his) head' in an email exchange, the opinion says. There were doubts at BOEM that production would ever occur. But other BOEM employees and scientists in other federal agencies raised concerns about the estimate, the opinion says." BOEM officials disagreed, saying "If anything, the estimate was generous."

Republican Gov. Sean Parnell and Democratic Sen. Mark Begich are among state political leaders who support offshore oil drilling in the Arctic. Begich said in a written statement: "The Arctic has already been and will continue to be subjected to unprecedented safety standards and today's announcement does not delay the important progress we have made. Alaskans know how to develop our resources and that is why I continue to be optimistic that we will see safe, responsible development in the Arctic this summer." (Read more)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New virus threatens bees, farming; summit sought

A new, rapidly mutating virus that leaps from plants to honeybees is threatening agriculture that relies on the bees to pollinate about 90 crops worldwide and generates $14 billion a year, according to a Department of Agriculture study published in the journal mBio. It could be another cause of colony collapse disorder, in which whole hives of bees die. (Getty Images photo by Joe Raedle)

Geoffrey Mohan reports for the Los Angeles Times, "Tobacco ringspot virus, a pollen-borne pathogen that causes blight in soy crops, was found during routine screening of commercial honeybees. The discovery is the first report of honeybees becoming infected by a pollen-born RNA virus that spread systematically through the bees and hives. Traces of the virus were detected in every part of the bee examined, except its eyes, according to the study."

"The tobacco ringspot virus acts as a 'quasi-species,' replicating in a way that creates ample mutations that subvert the host’s immune response," Mohan reports. "That phenomenon is believed to be the driving factor of recurring viral infections of avian and swine influenza and of the persistence of HIV, the study noted."

Randy Oliver, a biologist and beekeeper who has done similar research but was not involved in the study, told Mohan, “I'd be hesitant to proclaim that this virus is the cause of colony collapse, but it certainly shows the degree of our lack of understanding of the complexity of bee pathogen interactions." A study last year linked pesticides known as neonicotinoids to bee deaths, leading several groups to call for a ban of 'neo-nic' pesticides, which are already banned in Europe. (Read more) To read the full report on tobacco ringspot click here.

Growing concern has led several agricultural groups to ask USDA to convene a honeybee nutrition and forage summit in October, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. "The summit would coincide with the meeting of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, which will be hosted by USDA." Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership, wrote in a letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack that the summit could “serve as a springboard for actions to improve the underlying science as well as concrete steps that can improve nutrition and forage for honey bees.” Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Horse slaughter is on hold again, as budget bill blocks money for inspections needed for export

The debate over the opening of horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. was short-circuited Friday when President Obama signed the omnibus budget bill, which prevents the Department of Agriculture from spending money to inspect the plants, inspections they must have to export horsemeat.

However, the bill is effective only through Sept. 30, so Congress will again wrestle with the issue. It enacted the same ban in 2007, but allowed it to expire on 2011 after its Government Accountablity Office found that it had depressed the market for horses, exacerbating problems of abuse and abandonment. The original ban was sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitfield of Western Kentucky; the main House co-author of the budget bill was his Republican colleague, Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers of Eastern Kentucky. The provision (above) is found in 10 lines on Page 89 of the 1,582-page bill.

Plant owners in New Mexico and Missouri had been battling to start slaughtering horses, while a third owner in Iowa had recently announced he would process cattle instead. The attorney for the New Mexico and Missouri plants said they would continue to fight and "contended that the federal move to withhold money for meat inspections could cause U.S. trade violations," The Associated Press reports.

The plants in New Mexico and Missouri had planned to open Aug. 5, but a series of legal battles, some won by advocates, others by proponents, continued to put the plant openings on hold. For more on the issue read here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

'We're creating death,' hospital boss says after Ga. legislator says some rural hospitals should close

UPDATE: Cooper "said Wednesday that closing rural hospitals is an 'unthinkable proposition' and 'would have serious consequences on the affected community, hurting it economically and limiting access to acute care for Georgians'," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Rep. Sharon Cooper
Hospitals in rural Georgia have struggled to stay open, with three closing last year, and another 15 in danger of shutting their doors this year. About 200,000 people in Georgia, which is not expanding Medicaid under federal health reform, depend on those 15 hospitals. But Rep. Sharon Cooper, a Republican from Marietta, and the chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, told WABE-FM in Atlanta this week, "There are some of those rural hospitals that need to close."

Cooper added: “When your census is that low and you have hospital administration and you have to have 24 hour-a-day care and you have to have a pharmacy and all the other things that go with a hospital and your census runs at just minute number of patients then I think it’s time to look at the fact that maybe they need to go to regional hospitals. Often small hospitals are an employer in the area, and you certainly feel sorry if one of them closes for the people that work there. . . . Having an emergency room where you can take somebody if they’re having an allergic reaction to peanuts could save a life and that’s certainly important … but on the other hand, if you’re a small hospital, to do anything major, you have to be transferred to a regional hospital and you get better outcomes where people, if you have some kind of heart surgery, something like that, put a stent in, you’re better off in an area where they do a hundred stents a week then somewhere where there might be two or three.” (Read more)

It didn't take long for the other side to make its voice heard. Jimmy Lewis, CEO of Hometown Health, told Jon Shirek of 11Alive in Atlanta, "She's an urban legislator whose access is right down the block. These are rural constituents who have to drive 60 miles to get to a hospital. ... We have people to die, for as much as we limit access, and we are truly limiting access. We're creating death amongst the constituents of the state of Georgia. That's just not a good thing. ... We're looking at creating third-world conditions by the losses of these hospitals, and we've already lost three, and we've got 10 to 15 more that are in serious shape." (Read more)

West Virginia spill reminds us that most chemicals come under relatively little regulation

The chemical spill two weeks ago in West Virginia that caused thousands of gallons of a coal cleaner to enter a regional water supply has garnered much attention and "raised plenty of questions about the way the United States regulates industrial compounds," Brad Plumer reports for The Washington Post. "The current U.S. law on chemical safety is 37 years old, riddled with exceptions, and widely seen as ineffective." The law has only banned five dangerous substances and none since 1991, even though there are more than 84,000 chemicals in the U.S.

The pollutant was crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. "MCHM is a chemical compound used at coal-processing plants to separate fine particles of coal from the surrounding rock in a process called 'froth flotation,'" Plumer writes. "It is mainly used to process coking coal for metallurgy rather than steam coal for power plants. Information is murky about its health effects. The U.S. government doesn't require any testing for the chemical: MCHM was one of 62,000 industrial compounds that were grandfathered in with the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. (The chemicals were grandfathered, in part because they'd been around for awhile and were assumed to be safe.) Current regulations require little testing for new industrial compounds and none for the 62,000 chemicals that were grandfathered in back in 1976." Each state has its own procedures for inspections.

Currently, there are two reform bills floating around, one favored by industry and one favored by environmentalists, prospectively titled the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 and the Safe Chemicals Act. "Under current law, the Environmental Protection Agency can only call for testing of a chemical if evidence surfaces that the substance is dangerous, Plumer notes. Under the first bill, "EPA would review all actively used chemicals and label them as either 'high' or 'low' priority based on their potential risk to human health and the environment. The agency would then subject high-priority chemicals to further review. The EPA would also have greater flexibility to request data from companies and take action on chemicals deemed unsafe, from labeling requirements to outright bans." The second bill, favored by environmental lobbies, "would require manufacturers to prove that chemicals are safe before they can be sold. That could include MCHM and other chemicals grandfathered in under the 1976 law." (Read more)

Plumer also points out who he thinks are the best reporters who have written about the incident, naming first Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette, who "has been doing indispensable reporting on the spill." Ward is a source we often look to, and one readers should keep an eye on when seeking out stories concerning community issues. For more on Ward, go to the Gazette, or to Ward's blog, Coal Tattoo

Six questions writers should ask before including an anecdote in an article about Obamacare

Journalists should be careful which anecdotes to include in a story about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, because the examples may not support the story the way the writers intend, Trudy Lieberman writes for Columbia Journalism Review.

She cites "Anatomy of an Obamacare 'horror story'," in which Maggie Mahar points out the holes in a Fort Worth-Star Telegram article about four people who experienced unfavorable circumstances because of Obamacare; the writer left out several pertinent facts about the individuals involved that would change the impact of the story. Here are six questions Lieberman suggests to consider before including an individual's experience with the reform law in a story:

1. "Is the anecdote focused on the point you're trying to make?" In other words, do you know enough about this person's story to be certain it provides a fair representation of the population for which you're trying to provide a voice? One horror story—or success story—hardly in and of itself affords hard evidence of the state of the big picture, Lieberman writes.

2. "Who is supplying the anecdote, and what's their mission?" Depending on what a person or group is trying to convey, they'll offer stories to match. For example, "ready-made stories for a press ready to use them should be suspect," Lieberman writes. Depending upon where they're from, the gatherer of the stories will solicit anecdotes supporting a certain perspective.

3. "What's meant by 'affordable?'" Explaining that a family got a low premium might be misleading because the low premium likely came with a high deductible and included co-pays and co-insurance. "President Obama sold the law on the promise of affordable, quality health care, and it's the total out-of-pocket spending that determines how affordable health care really is," Lieberman writes.

4. "What does the person really know about the policy?" For example, a person may be pleased with his or her insurance because of a seemingly low coinsurance cost for a trip to the doctor. However, the real percentage cost might be 30, 40 or 50 percent, and that can really add up when it comes to the cost of an MRI or something else notoriously expensive.

5. "How much time did the person spend shopping?" Finding thorough information about health insurance plans can be difficult. Some opponents of the law may not have realized they qualified for subsidies, while others may have quickly signed up for the cheapest plan; a fast choice probably denotes that a third party advised the decision, Lieberman writes.

6. "Do you need an anecdote at all?" Some stories simply work better without anecdotes. Harvard pollster Robert Blendon said, "The complexity of the law allows either side to manipulate the press cycle. Stories where a lot of people lose something will have greater impact than stories of people who just gain something." (Read more)

Rural Texas still badly short of doctors; budget cuts reversed boost in loan-repayment program

Doctor shortages in rural areas concern many states. Texas, which has the nation's largest rural population, more than 3 million, has largely failed to attract doctors to its rural areas, leaving many communities without doctors and forcing residents to travel long distances for services, reports Alex Wukman for FME News Service, a joint venture of the Killeen Daily Herald and the Temple Daily Telegram.

Of the state's 254 counties, 140 have at least one area considered medically under-served, but while the state's total number of doctors has grown, most of those doctors are going to urban areas, Wukman writes.  Rita Kelley, department head of Bell County Indigent Health Services, told Wukman, “Doctors go where the money is. We’re trying to keep doctors in Texas, but we have trouble getting them to go to rural areas.” (Texas Department of Rural Affairs graphic: Primary care physicians in rural Texas. The 23 red counties have none; dark pink have one; light pink are other rural counties)

In 2009, the Legislature souped up the physician-education loan-repayment program in an attempt to bring 900 doctors to underserved areas, Wukman writes. The more generous program has fallen well short of its goal of 900 doctors, with only 267 having taken advantage of the program, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

"In fiscal year 2010, the program attracted only 63 physicians, not the 225 advertised, but the cuts in 2011 is a historic record," Wukman writes. "In 2011, Texas faced a massive budget shortfall, estimated at more than $20 billion, which prompted spending cuts." Stephen Brotherton, president of the Texas Medical Association, told Wukman, “It’s a great program, but it’s only going to work as well as it’s funded, and the Legislature gutted the funding in 2011.” The Legislature did restore part of the funding in its last session. (Read more)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Rural lobbyists say state officials need to put aside political differences, expand Medicaid

Twenty-one states, mostly in the South, have declined to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, though the federal government would pay the entire cost of expansion for the first three years and at least 90 percent after that. The reform law gradually reduces "disproportionate share" payments to hospitals that have rely on Medicaid and Medicare, because the authors thought nearly everyone would have insurance. But the Supreme Court let the states opt out of expanded Medicaid. "Rural lobbies are pushing these states for the expansion, saying that without it, many of their hospitals could close," Susanna Capelouto reports for NPR.

Much has been written about how hospitals in those 21 states are struggling, especially in rural areas. In rural Tennessee, hospitals have cut employees and services, while rural Georgia blames the loss of three rural hospitals and the potential to lose 15 more on the lack of expanded Medicaid. Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, told Jonathan Shapiro of Atlanta's WABE-FM, “There are some of those rural hospitals that need to close,” because they have so few patients.

UPDATE: Cooper "said Wednesday that closing rural hospitals is an 'unthinkable proposition' and 'would have serious consequences on the affected community, hurting it economically and limiting access to acute care for Georgians'," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Jonathan Oberlander
States need to put aside their political differences and help people in need, said Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina. He told Capelouto, "It's one thing to be opposed to Obamacare ideologically. But when that opposition means that the state is not extending Medicaid and is threatening the finances of your local hospital, you're going to see the Medicaid expansion in a very different light."

Sen. Dean Burke (R-Ga.), a physician, disagrees, telling Capelouto: "Increasing Medicaid doesn't necessarily make things better. You know, we need to increase jobs so that we get more people with regular insurance. And that will be where we can make a difference." But it's hard to rely on new jobs in areas that can't keep the existing ones, as Maggie Elehwany of the National Rural Health Association told Capelouto: "The poorest areas in this country in the Deep South, in Appalachia, in certain pockets in the west, boy, a lot of those—really a tremendous amount of those—are the states that are opting not to expand Medicaid." (Read more) (Advisory Board Council graphic: Information as of Dec. 20, 2013)

Some propane users advised to conserve due to fear of shortages from winter delivery problems

We don't have one with snow ...
In this especially cold and snowy winter in much of the nation, residents are struggling to cope with the lack of resources to keep warm—especially in rural areas, which are, in some cases, beyond the reach of utilities. Depleting propane stocks are the biggest problem; according to the Propane Education & Research Council, more than 14 million families and 1 million businesses rely on propane to heat their homes and workplaces, Elisha Fieldstadt reports for NBC News.

Propane users are encouraged to limit their consumption because of the shortage. "Propane customers in the Upper Peninsula should use their propane supplies wisely in the coming weeks by reducing usage and avoiding energy waste," Michigan Public Service Commission Chairman John Quackenbush told NBC affiliate WILX on Monday.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich declared an energy emergency and called for the delivery of propane gas shipments along with top officials in 17 other states. They loosened rules for energy transportation to help deliver propane to those who need it, Fieldstadt writes.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, One reason for the propane deficit its use in November to dry corn crops during a rainy harvest. "Propane prices in the Midwest will likely need to rise to keep propane in the region," and mid-January, average propane prices in the U.S. were 58 centers higher per gallon than during the same time last year, EIA reported.

Winter storm warnings are in effect today for New England, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., including areas along the coast of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. (Read more)

More crude oil spilled in U.S. railway accidents in 2013 than in previous 37 years combined

Oil car derailed over Schuylkill R. in Philadelphia Jan. 20
In 2013, more crude oil was spilled in U.S. railway accidents than the entire amount spilled from 1975 to 2012, Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers. Last year, 1.15 million gallons of crude oil were spilled from rail cars, while the amount from 1975 to 2012 was 800,000 gallons, according the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. And just one incident last year, in Alabama, nearly topped that total, spilling 750,000 gallons. Another 1.5 million gallons spilled in Canada, in a July accident in Quebec that killed 47 people.

"The Association of American Railroads, an industry group, estimates that railroads shipped 400,000 carloads of crude oil last year," Tate reports. "That’s more than 11.5 billion gallons, with one tank car holding roughly 28,800 gallons. Last year’s total spills of 1.15 million gallons means that 99.99 percent of shipments arrived without incident, close to the safety record the industry and its regulators claim about hazardous materials shipments by rail."

But in eight years from 1975 to 2012, no spills were reported, and in five years reported spills amounted to one gallon or less, Tate writes. In 2010, a reported 5,000 gallons spilled, and in 2011 and 2012, less than 4,000 gallons spilled each year. Even if you exclude the 750,000 gallons spilled in Alabama spill, and 400,000 in a North Dakota spill, the 2013 total still amounted to more than 11,000 gallons, well above previous years. (Read more) (McClatchy graphic: Crude oil spills in the U.S. in 2013. For an interactive version of the map, with other years, click here)

Read more here:

Reporter visits heart of one of Appalachia's poorest regions, finds some people living rich lives

President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson meet the Fletcher
family of Martin County in 1964 (Bettman/Corbis photo)
When reporters go looking for a story on impoverished America, highlighted most recently by the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty declaration, they often end up in Martin County, Ky. That's where NPR reporter Pam Fessler found herself on her journey to report on poverty. But while Fessler saw plenty of poverty on her visit to Eastern Kentucky, she found something more than just poor, uneducated people struggling to survive. She found plenty of pride and a wealth of richness, even if those people didn't have the monetary figures to match the way they lived their lives and felt about their community.

Michelle Harless, a high-school guidance counselor, told Fessler, "I just ask when you portray us, please don't portray us as ignorant hill folk, I guess. Because we are educated. We're poor, but we're educated, and everyone's pretty proud. It's not a desolate place where no hope can be found." Fessler found "well-paved roads, cheerful schools, beautiful mountains—albeit some have been strip-mined. And yes, there are trailers surrounded by trash, but also tidy suburban homes."

"More than a third of the residents here are poor, but poverty is also in the eye of the beholder," Fessler writes. "Many people here say they're rich in things that aren't included in any official measure of poverty. Things like family and faith. So they're understandably a bit bitter about how they're often seen from the outside." Owen Wright of the Christian Appalachian Project told Fessler, "We're probably one of the last few groups that it's still politically correct to make fun of. It's still OK to tell, you know, hillbilly, redneck jokes. Once that's been drilled into them for so long, it's easy for them to start believing that themselves."

While the War on Poverty opened America's eyes to unknown destitution, some in Eastern Kentucky say it also forever labeled the area as being the symbol of impoverished America, Fessler writes. Lee Mueller, a retired Lexington Herald-Leader reporter who witnessed Johnson's visit to his home Martin County, told Fessler, "We knew the region was poor, but there wasn't a stigma to it—to us. And we were surprised when we went someplace and found out that other people thought we were." Fessler writes: "But that was a long time ago. Today, the stigma is very real and for some people, almost as bad as the poverty itself." (Read more)

Free webinar on safety practices for testing well water scheduled for Jan. 28

The National Ground Water Association will present the first of three webinars on keeping drinking water safe at 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday. The first, "Testing your well water: Where do you begin?" will be presented by Michael Schnieders, a geologist, hydrologist and senior consultant for Water Systems Engineering in Ottawa, Kan. In the webinar, participants will learn "what every well owner should test for and how to determine what is locally occurring and worthy of testing," according to a news release.

The webinars, which will be available online after the presentation, will address concerns, such as: "How do I test my water? Do I need to treat my water? How do I get my well fixed? How do I protect my groundwater? What do I do if my well floods? What about testing my water near hydraulic fracturing? How do I approach getting a new well?" Additional webinars are scheduled for Feb. 4 and Feb. 26. Free online lessons are also available. For more information or to register click here.

Ezra Klein leaving Washington Post and Wonkblog

Ezra Klein
Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein, whose newspaper stories and those on his 4-million-plus-views-a-month Wonkblog have been some of the best sources for The Rural Blog on topics such as health care, immigration, gun control and politics, is leaving the paper. The move is reportedly over a dispute with owners over a new project Klein wanted to undertake but that owners shot down, Dylan Byers and Hadas Gold report for Politico.

Klein had "proposed the creation of an independent, explanatory journalism website—with more than three dozen staffers and a multiyear budget north of $10 million." This morning, Wonkblog tweeted the announcement Tuesday that he is leaving, but it looks as though he's taking his idea somewhere else, and that "as early as this week, Klein is expected to announce a new venture—described in a memo to Post staffers as a new 'news organization'—that will look to staff more than 30 people on the editorial side alone," Politico reports. We will be watching. (Read more)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Washington Post lists best state-capital reporters, at least those who are on Twitter

The ranks of state-capital reporters have thinned in recent years, along with the rest of major newspaper staffs, but there are still plenty of good gumshoes out there, and they are being joined by some sharp online and public-broadcast journalists -- and some with big rural audiences. Reid Wilson of The Washington Post assembled a list, with the help of his readers, of those they consider best in each state; here are most of those with non-metropolitan bases or big rural constituencies, with links to their Twitter feeds (a requirement for Wilson's list):

Dermot Cole, Alaska
Alaska: Dermot Cole of the Alaska Dispatch, an online outlet that covers the state with the most rural and extreme landscape.

Florida: Brandon Larrabee of the online News Service of Florida.

IdahoMelissa Davlin, host of "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television.

IowaO. Kay Henderson, news director of public Radio Iowa, Mike Wiser of Davenport-based Lee Enterprises, and James Lynch and Rod Boshart of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Ronnie Ellis, Kentucky
Kentucky: Ronnie Ellis of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., serving five dailies and six weeklies, all but one in Appalachia and none with a circulation larger than 15,000.

Maine: Chris Cousins, Bangor Daily News.

Michigan: Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio and Melissa Anders of MLive, a service of Booth Newspapers.

MinnesotaTom Scheck and Tim Pugmire of Minnesota Public Radio.

Mississippi: Bobby Harrison of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, the nation's largest rural newspaper (daily circulation 37,000).

Montana: Tom Lutey of the Billings Gazette and Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison of Lee Enterprises., owner of the Gazette and papers in Buttle, Helena, Missoula and Hamilton.

Deena Winter, Nebraska
Nebraska: Deena Winter of, a service of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, which has strong conservative roots but says its news outlets are editorially independent. Our experience with them is that if they lean, they lean to the right. They figured large in a 2010 report by Gene Gibbons of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on coverage of state governments. A quick look at Winter's work shows no apparent bias, other than capitalizing the first word in Fox News. It's not an acronym.

New Hampshire: Josh Rogers of New Hampshire Public Radio.

South Dakota: David Montgomery of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.

Vermont: Anne Galloway, founder of, part of the Investigative News Network. Unlike the Franklin Center, INN reveals its donors.

Wyoming: Laura Hancock and Kyle Roerink of the Casper Star-Tribune.

For the sake of space, we have not included reporters for newspapers that are based in state capitals and those for The Associated Press, the major source of state-capital news for rural newspapers (almost all dailies). Many of both were included in Wilson's list.