Friday, June 27, 2014

Continued severe drought in West and Southwest means grocery store prices will keep rising

Groceries across the country will feel the effects of severe drought in the West and Southwest, as prices of fruits, vegetables, beef and rice are expected to rise dramatically in the coming months, Brianna Sacks reports for the Los Angeles Times. (Times photo by Don Bartletti: San Gabriel reservoir has receded over a mile.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report this week that said fresh fruit and vegetable prices are expected to increase an estimated 6 percent, mainly due to drought in California that is draining local water supplies, Sacks writes. Timothy Richards, a chair at the Morrison School of Agribusiness at Arizona State University, told Sacks, "You’re probably going to see the biggest produce price increases on avocados, berries, broccoli, grapes, lettuce, melons, peppers, tomatoes and packaged salads."

Almost 70 percent of the nation's lettuce is grown in California, where "the rising cost of water has forced farmers to idle about 500,000 acres of land and produce less, making certain foods more expensive," Sacks writes. Rice could also be hit hard by drought, with prices rising 10 to 20 percent, said Daniel Sumner, director of the Agriculture Issues Center at University of California Davis.

Drought conditions in the Southwest are also expected to drive beef prices up 9 percent, while milk prices are expected to rise because of an increase in demand, Sacks writes. Overall, food prices rose half a percent in May, the largest hike since August 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. (Read more)

Oklahoma residents demand state do something to stop earthquakes linked to injection wells

Hundreds of Edmond, Okla., residents crowded a meeting hall Thursday to demand officials take action to stop the state's surge in earthquakes that many have inked to injection wells. But state officials said there isn't enough evidence to link hydraulic fracturing to quakes, and because of the state's limited history of seismic activity, they lack the resources needed to diagnose the cause of the earthquakes, Jay Marks reports for The Oklahoman. (Oklahoman photo by Sarah Phipps: Edmond residents line up to ask questions Thursday at a town meeting.)

Oklahoma recently surpassed California in most earthquakes in the lower 48 states. From 1978 to 2008, before the oil and gas boom hit Oklahoma, the state averaged two earthquakes per year. But from October 2013 to early May of this year, Oklahoma had 189 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher.

Six earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or higher occurred in Oklahoma on Thursday, Mike Lee reports for EnergyWire. Despite the rash of earthquakes since the fracking boom began, Matt Skinner, a spokesman for the state Corporation Commission, told Lee, "We're not about to take a legally operating business and put them out of business without all the data that we need under our law."

But "the U.S. Geological Survey and the Oklahoma Geological Survey said May 5 that injection wells used to get rid of oil and gas wastewater are a 'likely contributing factor' to the swarm of earthquakes in the state. They also warned that the possibility of a damaging magnitude-5.5 or greater earthquake has gone up significantly," Lee writes. Numerous other studies have also linked injection wells to quakes. In April, Ohio officials said fracking was the probable cause of a series of quakes in one county.

At Thursday's meeting "Oklahoma Geological Survey seismologist Austin Holland said there is no way to know what has caused the unprecedented increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma," Marks writes. "Holland said stopping the use of injection wells, which pump water deep underground, would not be recommended from a scientific standpoint because that would rob researchers of valuation data that could help them figure out how to prevent earthquakes." (Read more)

The state is taking some measures to try to curb the problem, Lee writes. "New rules on injection wells, approved by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin last week, will require operators to perform more frequent mechanical integrity tests of disposal wells and keep daily records of the amount of fluids they inject and the pressures they use." (Read more)

In response to a Supreme Court ruling, journalist creates a transparency prayer for public meetings

The Supreme Court ruled in May that it's constitutional to have a Christian prayer before meetings held by a public agency as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or proselytize. The ruling has stirred deep emotions in many editorials, but one that seems most fitting—suggested by of our friend Max Heath—is from Allan Burke, publisher emeritus of the Emmons County Record in Linton, N.D. Here is the editorial:

Allan Burke
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, has said it's OK to open a government meeting with prayer. The case involved town council meetings. Here is a suggested prayer for opening meetings of county commissions, school boards, city boards and other governmental entities.

Lord, may this meeting include full and open discussion of the issues,  and let the public be assured that no deals have been cut or discussion held outside this meeting.

We ask that no board business be conducted by phone, email, Facebook, text or twitter, and that this board follow federal and state laws.

Please guide this board to rarely go into executive session and always to be transparent.

It is our humble request that the official minutes include a reasonable and fair summary of the proceedings and not be censored by the politicians.

We ask that members of this board abstain from voting when they have a conflict of interest.

May this board remember the ordinances, rules and regulations it has adopted and precedents it has set and follow them with consistency.

Lord, we ask that those voting to spend money remember that taxes come out of the pockets of hard-working citizens and should be spent sparingly and wisely.

We ask that no favoritism be shown because of a person’s family connections, standing in the community, power or wealth and that all citizens be treated fairly and with respect.

Lord, we ask that competitive bids be sought for major expenditures and that the truth be told about those bids.

Finally, Lord, we ask that this board listen to the citizens and accept input, suggestions and criticism graciously.

Thank you, Lord, for blessing us with the opportunity to live in a democratic republic under the United States Constitution.


Michigan governor signs bills making it harder to purchase meth-making ingredients

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday signed into law three bills intended to curb the practice of "smurfing," which refers to people's buying over the counter drugs that contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine to sell to drug manufacturers for the purpose of making methamphetamine.

One bill "prohibits a person from purchasing or possessing ephedrine or pseudo-ephedrine with the knowledge of manufacturing meth," reports WNDU 16 in South Bend, Ind. Violating the law could result in up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Another bill "prohibits a person from soliciting another person to purchase or obtain ephedrine or pseudo-ephedrine knowing it will be used for methamphetamine production," WNDU writes. The third bill is an amendment to the second bill, making it a Class D felony charge with a maximum 10 years of imprisonment. (Read more)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Republicans and Democrats say immigration reform won't happen while Obama is still in office

When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his Virginia primary earlier this month, many felt the loss meant an end to passing immigration reform this year. Now, both sides are saying it's unlikely that immigration reform will be addressed while President Obama remains in office, David Nakamura and Ed O'Keefe report for The Washington Post. (Post photo by Marion Correa: Demonstrators with the pro-immigration organization 'United We Dream' block an Washington intersection on June 5 to protest President Obama's decision to delay his revisions of deportation policies.)

"The slow collapse of hopes for new border legislation — which has unraveled in recent months amid persistent opposition from House Republicans — marks the end of an effort that both Democrats and Republicans have characterized as central to the future of their parties," Nakamura and O'Keefe write. "The failure leaves some 12 million illegal immigrants in continuing limbo over their status and is certain to increase political pressure on Obama from the left to act on his own."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said in an interview Wednesday, “Nothing’s going to happen. My point of view is, this is over. . . . Every day, they become not recalcitrant, but even more energetically opposed to working with us. How many times does someone have to say no until you understand they mean no?” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of a bipartisan group of eight senators who led reform efforts in the upper chamber, agreed, saying "chances of legislation advancing in the House are 'next to zero,'” the Post writes.

Obama called immigration reform his top priority during his second term, but now even "some of the most vocal proponents of a legislative overhaul now say they have surrendered any last hopes that Democrats and Republicans can reach a deal," Nakamura and O'Keefe write. "The realization marks a low point for advocates who mounted the first serious immigration push since 2007, when a bipartisan effort under then-president George W. Bush was defeated in the Senate."

House Republicans have cited Cantor's loss, and the recent event where thousands of unaccompanied Central American children were caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, as reasons that the time is not right for immigration reform, Nakamura and O'Keefe write. Also House Speaker John Boehner has said he plans to sue Obama over the president’s use of executive powers. While Boehner hasn't specified what his suit will consist of, he has been critical of Obama's 2012 decision not to deport young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally by their parents.  (Read more)

House committee passes amendment adding six-day mail delivery to fiscal 2015 funding bill

Saturday mail delivery has received a stay of execution. The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved an amendment attached to the fiscal 2015 funding bill that would require the agency to deliver mail six days per week, Eric Katz reports for Government Executive. "The six-day rider has been included in every postal-related appropriations bill since 1983," but the language was not included in the subcommittee version of the 2015 bill.
The bipartisan amendment by Reps. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Tom Latham (R-Iowa), easily passed, Katz writes. The only outspoken opposition was from Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) chairman of the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, who nevertheless said “I encourage you all to vote your conscience."

In February 2013 the U.S. Postal Service announced a plan to end Saturday delivery, except packages, in an attempt to save the cash-strapped agency $2 billion annually, but USPS "was forced to backtrack when the Government Accountability Office ruled that the appropriations rider prevented the agency from delivering fewer than six days per week," Katz notes.

"More than 220 lawmakers, including 40 Republicans, have signed on to a resolution sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) to ensure six-day mail delivery," Katz reports. "The House’s postal point man, Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), supports a modified delivery schedule, however, and has included a measure to cut delivery days in multiple postal overhaul bills. Issa last week wrote a letter to Crenshaw thanking him for not including the rider his appropriations bill." (Read more)

UPDATE, June 27: The vote "essentially dooms any further efforts this year to fix the USPS, which reported a $5 billion loss in 2013," Devin Leonard reports for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, adding that it was "a big win" for the National Association of Letter Carriers and its allies. Those include rural interests; the Postal Regulatory Commission has said USPS should more closely examine the likely impact on rural areas before eliminating Saturday service.

Stores to require suppliers to label plants treated with pesticides blamed for killing honeybees

Several major U.S. companies, including Home Depot, have jumped on board the campaign to save honeybees, by working to eliminate or limit the use of pesticides blamed partly for the rapid decline of bee colonies, which pollinate 90 crops worldwide. Honeybees lost 23.5 percent of their population over the winter and have been losing population for years. Just last week President Obama created a task force to try to save the bees. 

The hope is to get suppliers to label any plants treated with neonicotinoid, or neonic, the pesticides blamed for bee deaths, Carey Gillam reports for Reuters. Home Depot will require such labeling beginning in the fourth quarter of this year. "BJ's Wholesale Club, a warehouse retailer with more than 200 locations along the East Coast, said it was asking all of its vendors to provide plants free of neonics by the end of 2014 or to label such products as requiring 'caution around pollinators' like bees. At least 10 other smaller retailers, with locations in Minnesota, Colorado, Maryland and California, have announced plans to limit or eliminate neonics from plant products." (Bee Informed graphic)

"The class of pesticides known as neonics are sold by agrichemical companies to boost yields of staple crops such as corn, but are also used widely on annual and perennial plants used in lawns and gardens," Gillam writes. "A report issued on Wednesday by the environmental group Friends of the Earth said that 36 out of 71, or 51 percent, of garden plant samples purchased at top garden retailers in 18 cities in the United States and Canada contained neonic pesticides." (Read more)

6 E. Ky. coal counties are among U.S.'s 10 hardest to live in, New York Times analysis says

Six adjoining counties in the Eastern Kentucky Coal Field rank among the nation's 10 hardest counties to live in, as defined by six factors compiled by The New York Times to measure quality and longevity of life: education, income, unemployment rate, disability rate, obesity rate and life expectancy.

"Clay County, in dead last, might as well be in a different country," Annie Lowrey writes. "The median household income there is barely above the poverty line, at $22,296, and is just over half the nationwide median. Only 7.4 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. The unemployment rate is 12.7 percent. The disability rate is nearly as high, at 11.7 percent. (Nationwide, that figure is 1.3 percent.) Life expectancy is six years shorter than average. Perhaps related, nearly half of Clay County is obese."

Also on the list from Kentucky are Breathitt, Jackson, Lee, Leslie and Magoffin counties. The article did not name the other four worst counties. Lowrey continues, "It’s coal country, but perhaps in name only. In the first quarter of this year, just 54 people were employed in coal mining in Clay County, a precipitous drop from its coal-production peak in 1980. That year, about 2.5 million tons of coal were taken out of the ground in Clay; this year, the county has produced a fraction of that — just over 38,000 tons."

"The public debate about the haves and the have-nots tends to focus on the 1 percent, especially on the astonishing, breakaway wealth in cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington and the great disparities contained therein," Lowrey writes. "But what has happened in the smudge of the country between New Orleans and Pittsburgh — the Deep South and Appalachia — is in many ways as remarkable as what has happened in affluent cities. In some places, decades of growth have failed to raise incomes, and of late, poverty has become more concentrated not in urban areas but in rural ones."

James P. Ziliak, the director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, told Lowrey, “One of the challenges that faces Eastern Kentucky is the remoteness of the area. It’s difficult to get to a lot of places. The communities are small, and they’re spread apart, so you lose that synergy that you want to spark development a lot of times. . . . My view is that firms will never locate into a community with an unskilled labor force, unless the only labor they need is unskilled. And there has been a historic lack of investment in human capital in these areas.” (Read more)

Deb Markley of the Wealth Creation and Rural Livelihoods group created by the Ford Foundation writes that the analysis "paints a pretty bleak picture but also seems to miss some promising trends, including the kinds of work many in this community are doing. From my own organization's perspective, it's distressing to see no mention of entrepreneurship as a strategy for rural places."

Rural communities in West Virginia, New Mexico awarded for creating a culture of health

A pair of rural communities were among the six winners of the 2014 Culture of Health prizes given by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to areas that most exemplified innovative efforts to build healthier communities, says the foundation. Williamson, West Virginia, in Appalachian coal country, and Taos Pueblo, a Native American community in northern New Mexico, received the $25,000 award, along with Durham County, North Carolina; Buncombe County, North Carolina; Brownsville, Texas; and Spokane County, Washington. More than 250 communities entered the contest.

Sustainable Williamson
Williamson, which leads the state in obesity, hypertension and diabetes, has created initiatives to get residents involved in fitness and eating healthy. That includes running and walking groups like Tuesday Night Track, which allows people of different fitness levels to compete in races for fun, Lydia Nuzum reports for the Charleston Gazette. Williamson also began a farmers market three years ago, has plans for a food hub for locally grown food, and created Sustainable Williamson, which has already identified 22 farmers within a 70-mile radius who are willing to work with the community on its goals.

The local high school, which teaches agriculture, greenhouse and horticulture classes, sells plants they grow at the farmers market, Nuzum writes. The school, which recently completed work on its high tunnel and has even installed chicken coops, received a grant to participate in the Farm-to-School program next year.

Another program, Prescription Vegetables, "partners local physicians, farmers and diabetes patients," Nusum writes. "Doctors participating in the program actually prescribe vegetables to their patients as a treatment for managing their diabetes and give them vegetable vouchers, which can be exchanged for produce at the Williamson farmers’ market. The more health goals a patient meets, the more vouchers they earn." The town's next step is to create a community kitchen that can incubate healthy restaurants and other initiatives. (Read more)

Robert Wood Foundation photo/
Taos Red Willow Farm
In Taos Pueblo in 2010 the Red Willow Community Growers Cooperative’s mission was created "to revitalize the community’s agricultural-based heritage, which includes food production in fields, gardens, raised beds and greenhouses, as well as grassroots economic development through the Red Willow Farmers Market," says the foundation. "The goal of the Farmers Market and Co-op is to produce fresh and organic fruits and vegetables for families in the community, as well as the schools and senior programs. The Market also employs a number of high school students, reconnecting a younger generation with the cycles of planning, preparing the fields and the art of growing crops to supply markets with produce."

The pueblo has also made an effort to get the community involved in exercise through a fitness program, says the foundation. In a state where 30 percent of kidnergarten students are obese, 37 percent of those Native American, Taos Pueblo has sought to teach children about health, including using an indoor organic garden room, where students, parents and staff grow fresh produce, says the foundation.

Another key has been improving medical services, says the foundation. "Up until the last several years, if there was a medical emergency, Taos Pueblo residents had to wait 24 minutes or longer for first responders from the Town of Taos to arrive at the Pueblo to transport them to the nearest hospital. Three years ago, however, the Pueblo Health and Community Services created the Public Health Nursing Department in Taos Pueblo to address immediate community health needs. Now, the Pueblo’s public health nurse or two lay health workers provide first responder services when emergencies arise." (Read more)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

US 550 in Colo. is a bucket-list trip and one of the world's most dangerous roads, if you're not careful

How can a newspaper label a highway a “Top Ten Bucket List Road Trip” this year and one of the “World’s 12 Most Dangerous Roads” last year? If the newspaper is USA Today and the road is US 550 over Red Mountain in southwest Colorado. The regional daily, The Durango Herald, took a closer look at the road in a story headlined, "Highway to Hell," which doesn't quite fit. The road requires much caution but rewards drivers and passengers with spectacular vistas. (Herald photo by Jerry McBride)

"Red Mountain Pass, per mile, has the highest avalanche hazard on the North American continent," the Herald's Chase Olivarius-Mcallister writes. "The narrow two-lane road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below."

A public-relations manager for the Ouray Chamber Resort Association, in the town overlooked by the pass, said the road lacks guardrails because they would block plowed snow and eventually keep snowplows from clearing the road. Avalanches once plagued the road, but various countermeasures have kept anyone from being killed in an avalanche on it since 1992, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson told the Herald.

The story is accompanied by an informative sidebar and a photo gallery by Jerry McBride. And here's an extra, a photo by Patti Cross shortly after we topped the pass.

Bill would allow Missouri medical school grads to bypass residency to practice in rural areas

Missouri's rural doctor shortage could soon come to an end. The state legislation passed a measure adding the classification “assistant physician” to the state medical license. The new classification, if signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon, would allow medical school graduates who have passed licensing exams to bypass their three-year residency and practice primary care and prescribe drugs in rural and underserved areas, Blythe Bernhard reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Their practice would be overseen by a physician who would be required to be on-site only for the first month."

About 37 percent of state residents live in rural areas, but only 18 percent of primary care doctors practice in those areas, Bernhard writes. "Jeffrey Howell of the Missouri State Medical Association said the number of potential new doctors in Missouri could be much higher when graduates of foreign medical schools are included. As the only state in the country with the assistant physician designation, Missouri could attract medical school graduates looking to start practicing medicine, he said."

But not everyone supports the idea. Rosemary Gibson, a board member of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, told Bernhard, “I question whether four years of medical school is enough to go out and take care of patients. People in rural and under-served areas deserve a fully trained, competent physician just like everyone else.”

Dr. Kathryn Diemer, assistant dean for career counseling at Washington University in St. Louis "is concerned about the amount of education the assistant physicians would receive when practicing in rural areas," saying the first year of residency is a critical learning opportunity, Bernard writes. Diemer told Bernard, "That was a year that I learned so much about decision-making and learning how to trust my judgment. I’m not sure medical students after two years of clinical experience could be ready to be that independent.” (Read more)

Mobile health coming to rural Michigan; college faculty, staff and students hit the road

Rural Michigan residents who can't make it to a health care clinic need not worry. The health clinic is coming to them. Funded by a $500,000 grant, the Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions at Central Michigan University is rolling out its "39-foot motor home that will serve rural Michigan residents by providing access to high-quality health care and preventative health education through community outreach efforts," reports the Midland Daily News.

Called Mobile Health Central, the motor home will act as an extension of the college's Carls Center for Clinical Care and Education, "which serves more than 8,000 patients each year in the Health Professions building on CMU’s Mount Pleasant campus," the News writes. "The goal is to improve health and quality of life by reaching into communities through local partnerships and collaborations to address gaps in access to health care services."

"The cost of the services provided will be similar to what a patient would pay if visiting the Carls Center on CMU’s campus; however, it is hoped that free services could be provided through sponsors or investors. Many insurances are accepted," the News writes. "While not uncommon in the field of medicine, the Mobile Health Central vehicle is unique to a college campus, CMU stated. Equipped with medical necessities such as exam tables, sinks and a soundproof booth for hearing testing, it will provide additional training opportunities for CMU health professions students and interdisciplinary partnership opportunities in health care research across campus." (Read more)

Rural weddings are growing in popularity with everyone except the neighbors of event holders

Though rural weddings and receptions are a popular new fad that have wedding parties and families gushing at the rustic settings, the festivities are causing headaches for neighbors who don't like the noise and extra traffic, Paul Srubas reports for Gannett Wisconsin Media. (Post-Crescent Media photo by Dan Powers: Setting up a wedding in Greenville, Wisc.)

Peggy George, owner of Seize the Day Events, told Srubas, “It’s been a big deal for a long time, but it’s absolutely caught on fire in the last, I’d say, three years. Brides today don’t want the ordinary, the traditional. This is such a unique thing, and guests like it. And it’s not just weddings. Corporate people like them, family reunions, high school reunions. There’s a fire pit; it’s folksy; it’s family; it’s more fun.”

Steve Nagy, owner of Homestead Meadows Farm in Greenville, said he's had 1,097 wedding and 4,500 other events on his property since the 1980s, Srubas writes. Nagy told him, “In 1988, we had an almost three-year lawsuit where neighbors tried to put us out of business. Later, we were operating in limbo for many years. Neighbors are invariably opposed. Period.” He added, “I think these barns so often are derelict, look ugly for years, and this is a wonderful way to recycle them. Adaptive reuse.”

But one concern is safety. Paul Hutchison, chairman of the town of Maple Grove, said such operations "belong in the city, where there’s fire and police protection and a more controlled environment," Srubas writes. Hutchinson told him, “There isn’t one street sign telling the speed limit out here, and people from the city come around driving at 75 mph, and they’re so rude." Another concern, he said, is that Maple Grove is a dry township, and weddings often want to include alcohol. But Hutchinson conceded that most of the objections are because “we have a lot of older people in the community, and guess what? They don’t like change.” (Read more)

Interstate speed limits in rural Wyoming and Idaho to be raised to 80 mph on July 1

Drivers in rural Idaho and Wyoming will soon be able to get where they're going much faster. Just in time for Fourth of July weekend, the two states are raising speed limits on some rural highways and interstates to 80 mph beginning July 1.

The change will impact more than half of Wyoming's interstates, covering nearly 500 miles, Brian Scott reports for K2 Radio. New speed limits will cover 268 miles of Interstate 25, 116 miles of I-80 and 104 miles of I-90. (Read more) (Wyoming Department of Transportation map)

On most rural stretches in Idaho, including "the majority of interstates 15, 84 and 86, the speed limit will increase to 80 mph for vehicle traffic and 70 mph for trucks," Cynthia Sewell reports for the Idaho Statesman. In urban areas, speed limits will remain 65. This is the first time state interstate speed limits have been raised since 1996, when they went from 65 to 75. (Read more)

Read more here:

Nearly half of USDA rural broadband loans since 2003 were rescinded or defaulted upon

A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that more than two-fifths of U.S. Department of Agriculture loans designed to improve broadband service in rural areas have been rescinded or defaulted upon, Anne Kim reports for Roll Call.

Of the 100 Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program loans approved since 2003 by the Rural Utility Service, 57 have been paid back or are being paid back, Kim writes. But 25 loans were cancelled before being issued and 18 defaulted. Officials said the main reason for loan defaults is because the “provider cannot produce the necessary revenue to support the broadband network and debt payments, often due to not attracting enough subscribers."

"And the report states that RUS officials said there are varying reasons for rescission of loans, 'including situations where the provider cannot meet equity requirements or the provider experiences significant financial problems before the principal has been loaned. Although providers sometimes voluntarily request a full rescission, that situation is less common.'” (Read more)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Farm fertilizer produces greenhouse gas; emissions can be reduced by adding less nitrogen

Greenhouse gas produced in the soil following nitrogen addition rises faster than previously expected when fertilizer rates exceed crop needs, according to a study by researchers at Michigan State University published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. Adding less nitrogen to overfertilized crops "would deliver major reductions to greenhouse gas emission," researchers said.

"Nitrogen-based fertilizers spur greenhouse gas emissions by stimulating microbes in the soil to produce more nitrous oxide," researchers said. "Nitrous oxide is the third most important greenhouse gas—behind only carbon dioxide and methane—and also destroys stratospheric ozone. Agriculture accounts for around 80 percent of human-caused nitrous oxide emissions worldwide, which have increased substantially in recent years, primarily due to increased nitrogen fertilizer use."

Phil Robertson, director of MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station Long-term Ecological Research Program and senior author of the paper, said, “Our specific motivation is to learn where to best target agricultural efforts to slow global warming. Agriculture accounts for 8 to 14 percent of all greenhouse gas production globally. We’re showing how farmers can help to reduce this number by applying nitrogen fertilizer more precisely.” (MSU photo: Phil Robertson)

The production of nitrous oxide can be reduced if "plant nitrogen needs are matched with the nitrogen that’s supplied," then "fertilizer has substantially less effect on greenhouse gas emission," Roberston said. Lead author Iurii Shcherbak added, “Because nitrous oxide emissions won’t be accelerated by fertilizers until crop nitrogen needs are met, more nitrogen fertilizer can be added to underfertilized crops with little impact on emissions." (Read more)

A step closer to Saturday mail elimination: fiscal 2015 funding bill doesn't include language stipulating that mail be delivered 6 days per week

The House took a significant step toward letting the U.S. Postal Service get rid of Saturday mail delivery. Rep. Ander Crenshaw's Financial Services and General Government Appropriations subcommittee did not include language in the fiscal 2015 funding bill stipulating that USPS must deliver mail six days per week. Every postal-related appropriations bill since 1983 has included such wording, Eric Katz reports for Government Executive.

Although House Republicans haven't been as enthusiastically pushing their idea to use the savings from transitioning the Postal Service to five-day delivery to pay for a one-year Highway Trust Fund extension, they are still backing the five-day delivery plan. That would get rid of the last thing keeping the agency from eliminating Saturday mail delivery.

In February last year, the Postal Service revealed its plan to stop Saturday deliveries with the exception of packages. "It was forced to backtrack when the Government Accountability Office ruled the appropriations rider prevented the agency from delivering fewer than six days per week," Katz writes.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe supports the five-day delivery idea because it would save the Postal Service $2 billion every year, but he has met significant opposition from Congress. "More than 220 lawmakers, including 40 Republicans, have signed on to a resolution sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., to ensure six-day mail delivery," Katz writes. Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif, said that the three-decade old language has changed into "a $2 billion per year unfunded mandated on the Postal Service—a mandate the agency can no longer afford."

Although President Barack Obama supports eliminating Saturday delivery, House Democrats haven't gotten behind the idea. During last week's subcommittee markup, Rep. Jose Serrano, R-N.Y., the ranking member of Crenshaw's subcommittee, said that "he will introduce an amendment to put the rider language back into the legislation when the full Appropriations Committee considers the bill," Katz reports.

The Senate Financial Services and the General Government Subcommittee will put together its own version of the appropriations bill. In February the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a bill to put off delivery cuts until 2017. (Read more)

Local cops are tracking phones then denying open records requests from journalists

Some local law enforcement agencies are using technology to get detailed information about the location and use of individual phones, and when journalists file open records requests on the matter, local agencies refuse to comply, or the federal government often steps in to seize records they claim belong to them, Susannah Nesmith and Jonathan Peters report for Columbia Journalism Review.

"Here in Florida, it’s not clear just what information about the technologies is covered under the state’s strong public records law," Nesmith and Peters write. "Records requests have produced a variety of responses, many of them not especially forthcoming. But it is clear that federal law enforcement is playing a key role in maintaining a shroud of secrecy."

In response to ACLU's public requests to 37 Florida law enforcement agencies for open records "state police have claimed the records are exempt under state law; in one case, a local department refused to confirm or deny the existence of such records," Nesmith and Peters write.

"But the most remarkable response came from the Sarasota Police Department, which in May was poised to release to Michael Barfield, vice president of the ACLU of Florida, records concerning applications and orders related to the department’s use of surveillance devices," writes the Review. "However, hours before the scheduled release, the records were instead seized by the Marshals Service, which had intervened to claim the records as its own, as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported. The federal agency said it had deputized the Sarasota officer who created the records, and therefore they were federal property not subject to state public records law."

Scott Ponce, a Miami-based media lawyer, told Nesmith and Peters, “We deal frequently with state agencies giving copies of documents to federal agencies and incorrectly claiming that something about the transfer makes them exempt from state public records law, but I have never seen the transfer of the creator of the records.”

But Sarasota County Judge Charles E. Williams "dismissed an action brought by Barfield and the ACLU to compel the production of the records," Nesmith and Peters write. "Williams said he lacked jurisdiction because the Sarasota officer had been deputized and 'assigned to a federally created regional task force,' and the state public records law doesn’t apply to 'records maintained by [the Sarasota officer] while operating in his capacity as a sworn federal law enforcement agent.” (Read more)

Writer examines the impact proposed rules to cut CO2 emissions by 30% will have on Nebraska

In a good example of localizing a national story, Fred Knapp, a reporter with Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, takes a look at how the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rules to cut CO2 emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from existing power plants based on emission levels from 2005 will impact Nebraska. Only Montana, Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky had higher rates of carbon dioxide emissions than Nebraska in 2012. Nebraska will be required to cut emissions by 26.4 percent—from 2,009 pounds per megawatt hour in 2012 to the proposed figure of 1,479 lb/MWh in 2030. The rules vary by state. Here's a state-by-state list.

"EPA wants Nebraska to cut its rate of carbon emissions by more than a quarter over the next decade and a half. That’s raising questions about the future of plants like Gerald Gentleman," which EPA says releases more than 9 million tons of greenhouse gas every year, Knapp writes. (Knapp photo: Gerald Gentleman Station)

"EPA has suggested several things states could do to reach the targeted reductions," Knapp writes. "They could improve the plant’s efficiency—but (CEO Pat) Pope says Gerald Gentleman’s already operating efficiently. They could switch coal plants to natural gas—but (Nebraska Public Power District) says there aren’t enough pipelines in central Nebraska right now to do that. Or they could use more non-fossil sources, including renewables, like wind. But there are tradeoffs to that as well."

"NPPD spokesman Mark Becker says wind is less reliable than coal," Knapp writes. "Becker points to a computer showing that one of the district’s wind farms is generating about half of its maximum capacity, compared to 95 to 100 percent for the coal plant. It’s also still cheaper to generate electricity with coal—about 3 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 5 cents for wind, even after wind’s 2 cent per kilowatt hour tax subsidy. But developments like the EPA’s proposed carbon reductions could make burning coal more expensive."

"One other strategy suggested by the EPA would be for consumers to use less energy," Knapp writes. "Nebraska’s Department of Environmental Quality, working with the utilities and other state agencies, is supposed to come up with a plan which could also include other strategies, subject to EPA approval. But as NPPD’s environmental manager Joe Citta told Pope, his boss, the process is just getting started." Citta told Knapp, “We’re starting into a big coordination and unification process to see how we can make this work in Nebraska." (Read more)

Last month was warmest May on record

Last month was the hottest May on record. The world's average combined land and ocean temperature in May was nearly 60 degrees, 1.33 degrees above the 20th Century average of 58.6 degrees, making last month the hottest during the 130 years when records have been kept, according to data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Four of the five warmest Mays have occurred in the past five years.

"On land last month, the world saw its fourth-hottest May on record with a global surface temperature 2.03 degrees above the 20th century average," Terrell Johnson and Jon Erdman report for The Weather Channel. "The oceans saw their hottest May on record, with a temperature 1.06 degrees above the 20th century average."

"The March to May 2014 period was the second-warmest on record (behind only 2010) across global land and ocean surfaces—at 1.33 degrees above the 20th century average," Johnson and Erdman write. "And the first five months of this year have been Earth's fifth warmest on record, with a temperature 1.19 degrees above the 20th century average." Every month this year, with the exception of February, has ranked among the four hottest on record for that particular month. (Read more) (NOAA graphic. May temperatures have been above average every year since 1977)

Restoring American chestnut in coal-depressed Appalachia can spur 'cultural identity'

Abandoned coal mines in Appalachia resulted in job loss, economic depression and land ravaged by strip mining and mountaintop removal. While coal companies have been reluctant to try reforestation as a reclamation alternative, a movement is growing in many areas to restore the land's former beauty by returning the American chestnut to its full glory while giving locals a sense of pride in place. (American Chestnut Foundation photo: Chestnut trees, which once grew as high as 80 feet, are now virtually extinct.)

It's not a new project. In 2010 the American Chestnut Foundation led an effort to& plant 25,000 chestnut trees throughout the U.S. Hope was high, although experts knew it might take decades to see if the project was a success. In 2012, the foundation said it had plans to plant in all 19 states where the tree originated.

Cut to 2014, where "hardwood plantings are now increasing, thanks to the efforts of universities, environmental groups and landowners. Some are hoping to restore former mines using native species—including the American chestnuts," Jonna McKone reports for Public Radio International. "So far, tens of thousands of Chinese-American chestnuts have been planted. Early data suggests that well over 80 percent of the chestnut trees are surviving. In a few years scientists expect the chestnuts will start producing seeds to grow a second generation of trees."

And it's a much-needed project in depressed areas of Appalachia, especially in regions where coal once thrived but has since closed up shop. Nathan Hall, a reforestation coordinator for Green Forests Work, a non-profit that helps restore former coal mines by planting hardwood trees, told McKone, “As somebody who grew up here, I see every day the tremendous need for physical work for people to be engaged in. Not only for the money aspect, but also to give people something to do and a sense of cultural identity. Because as the coal mining is moving away from this area, moving out west to Montana and Wyoming, we’re left with a big question of what we do. To me there’s a big opportunity to get people back to work doing restoration and remediation of these lands.” (Read more)

Monday, June 23, 2014

School nutritionists' lobby, backed by food giants, switches to fight against new school-meal standards

The School Nutrition Association, which initially supported U.S. Department of Agriculture rules to curb obesity and encourage healthier eating in U.S. schools, is now one of the leading opponents of the rules. Backed by several major food companies—such as General Mills, Cargill, Land O’Lakes and Hormel—the organization "is pushing legislation that would allow school districts to bypass new lunch rules restricting sodium and requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains," Allison Sherry reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

The lobby asked for a one-year waiver from the new rules, saying schools were losing money when students refused to eat the healthier foods. A House committee approved a bill allowing some schools to opt out, but the House has since delayed a vote on it.

Even though 90 percent of U.S. schools have complied with the new standards, the SNA, which receives half its funding from food companies, isn't backing off, Sherry writes. That can be attributed to recent changes in the organization.

"The SNA for years worked from a different playbook. It employed an old-school Washington lobbying firm that specialized in agriculture. It worked closely with the USDA, made few waves and captured even fewer headlines," Sherry writes. "That changed last year. The SNA dumped its old lobbyist and hired Barnes & Thornburg, a group known for its top-notch, aggressive grass-roots outreach, whose client roster includes the National Rifle Association. The NRA last year snuffed out two major gun-control measures in the U.S. Senate employing a similar grass-roots approach. . . . Nutritional advocates and USDA officials say privately that with the new SNA lobbyist came a new, tougher approach. SNA stopped working through the executive branch and began pushing legislative fixes," Sherry writes.

The SNA sent a letter dated June 19 to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama, a big supporter of the standards, who criticized the GOP bill and said parents should get involved in ensuring their children eat healthy, requesting a meeting with the two to discuss the standards.

SNA's suggestions are: Retain the current requirement that 50 percent of grains offered with school meals be whole-grain-rich, rather than further increasing the requirement to 100 percent; retain Target 1 sodium levels, and suspend implementation of further sodium levels unless and until scientific research supports such reductions for children; retain requirements to offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but eliminate the mandate that students must take a fruit or vegetable with meals; and allow any food item permitted to be served as part of a reimbursable meal to be sold at any time as a competitive food.

Patti Montague, the CEO of SNA, was a recent radio guest on Agri-Pulse. To hear her interview click here. UPDATE, July 8: Darlene Superville of The Associated Press has a situation piece.

Study finds autism higher among babies born to women who exposed to pesticides in pregnancy

Pregnant women exposed to pesticides have a greater risk of giving birth to children with autism, according to a University of California Davis study published in Environmental Health Perspectives. The study found that "children with mothers who lived less than one mile from fields treated with organophosphate pesticides during pregnancy were about 60 percent more likely to have autism than children whose mothers did not live close to treated fields," Lindsey Konkel reports for Environmental Health News. The study of 970 children was exclusive to Northern California. (Flickr photo)

Pesticides are particularly harmful to women in their second trimester, with expectant mothers exposed to chlorpyrifos – the most commonly applied organophosphate pesticide – 3.3 times more likely to have children with autism, Konkel writes. "Chlorpyrifos, once widely used to kill insects in homes and gardens, was banned for residential use in 2001 after it was linked to neurological effects in children. It is still widely used on crops, including nut trees, alfalfa, vegetables and fruits."

"The study also is the first to report a link between pyrethroids and autism," Konkel writes. "Application of pyrethroids just prior to conception meant an increased risk of 82 percent, and during the third trimester, the risk was 87 percent higher." Pyrethroids are supposed to be a better, safer alternative to organophosphates. Previous studies in California and Sweden have determined that environmental factors, such as pesticides, can have an impact on babies whose mothers were exposed to them. (Read more)

Online cameras let viewers see nature undisturbed, but disturbing images can lead to disturbance

As more people live more of their lives online, a popular trend among animal lovers are webcams set up in the wild that allow viewers to watch animals during exciting moments, mundane acts, and absences that leave voyeurs leering only at flora, not fauna. 

"These wildlife cams aren’t delivering the kind of cheeky, viral animal video that the Internet is famous for — the tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos; Buttermilk the goat jumping over other goats — but a weird genre of non-narrated, unedited nature documentary that demands a lot more of its audience," Jon Mooallem writes for The New York Times. "All they offer is a sustained stream of animals doing whatever they happen to be doing, which, let’s be honest, often doesn’t look like that much. Bison stand around in Saskatchewan. A beaver sleeps in its dam. Every blip of action — every swipe a grizzly takes at a salmon in Alaska — tends to be offset by hours of moping and loafing. Often, you click on one of these cameras and there aren’t even any animals standing in the shot."

One effort to give a glimpse into the reality of birds' natural habitat turned into much more when a struggling baby bald eagle on Minnesota Bound's Eagle Cam prompted thousands of calls, emails and notes on social media urging the state's Nongame Wildlife Program to rescue the bird. Such programs have policies to not intervene and to let nature run its course, but after so many calls, even to the governor's office, the state sent workers to the nest, where they discovered the eagle was so badly injured that it had to be euthanized. (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources photo)

Lori Naumann, a public relations specialist for Eagle Cam, said she was conflicted about interfering with the eagle, Mooallem writes: "She explained to me that wildlife advocates generally look at these cameras as a way to deliver wildlife to people who don’t otherwise go out of their way to notice it. A live-stream of bears or birds brings nature to our tablets or phones with the long-term hope of eventually bringing us back to nature. But maybe it’s kind of backfiring on us."

Mooallem writes, "In Minnesota, the public had managed to turn the EagleCam into just another app. Rather than appreciate what they were seeing on its own terms, they saw something that didn’t feel right, swiped at it, and changed what was happening on the screen. In truth, that isn’t so different from how we’ve always interacted with nature off-line, too. We manipulate and manage the world’s wild things to reflect our ideas about what’s right and wrong, about what belongs in nature and what’s an abomination." (Read more)

Obama creates task force to figure out how save honeybees; more than 23 percent died last winter

President Obama on Friday announced the formation of a task force to seek a solution to stop the continued loss of bee colonies, which pollinate about 90 crops worldwide. Honeybee populations lost 23.5 percent of their numbers over the winter, and have been losing populations for years, with pesticides blamed by many for the deaths.

The Pollinator Health Task Force "will have 180 days to create a strategy to prevent future bee loss," Isabelle Khurshudyan reports for The Washington Post. "Specifically, the task force will investigate how to reduce pollinator exposure to pesticides found to harm bumblebees by interfering with their homing abilities." (Post graphic)

Honeybee pollination adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the U.S., a White House release said. “Over the past few decades, there has been a significant loss of pollinators, including honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, from the environment. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.”

Ore. food-stamp recipients get paid to eat healthy; tokens buy fruits and veggies at farmers' markets

The five-year Farm Bill included a $100 million program that will give farmers' markets up to $20 million a year to help Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (food stamp) recipients buy more fruits and vegetables. The idea is already paying off for low-income families in Oregon, where about 20 percent of residents receive food stamps, with more than 792,000 in the program, Yuxing Zheng reports for The Oregonian in Portland.

At a farmers' market, a food-stamp recipient gets five tokens, each worth $1 to use towards buying fruits and vegetables. "The program is part of a relatively new approach to answer a question: Does it work to pay poor people extra so they can afford to eat healthier? The data seem to indicate that it does," Zheng writes. "And it probably won't be long before matching programs spread nationwide." (Zheng photo: Exchanging tokens for vegetables in Forest Grove, Ore.)

SNAP recipient Delona Thies, who receives $348 a month in food stamps for her and her 16-year-old son, told  Zheng, "I believe it makes a difference, even if it is just $5. An extra $5 a week is $20 a month. I never have enough to last until the end, so everything helps."

Even before the bill passed, Oregon was already addressing the need to find better ways for food stamps recipients to eat healthy, through programs run by non-profits that rely heavily on local donations, Zheng writes. "In recent years, farmers markets across Oregon have teamed up with businesses and nonprofits to start matching programs for food stamps recipients. The benefits, supporters say, are twofold: Poor people eat healthier while supporting local farmers." (Read more)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ky. proposes more limits on water discharges from surface mines to resolve disputes with EPA

Kentucky officials have proposed new water-protection requirements for coal mines to resolve "concerns of federal environmental authorities who have objected to dozens of new or expanded surface mines in Eastern Kentucky," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. For the first time, the state would have different standards for that region and Western Kentucky, which is in a separate coalfield and is not mountainous.

"State officials say the new rules strengthen protection for streams in the region, but environmental groups argue the provisions still don’t go far enough," Estep writes. "The coal industry has concerns about some of the regulations, but supports moving forward with them as a way to potentially break the stalemate over permits between the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.''

If EPA approves, the changes would be made to the state's general permit for most strip mines, which expired July 31. "In 2010, the EPA began objecting to permits for surface mines in the region that state officials had already approved," Estep notes. "The federal agency said there was growing scientific evidence that runoff from surface mines and valley fills in Appalachia hurts water quality and aquatic life, and that the proposed permits were not adequate to protect water quality."

Federal officials blocked permits for 40 new or expanded strip mines, “contributing significantly to the social and economic decline of the entire Eastern Kentucky coal-producing region,” Kentucky Coal Association adviser Lloyd Cress told state officials at a hearing last week. Environmentalists note the "growing evidence of a correlation between mining-related pollution and human health problems, in addition to the environmental damage," Estep writes.

The new rules would include the first limits on selenium, "require companies to apply for individual permits for any discharge with concentrations of metals that might be in excess of water-quality standards;" require coal companies to test water for conductivity, an indicator of mineral pollution, and "do trend analyses on water samples, and, if water quality declined, to review their practices for controlling pollution," Eastep reports. It would also "require electronic reporting of water-quality tests coal companies must perform, with the results available to the public."