Friday, September 28, 2012

BLM selling wild horses to slaughter advocate

The Bureau of Land Management, which is running short of space to keep wild horses, has sold more than 1,700 of them – up to 240 at a time, and for $10 a head this spring – to a longtime advocate of horse slaughter, Dave Philipps reports for ProPublica. (Phillips photo: Nevada mustang that escaped a BLM roundup last winter)

Tom Davis "signs contracts promising that animals bought from the program will not be slaughtered and insists he finds them good homes," Philipps writes, but he "has ducked Colorado law to move animals across state lines and will not say where they end up. He continues to buy wild horses for slaughter from Indian reservations, which are not protected by the same laws. And since 2010, he has been seeking investors for a slaughterhouse of his own."

"Hell, some of the finest meat you will ever eat is a fat yearling colt," Davis told Philipps. "What is wrong with taking all those BLM horses they got all fat and shiny and setting up a kill plant?"

BLM officials say they carefully screen buyers and have no indication that Davis is taking the horses to slaughter in Mexico, Canada or elsewhere. "Some BLM employees say privately that wild horse program officials may not want to look too closely at Davis," Philipps writes. "The agency has more wild horses than it knows what to do with, they say, and Davis has become a relief valve for a federal program plagued by conflict and cost over-runs." (Read more)

China's slowdown hits hard in some Appalachian communities that mine metallurgical coal

"Slowing growth in China is taking a brutal toll on Appalachian coal mines and coal towns," Kris Maher reports for The Wall Street Journal from Wharton, W.Va., where he photographed laid-off miner Phillip Powell, 38, and his family. "A lot of guys that I worked with are scared of losing everything they own," he said.

"The Chinese economy is slowing and so is its steel industry. That has sent the price of coal used for steelmaking down nearly 50 percent to $170 a metric ton. Those coal producers who counted on Chinese sales are reeling," Maher writes. "While many have blamed the downturn in the U.S. coal industry on cheap natural gas supplanting coal and tougher environmental regulations, the slide in metallurgical coal demand has been equally devastating. Coal companies were caught flat-footed after ramping up production last year with the expectation that steep prices would cover their rising costs, despite coal's past cyclicality. Instead, demand in China began to falter just as Australian metallurgical coal production—interrupted by floods last year—surged back into the market." (Read more)

National Newspaper Week deserves attention

Oct. 7-13 is National Newspaper Week, an opportunity for newspapers to remind their readers of the important roles they play in their communities, especially rural places where the newspaper is the only reliable medium for local news and information.

In recent years, there has been another reason to share the observance with readers: the mistaken notion that newspapers are a dying industry. That is certainly not the case with community newspapers, and "In the interest of balance and fairness, how about we tell the other side of the story," asks Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, in his column in this week's Arkansas Publisher.

Tom and his fellow Newspaper Association Managers (the name of their group) coordinate the observance each year and make a promotional kit available for newspapers to use. "You could add to these an historical timeline of your local newspaper, when it was founded, who founded it and historical high points for the newspaper," Tom writes. "Run some old photos that involve the newspaper in your NNW observance. Some local newspapers once sponsored the local community band. I’ve seen some great photos of these bands posed up in front of the newspaper office. This is great stuff because it helps drive home the theme, that the local newspaper is the cornerstone of any community. In so many cases the newspaper is the oldest continually operating business in town. If that’s the case, say so in a feature. You could decorate your office with some old copies of the newspaper and invite the community to stop by and have a look. Keep the coffee pot on and put out a tray of cookies. Everybody likes that, and these types of events further connect the newspaper to the community." For the promotional kit, click here.

Three of eight Americans don't believe in science of climate change; debate more cultural than scientific

There is no denying that a strong scientific consensus about the existence of climate change exists, especially since scientists have documented a build-up of greenhouse gases and their findings have been endorsed by a large body of domestic and international scientific agencies. But what doesn't exist in the U.S. is a social consensus about climate change. Studies have shown that Americans' belief in the scientific findings of climate change has mostly declined over the last five years.

Between April 2008 and October 2009, belief in climate science dropped to 57 percent from 71, according to the Pew Research Center. This February, it had risen to 62 percent, which means 38 percent of Americans still do not trust it. "Such a significant number of dissenters tells us that we do not have a set of socially accepted beliefs on climate change," Andrew Hoffman, right, the Holcim Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, writes for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. He says the debate is not so much about science as about culture, worldviews and ideology.

"Acceptance of the scientific consensus is now seen as an alignment with liberal views consistent with other 'cultural' issues that divide the country -- abortion, gun control, health care, and evolution," Hoffman writes. This partisan divide on the issue is a recent phenomenon, something that wasn't seen during the 1990s. Hoffman examined "the climate change debate through the lens of the social sciences," because he says "we need to understand the social and psychological processes by which people receive and understand the science of global warming."

He writes there are two "overriding conclusions" about the climate change debate: Climate change is not a "pollution" issue, and it is an existential challenge to our contemporary world views. He outlines three possible ways in which the ideological debate will manifest: the "Optimistic Form," in which "people do not have to change their values at all," the "Pessimistic Form," in which "people fight to protect their values," and the "Consensus-Based Form," in which "a reasoned societal debate, focused on the full scope of technical and social dimensions of the problem and the feasibility and desirability of multiple solutions," are discussed. (Read more)

Two-thirds of fracking-chemical disclosures omit at least one chemical on grounds of trade secrecy

Almost two-thirds of the disclosure statements filed by oil and gas companies about their hydraulic fracturing operations kept at least one chemical secret, according to a review of PIVOT Upstream Group's D-Frac database by Energywire. In 65 percent of fracking disclosures, companies said they needed to keep one or more chemicals secret to protect confidential business information, typically known as trade secrets.

Critics of drilling say widespread use of trade-secret exemptions undermines assurances by the industry that drillers are being open and honest with the communities where wells are fracked, Mike Soraghan of Energy and Environment News reports. Companies say they spend millions developing new fracking materials and don't want to give away their secret. Industry groups say the debate over trade secrets overshadows just how much companies have already disclosed.

Utah has the highest rate of trade-secret claims on disclosure statements at 94 percent, the highest of any state with more than 100 disclosures. Disclosure isn't mandatory in Utah, but in New Mexico, where it is, 84 percent of statements sent to FracFocus -- where PIVOT gets its information -- had a trade-secret claim.

All of BP America Production Co.'s 230 disclosures contained a trade-secret claim. BP and a small Texas company, Howell Oil & Gas, were the only companies with more than 100 wells that filed trade-secret claims on all of them. The rest of the top five companies are Exco Resources Inc., at 98 percent; Devon Energy Corp. and Noble Energy Inc., both at 97 percent. (Read more)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Murray Energy agrees to pay third-highest penalty for violations related to deaths in coal mines

Robert Murray, owner
"Two Murray Energy Co. subsidiaries will pay the third-largest penalty in the history of U.S. coal-mining disasters — almost $950,000 — to settle safety violations that federal regulators said contributed to nine deaths at Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine in August 2007," Mike Gorrell reports for The Salt Lake Tribune. The company has already paid a $500,000 criminal fine.

Murray accepted 17 of the 20 citations that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration issued after its investigation in July 2008. MSHA levied fines of $1.64 million, and Murray will pay less than 58 percent of that amount. The company said it made the settlement to avoid "a contentious trial" and said evidence at trial would have shown that the violations didn't contribute to the disaster. But Labor Department Solicitor Patricia Smith told Gorrell the firm "acknowledged responsibility for the failures that led to the tragedy at Crandall Canyon. These failures resulted in the needless deaths of nine members of the mining community," including two miners killed in a failed rescue/recovery attempt. "We settled for what we thought we’d have gotten if we tried the case."

MSHA Director Joe Main told the Tribune that Murray admitted to three flagrant violations, the most serious type of infraction. "Two of those involved violations that resulted in the company pleading guilty in March in U.S. District Court to two misdemeanors for willfully violating mine-safety laws," Gorrell notes. "It paid a $500,000 fine to end that criminal case." 

The only larger settlements stemmed from deaths at West Virginia mines operated by now-defunct Massey Energy. Its successor, Alpha Natural Resources, paid $10.8 million for the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 at the Upper Big Branch mine. Earlier, Massey paid $1.7 million for the fire that killed two miners at the Aracoma mine in January 2006. (Read more)

Rural residents depend on papers for local news, but urbanites are more interested in local topics

Metropolitan, suburban, smaller town or rural, all types of places are big consumers of news -- be it local, national or international. But how and where we get that news and how much we "participate" in it differs between community types. And that may be more of a function of the digital and social media available to us than our desire to weigh in on the topics. Or so a recent study of local news and community types strongly indicates.

A just-released national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that rural residents did indeed still rely on newspapers for most of their local news. Researchers speculated that is because most rural areas get little coverage from other media, and many "micropolitan" towns of fewer than 50,000 people have no television station.

However, they noted that "the choices about information acquisition are not necessarily the same in all communities. For instance, it might be the case in rural areas that the local newspaper and broadcast outlets are not online or have a very limited online presence and that is a determinant in whether residents get local information online or not."

And, perhaps surprisingly, researchers found that those who live in rural communities are "less interested in almost all local topics than those in other communities. The one exception is taxes. They are also are less likely . . . to say it is easier now to keep up with local information."

Interestingly, rural people were more likely than most to say they are willing to pay for local news content through a paid subscription to a local paper; 37 percent said so, a larger share than any but suburbanites, at 40 percent.

The study, co-authored by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, also reported these findings:
  • Urban and suburban residents on average use more sources of local news than their small town and rural counterparts and are more likely to consume local news on mobile devices.
  • The most active “local news participators” also tend to reside in suburban and urban communities where they email local stories to others, post material on sites, comment, post or e-report.
  • Suburbanites are most likely to use radio as a news source -- researchers postulated this might be a consequence of longer commutes. They are the most likely of the four distinct community types to use the Internet for information about local restaurants, businesses and jobs.
To read the full report, go here.

Study: Rural residents have equal access to health care -- if they have insurance and like the drive

A health-care study in Tennessee, which started with the premise that people in rural areas have less access to care than urban dwellers, ended with a rather surprising conclusion: They don't. Not if they have health insurance. "When it comes to commercially insured patients, there’s little disparity in access to health care between residents of rural communities and urban areas in Tennessee," said Dr. Steven L. Counter, president of the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Institute.

How can this be? The study found that almost half of rural residents pass up the hospitals closest to their homes to go to larger urban hospitals, even if the same services are available locally, writes Getahn Ward of The Tenneseean. "The conclusion we came to is that we’re living in a very mobile society, and the distance is not necessarily a determinant factor in whether people get care or not," said Coulter.

Because the survey did not include consumers, it's only a guess about why they chose to take the time and trouble to go to the big town, but experts says it's a combination of services not being available or a perception that they aren't, even if they are. This raises, again, age-old questions about the viability of rural hospitals, some of which often don’t have the money for capital-intensive technology and services. However, Coulter told the Tennessean that "a recent increase in alliances between rural hospitals and larger hospitals and urban health systems raises hopes that non-urban hospitals may be able to expand their menus of services."

Such partnerships between non-profits and for-profit chains are becoming more common, reports Ward, and some say those efforts will change the perception of those in far-flung regions that great medicine is being practiced close-by. This could be especially important, said Wes Littrell, chief strategy officer and president of Nashville-based Saint Thomas Health, in the new world of health reform. “We expect that when you get more into population management that you need to take care of the patient closer to home in the lower-cost setting,” he said. (Read more)

Dish Network to offer broadband-Internet services to 14.5 million rural folks

Rural customers are getting more broadband choices, but they're still not cheap. Dish Network Corp., the second- largest U.S. satellite-television provider, has introduced a nationwide broadband-Internet service called DishNet that’s aimed at rural customers. According to Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Alex Sherman, Dish is targeting the 14.5 million rural Americans who have slower Internet access or no online connection at all.

While the Internet speed it plans to offer these customers -- 10 megabits per second -- is a fraction of what’s offered by cable and fiber-optic lines in urban areas, "it’s fast enough for most applications, such as social networking, video streaming and Internet-based phone calls," Dish representatives told Sherman. The cost of the service should be between $40 and $50 a month. (Read more

Seven states with significant rural populations ask for No Child Left Behind waiver approval

Coast Guard Lt. Tom Pauser visits
a rural Alaskan classroom to give
safety training. (Coast Guard photo)
So far, the U.S. Department of Education has granted No Child Left Behind Act waivers to 33 states plus the District of Columbia. Seven additional states met the Sept. 6 deadline for the third round of exemptions from the law. Five of those states -- Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota  and West Virginia -- are considered rural by the National Center for Education Statistics. Alabama and Hawaii have significant rural populations. This means, writes Education Week reporter Michele McNeil, that these applications ensure that the department's "experiment in awarding flexibility in exchange for certain education-improvement promises will play out in a diverse set of states with vastly different geographies and student populations."  This brings to 44 the number of states that have asked for flexibility in administering the law.

McNeil reports that those states hoping to win waiver approval have to agree to revamp "their teacher-evaluation systems, have to adopt college- and career-ready standards and tie state tests to them, and adopt a differentiated accountability system that focuses on 15 percent of their most troubled schools. In return, states will no longer have to face the 2014 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency in math and reading, and their schools will no longer face NCLB-law sanctions such as providing school choice. District officials also will have more freedom to move around federal Title I money for disadvantaged students." (Read more)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

New fracking film starring Matt Damon set for release in December

A new film about hydraulic fracturing will hit theaters this December, but this time it's a feature film, not a documentary. "Promised Land" stars Matt Damon as Steve Butler, a gas company representative who comes to a rural, economically depressed town offering financial salvation in exchange for natural gas drilling leases. The film is being directed by Oscar-nominated director Gus Van Sant, who directed Damon in "Good Will Hunting."

The story behind "Promised Land" is very similar to that of real-life rural town, Dimock, Pa., where a group of residents complained that injection-well drilling caused gas to leak into their water, Mike Soraghan of Energy and Environment News reports. State officials said shoddy drilling contaminated 18 properties, and shut down the company, Cabot Oil & Gas Corp for more than two years. A $4.1 million settlement was eventually reached, giving the homeowners twice the value of their homes and restoring their mineral rights.

The film also stars Frances McDormand and Hal Holbrook, and was written by Dave Eggers, who wrote the book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The movie is likely to please environmentalists and critics of drilling while angering drilling companies, Soraghan reports. Energy and Environment News is behind a paywall, but free trials can be accessed here.

Publication collecting compensation figures from ag non-profit CEOS sees recent rise in salaries

The compensation for most nonprofit chief executive officers in the U.S. dropped along with the economy in recent years, but those numbers are starting to climb again, Agri-Pulse reports. The online publication has compiled a list of CEO compensations at nonprofit organizations that try to shape farm and rural policy from the recently released 2012 GuideStar Nonprofit Compensation Report.

GuideStar vice-president of research Chuck McLean told Agri-Pulse that "long established compensation patterns turned upside down" between 2008 and 2010. Over that period, compensation for 41 percent of incumbent CEOs was static or declined. Washington, D.C., had the highest overall median salary of the top 20 metropolitan statistical areas studied, likely because most of the big agriculture group are based in Washington. Median compensation of women continued to lag behind men when comparing similar organizations, and very few women are CEOs. But Pamela Bailey, head of Grocery Manufacturers Association, had the highest base salary in 2011 of all groups surveyed: just more than $1.1 million.

This compensation report is a service provided by Agri-Pulse, and a lot of work goes into it. That's why the publication makes this request: "We’ve invested a lot of time in collecting this data in conjunction with GuideStar, and hope you will continue to respect our copyright by not forwarding the information to those who do not subscribe. We offer a four-week free trial for those who are interested in investing in our content." That free trial can be accessed here.

Inspired by Wendell Berry, successful farmer has remade his family's farm with the future in mind

Will Harris III, owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga., may seem like a typical rancher: Stetson hat, gruff voice, beat-up Jeep he uses to drive his more than 1,000 acre farm. But, he "doesn't always sound the part," John Kessler of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. For example, he quotes George Washington Carver on the order of nature, and Michael Pollan on the dangers of industrial agriculture. He's immensely proud of his farm's organic certification and of the new solar panels he's installing. (AJC photo by Brant Sanderlin: Harris inspects chicken)

"Row by row, Harris is breaking the mold on farming in Georgia," Kessler writes. His organic grass-fed cattle are slaughtered in ways approved by animal welfare advocates. Steaks from his farm are sold in Atlanta's finest restaurants, and Whole Foods features White Oak Pastures' beef in its stores. But 15 years ago, Harris' farm was a far cry from organic. The fourth-generation farmer had to reverse decades of damage to the land perpetrated by his father, who "pushed the farm as far as he could, pumping any and all chemicals into the earth and into the animals," Kessler reports.

Harris is a first-generation college graduate, with a degree in animal science from the University of Georgia. But it wasn't a book he read for one of his classes that made him want to change the family farm; it was Kentuckian Wendell Berry's 1977 book, The Unsettling of America, that left a great impression on him. The book "argued agribusiness was destroying the cultural and family context of farming," Kessler writes. Harris said it "made him wonder what kind of system his father had prescribed to, and what kind of legacy he was leaving" to his children. It was the spark that Harris needed to change the direction of his farm. (Read more)

UPDATE: Wendell Berry had this to say about Harris, and farmers like him, in a letter to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues: "[Harris] represents at a very high level what is going on all over the country: Local citizens, both rural and urban, who have seen something that needed to be done and have simply set about doing it, without official advice or approval or help and without writing a grant application. If the world lasts long enough, these people will find the real solutions to our problems. I think this is the great story unfolding now everywhere in our country, but only occasionally does some journalist notice that it is happening. So far, no politician of consequence has noticed it." 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Coal and the vote: Worried about Obama regulations, more ads, money and a new plant?

"A handful of utility companies are determined to buck the trend toward natural gas and break ground on what could be the last new conventional coal-fired power plants in the U.S.," Tennille Tracy of The Wall Street Journal reports. (Getty Images photo: Miners at Romney rally in southeastern Ohio)

"The moves come as the presidential campaigns spar over the future of coal power," and as they worry about an April deadline to begin construction, created by the Obama administration's limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. "They say separate government rules on mercury emissions are making it tough to hit that deadline," because the mercury rules are not due to be final until March.

Tracy notes that Republican Mitt Romney is running a TV commercial in coal states with "mournful images of coal miners facing the industry's decline. . . . With some parts of battleground states like Ohio reliant on coal jobs, the White House has started to defend itself more vigorously against the 'war on coal' allegation" being made by Republicans and coal interests. (Read more)

Also weighing in this week: Time magazine with an usual look at the debate through the eyes of controversial Ohio coal executive Robert E. Murray who "may be Obama's biggest headache in a state where he leads by about 4 points." Time's Michael Scherer gives Murray and the pro-coal alliance which has spent millions to defend Obama lots of space to vent about the president's policies. 

Lesser-educated white people, especially women, are living shorter lives, study finds

The life expectancy of white people without a high school diploma fell from 1990 to 2008, with women losing the most, an average of five years, according to a new University of Illinois at Chicago study. These demographics (older and less educated) are disproportionately rural.

The average life expectancy for white women without a high-school diploma was 73.5 years, compared to 83.9 for those with a four-year college degree or more. White men who did not fionish high school are living an average of 67.5 years, compared to 80.4 for those with a four-year degree or more.

"The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription-drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less-educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least-educated Americans who lack health insurance," reports Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times.

"Some cautioned that the results could be overstated because Americans without a high school diploma — about 12 percent of the population, down from about 22 percent in 1990, according to the Census Bureau — were a shrinking group that was now more likely to be disadvantaged in ways besides education, compared with past generations," Tavernise reports.

The study was published last month in the journal Health Affairs, and the National Academy of Sciences is investigating the decline to better determine its cause. (Read more)

Watertown Daily Times sets the Atlantic straight

When the Watertown Daily Times in northern New York saw that Malcolm Burnley of the Atlantic had been horribly off base on a story about large-scale agriculture, the Amish and land prices in rural St. Lawrence County, it set out to set the record straight, and did so Sunday in a 3,300-word story by Christopher Robbins. (Screenshot including Reuters photo)

"It is a model of good reporting and the importance of having reporters living, breathing and writing in rural communities," Daily Yonder co-editor Bill Bishop writes as he retells the story. "This is a great story, and tells so much about journalism, the relationship between city and country and how important it is to listen."

Times Managing Editor Robert D. Gorman says in the story, “The writer didn’t know the difference between bail and bale, teats and udders, DePeyster and Canton, and wrote that huge agribusinesses have moved into St. Lawrence County, which is simply not true. Despite acknowledging Mr. Burnley’s factual errors, his editors are still convinced he methodically unraveled an incredibly complex socioeconomic trend in regional farming. I have told them Mr. Burnley got that wrong, too, but to no avail.” The Atlantic has corrected six errors but the story remains posted.

Presidential candidates talk policy in Farm Bureau survey, but don't fully answer some questions

The answers are in to the American Farm Bureau Federation presidential candidate questionnaire. In it, candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama give their views on several issues, including energy, environment and farm policy, with all questions revolving around agriculture.

Here are excerpts from the extensive questionnaire. The full-length version is available here

AFBF: Agriculture is an energy-intensive industry and volatile prices significantly affect the cost of growing crops. What policies will you support to meet our energy needs and strengthen energy security? What role do you see for agricultural-based biofuels in the nation’s energy supply?

Obama: U.S. biofuel production is at its highest level in history. Last year, rural America produced enough renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel to meet roughly 8 percent of our needs, helping us increase our energy independence to its highest level in 20 years. We are increasing the level of ethanol that can be blended into gasoline, and the new Renewable Fuel Standard helped boost biodiesel production to nearly 1 billion gallons in 2011, supporting 39,000 jobs.

Romney: I have a vision for an America that is an energy superpower, rapidly increasing our own production and partnering with our allies, Canada and Mexico, to achieve energy independence on this continent by 2020. . . . America’s energy resources can be a long-term competitive advantage for American agriculture and their development is key to the success of the industry.

AFBF: A new Farm Bill will be enacted and implemented over the next four years during a time of significant evolution in agriculture. What policy and risk management tools do you propose to ensure that agriculture is a profitable, competitive and viable industry? 

Obama: I understand the need for a strong farm safety net. That’s why I increased the availability of crop insurance and emergency disaster assistance to help over 590,000 farmers and ranchers keep their farms in business after natural disasters and crop loss. My administration expanded farm credit to help more than 100,000 farmers struggling during the financial crisis to keep their family farms and provide for their families. And as farmers continue to go through hard times because of this drought, we are expanding access to low-interest loans, encouraging insurance companies to extend payment deadlines and opening new lands for livestock farmers to graze their herds. And I know that any Farm Bill passed this year . . . needs to have adequate protections for America’s farmers. That’s why I have called for maintaining a strong crop insurance program and an extended disaster assistance program.  . . . Instead of making farmers pay more for crop insurance, we will do it by cutting subsidies to crop insurance companies and better targeting conservation funding.

Romney:  I support passage of a strong Farm Bill that provides the appropriate risk-management tools that will work for farmers and ranchers throughout the country. In the near term, my immediate priority should be given to enacting disaster relief for those not traditionally covered by crop insurance as this year’s drought has worsened. . . .  Other nations subsidize their farmers, so we must be careful not to unilaterally change our policies in a way that would disadvantage agriculture here in our country. In addition, we want to make sure that we don’t ever find ourselves in a circumstance where we depend on foreign nations for our food the way we do with energy. Ultimately, it is in everyone’s interest is achieve a level playing field on which American farmers can compete.

AFBF: U.S. agriculture has a long history of relying on temporary workers to help plant and harvest crops, tend orchards and manage livestock. What would you do to solve agriculture’s labor shortage problem? 

Obama: We must design a system that provides legal channels for U.S. employers to hire needed foreign workers. This system must protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers and only be used when U.S. workers are not available. I have called on Congress to pass and implement the AgJOBS Act, which allows farmers to hire the workers they rely on, and provides a path to citizenship for those workers. But we cannot wait for Congress to act, which is why my administration is already taking action to improve the existing system for temporary agricultural workers. We are also standing up a new Office on Farmworker Opportunities at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the first office for farmer workers in the agency’s history.

Romney: Our current system for issuing visas to temporary, seasonal workers is broken. Too often, harvest or tourist season passes before temporary worker visas are approved. Indeed, in 2006 and 2007, 43 percent of all applications for temporary agricultural workers were not processed on time. As president, I will make the system for bringing in temporary agricultural workers and other seasonal workers functional for both employers and workers ... A legal immigration system that works will provide a lawful alternative to workers who would otherwise enter illegally and employers who face the choice of either reducing operations or turning to illegal labor to address labor shortage problems. 

Some Dollar General stores now sell beer; one Kentucky town, caught off guard, doesn't want it

Dollar General Corp., a mainstay in rural areas, many of which ban the sale of alcoholic beverages, has started selling beer in nearly 4,000 of its stores, where it's legal and where company officials think there's a demand, reports Nick Tabor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville. Of the company's 381 Kentucky stores, most of which are in rural areas, many of them "dry," 26 now sell beer.

That includes one in Crofton, population 750 and declining, a few miles north of Hopkinsville, where the city council officially declared six months ago that it didn't want alcohol sales in town. The city sent Dollar General a letter asking it to cancel plans to sell alcohol there, but has received no response, Mayor Dan Lacy told Tabor. “We have enough problems with drugs and everything now without something else coming in there,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a family store. So that’s what the people in Crofton expect.” (Wikipedia map)

As state law requires, the company posted a small legal notice in the New Era that it was applying for a beer license, as state law requires, giving the public 30 days to protest. But many residents of Crofton don't get the daily paper from the county seat, so they didn't see the notice or heard about it too late to meet the deadline.

The city hopes to hear back from Dollar General before taking further action, but County Attorney Mike Foster said it's likely too late for legal action because it "would be unusual for Kentucky's Alcoholic Beverage Control Licensure Board to consider a petition that was filed too late," Tabor reports. The New Era is mainly behind a paywall, but the story can be found here.

Rural people in swing states agree with Democrats on immigration -- if they don't see the party label

A National Rural Assembly poll shows that rural people in nine swing states in the presidential election have complex views of immigration, and they are often skewed by party lines. If the party affiliation is hidden, rural voters agree more with the Democratic Party's immigration position than with the Republican Party's. When the affiliation is revealed, a majority of rural voters in the nine states agree with the Republican Party's position. Partisan labels influence how people feel about immigration positions by more than 10 percentage points. (Daily Yonder graph)

"Immigration isn't being talked about much in this campaign, and you can see why in the poll," reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder. "The issue is much too slippery. Rural Americans, who are largely Republican, don’t think this is a huge problem and they have very mixed opinions about immigration." Rural voters in this poll believe Mitt Romney better represents their views on illegal immigration, besting President Obama 49 percent to 31. But, 60 percent of those polled said illegal immigration was a small problem in their community. (Read more)

Monday, September 24, 2012

White children exposed to high level of chemical BPA five times more likely to be obese, study finds

White children exposed to high levels of bisphenol A, better known as BPA, are five times more likely to be obese than children with low levels, according to a study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study by the New York University School of Medicine is the first to link the chemical to obesity in children, which is more prevalent in rural areas.

Environment Health News reporter Brien Bienkowski reports that scientists found traces of BPA, which are used in some canned food and beverages, paper receipts and dental sealants, "are found in virtually every U.S. adult and child. In the study of body mass and BPA data from 2,838 youths aged 6 to 19, only white children were found to have significant increases in obesity prevalence as their BPA levels increased. Those with the highest concentrations in their urine were five times more likely to be obese than children with the lowest levels. Black children with higher BPA levels were 1.25 times more likely to be obese than those with lower levels, which the scientists said is not statistically significant. Hispanic children had the same rates of obesity at the highest and lowest levels."

Bienkowski reports that "representatives from the chemical industry said the study had too many weaknesses to prove any connection. Steven Hentges, from the American Chemistry Council's Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group, said that attempts 'to link our national obesity problem to minute exposures to chemicals found in common, everyday products are a distraction from the real efforts underway to address this important national health issue.' "

One study of preschoolers in North Carolina and Ohio found that 99 percent of BPA exposure was through food. But since the chemical is in many plastics and other products, this is difficult for scientists to pin down. “People are always told if you just stop eating or exercise more, you will lose weight. But there may be more to it … and I think there is,” said Retha Newbold, a visiting scientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, who specializes in BPA and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals.  (Read more)

Walmart offers discount to Humana plan members for purchase of healthier grocery items

Starting Oct. 15, more than 1 million members of Humana Inc.'s Healthy Rewards program will start getting a 5 percent credit on about 1,300 healthy food items at all U.S. Walmart stores.  The credit can be used against future purchases at Walmart, which has about half its stores in rural areas.

Walmart, the largest U.S. food retailer, has taken note that "one of the biggest barriers to healthy nutrition is cost," Dr. John Agwunobi, president of health and wellness at Walmart, told Reuters. His company, he said, is trying an overall approach to improve the nutritional value of the food it sells. And because food accounts for more than half of Walmart's annual sales, and since it has tremendous clout in the U.S. market, the hope is that changes at its stores can influence other supermarket chains to do more about healthy eating.

Walmart products eligible for the credit include fresh fruits, vegetables, lean cuts of meat, skim milk, brown rice and packaged goods, the company told Reuters. The program works with a HumanaVitality card provided to members of Humana's rewards unit who receive points for meeting health goals. (Read more)

Drought slows rural economy in 10 central states

The economy in rural areas of 10 Midwestern and Western states continued to look weak this month as the region begins a slow recovery from this summer's oppressive drought, according to The Rural Mainstreet Index, an economic survey of rural bankers by Creighton University in Omaha. The economic index for this month is 48.3, up slightly from August, but still in negative-growth territory. The index ranges from 0 to 100, with 50 being growth-neutral.

"The drought continues to dampen economic activity for businesses linked to agriculture such as ethanol, and agriculture-equipment seller," Creighton economist Ernie Goss told the Nebraska City News Press. "I expect food processors to take a hit later in the year as higher food prices work their way through the system." The index examines rural economies in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Wyoming. (Read more)

Water-conservation PSAs do a drip-drip-drip on Internet as drought recovery slowly begins

This summer's massive drought has infiltrated the national consciousness and now resonates within our video culture. YouTube has become inundated with public-service announcements about water conservation, Felicity Barringer of The New York Times reports. Making a video seems to be "the school project du jour," she writes, but others stand out.

"Often, contributions to the art form show someone cavalierly overusing water in the sink or shower and are supplemented by statistics about the amount of water wasted every year. One variant features water wardens — like the 'Saturday Night Live' comedians Horatio Sanz and Rachel Dratch — dropping in on the bathrooms and kitchens of unsuspecting water spendthrifts," Barringer reports. There is one featuring toddlers from France, and another from Malaysia. Some use music; "Sesame Street" characters assist on others.

This following comes from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro:

Here's another from Kennesaw State University in Georgia:

New list spotlights 10 towns that are small in population but big for quality of life

The online magazine Livability came up with top 10 best small towns in the U.S., defined as "places where life can still be simple, quiet and complete, but with more places for folks to gather than just a barber shop." In other words,"small in population yet big for their quality of life." (Livability photo by Clay Jackson: Danville, Ky., No. 9)

The search began with the magazine's already compiled list of the 500 best places to live, from which towns with 25,000 or fewer residents were selected. A list of criteria, including median household income, home prices, crime rates, unemployment rates, average commutes and distances to large cities was used to whittle the list further. Lifestyle amenities including outdoor activities, restaurants, community events, museums, art galleries and performance venues were considered to determine the top 10.

The list, in ascending order, is: Sheridan, Wyo.; Danville, Ky.; Clive, Iowa; Yankton, S.D.; Bedford, Va.; Chardon, Ohio; Boerne, Tex.; Brattleboro, Vt.; Golden, Colo., and Papillion, Neb., which Livability says has "excellent schools, a successful agriculture industry and diverse economy," plus "the lowest unemployment rate and one of the lowest crime rates of any city on this list." (Read more)

Wind energy installations could stop if federal tax break isn't renewed

Installations of new wind turbines could stop without renewal of an energy-production tax credit that expires at the end of the year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Some wind-energy installations have already shut down, and there will likely be a rush to complete projects before the cut-off date, Matthew Wald of The New York Times reports.

The importance of subsidies is highlighted in the Shepherds Flat wind farm in north-central Oregon (Department of Energy photo), which officially opened Saturday. The $1.9 billion project was financed with a $1.3 billion federal loan. Wind was one of the largest recipients of federal subsidies for electricity production in 2007, receiving much more than coal or  natural gas.

Extension of the wind subsidy is unclear. Congress did not act to extend it before it recessed for the election season, and it's unlikely it will be discussed during the lame-duck session after the election. (Read more)

Scientists' survey of last year concludes that Fox, Wall Street Journal misled on climate change

A new study contends that Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, both owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., have greatly misled their audiences about climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that 93 percent of Fox broadcasts and "Wall Street Journal Editorial Report" TV programs about climate change from February through July, and 81 percent of Journal editorial pages from August 2011 through July 2012, were misleading.

The survey defined inaccurate information about climate change as citations that "questioned either the reality of climate change or the fact that recent climate change is largely due to human activities, or they advanced other arguments that dismissed established climate science."  Tim McDonnell of Mother Jones writes, "The climate change debate in America is still mired in bickering over whether the problem even exists or not." (Read more)

Des Moines' KCCI-TV takes top small-market photography award again; Bakersfield is runner-up

The National Press Photographers Association announced late last week that KCCI-TV in Des Moines was its the small-market Station of the Year in TV news photography. The station also won in 2007 and 2009. The judges remarked that its work showed a willingness "to travel to far away places to get great stories" and "demonstrated an understanding of storytelling."

The runner up was KBAK-TV in Bakersfield, Calif. NPPA says it gives the award is given for consistency in providing outstanding news photography coverage for and about the audience it serves. It is an award aimed at raising the standards of the industry. To see a video compilation of KCCI's submitted work and the judge's full comments, go here.

Poll of rural voters in swing states shows Romney doing better against Obama than John McCain did

Republican Mitt Romney is doing better among rural voters than John McCain did in his race with Democrat Barack Obama four years ago, according to a bipartiasn poll of rural voters in nine swing states.

Romney leads Obama by 14 points, 54 percent to 40 percent, in the poll for the National Rural Assembly, a network that promotes more effective rural policy. Four years ago in a poll of the same nine states, McCain got 50 percent and Obama 46.7 percent. "Rural counties are keeping Romney competitive in the states that are now up for grabs," Howard Berkes reports for NPR. "Romney appears to have the rural margin he needs to be competitive in battleground states. And Obama has failed, it seems, to hold on to enough of the rural voters who helped him become president."

The poll was commissioned by the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonpartisan organization, with money from the Carnegie Corp. of New York, and was conducted by Democrat Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Republican Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies. It surveyed 600 likely voters in non-metropolitan counties in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. Its error margin is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
“The challenge for President [Obama] is just not to get beat too badly in the rural areas,” Bolger said. “This presages a very close election because, as well as Obama did in the rural areas in 2008, he's clearly not replicating that.” Democrat Greenberg said, “Rural areas in this country are very tough for President Obama. It was tough four years ago and they’re even tougher now. I think that that is obviously important in a very close presidential race because it’s really Mitt Romney’s geographic base.”

The poll found that half the respondents favored the Democratic position statement on immigration, while only 39 percent of respondents agreed with the Republican position. “These rural voters are not particularly exorcised about immigration issues,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies. “If you drill down you see they are conflicted. On one hand they want cops to be able to check immigrant papers, but at the same time they favor the DREAM Act promise of full citizenship for all kids who go to college or serve in the military.” For more details, click here.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Makers of guns and ammo see very different scenarios for sales, depending on result of election

A shop in Sidney, Neb. (John Gress, NYT, 2008)
There haven't been any substantial changes to gun-control laws under President Obama, and no attempts for any by his administration, but outdoor retailers and gun makers are anticipating a bump like the one they saw in the sales of 2008 if he is re-elected in November, reports Shelly Banjo of The Wall Street Journal.

However, if Gov. Mitt Romney ousts Obama, outdoor stores like Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops, and manufacturers like Smith & Wesson and Olin Corp., the maker of Winchester guns and ammunition, see a whole different world of retail. "If Mitt Romney is elected, there's no perceived threat on the freedom to own guns, people might decide to spend disposable income on things like outerwear instead," said Joe Arterburn, a Cabela's spokesman.

Banjo reports that "nearly 12 million background checks for gun sales took place in the U.S. this year through Aug. 31, up 56 percent from the same period in 2008, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Customers must undergo background checks before buying firearms from federally licensed sellers. Collections of federal excise taxes on the sale of new firearms and ammunition, a proxy for gun sales, rose to $453 million in 2009, a 45 percent jump from the year before. That's a significant surge compared with the average 6 percent annual increase reported by the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau from 1993 to 2008."

"Businesses are trying to plan, order inventory and staff stores, and you have this event coming down that could significantly impact sales," said Wells Fargo analyst Matt Nemer. The stores are simply responding. And consumers are responding to National Rifle Association campaign-related ads, which warn voters of increased gun regulations if President Obama is re-elected. Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, defended the president's policies. "President Obama's record makes clear that he supports and respects the Second Amendment and the tradition of gun ownership in this country, and we'll continue to fight back against any attempts to mislead voters," he said. The Romney campaign declined to comment to the Journal. (Read more)

As large farms replace mid-sized and smaller ones, rural communities suffer loss of local spending

"It’s not difficult to see the dominant trendline in agriculture when nearly every view of the landscape provides evidence," writes Heidi Marttila-Losure in the summer issue of Dakotafire, a regional reporting project of small news outlets in the eastern Dakotas.

"The tractors and planting rigs that were out in the fields this spring were double the size they were a generation ago; a farmer can cover hundreds of acres in a day," she writes. "Simply put, there are bigger farms, and fewer farmers.The percentage of the workforce employed in agriculture in the United States declined from 22 percent to 2 percent from 1930 to 2002, and since then it’s fallen still further, to something less than 1 percent." (Photo by Martilla-Losure)

And there's a problem with that, she notes, and it's something, sadly, people get around to talking about only after they've discussed big-farm economics. It's this thing about rural communities getting more economic and social benefit from mid-sized farms than from large ones.
Large farms, Martilla-Losure writes, buy in massive quantities, usually going to larger outfitters in larger communities or to direct suppliers for better prices. Some, in fact, are bound by contracts with corporations to buy from a certain much larger supplier, so there's not even an option for shopping local.  Small and mid-sized farms, on the other hand, stay home to buy. Research bears that out. Farms with a gross income of $100,000 made nearly 95 percent of their expenditures locally, according to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Production's "Community and Social Impacts of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations" report. Farms with gross incomes higher than $900,000 spent less than 20 percent locally. (Read more)

Lax rules for disposal of drilling waste lead to injection of other toxic materials into the earth

One of the trucks, after it was enveloped by
flames fed by fumes from injection-well waste.
(Chemical Safety Board photo)
In January 2003, two tanker trucks exploded, killing three workers after fumes from what was supposed to be waste saltwater from injection wells ignited and burned in Rosharon, Tex. What the workers were really unloading, to be buried deep inside the earth, were thousands of gallons of volatile materials, including benzene and other flammable hydrocarbons. "What happened that day at Rosharon," explains ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, "was the result of a significant breakdown in the nation’s efforts to regulate the handling of toxic waste."

"The site at Rosharon is what is known as a 'Class 2' well," Lustgarten writes. "Such wells are subject to looser rules and less scrutiny than others designed for hazardous materials. Had the chemicals the workers were disposing of that day come from a factory or a refinery, it would have been illegal to pour them into that well. But regulatory concessions won by the energy industry over the last three decades made it legal to dump similar substances into the Rosharon site -- as long as they came from drilling. Injection wells have proliferated over the last 60 years, in large part because they are the cheapest, most expedient way to manage hundreds of billions of gallons of industrial waste generated in the U.S. each year.''

ProPublica has analyzed records summarizing more than 220,000 well inspections conducted between late 2007 and late 2010, including more than 194,000 for Class 2 wells. This most recent installment of by the independent, nonprofit news agency on U.S. injection wells had reporters examining federal audits of state oversight programs, interviewing dozens of experts and exploring court documents, case files, and the evolution of underground disposal law over the past 30 years. The report is exhaustive and includes several links showing that fundamental safeguards are sometimes being ignored or circumvented by use of the Class 2 rules. (Read more) For a state-by-state count of unauthorized, overpressurized and leaking injection wells, go here.

Coal company to pay $575,000 to resolve claim it falsified water quality reports

A large strip-mining company has agreed to pay $575,000 in a case that involved thousands of alleged instances of fraudulent or improper water-pollution discharge reports in Kentucky. Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that International Coal Group has reached an agreement in principle with the state and environmental groups to settle claims against it, according to a status report on the lawsuit the state Energy and Environmental Cabinet filed this week in Franklin Circuit Court.

The deal with ICG, if approved in court, writes Estep, "would end its part of a controversy that came to light in the fall of 2010. That was when environmental groups announced they had discovered widespread problems with water-pollution discharge monitoring reports from ICG and Frasure Creek" Mining, a second party to the suit that is not part of the proposed settlement.

"Coal companies must monitor pollutants coming from surface mines and report the data to the state, which is supposed to investigate if pollutants exceed certain levels," Estep explains. "The groups said in reviewing reports from ICG and Frasure Creek from 2007 and 2008 they found cases of mineral discharges exceeding legal limits by up to 40 times. There also were forms signed by supervisors before tests were actually done, data copied and pasted from one quarter to the next, and testing dates scratched out and rewritten. Some reports were missing. The groups argued the reports were falsified and that Kentucky was not doing a good job reviewing them for violations. A Kentucky official later acknowledged the state had not done enough to make sure mining companies were submitting accurate information."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The grass that took the West may have a tiny but potent enemy: a fungus with a scary name

Ecologist Susan Meyer stands in cheatgrass in
Utah's Skull Valley. (NYT photo by Michael Friberg)
Called "the black fingers of death," the tiniest fringe, the barest wisps of darkness on white wheat-colored grass may, in fact, save an iconic American landscape from perhaps the most disruptive invasive plant in the country.

"Black fingers, the fungus with the horror-movie handle, is the new artillery that wildland biologists are firing at cheatgrass, a weed that has remade the landscape of the Intermountain West," writes Felicity Barringer of The New York Times. The fingers, "no longer than a baby’s eyelashes," are like "little marching armies of toothpicks." Fungus armies, that is.

Mike Styler, head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said of cheatgrass: “It’s changed the entire ecology of the West.” Creatures that depend on the sagebrush habitat, from butterflies to the greater sage grouse, which is being considered for protections under the Endangered Species Act, are severely stressed by its proliferation. And because cheatgrass and development are moving closer together, a few years ago a cheatgrass-fueled fire near Boise unfortunately burned down homes.

Dr. Susan Meyer is a U.S. Forest Service ecologist based in Provo, Utah, and her work these days is centered on figuring out how this fungus, which looks like a miniature mohawk haircut, does its lethal work, and how, exactly, to get the tiny spears do more of it. Barringer writes, "The black fingers of death, Pyrenophora semeniperda, may help restoration ecologists like Meyer reclaim some beachheads in the vast swath of land already conquered by cheatgrass," Barringer writes. "For decades, scientists have been trying to stop its advance, to little effect."

Lately, the effort has gotten attention from all sorts of places, and the pressure to control cheatgrass is increasing. Financial support for the fungus research has come from the Joint Fire Science Program of the National Interagency Fire Center.  (Read more)

Study: Rural people more likely to get Alzheimer's

Rural residents are twice as likely to get Alzheimer's, according to a University of Edinburgh study that collected "all over the world and spanned several decades," Nikki Tucker of Medical Daily reports. Researchers say limited access to health care, exposure to unknown substances, and socioeconomic factors may lead to the increased risk.

Prior studies have analyzed the difference in what effects rural and urban areas might have on the disease, but because of debate about what constitutes "rural" and "urban," results have been deemed inconclusive. (Read more) The study was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

What will really happen if there's no Farm Bill by Sept. 30? Not that much

Congress is not going to pass a new Farm Bill before its election recess, which is set to begin next week. That means that 2008 funding for programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (generally known as food stamps) and direct payments to farmers will technically expire on Sept. 30. In theory, some "fairly scary things" will happen, reports Julie Rovner of National Public Radio. But in reality, "almost none of the changes would happen right after Sept. 30," at which time, Congress could have passed a new bill.

Technically, federal price supports will revert back to 1949 levels without a new bill or an extension of the old one. That would mean the government would "pay huge bonuses" for certain crops, but not for others, because some commodities were added after to the list after 1949. It also would raise prices for commodities such as milk and soybeans. But, Montana State University economics professor Vincent Smith told Rovner the real reason Farm Bill supporters are pushing for a new bill has more to do with budget politics than the actual mechanics of it.

"They want to have a Farm Bill now that locks Congress and the taxpayer into obligations based on either the Senate or the House bill," Smith told NPR. "What they're concerned about is that, if serious deficit-reduction talks take place, then a lot more money than was initially identified to come out of the farm bill by the 'supercommittee' a year and a bit ago will have to come out of the Farm Bill."

"We actually have until about Jan. 1 before we run into a lot of administrative problems with this bill reverting to some very high prices," Mary Kay Thatcher, director of congressional affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Rovner. The 2008 measure covers all of this year's crops, even if they haven't been harvested yet. The first crop that would be affected by new price supports would be winter wheat, which is harvested in the Spring, Rover reports. (Read more)

Western foresters think terrorists might start fires

Western land managers said they received notice from the Federal Bureau of Investigation yesterday that terrorists might start forest fires in stands of beetle-killed trees to cause widespread chaos and cost the federal government millions in fighting them, Robert Gehrke of The Salt Lake Tribune reports. It's unlikely the threat will be realized, even though it could make forest neighbors more wary. There's also the possibility that media coverage could spread the idea in the wrong circles.

Utah Division of Forestry director Dick Buehler said the agency is taking the threat seriously. It was reported in May that an al-Qaida-affiliated magazine published articles encouraging people to set fires in the U.S., particularly in Utah, Idaho and Montana, Buehler told Gehrke. The threat referred to dry conditions and stands of dead, beetle-scarred trees, which he said was an indication that someone was paying attention to forest conditions. The division investigates every forest fire, and said none of this summer's were started by terrorists. FBI spokeswoman Deborah Bertram told Gehrke she couldn't confirm that an FBI bulletin regarding terrorist-started forest fires was sent, but Utah Rep. Ken Ivory said a "terrorism expert" told him forests were a target. (Read more)

Study says Roundup Ready corn causes health problems in rats; some scientists question research

A long-term diet of herbicide-resistant corn caused tumors, organ damage and premature death in rats, according to French researchers who have conducted the first animal feeding test to determine effects of eating genetically modified food over a lifetime, Clive Cookson of The Financial Times reports. The study focused on the most widely planted herbicide-resistant corn, Monsanto's Roundup Ready.

The study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, divided 200 rats into groups of 10. Some were fed Roundup Ready corn, some Roundup-laced drinking water and some Roundup Ready corn that had been sprayed with Roundup. Researchers concluded that not only is eating GM corn harmful, but Roundup itself causes health effects even at concentrations below the legal limit for residues in water supplies.

Other scientists have criticized the study's methodology, saying tumor-prone rats were used, there were too few control groups of rats, and the study was also led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a critic of genetically modified food. (Read more)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tough vote for rural members? House won't vote on postal reform before November elections

An overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service will not even be discussed in the U.S. House before the November elections, Bernie Becker of The Hill reports. After the Senate passed a bill, House Republicans suggested they would start moving their own version during the summer. They now say one reason for the delay is that it could be a tough vote for members from rural areas, where the majority of suggested post office closings and changes would happen, Bcker reports.

Lawmakers working on postal issues are trying to "lay the groundwork to ensure at least something gets done on the issue" during the post-election lame-duck session that will already be packed with "pressing fiscal issues," Becker reports. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who introduced the postal reform bill, said he believes the Republican leadership will support bringing the bill to the House floor after the election. (Read more)

Coal plays role in election, largely because of Ohio

Romney and Ohio miners (Getty Images)
Coal has become a hot-button topic on the campaign trail as "Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have wholeheartedly embraced" it, "despite past statements from Romney and Vice President Joe Biden that pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people," reports Sean Cockerham of McClatchy Newspapers. The issue is mostly become a big one because "the coal-producing state of Ohio is among a handful that are expected to decide the election."

Ohio is ranked 10th in coal production and gets 86 percent of its electricity from coal, and "is among the most crucial prizes in the presidential campaign," Cockerham writes. Virginia and Colorado are also significant coal producers and "key battleground" states. There's also a lot of talk about what a Romney presidency could mean for the industry in the top coal-producing states: Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Romney is telling voters that the Obama administration is waging a "war on coal," the battle cry of many state and federal lawmakers from coal-producing states. He's promised to reverse Environmental Protection Agency regulations if elected, and recently attended a political rally at an Ohio underground coal mine. Obama has played up coal differently, suggesting the country should invest in "clean coal" technologies. His campaign has circulated radio ads in Ohio "hammering on that theme and portraying Romney as the one who's really anti-coal," Cockerham reports. (Read more)

New market hours may cost reporters their privileged peeks at USDA's crop forecasts

The world's largest agricultural trading company, Cargill, is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to change a decades-old practice of giving news services, including Bloomberg and Reuters, advanced access to market crop reports and forecasts. The process, known as "lock-up," involves sequestering reporters in a room to prepare detailed stories as soon as crop reports are released by USDA.

Cargill provides market information and grain bids to farmers, and has proposed a "radical change" to this process, Gregory Meyer of The Financial Times reports. "As we understand it, the current lock-up and release process allows some members of the news media to access the reports early," Cargill said in the filing to USDA. "That has never been an issue in the past because markets were closed at release time. But in an environment in which markets are actively trading while critical reports are being released, anyone with early access will have an unfair advantage."

"Wait a minute," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. "Cargill seems to think that reporters will trade on this information, or share it prematurely with people who might. These journalists agree not to do that, and they should be taken at their word. There has never been an issue wiht their behavior in this regard."

The filing is a response to U.S. futures exchanges extended hours that allow trading during USDA reports, something that was previously avoided when markets took a break around the time of releases. Some say the new system prevents them from digesting facts before trading on them, Meyer reports. USDA is considering changing release times and has been accepting public comment on the matter. It may announce a decision this week. (Read more)

Western wildfires expected to increase as climate keeps warming

With two months left in fire season, this year is likely to be one of the worst on record for wildfires in the West. The area burned this year is 30 percent more than in an average year, with fires consuming more than 8.6 million acres, according to the National Integrity Fire Center(Climate Central map shows current wildfires)

Also, what defines a "typical" wildfire year in the West is changing, as spring and summer temperatures continue rising and snowpack continues to shrink. Several studies have shown that the risk of fires will increase as the climate continues to change.

For every degree Celsius the temperature rises, the size of area burned in the West could quadruple, according to the National Research Council. Temperatures in the West have been estimated to increase from 3.6 to 9 degrees FahrenheitClimate Central reports. In a 42-year analysis of U.S. Forest Service records for 11 Western states, Climate Central found that compared to an average year in the 1970's, there were seven times more fires in the past decade greater than 10,000 acres each year. There were more than 100 fires on average per year from 2002 to 2011, compared to less than 50 during the 1970's. (Read more)

To see Climate Central's full western wildfire report, click here. The group has also created an interactive map that shows currently burning wildfires, which can be found here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

More problems found with USPS surveys and community meetings about threatened post offices

The U.S. Postal Service a few weeks ago started implementing POstPlan, its restructuring by closure or reduction of hours at hundreds of post office across the U.S., mostly in rural areas. As ordered by the Postal Regulatory Commission, USPS is scheduling public meetings about offices that have no postmaster right now, but as Steve Hutkins of Save the Post Office reported last week, community surveys were only mailed to post-office boxes and meetings were planned during work hours. Hutkins has now uncovered more issues with the plan's implementation.

The PRC told USPS that some of its survey questions were confusing and might mislead customers. Three of four options on the survey regarding the customers' preference are about closing the post office, and the PRC said customers might not understand that. The USPS didn't revise the survey, opting to explain the survey question in an accompanying letter instead. Hutkins reports that "people are not getting the fact that three of the options involve closing the post office," as reported by newspapers in Virginia, where several offices in the Tidewater region will be affected by POstPlan. Many other news reports have been paraphrasing the survey without clarifying the options, Hutkins writes.

Community preference from at least two rural offices -- in Waters, Mich., and an unnamed one in Eastern Kentucky -- has been ignored, Hutkins reports. The hours at both were reduced before POstPlan began, but they were still included in the plan list. Surveys have been sent to customers, and community meetings planned anyway. The community meeting at the Malden, Wash., office is scheduled to be  held in the post office lobby, a 629-square-foot space, Hutkins reports. In Jonesville, Tex., a lobby meeting is scheduled on Tuesday, Nov. 6 at noon -- the middle of Election Day. (Read more)

In redefinining 'rural,' Senate version of Farm Bill could cut funds for neediest rural areas

The Senate version of the Farm Bill would streamline definitions of “rural” but one result "could be less funding for the very areas that most meet what many Americans would consider the targeted recipients for these programs," Farm Bill policy expert Aleta Botts writes for The Rural Blog and the Daily Yonder.

USDA Rural Development programs use varying definitions of “rural area,” Botts explains. “Rural water programs are allowed to go only to cities, towns, or unincorporated areas of fewer than 10,000 people. The limit for community facility programs (which pay for libraries, health centers, and many other community brick-and-mortar investments) is 20,000, while the limit for business programs is 50,000.” The Senate bill would use a 50,000 limit for all programs.

That could hurt rural areas with small populations, Botts writes. She notes testimony by the National Rural Water Association that more than 400 communities will have to wait until at least next year for water-project money. “This is an oversubscribed program and has been for years,” she writes.  “If it is oversubscribed now with its limit at 10,000 people, what will result when the population limit is raised to 50,000?”

The bill sets aside half of one rural water program’s funds to communities with fewer than 3,000 people and gives a “priority” to areas with fewer than 5,500. “But more than 80 percent of the funding already goes to areas of 5,000 or fewer, according to the National Rural Water Association testimony, so this language may actually mean little in practice,” Botts writes. For her full article, click here.

Seed companies develop drought-resistant corn

This summer's ravaging drought destroyed corn crops across the Midwest and Great Plains, creating a slew of problems for farmers, consumers and livestock producers. Agriculture biotechnology companies have been pouring millions into drought-resistant genetically modified corn seeds that can withstand an extended dry period. (Los Angeles Times photo by Ricardo Lopez: Researcher examines drought-resistant corn)

Monsanto recently got approval for its DroughtGard seed corn, and other seed makers, including Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and Syngenta, have  begun selling drought-tolerant but conventionally bred corn varieties. Companies are also trying to develop drought-resistant soybean, cotton and wheat strains that can "thrive in a world that's getting hotter and drier," reports Richard Lopez of the Los Angeles Times.

The majority of seed corn is already genetically modified to repel pests and create higher yields, and there are public concerns arising about the "unforeseen consequences of this genetic tinkering," Lopez reports. But researchers say creating drought-tolerant or resistant seeds is a priority, especially in the wake of this year's oppressive and costly drought. "We don't need to stigmatize these approaches," Kent Bradford, head of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis.  (Read more)

Groups oppose leaving coal-ash regulation to states

More than 300 groups, saying they represent millions of people from all 50 states, sent a letter to the Senate last week opposing the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act, which would prevent the federal government from regulating coal ash, which contains heavy metals including arsenic, lead and mercury. Billions of tons of it are stored in ponds, landfills and mines in almost every state. (Greenpeace photo of Tennessee coal ash pond)

The Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act was introduced last month and would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from finalizing its proposed coal ash rule and from ever issuing coal ash regulations. The bill would reinforce an EPA decision from 2000 that waste from burning fossil fuels doesn't need to be regulated under the Solid Waste Disposal Act. The issue got fresh attention in December 2008, when a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-ash pond broke and released 1 billion tons of waste into the Emory and Clinch rivers in east Tennessee, Environmental News Service notes. TVA is a federal agency, but the pond had been regulated by the state.

EPA proposed coal-ash regulation in 2010, then backed off. The groups' letter says that the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act would nullify "450,000 public comments, essentially silencing the voices of nearly half a million Americans who supported protective regulations." The groups say they have no confidence in state-by-state management of coal ash. (Read more)