Saturday, November 08, 2014

GOP rules coal country but has fewer coal-friendly Democrats with whom to challenge CO2 regulations

"The Republicans’ romp this week may have permanently turned coal country from blue to red," Erica Martinson reports for Politico. "Coal-heavy districts in West Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois that had been steadily moving away from Democrats in recent elections appear to have completed that shift Tuesday, when they overwhelmingly backed Republicans who vowed to oppose what they call President Barack Obama’s 'war on coal.'"

McConnell at a Kentucky coal pile (Associated Press photo)
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who carried some Democratic coal counties that had never voted for him, has said he will use language in approprations bills to fight the Obama administration's anti-coal efforts, specifically carbon-dioxide limits aimed at limiting climate change. However, the defeat of some coal-sympathetic Democrats appears to leave him short of the 60 votes generally required to do anything significant in the Senate. He could pull out all the stops and pass the measure with 51 votes under budget-reconciliation rules, which override Senate filibusters, but he has also said he would not force a government shutdown as majority leader.

"Earlier this year, seven Senate Democrats lobbied Obama to rethink" the climate-change rules, but "One of them, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, won’t be returning next year," and another, "Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu . . . faces a difficult runoff election next month," Martinson notes. "Republicans will still have Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana to turn to on coal issues."

Manchin told Martinson he still hopes to foster some compromise on the issue, "but he hasn’t written off retreating to the state and running for his old job of governor if he can’t find common ground between the two parties in Washington," she writes, quoting him: “I’m keeping every option open, I’ll wait until next year, see how things shape out. If it looks like it’s going to be same old, same old . . . it’s not going to be a place I’m going to want to spend a great deal of time.”

Friday, November 07, 2014

West Virginia sees historic change in party control, but veteran observer says it won't mean much

Ken Ward Jr. (Photo by Al Cross)
Republicans scored historic victories in West Virginia this week, capturing both houses of the state legislature, all three of the state's U.S. House seats and the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller. But Ken Ward Jr., the coal and environment reporter for The Charleston Gazette, questions whether much will change.

"It’s popular among the GOP’s career campaign consultants to describe this election as some huge change in power, in who runs things in West Virginia," Ward writes on his Coal Tattoo blog. "It’s the end of more than 80 years of Democratic control, they say over and over."

Ward notes that West Virginia re-elected two Republican governors in recent decades, that most Democrats kowtow to the coal industry, and cites a Gazette editorial that blamed bad campaigns for Democratic defeats: "They ran ads just like the Republicans, suggesting that all West Virginia’s problems are the fault of President Obama and the EPA. The result? When faced with a genuine Republican and a pale imitation, people vote for the real thing or don’t vote at all."

Noting that 23 percent of voters told exit pollsters that someone in their household works in the coal industry, Ward says a Democratic pitch on mine safety "doesn’t get much traction when West Virginia’s House, Senate and governor’s office—all controlled by Democrats—pass such a weak excuse for a mine safety bill after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster."

Young, first-generation farmers and ranchers are the future of U.S. agriculture

The future of farming and ranching is in the hands of young Americans, many of whom have little to no agriculture experience but are buying land wherever they can find it and learning farming on the fly, Teresa Wiltz reports for Stateline.

 Chris and Annie Newman quit city jobs to become
first-gen farmers 
(Stateline photo by Rollie Hudson)
"The fastest growing group of farmers and ranchers is 65 and older, according to census statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Wiltz writes. "But the second-fastest growing group is young farmers and ranchers who are under 35. There are only about 110,000 nationwide, but they are the only age group under 55 whose numbers are increasing. Most of them are first-generation, new to the industry and trying to earn a living on independent farms. According to a National Young Farmers’ Coalition report, the vast majority of young farmers—78 percent—did not grow up on a farm."

The first hurdle for young farmers is securing land, Wiltz writes. "According to the NYFC survey, 70 percent of farmers under 30 rent farmland, compared to 37 percent of farmers over 30. Farmers who were raised on a farm were much more likely to own land—65 percent—compared to 50 percent of farmers who did not grow up farming."

Holly Rippon-Butler, land access campaign manager for the National Young Farmers’ Coalition, said "more than two-thirds of American farmland is currently being farmed by individuals who are 55 and older, who will be nearing retirement over the next couple of decades," Wiltz writes. Rippon-Butler told Wiltz, “If we don’t help the young generation of farmers get on the land, retiring farmers will quickly run out of people to sell the land to, individuals who will continue to grow food on it and treat it as farmland.”

Some states have created programs to help young, new farmers, Wiltz writes. "Missouri, Maryland and Virginia, for example, are among the states that help prospective farmers access available land, while Massachusetts, Minnesota and Delaware provide financial assistance to independent farmers who are just starting out, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures."

"In Nebraska and Iowa, landowners are offered tax incentives to sell or lease land to young farmers," Wiltz writes. "Other states are experimenting with conservation easement programs, which designate certain amounts of land as farm; developers can’t buy the land, and, for example, turn it into condos. Anyone buying the land has to use it strictly for agriculture." (Read more)

FDA doing poor job of testing foods for pesticide levels, Government Accountability Office says

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not conduct enough testing on pesticide residue on foreign and domestic foods to determine whether or not the food safe, says a report from the Government Accountability Office, Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post.

The report said that FDA "is testing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all imported fruits and vegetables and less than 1 percent of domestic fruits and vegetables," Kindy writes. "Federal auditors said the agency’s pesticide testing program is not 'statistically valid,' making it impossible for it to meet one of its mandates, which is to 'determine the national incidence and level of pesticide residues in the foods it regulates.'”

Another concern raised by the report was about decisions by the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture "not to test for many commonly-used pesticides for which the federal government has set strict residue limits," Kindy writes. "Auditors were critical of FDA and the USDA for failing to disclose this limitation in their annual reports."

"USDA tests for pesticide residue in poultry, meat and processed egg products," Kindy writes. "Although FDA and USDA are not legally required to test for specific pesticides, they are responsible for enforcing maximum residue limits that are set by the Environmental Protection Agency. When limits are violated, food products are subject to seizure." (Read more)

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have highest rate of premature births

One in nine U.S. babies is born prematurely, and more than 450,000 are born too soon each year, says the March of Dimes 2014 Premature Birth Report Card, which gave each state a letter grade for how well they fare on premature births.

The South scored the lowest, with Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama all receiving an "F," while Florida and South Carolina were given a "D." Overall, the U.S. received a "C," with 19 states—most of them largely rural—getting a "C," while 21 states were given a "B" and five an "A." (Read more) (March of Dimes map)

Farm Watch program in Central Iowa encourages rural residents to report suspicious activity

A partnership between DuPont and the sheriff's office in Story County, Iowa, has introduced a neighborhood watch-inspired program to Central Iowa. Called Farm Watch, the program encourages the county's 92,000 residents—along with frequent visitors, such as delivery drivers—to report suspicious activities in an attempt to help protect farms and rural landowners from theft and other crimes, Kathy Varney reports for Illinois Farmer Today. (DuPont photo)

The program asks farmers and rural residents to place signs on or near their property. Each sign has a phone number to report suspicious activity, Varney writes. Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald said in a newsletter introducing the program, “We want to educate our citizens on the importance of being observant and help them learn observation skills that can be employed in Farm Watch.”

So far 60 people have signed up for the program, and 93 signs have been placed in rural areas, said Lt. Leanna Ellis, Story County field services commander, Varney writes. Fitzgerald told Varney, "People are sometimes hesitant to call us if they see something’s not quite right, but this will make it easier to take that step and call. They are not bothering us—and we’re here 24 hours a day.” (Read more)

Nov. 12 webinar to focus on rural climate issues

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is hosting a webinar on Rural Climate Dialogues from 4:30-5:30 (ET) on Nov. 12. The webinar is a follow-up to a three-day intensive forum in June in Morris, Minn., that discussed risks posed by climate change and developed a shared, community-based response to changing weather patterns and extreme weather events, says the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Next week's webinar includes outcomes, follow up and a participant’s perspective. Speaker are: Kyle Bozentko, Executive Director of the Jefferson Center; Natasha Mortenson, an agriculture teacher at Morris High School; and Wes Flinn and Jacob Just, Morris residents who participated in the dialogue. For more information or to register, click here.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

States that have benefited most from Obamacare elected Republicans who oppose health reform

States that have most benefited from federal health reform were the ones on Tuesday that overwhelmingly supported Republican candidates who oppose Obamacare, Margot Sanger-Katz reports for The New York Times.

"Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia—states that saw substantial drops in the proportion of their residents without insurance—all elected Republican Senate candidates who oppose the Affordable Care Act," Sanger-Kate writes. "Control of the West Virginia state House of Delegates flipped from Democrats to Republicans. And Arkansas elected Republican supermajorities to both houses of its legislature along with a Republican governor, a situation that could imperil the Medicaid expansion that helped more than 200,000 of its poorest residents get health insurance."

Oddly, it was no surprise that Republicans won in those three states, Sanger-Katz writes. In fact, many people who only have health coverage because of Obamacare remain strongly opposed to President Obama and his administration.

"Republicans were the favorites in many of these races, and polling has shown that health reform had faded as a decisive issue for many voters," Sanger-Katz writes. "Counties that showed the biggest gains in insurance coverage were more likely to be strongly Republican-leaning than Democratic based on their 2012 presidential votes, according to an Upshot analysis of data from Enroll America and Civis Analytics. That pattern appears to have held." (Read more) (NYT map: For an interactive version click here)

In line to be Senate majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell pledges to work with President Obama

Fresh off a victory on Tuesday Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is expected to be voted the Senate Majority Leader next week. As Senate majority leader, McConnell said "he intends to end gridlock and dysfunction in the Senate," Jack Brammer reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He also said "he would work with President Barack Obama on issues including trade agreements and tax reform, particularly reducing the corporate income tax rate." (Associated Press photo by J. Scott Applewhite: Sen. Mitch McConnell)

"He also said a Republican-led Senate will work longer hours, possibly late into the night on some occasions, and will allow consideration of amendments offered by both political parties and make committees more relevant," Brammer writes. "He complained that the Senate has not done much in recent years under Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, noting that the chamber has not considered an energy bill in seven years."

"McConnell, who will have to walk a political tightrope to keep the various factions of his caucus happy, said there will be disagreements with Obama, noting that Obama's veto pen makes him the only Democrat who 'counts,'" Brammer writes. "On foreign policy, McConnell said, immediate attention will be given to the Ebola virus crisis and relationships with Syrian rebels." (Read more)

Seeing red: House Republican majority stretches far and wide across the U.S.

Republicans gained a majority in the Senate with Tuesday's vote. Even more impressive for the GOP is in the House, where Republicans have garnered their biggest majority in more than 60 years and could end up with their biggest majority in more than 80 years—if six still undecided races go to Republicans, Alexander Bolton reports for The Hill. Republicans have already won 243 seats—the most since the Truman administration—and could end up with 249, the most since 1930, Bolton writes. How big is the majority? Check out this map from the National Journal.

Kaiser hosting journalists-only web briefing on Nov. 13 to discuss ACA open enrollment period

The Kaiser Family Foundation is hosting a web briefing for journalists from 12:30-1:30 p.m. on Nov. 13 about covering federal health reform's second open enrollment period. Open enrollment begins on Nov. 15 and runs through Feb. 15, 2015. After a short presentation, the briefing will be open to questions from journalists.

Kasier said in a release: "This year's open enrollment season poses both new and recurring challenges for consumers: How are premiums for marketplace plans changing, and what do the changes mean for consumers? Why might current marketplace customers want to consider switching plans? For those new to insurance, how can they better understand and use their coverage? And how will the law's subsidies and coverage requirements affect consumers' 2014 and 2015 taxes? Again this year, local and national print, online, television and radio news outlets will play a major role in educating their audiences about how the law may affect them and what they can do about it." (Read more)

Alaskans pass measure that could lead to restricting controversial Pebble Mine project

On Tuesday, Alaskans voted in favor of a measure that could lead to restricting the controversial Pebble Mine project. "Ballot Measure 4, which would enable the Alaska Legislature to ban proposed mining in the Bristol Bay watershed if lawmakers believe the project would endanger wild salmon stocks, passed with 65 percent of votes in favor to 35 percent opposed," Sean Doogan reports for Alaska Dispatch News. "Currently, only state and federal agencies decide on mining permits.

"The measure adds another layer of oversight for the proposed Pebble mine," Doogan writes. "The mine site is near several Bristol Bay salmon streams that produce some of the largest runs of wild sockeye salmon in the world. In 2008, Alaska voters rejected an outright ban on large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region. The Alaska Clean Water Initiative failed to pass with 43 percent of the vote." (Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay map)

In July the Environmental Protection Agency moved to block the project by "proposing tough new limits for gold and copper mining in the Bristol Bay watershed—a move that would greatly diminish the scale of the controversial Pebble Mine project," Linsdsay Abrams reports for Salon. While the move "won’t block the mine outright, it will effectively rob it of that largest-ever status, protecting Alaska’s important sockeye salmon fishery in the process."

Texas town sued for voting to ban fracking; case expected to reach state Supreme Court

Fracking advocates quickly responded to Tuesday's vote in Denton, Texas, banning the practice. By Wednesday morning "the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Office had filed lawsuits to prevent the city from enacting the ordinance in 30 days," James Osborne and Marissa Barnett report for The Dallas Morning News. The case is expected to end up before the state Supreme Court.

"The question now is whether Texas, the unofficial home of the U.S. energy industry, will allow a town in one of its richest natural gas fields, the Barnett Shale, to buck the industry, Osborne and Barnett write. The lawsuits "argued that the ban was illegal under Texas law, which gives authority to the state not only to regulate the oil and gas industry but also to ensure resources are fully exploited." (Wikipedia map: Denton, Texas)

Tom Phillips, an attorney representing the oil and gas association and a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, told the Morning News, "No locality has the power to say this activity is not going to take place within our limits."

Similar arguments "have had mixed success in court in other states, attorneys say," Osborne and Barnett write. "New York’s highest court upheld municipalities’ ability to supercede state law and ban fracking. Colorado and West Virginia courts have ruled against such authority at the local level." (Read more)

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Republicans seize control of Senate after winning most of Tuesday's close races

"Republicans scored a stunning electoral rout in the midterm elections, taking control of the U.S. Senate after a bitter campaign in which anger at Washington gridlock was turned against a president who took office promising to transcend it," David Fahrentold reports for The Washington Post.

"By early Wednesday, Republican candidates had won at least 10 of the day’s 13 closely contested Senate races," Fahrentold writes. "They took seats held by Democrats in Iowa, Colorado, Arkansas, Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia and North Carolina—more than enough to seize control of the Senate for the first time since 2007." Republicans also added at least 10 seats in the House. (Post map: To see updates click here)
Republicans credit much of their success to the public's dislike of President Obama, Fahrentold writes. "Nearly 6 in 10 voters said they were 'dissatisfied' or 'angry' at the Obama administration, the polls showed. A similar proportion felt the same about GOP leaders in Congress, Republican National Committee Chairman ­Reince Priebus said Tuesday on MSNBC, “People see a Washington that isn’t working, and the person at the head of it all is the president.”

In what was anticipated to be a close race, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had an easier time than expected earning his sixth term, garnering 56.2 percent of the votes to oust Democratic challenger Alison Lundergran Grimes, who received 40.7 percent of the vote. McConnell's victory, coupled with Republicans taking control of the Senate means McConnell will most likely be elevated to Senate Majority Leader.

In Kansas, the "Democratic surge that was supposed to end Republican control never happened," John Eligon reports for The New York Times. "Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts survived unusually close races to keep their seats on Tuesday, fortifying their party’s political grip on this plains state."

"Roberts, 78, who has served in Washington for more than three decades, fought back a chorus of anti-incumbent and anti-Washington sentiment," Eligon writes. Roberts, the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, received 53.2 percent of the vote, beating out Independent Greg Orman, who received 42.5 percent of the vote.

Rural voters play a big role in midterms; Democrats suffer the consequences

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who was defeated in a Republican wave yesterday, said he wishes President Obama "were more in touch with rural America," Matt Barron writes for The Hill. The same can be said about Democrats in general. The Democrats' issues with rural people ranges "from recruiting poor candidates, not showing up in small towns to campaign, hiring urban-centric consultants who have no dirt under their nails to bad mapmaking as a result of the 2010 redistricting."

Democrats knew support of rural voters would be key this year. Even so, they fell short in important races. "Prior, who as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee's spending panel on agriculture was in charge of writing the annual bill to fund popular programs such as broadband, rural development, research and extension, was dumped by a congressman who voted against the farm bill and disaster aid for tornado and flood-ravaged Arkansas towns," Barron reports.

In spite of Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke's plan to grow her state's rural economies are part of her agenda, she lost to the republican candidate. "The loss of majority-rural House seats also continues to haunt the Democrats," Barron writes. Aaron Woolf's issues with health code violations, problems with employee wages and "the fact that he seemed more city slicker than North Country doomed his bid to hold retiring Rep. Bill Owen's seat for the Democrats."

Democrats lost control of the state House in Minnesota, too. Nancy Larson, a former Democratic National Committee member, said, "Minnesota is doing great, but we're losing everybody in rural. Our message must not be connecting; people aren't connecting the dots." (Read more)

Oregon, Alaska, Washington D.C. vote to legalize pot; Florida rejects medical marijuana measure

Legalization of marijuana passed in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, while voters in Florida shot down a measure to legalize medical marijuana.

About 70 percent of Washington D.C. voters backed Initiative 71, which would allow residents and visitors age 21 and older "to legally possess as much as two ounces of marijuana and to grow up to three marijuana plants at home," Aaron Davis reports for The Washington Post. "Leading candidates for mayor and the D.C. Council have vowed to quickly sign the measure into law. A majority of the council also pledged that if approved by voters, they would submit follow-up legislation to Congress next year establishing a system to sell and tax the drug in the District."

"The twin measures will become law, as District bills do, unless Congress vetoes them and the president agrees that the local measures should be halted," Davis writes. "That complex layer of federal oversight could thrust Congress and President Obama into the middle of a rapidly evolving national debate." (Post photo by Michael Williamson: Advocates for legalized marijuana in Washington D.C.)

In Oregon, marijuana will become legal for recreational use on July 1, 2015, Noelle Crombie reports for The Oregonian. Beginning July 1, "people 21 and older will be allowed to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana in a public place and up to 8 ounces in their home. The law also allows up to four marijuana plants per household."

The Alaskan measure passed by a narrow 52 to 48 percent vote, Suzanna Caldwell and Laurel Andrews report for Alaska Dispatch News. "The initiative will not become law until 90 days after the election is certified, which is expected to be in late November. Per the law, the state can then create a marijuana control board—expected to be housed under the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. That group will then have nine months to craft regulations dealing with how marijuana businesses will operate."

A "proposed constitutional amendment to make Florida the 24th state and the first in the South to allow medical marijuana was defeated after falling short of the 60 percent support needed to pass, according to groups both for and against the measure," Shelby Sebens reports for Reuters.

Record grain crops could lead to lower prices and force more farmers to store corn and soybeans

Not many farmers are happy about this year's projected record-breaking grain harvest. That's because supply is expected to far outweigh demand, meaning that already falling prices could continue to drop, Grant Gerlock reports for NPR. Prices for a bushel of corn are already under $4, about half of prices from two years ago. And it doesn't look like prices will see an upturn any time soon. (Getty Images by Daniel Acker: Grain stored in Sheffield, Ill.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects farmers to haul in 4 billion bushels of soybeans and 14.5 billion bushels of corn this harvest, Gerlock writes. Farmer Gene Trausch told Gerlock, "We out-produced ourselves. You always hope your neighbor burns up, hails out, whatever, dries up, but you have a good crop. You know, that's just the way it works. But everybody had a good crop this year."

That could lead to the lowest prices in five years, Gerlock writes. Add in rail delays, blamed on increased shipments of oil and last year's bad winter, and farmers will need to store grains. That creates a new set of problems because farmers who lack enough storage space are forced to store grain on the ground, risking its spoiling.

Trausch said many farmers are being forced to tighten their belts and save money, Gerlock writes. Trausch told him, "It's going to hurt. Because the store fronts in town like in Minden, Kearney, Hastings, Grand Island, wherever—they're going to be hurting. And then also, your implement dealers. They're just not going to sell nothing." John Deere has already been affected, saying it plans to layoff 1,000 workers at plants in Iowa. (Read more)

A tale of two Democratic representatives: Peterson narrowly wins in Minn.; Rahall loses in W.Va.

One long-serving Democrat survived the GOP-dominance at the polls on Tuesday, while voters ousted another. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) narrowly won his 13th-term, while Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) was defeated after serving for 38 years. Peterson's work with the Farm Bill likely led to his victory, while coal advocates played a significant role in defeating Rahall.

Peterson fought off state Sen. Torrey Westrom "in a race too close to call until well after midnight," Allison Sherry reports for the Star Tribune. "In the Seventh District, which hugs the state’s western flank down the North and South Dakota borders, the district has swayed more red than blue in other contests: Voters reliably prefer the Republican nominee for president and governor but keep sending Peterson, who votes with the Democrats only 68 percent of the time, back to Washington."

When votes were finally tallied on Wednesday morning, Peterson had 54.2 percent of the vote, and Westrom had 45.7 percent, Sherry writes. "Peterson was helped because of his status as the most powerful Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. He is responsible for a number of components in the farm bill that benefited local farmers—especially sugar beet operations." (Star Tribune photo by David Joles: Peterson gets a hug from wife Mary after winning re-election)

In a state where the coal business has been depleted, Rep. Rahall, "who represents the reddest district of any House Democrat, touted his seniority in Congress and his independence from party leadership," Tarini Parti reports for Politico. "The incumbent has defied political calculus and served in Congress for more than three decades in a district former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won by 33 points."

But tides turned during this year's election. Rahall only received 45 percent of the vote, while challenger Evan Jenkins received 55 percent of the vote, Parti writes. "Republicans repeatedly tied Rahall to President Barack Obama and the administration’s energy policies, which are highly unpopular in the coal-friendly state. They flooded the airwaves attacking Rahall for going against the interests of the district." While Democrats said that wouldn't be an issue in the race, Rahall, who voted in favor of federal health reform, was soundly defeated. (Read more)

Denton, Texas, and Athens, Ohio, voters ban fracking; measures shot down in three Ohio towns

Voters in Denton, Texas, and Athens, Ohio, approved fracking bans on Tuesday, while similar measures were shot down in Ohio towns Gates Mills, Kent and Youngstown. A fracking ban was also passed in San Benito County, California. Fracking bans were leading in Mendocino County, California, but appeared to be defeated in Santa Barbara County. Fracking is not currently taking place in any of those three counties, and no oil producers have as yet expressed interest in doing so.

Nearly 59 percent of voters in Denton voted in favor of the measure, making the town of 123,000 the first in the state to ban fracking, Jim Malewitz reports for The Texas Tribune. "The ban’s passage will almost certainly trigger litigation, with energy companies and royalty owners arguing that state drilling regulations trump Denton’s and that the city was confiscating mineral rights, which have long been dominant in Texas law." (KERA News photo: Voters in Denton, Texas)
"The Denton measure does not technically prohibit drilling outright; it would apply only to fracking, which involves blasting apart rock with millions of gallons of chemical-laced water hauled in by trucks," Malewitz writes. "But opponents of the ban say it would make gas beneath the city too difficult to profitably tap–amounting to a drilling ban." 

Ohio "sits on top of the Utica Shale formation, where natural gas production has grown eightfold since January 2012, to 1.3 billion cubic feet a day as of September, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration," Dan Molinski and Leslie Eaton report for The Wall Street Journal. "Proponents of the local Ohio proposals argue that fracking in residential areas could cause health problems and taint drinking water supplies. Opponents, including the oil and gas industry and some local government and union officials, have said the proposals are too broad and could hurt job growth."

Early returns had the fracking ban in Mendocino County receiving 64 percent of the vote and on its way to passing, Adam Randall reports for the Daily Journal News. As of 10:30 p.m. local time, the measure had 5,254 voters who said yes and 2,958 voters who said no.

In San Benito County the measure passed with 5,021 yes votes and 3,733 no votes, a margin of 57.3 percent to 42.6 percent, reports Action News 8. While in Santa Barbara County, 44,131 voters—or 60.7 percent of votes tallied—were against the ban, while 28,555 votes—or 39.3 percent—favored the ban, Mike Hodgson reports for the Lompoc Record.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Rural food pantries are struggling to stock shelves, as more rural residents seek help

High poverty rates are bringing more rural Americans to the local food pantry, but some rural areas with sparse populations are struggling to find enough donations to fill the growing need to fight hunger, especially now that winter is quickly approaching.

That's the case in rural Wisconsin, where the number of visitors to Community Center of Hope in Marathon County (Wikipedia map) has jumped 12 percent since last year, Alison Dirr reports for the Wausau Daily Herald. The pantry had more than 540 client visits in October, the highest number executive director Mary Pat Campbell has seen.

It's the same throughout much of the region, Dirr writes. JoAnn Janikowski, community impact director at United Way of Marathon County, told Dirr, "All of the pantries have been strained at probably a similar level. But when you look at rural pantries, when you think about sparser populations—you have fewer people to donate; you might have higher poverty levels; there is less industry to provide food donations; the media market might be smaller in those areas, so the word of need doesn't get out. They just have some unique challenges the urban pantries might not."

The result is that places like the Community Center of Hope have had to be more strict with supplies, Dirr writes. "Campbell said such things as toothbrushes and shampoo have moved from a take-as-needed system to the 'weighed' shelves: A single person can take 10 pounds of items from those shelves, and every additional person in a family gets four additional pounds, she said. Eggs, which she tries to stock because they are a versatile source of protein, might be moved to the weigh shelf next."

Campbell has a budget of less than $70,000 per year, which has to be used for food, insurance, rent, payroll, a telephone and other expenses such as trash and snow removal, Dirr writes. "The pantry does receive donations from local businesses, churches and other groups. But in a rural area, there are just fewer sources for donations, and it's getting harder to supply enough food for growing numbers of clients, she said." (Read more)

Heirloom crops, a staple of Appalachia, face an uncertain future

Todd photo: Bloody Butcher Corn
Appalachia leads the nation in heirloom crops, with about 1,500 heirloom fruits and vegetables—including 633 distinct varieties of apple and 485 distinct varieties of bean, Roxy Todd reports for NPR. But many of the heirloom fruits and vegetables—such as West Virginia's Bloody Butcher Corn—are on the brink of extinction.

"The heritage seeds central to this 'agrobiodiversity' have been passed down through generations of families," Todd writes. "In many cases, the seeds date back hundreds of years to when Native Americans were cultivating seeds from woodland plants like pawpaws. Other crops like corn traveled to Appalachia from southern Mexico via the Southwest U.S."

With the future of its rich history in doubt, advocates have stepped in to try to save heirloom crops, Todd writes. One such person is James Veteto, an anthropologist at Western Carolina University and an apple farmer who directs the Southern Seed Legacy Project. For the past 16 years, Veteto has traveled throughout Central and Southern Appalachia, talking with farmers about the heritage fruits and vegetables they grow. But he says "most of the dedicated seed savers in Appalachia are aging, so there isn't much time left to help farmers keep cultivating these valuable antique seeds."

"Preserving a food that is more in demand means preserving farming with heirloom seeds," Todd writes. "Veteto says that will require a new generation of farmers taking an interest in these small, niche markets and finding ways to protect the heritage seeds from becoming eclipsed by large-scale, genetically modified and hybrid crops." (Read more)

Hunter killed by combine while walking on rural road; safety always a good topic of conversation

Rural road safety is always a good topic of discussion, especially during hunting season when more pedestrians could be walking on or near roads. This was the case on Saturday in rural Illinois when suburban Chicago hunter David Olzeski was struck and killed by a combine while walking with traffic in Forreston (Best Places map), Christi Warren reports for, which covers Northern Illinois.

Although about 19 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, 55 percent of highway deaths occur in rural areas, says the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety at the University of Minnesota. In 27 states more than 75 percent of roads are in rural areas, while 42 states have at least 50 percent of roads classified as rural. The fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled is 2.5 times higher in rural areas, compared to urban ones. (Read more)

States fighting California's ban on eggs from hens kept in cramped cages; say conforming too costly

Five states—Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama and Kentucky—are challenging a California ban on the sale of eggs from hens kept in cramped cages, Marsha Mercer reports for Stateline. The states "filed a notice Oct. 24 that they will appeal a U.S. district court’s dismissal of their case. They had argued that the law forces farmers in other states to make costly changes in their operations and violates the U.S. Constitution."

"In 2008, California voters approved a ballot initiative prohibiting the state’s farmers from confining hens in a way that prevents them from turning around freely, lying down, standing up and fully extending their limbs," Mercer writes. "Two years later, California lawmakers banned the sale of eggs—from any state—that have been produced by hens in conventional or 'battery' cages."

"Battery cages provide each hen an average of only 67 square inches of floor space, smaller than an 8x10 sheet of paper," Mercer writes. "The 2010 law, which goes into effect Jan.1, cites the increased risk of salmonella from birds in large flocks in confined spaces." 

About 95 percent of U.S. eggs are produced in battery cages, Mercer writes. States argue that complying with the ban would be costly—Missouri would need to spend more than $120 million for new henhouses to comply with California's law—and that consumers should be free to make their own decisions on what eggs to buy. Critics also say the ban will increase egg costs for consumers. (Read more)

Florida-Georgia water war reaches Supreme Court; Florida says Georgia overusing water

The long-running water-use dispute between Florida and Georgia has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Bill Cotterell reports for Reuters. The court "agreed on Monday to hear an interstate dispute on whether Atlanta's suburbs are sucking dry the river flow that feeds the oyster beds and fisheries of the northern Gulf Coast."

"Georgia had sought to dismiss the suit, filed last October by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, that stems from a decades-old fight over Atlanta's daily demand for 360 million gallons of water from the Chattahoochee and Flint river basins," Cotterell writes. "Florida blames the over-consumption of water by its neighbor for the collapse of the oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay, which had produced 90 percent of the oysters sold in Florida and 10 percent of the country’s supply." (Economist photo)

Florida argues that the growing population of Atlanta will lead to Georgia’s daily consumption of water  growing to 705 million gallons per day by 2035, Cottrell writes. Scott said in a statement: "We are fighting for the future of this region, and we won’t quit until these resources are restored."

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal "issued a statement saying he agreed with attorneys for the Army Corps of Engineers, who argued that Florida’s case was 'premature,'” Cottrell writes. Deal urged the federal government not to "get bogged down by Florida’s litigation." (Read more)

Monday, November 03, 2014

Deadly gas on the rise in oil fields; more residents complaining of 'sour gas' smell

Deadly gas is on the rise in oil fields, and more and more residents are complaining of a "sour gas" smell, Mike Lee reports for Environment and Energy News. "Neither the states nor the federal government tracks the amount of hydrogen sulfide production, but complaints and permitting related to hydrogen sulfide are growing in four states, according to documents and interviews. The gas is deadly in small amounts. It can stop a person's breathing at a concentration of 500 parts per million and render people unconscious within seconds at 700 parts per million."

"There's a catch, too: As the concentration increases, the gas deadens people's sense of smell, making it hard for them to detect the danger. And if that's not enough, it can corrode steel and iron," Lee writes. "It has killed at least five oil field workers since the beginning of 2013 and in 1975 was responsible for one of the worst oil field accidents ever." (Lee photo: A sign on an oilfield tank battery in Odessa, Texas, warns workers to use gas masks)

Lee's story is part of a series called "Danger Zone," which also looked at whether chemicals played a role in oil tank deaths, the high rate of oil and gas worker deaths and how more oil and gas workers die in fires and explosions than any other private industry.

Comparing the rates of deadly gas among the states is difficult because each state keeps different records, Lee writes. In 2013, Kansas regulators received 15 requests to flare gas containing hydrogen sulfide, up from three in 2012 and none in 2009 to 2011.

"Oklahoma regulators calculated that oil and gas operators emitted 594 tons of hydrogen sulfide in 2011 and are planning to do more monitoring of air emissions overall," Lee writes. "In New Mexico, which shares patches of the sour gas-producing Permian Basin with Texas, state officials received reports of five hydrogen sulfide releases in 2013 after receiving none in 2012 and four in 2011."

"Texas tracks the amount of gas produced in fields that also have hydrogen sulfide although it doesn't track the actual amounts of hydrogen sulfide, and not all of the gas produced in those fields is sour," Lee writes. "The amount of gas from hydrogen sulfide-containing fields rose 48 percent over five years, from 1.2 trillion cubic feet in 2009 to 1.7 trillion cubic feet. The state requires special permits for oil wells, pipelines and processing plants that handle gas containing more than 100 parts per million of hydrogen sulfide. The state issued 6,906 of the permits in 2013, up 63 percent from the 4,233 it issued in 2009." (Read more)

Non-metro unemployment rate dropped from 6.9 percent to 5.6 percent over last year

The U.S. unemployment rate dropped from September 2013 to September 2014, falling from 6.9 percent to 5.6 percent in micropolitan counties—non-metro counties with towns that have between 10,000 and 50,000 residents—while the metro unemployment rated dropped from 7 percent to 5.8 percent, Bill Bishop reports for the Daily Yonder.

"Nearly six out of 10 metropolitan and rural counties had unemployment rates in September that were below the national average of 5.7 percent," Bishop writes. "Moreover, 57 percent of rural residents lived in a county where the local unemployment rate matched or was lower than the national average in September." The eight counties with the lowest unemployment rates were all rural North Dakota counties in the heart of the oil and gas boom. (Read more) (Yonder map)

Decline in public seed supply having negative impact on farmers, study says

Consolidation in the seed industry has had a negative impact on the development of new varieties, limited farmer choice and decreased the genetic diversity of our global seed supply, says a report by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition published by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. (RAFI graphic)

Concerns expressed in the report are: farmers' limited access to seed, the narrowing of our country's agricultural plant and animal genetic diversity, consolidation within the seed industry, the decline in public cultivar development and how these trends are affecting farmers' abilities to confront the unprecedented challenges of climate change and global food security.

Juli Obudzinski, Senior Policy Specialist with the coalition, told Agri-Pulse, "Over the past 25 years, there has been a steady decline in investment in public sector breeding programs housed primarily within our nation's land grant university system and USDA research facilities. This slow atrophy of public funding to support improved plant varieties means that farmers have been left with fewer and fewer seed choices over the years and are ill-prepared to meet 21st century needs.” (Read more)

Texas, Ohio towns, California counties to vote on fracking bans during Tuesday's election

Voters in five towns in Texas and Ohio and three counties in California will have the opportunity to voice their support or opposition to hydraulic fracturing during Tuesday's elections, reports Zahra Hirji for InsideClimate News. Fracking initiatives are on the ballot in Denton, Texas; in Ohio in Athens, Gates Mills, Kent and Youngstown; and in California counties Santa Barbara, San Benito and Mendocino.

Denton, a rapidly growing town with a population of 123,000, could be the first Texas town to ban fracking. Denton, which has an estimated 270 wells, became the center of controversy last year when residents blamed respiratory problems on fracking fumes, James Osborne reports for The Dallas Morning News. City officials enacted rules restricting drilling activity within 1,200 feet of homes, but the driller argued successfully in court it did not apply to existing wells.

Fracking opponents "collected 2,000 signatures, forcing the City Council to either ban fracking inside the city limits or put it to voters. In July, the council voted 5-2 for a referendum," Osborne writes. Since then, money has been pouring in from the oil and gas industry, with Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy, the leading group opposing the ban, having "raised almost $700,000 since July, almost all of which came from energy companies including Chevron, XTO Energy and Chesapeake Energy."

The same thing has happened in California, where "Chevron, ExxonMobil and other oil companies have donated about $7 million to try to defeat the fracking bans in Santa Barbara, San Benito and Monterey counties," Ellen Knickmeyer reports for The Associated Press. "In Santa Barbara and San Benito counties, the ballot measures would ban not only fracking but one of the most commonly used drilling methods in the state, steam injection."

Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has said he will do whatever it takes to beat anti-fracking initiatives, in August reached a compromise on local control of oil and gas drilling to remove all the initiatives on the issue from the November ballot. But anti-fracking initiatives remain on the ballots for the three Colorado towns.

Audit finds that USDA rural outreach program funds aren't being used properly

StrikeForce, a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development program that gives millions to assist farmers, ranchers and forest owners in persistent poverty areas, "selected participants with 'questionable qualifications' and then didn’t perform the necessary legwork to see whether the groups did what they were supposed to, according to a federal audit," Chris Adams reports for McClatchy Newspapers.

Three of the four organizations audited—in Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi—“had little to no experience with either USDA programs or with performing outreach activities,” Adams writes. One organization, the report said, “had no experience with agriculture, USDA or the type of outreach activities needed” and “was not qualified to accomplish the goals” of the program.

Instead of using money to promote USDA programs, one organization used funds to maintain school gardens, build a greenhouse and conduct cooking classes, which are all unrelated to the program's specific goals, Adams writes.

"The USDA, in responses to the inspector general, said it was working to address the problems although the inspector general in some instances said it was not yet satisfied with the department’s proposed solutions," Adams writes. "The inspector general made 13 recommendations; the department responded to all 13 but in four cases was told by the inspector general 'we do not accept management decision.'”

More than 700 areas participate in the StrikeForce effort. Involved states include Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia. (Read more)

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Mountaintop removal endangering salamander species native to Central Appalachia

Mountaintop removal in Appalachia is endangering the region's freshwater species, especially the five salamander species native to the area, says a study by the University of Kentucky, Richard Conniff reports for TakePart. Researchers compared the number of salamanders downstream from mountaintop removal sites with the number of salamanders in undisturbed areas. They found 97 salamanders in 11 streams with mountain rubble and 807 in a dozen control streams. (Christian Oldham photo: Red salamander)

Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Conniff, “It makes sense that amphibians would be very sensitive to the water pollution from surface coal mining. It increases the saltiness of the water; it puts metals into the water.” (Read more)