Friday, January 30, 2015

01/13/2015 at 12:21pm

Video by Domina Law GroupLawyers for Nebraska landowners argue that last week's state Supreme Court decision does not settle the matter and that they will continue legal action, if necessary. Pipeline developer TransCanada says the ruling does allow the Canadian corporation to move forward. The video was produced by Domina Law Group, which represents landowners in the suit.

 

The Nebraska Supreme Court’s Keystone XL decision last week clears the way for the pipeline’s owner to start acquiring private land to route the crude-oil conduit through the state.

Or does it?

Most media reports say that the court’s January 9 decision gave Canadian pipeline company TransCanada the green light to take Nebraskans' land by eminent domain for the pipeline.

But lawyers for landowners in the case say the decision is far less certain.

“I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of media reports saying a hurdle to TransCanada construction was removed,” said David Domina, who represented Nebraska landowners in the case. “Any thoughtful reading of the [Nebraska] Supreme Court decision clearly discloses that’s not the case.”

The court case tested the constitutionality of a state law granting the governor authority to work with TransCanada to route the pipeline. Private landowners in the path of the proposed route said the state’s constitution requires the Nebraska Public Service Commission to approve the use of eminent domain for a pipeline.

A lower court agreed with the landowners.

Media reports say the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling. But in an online video, lawyers for the landowners say that the decision is much murkier and that they will continue the legal battle.

“This decision has simply been punted down the road to be answered on another day in the future,” said attorney Brian Jorde with Domina Law Group in Omaha.

Four of the state Supreme Court justices sided with landowners in the decision released last week. But three justices refused to vote. That left landowners one vote shy of the five-vote super-majority they needed to have the law declared unconstitutional.

Rather than deciding the case, landowner lawyers say, the Supreme Court added more uncertainty to the contentious issue.

“The cloud of uncertainty that we had hoped our lawsuit would answer once and for all is alive more than ever and looming larger over TransCanada’s head than before,” Jorde said. “It’s up to TransCanada to … play the next card. And they don’t have many cards to play.”

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard disagreed with that assessment.

01/13/2015 at 7:06am

Bill Bishop / U.S. Election Atlas data Republican candidates won most counties in Appalachian Kentucky and West Virginia in the 2014 House election, continuing a 14-year trend toward stronger GOP performance in the region. Click map to make it interactive. (Data for Virginia Appalachian counties was not available.)

Ask the Democratic Party leadership in Floyd County, Kentucky, about their county’s voting record and they’ll tell you: “When the 1972 election results came out, George McGovern had only won the state of Massachusetts and Floyd County, Kentucky.”

Times have changed.

Floyd County, along with virtually every coal-producing county in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and southern West Virginia (the region known as Central Appalachia), now consistently vote for Republicans in federal and state elections. Across Central Appalachia, these midterm elections have brought more Republicans to historically Democratic seats, a 14-year trend.

There’s always a backstory. You can look at how race affected voting trends under the Obama presidency. You can also look at the convenient emergence of “pro-coal,” and “war on coal” rhetoric, coinciding with the Obama presidency, and you can look at how the decline of unions in Appalachia underwrote these stories.

Those conversations are the start of a real conversation about where Appalachia went to the right.

However, the first step is to challenge the narrative that a conservative monolith has prevailed in rural America since time immemorial, a narrative we see reproduced by our politicians and liberal and conservative media alike.

I set out to investigate how Appalachia became a Republican stronghold back in 2012, receiving several years of research grants to do so as a geography undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley. For several summers, I conducted interviews in southern West Virginia.  

Race

During the summer of 2012, in counties such as Logan County, West Virginia, where nine out of 10 voters are registered Democrats, few would admit to voting for president Obama except behind closed doors. Signs saying “Fire Obama: End the War on Coal” littered the two-lane highways snaking their ways from eastern Kentucky to Virginia. As Obama became the target of widespread frustration amidst the tepid economic recovery and fears of massive layoffs at the mines, race became another point against the president.

In the Appalachian coalfields, blacks and whites have historically allied. In the early 20th century, the labor-hungry coalfields became a destination for African-Americans leaving the South. Labor organizing relied on interracial solidarity. By the 1970s, the United Mine Workers of America had anti-discrimination policies, including taking on racism and gender discrimination. In Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary, Harlan County, USA, a white miner sitting next to a black miner famously tells the audience, “When you come out of the mine, everyone’s face is black.”

At home it was a different story.

Like much of America, segregation in daily life continued well after legal integration. Some mining towns like Blair, West Virginia, were sunset towns. Residents will tell you: “Used to be black folks would make sure not to be in Blair after dark. Probably still is that way….” Coal company-owned towns were generally segregated. A Mexican-American son of a coal miner remembers: “The black people’s homes were the farthest up the holler, and ours were the next farthest, and then the white homes.” 

These days, what remains is the culture of segregation, not union culture. Without the labor politics that once dominated the coalfields, racial dialog is over, particularly as historically African-American communities in the coalfields empty out with young people finding work elsewhere. As with much of America today, the legacy of racism in the coalfields is alive and well.

This place was primed for a political alliance to stoke latent prejudices.

Pro-Coal

“They called it COALition Romney.” After the 2012 election, campaigners explained how the West Virginia Republican Party had strategically partnered with the West Virginia Coal Association in the 2012 election. Their coalition, which required the historically Democratic Coal Association to break with its party, was critical for bringing not only a sweeping defeat of Obama in 2012, but a host of Republican state senators and representatives into the coalfields.

01/12/2015 at 12:41pm

Screen capture by Josh Begley One of more than 5,000 aerial photos captured by artist Josh Begley.

Many rural residents are familiar with the sight of a prison located in or near their community. With around 1,800 state and federal and 3,200 local and county correctional facilities in the U.S., their physical footprint is not insubstantial. To show this visually, artist Josh Begley has captured aerial images, from Google Maps, of each and every one.

“Prison Map is about visualizing carceral space,” says Begley. “We have terms like the ‘prison industrial complex’ but what does that actually look like? If you were to stitch together all these spaces of exception, how might they appear from above?”

To create Prison Map, Begley coded a script that plugged the known coordinates of prisons and jails nationwide into the Google Maps API. When he ran the script, it snapped a photo of every county jail, state prison, federal penitentiary, immigration detention facility and private prison—more than 5,300 in all.

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The Atlantic reports about the aftermath of West Virginia's Elk River chemical spill one year after the incident. The spill dumped around 10,000 gallons of an industrial coal purifying chemical into the river.

To [Junior] Walk, the Charleston spill was just the latest symptom of a deep-seated problem in the Mountain State. Throughout his life, from his time attending a now abandoned elementary school that was situated a few yards from a coal processing plant and slurry impoundment to his experience working for a coal company, Walk has lived through many of these symptoms, though he didn’t always realize there was anything extraordinary about them. “I thought everyone had big piles of coal right next to their playground at school. I thought it was normal not to be able to drink your own tap water.”

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A small university in Eastern Kentucky will become the second in the nation to offer scholarships for students good enough to play a certain video game competitively. The game, League of Legends, let’s five-player teams compete against other teams online. New Media Director at the University of Pikeville explains:

"It's actually becoming a worldwide trend," Parsons said. "This game is five on five competitive play. It takes skill, practice and a lot of teamwork."

Parsons said this dedication to provide various types of technology to students is an obvious extension of what their university is all about.

"I think there are going to be a lot of students, both nationwide and international, who are going to look at our university who wouldn't have before," Parsons said.

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01/12/2015 at 6:37am

New York Times based on data from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid ServicesFederal data shows the change in premiums for the lowest-priced silver medical insurance plan in states that are not operating their own exchanges. Blue areas will see a decrease in premiums; yellow, an increase. Click here for an interactive version on the New York Times site.

For a self-employed farmer like me, the sound of healthcare reform rang a responsive chord from deep within. That’s because for decades, while employees of big corporations got their healthcare packages tax free, I was never even allowed form 1040 deductions for my health insurance.

That fact alone made my coverage costs higher than others, because I had to buy them with my own post-tax dollars.

Taxes aren’t the only things farmers know about. Ask a self-employed, retirement-aged farmer his experience with health insurance and you can get some pretty scary tales of high-deductible, low-limit, benefit-dodging insurance scams. Like the time I bought a policy because the company and their agent said it covered major medical costs like surgery.

When a family member needed an operation in the 1970’s, I thought we were covered. But once the surgery was done, my policy only paid about 40% of the cost, an amount equal to about three months of premiums, because the insurance came with a schedule specifying what it would reimburse on different types of surgery.

In this case the schedule said $600 was the allowable max, but the surgeon billed $1,500.

That didn’t include the hospital bill, which I also paid.

When I talked to my insurance agent about it, he said that was the problem with those types of policies. Then he recommended something else.

My initial reaction to his suggestion was “Gee. Thanks. Now you tell me”

It was worse than worthless, so I dropped that policy. After going uninsured for a few years mostly because I couldn’t afford insurance, I made sure the next policy covered everything with a reasonable deductible of about $1,000.

Today, healthcare costs in the 1980s look downright cheap. I used our insurance a couple of times then, when childhood illnesses put two of my three kids in the hospital. It was OK. Better, at least, than my first experience. And it made me feel safer knowing that if my children needed more help than I could afford, they would still be able have it. But as time went on, my offspring grew up, and I grew older. Even though fewer people here were insured, premiums climbed that freakishly steep beanstalk to the land of giant healthcare costs.

Then the affordable Care Act came along looking like Jack with an ax, and I thought finally, someone is going to chop that thing down to size. But instead of an ax, Jack was carrying a watering can in one hand and a bag of fertilizer in the other.  My healthcare costs just keep on growing.

At the rate this thing is going, I think it’s gonna take a chainsaw.

The only time in my life I’ve been hospitalized overnight was for surgery in 1960. These days, on average, I go to the doctor maybe once a year. Some years not at all.  But Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City sent me notice last fall that my monthly health insurance premium would rise from $690 to about $830 a month come January 1 of this year.

Maybe they know something I don’t know.

01/08/2015 at 1:43pm

Brother David Andrews

David Andrews, a Catholic brother and “truth speaker” who confronted powerful institutions on behalf of marginalized groups such as small farmers and rural residents, died this week at the age of 70.

Known widely as “Brother Dave,” Andrews was a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, an international Catholic religious order of men.

In the second half of a life that included stints as a school teacher and administrator, spiritual retreat-center director and lawyer, Brother Andrews became deeply involved in rural and food policy efforts. His activities included national work to create stronger antitrust regulation against corporate meatpackers, as well as international efforts at the United Nations and the Vatican to relieve hunger and create more just rural economies.

Over the course of more than three decades working in food, hunger, agriculture reform and rural development, Brother Andrews was a one-man architect of social justice advocacy networks, said one co-worker.

“Dave was the epitome of a people person,” said Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch, where Brother Andrews worked for six years until his retirement last summer. Throughout his long and varied career, he knit people and groups together around his core beliefs in social justice and caring for the environment, she said.

“He bridged the advocacy world and the faith community,” Lovera said.

01/08/2015 at 10:42am

Photo by Paul Brandon Fields A school bus in Letcher County, Kentucky, slid off an icy Highway 588 this week. No one was harmed in the incident.

For all its diversity, there’s one scene that’s pretty common in rural America: kids bundled up to face the morning cold, stamping their feet while waiting for school bus to arrive.

While some school districts closed because of arctic temperatures this week, other schools gave kids no break.

“Is it cold? Yes. But we live where we live,” said Bryan Thygeson, superintendent of Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton schools in Minnesota, just over the state line from Fargo, North Dakota.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis, Anoka-Hennepin and other Twin Cities districts closed Wednesday because of bitter cold, reports Inforum.com.

Hundreds of districts in Ohio closed yesterday, as did Kansas City, Missouri, schools. Boston public schools are closed today. Many others delayed opening by up to two hours.

But for other schools, it was business as usual.

 “It’s all relative to what you are used to,” Thygeson said. 

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The Des Moines, Iowa, water-works board is expected to vote today to pursue a lawsuit against three Iowa counties that have high concentrations of nitrates flowing into the Raccoon River.

The water board says it had to start expensive water treatment when nitrate levels rose in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, which are the source of drinking water for the city.

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A doctor doing end-of-life care and counseling in Northern California had a problem: The hospital he worked for couldn’t and wouldn’t budget the time and money for him to visit his most isolated patients, trips that sometimes involved flying to their homes. The solution? Quit the hospital gig and form a startup.

"I had to sort out an out-of-the-box solution," [Dr. Michael Fratkin] says.

He calls his new company ResolutionCare. There's no office, no clinic. Instead he wants to put the money for those resources into hiring a team of people who can travel and make house calls, so that very ill patients don't have to get to the doctor's office. When time is stretched, he plans to use video conferencing.

The key challenge is financing his big idea. Government programs like Medicare and Medicaid don't pay for video sessions when the patient is at home. And they pay poorly for home visits.

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The Atlantic magazine takes a peek at why Georgia’s economy has slumped while other states have rebounded after the 2008 financial collapse. Spoiler alert: They think it boils down to the governor’s belief that government should “get out of the way and let the private sector stimulate the economy.”

“This is what a state looks like when you have a hands-off, laissez-faire approach to the economy,” said Michael Wald, a former Bureau of Labor Statistics economist in Atlanta. “Georgia is basically a low-wage, low-tax, low-service state, that’s the approach they’ve been taking for a very long time.”

01/07/2015 at 5:01pm

Photo by Nathan VanderKlippe/Globe & Mail Pipes to be used in the XL Pipeline sit in a field in Gascoyne, North Dakota.

The new Republican Congress has promised to expedite legislation to promote the Keystone XL Pipeline. North Dakota Senator John Hoeven and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin introducted legislation yesterday.  The House will quickly follow with a similar proposal.

So do the supporters of the Keystone XL Pipeline have a deal? Or is the pipeline done, dead?

Here are four reasons why the pipeline might never be built.

Four: Politics. The new Congress, the Republicans have always been in favor of this massive construction project. But the Obama administration has been timid. The pending congressional move, however, has changed things. And President Obama has said he will veto any legislative approval of the pipeline. 

And if that happens, there are not enough votes for an override, according to New York Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer.

Three: Climate change. The fact is that there is no way any politician can justify Keystone and still say it’s time to take stronger action on global warming. As Bill McKibbon’s 350.org puts it: “President Obama says that he will reject the pipeline if it poses a risk to the climate. That makes his decision simple: building a 800,000 barrel-per-day pipeline of the world’s dirtiest oil will mean more tar sands dug up and burned, and more carbon pollution.”

This issue is becoming a scorecard for both parties, Republicans for and Democrats against. As we near an election year, that becomes even more important as groups rate candidates based on their votes.

Two: The opposition remains firm. Tribes, environmental groups, ranchers and other opponents are continuing to press their case in a variety of forums.

As Indian Country Today Media Network reported this week a coalition of tribes continue to press their case against the project that would include Treaty lands. The Yankton Sioux Tribe promised “opposition and victory of unification which will not concede lands to a foreign entity or compromise the climate for generations to come.”

What’s interesting is the technical nature of the challenges. In addition to conventional protests and prayer circles, the opposition is striking out against the permit process saying, among other things, that it’s taken so long that the original permit is no longer relevant. The South Dakota Utilities Commission denied an initial request to block the permits, but the complaint now gets a fuller hearing that will take until at least May.