Thursday Roundup: Massey, Rural Broadband and GIPSA

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More than one-third of the House of Representatives has called on the Obama administration to toss aside rules proposed last year that would give more power to meat and poultry raisers in their relationship with meat packers.

The rules were proposed in June and were aimed at weakening the power large meatpackers have in the marketplace, making it easier for smaller and independent producers to survive. They would give meat producers (ranchers and poultry raisers) more power to successfully sue packers and they would require packers to disclose and justify premiums and discounts they pay for livestock.

The rules (proposed by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, or GIPSA) have set off a rural civil war. The packers and large ag organizations, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, have strongly opposed the proposed rules.

“The proposed GIPSA rule puts big government smack dab in the middle of our business. It is the most pervasive invasion of federal government into the private marketplace I have ever witnessed,” said NCBA president Bill Donald, who is a Montana rancher. 

 Independent groups and the National Farmers Union have said the rules are essential to protecting livestock producers and rural communities. Over 2,000 livestock raisers came to Fort Collins, Colorado, last summer largely to support the proposed rule. One cattle raisers’ group said the meeting to support the rules was “the most important day in the history of the U.S. cattle industry and in rural America.” 

In their letter, the 147 Members of Congress ask Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack to conduct a “more thorough economic analysis of the rule.” More to the point, however, the legislators have asked Vilsack to withdraw the rule altogether. 

The letter says that the rule goes beyond what Congress intended. “It is troubling that the Department appears to be using the rule-making process to accomplish objectives specifically rejected by Congress, and we are confident any such rule will not be looked upon favorably by Congress,” the letter states.

Opponents of the GIPSA rules appear to be gaining strength in Congress, probably as a result of the Republican resurgence in the House last November. Late last year 115 House members wrote a letter opposing the rule. At that time, Vilsack responded to the legislators by saying the new rules were still needed. 

• A corporate culture that put producing coal ahead of mine safety led to the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners, according to an independent investigation of the disaster. 

Written by former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer for the state of West Virginia, the report found that widespread violations of mining law and ongoing intimidation of workers “can only be accepted where the deviant has become normal.

“And evidence suggests that a great number of deviant practices became normalized at the Upper Big Branch Mine,” said the report by McAteer’s team, formally known as the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel.

“Massey exhibited a corporate mentality that placed the drive to produce coal above worker safety” at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine, the report concludes. “Many systems created to safeguard miners had to break down in order for an explosion to occur…The disaster at Upper Big Branch was man-made and could have been prevented.” 

McAteer told the Upper Big Branch families, “This company ran this mine in a profoundly reckless manner.”

For the best coverage of this report, see Ken Ward Jr.’s blog at the Charleston Gazette  and Howard Berkes’ report at National Public Radio. 

• Federal Communications Commission officials said in Nebraska yesterday that rural broadband is a “necessity,” according to the Omaha World-Herald

FCC chair Julius Genachowski came to Nebraska at the request of Rep. Lee Terry. They toured a small meat packer, C&C Meats, which uses the Internet to market its goods. 

“What we saw today convinces me that we need to succeed” with broadband expansion plans, Genachowski told The World-Herald in an interview.

“The problems keep getting worse and the challenges keep getting greater … and the digital divide isn’t shrinking,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point where more and more people across the country, including rural America, realize that (broadband) is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

• The Charlotte Observer reports that Southern forests will shrink by 23 milllion acres over the next 50 years. That is about the size of South Carolina.

The paper is quoting from a report from the U.S. Forest Service, which finds that everything from using wood to produce energy to invasive species will contribute to the loss of forest land. 

• A sign of tough times: Copper thieves have ripped out live phone lines in Kentucky’s Clay County, leaving parts of the area without phone service, including the Red Bird Mission, which operates a health clinic in Beverly, Kentucky. Phone lines have been cut three times in the past few weeks.

The area is without cell phone service, so when the copper is cut, so is all phone service. 

 

 

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