Wednesday Roundup: Mining, Walmart and Grains

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We covered the Scotia Mine Disaster of 1976, which killed 26 miners and mine inspectors in two explosions, and one of the reforms that came out of that incident was a law that gave the federal government the power to close a mine if it showed a pattern of violating mine safety law.

Blue Diamond Coal Co.’s Scotia Mine, in Kentucky, was a recalcitrant violator of federal law. But at the time, a mine had to have something extraordinarily wrong for it to be closed or red-tagged by inspectors. Citing Scotia, Congress, in 1977, gave the federal mine safety agency the power to shutter a mine if it showed a “pattern of violations,” a consistent and widespread unwillingness to comply with the law.

Those powers were never used — until yesterday. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration went more than 30 years without ever finding a pattern of violations so egregious that it felt compelled to use the powers Congress gave it in ’77.

On Tuesday, however, the agency said it had notified mines in Kentucky and West Virginia that they had violated the “pattern of violations” provision of the law and could be closed with any additional violation. MSHA called this an “unprecedented enforcement action,” and it was. You have to wonder, however, why that is the case.

Ken Ward Jr. has the story here

Also, it’s worth remembering that Congress passed a new mine safety law in the year after the Scotia Mine exploded. It’s now one year after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster and Congress hasn’t budged. Different times, and not in a good way.

• Federal Communications Commission chair Julius Genachowski says arguments against auctioning off unused broadcast spectrum were a “distraction.”

The National Journal reports

Genachowski dismissed many of the concerns raised by broadcasters about his proposal for incentive auctions, aimed at persuading broadcasters to voluntarily give up some of their spectrum in exchange for a share in the proceeds.

“I’ve heard the arguments that seek to undermine the idea of incentive auctions,” he said. “And while there are certainly legitimate issues to work through, I’m disappointed by arguments that are fundamentally distractions.”

On claims that the proposal would hurt rural areas to help urban ones, Genachowski said most rural areas don’t face a spectrum shortage and are unlikely to be affected by incentive auctions.

•The world’s population is expected to grow from 6.9 billion people in 2011 to something like 9.3 billion by 2050. That means the amount of crops we grow should increase between 70 and 100 percent. 

Is that possible?

Daryll Ray and Harwood Schaffer take on this question in their Policy Pennings column. They begin by noting that over the last 40 years, the production of corn, rice and wheat jumped by 142 percent. A large increase in production is, indeed, possible.

The two ag economists find various ways production can be increased in other countries, and how waste can be reduced here. They conclude:

As we look down the road 40 years from now, we are less worried about achieving an increase in production of 100 percent than we are concerned about how to manage all of this potential. For you see, we think it is important that we always have the proven potential to produce far more food than we need at any one time. We just don’t need to use all of it all of the time. Then, if a crisis comes we can bring the additional capacity online.  The question is, are we willing to develop policies that allow us to manage that overcapacity so that we maintain its availability while avoiding dragging prices down with overproduction?

• DTN’s Katie Micik reports that producers who sent their cattle to Eastern Livestock are trying to unravel the company’s tangled and now bankrupt finances. More than 700 ranchers in 30 states received $130 million in bad checks from Eastern in October of last year, before the firm officially went into bankruptcy. 

Micik reports that bankruptcy trustee Jim Knauer is finding slim pickings among Eastern’s assets. 

• The Center for Public Integrity notes that last month the USDA’s inspector general issued a report finding the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has yet to implement the Food Emergency Network, first ordered after the attacks on September 11, 2001. 

President Bush charged the inspection service with responding to biological, chemical or radiological contamination of the nation’s food supply. 

• Walmart is getting back to Sam Walton’s vision of towering piles of merchandize, narrow aisles and lower prices.

The company lost market share after it got rid of 9 percent of its merchandise two years ago. Now it’s bringing back those 8,500 items. Seems to be working. After boosting its assortment of rods and reels, sales went up 40 percent. 

 

 

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