Weekend Roundup: The Senate Speaks

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A bi-partisan group of U.S. Senators has introduced a bill that would give ranchers and poultry raisers more power in dealing with meat packers.

The bill was filed by Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Chuck Grassley of Iowa. The bill was introduced the same week 147 members of the House wrote a letter to the U.S.D.A. asking the agency to withdraw regulations that would reduce the power of meatpackers in the marketplace.

The four senators want to specify that the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 protects producers from anti-competitive practices and contracts. This is the same goal of the U.S.D.A. regulations that are opposed by the 147 House members.

What we have here is a difference of opinion. 

On one side is a third of the House, the American Meat Institute (the lobbying arm of the meat industry) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

On the other are four senators from ranching and hog-raising states who are backed by the National Farmers Union, R-CALF and the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

The bill introduced by the senators is aimed at restoring competition to the meat markets. “The top four multi-national meat-packing companies today control roughly 85 percent of the domestic slaughter capacity in the United States,” said Sen. Johnson of South Dakota. “It is increasingly tough for independent farmers and ranchers to gain fair market access.  This bipartisan bill will keep our farmers and ranchers in the fold and ensure that they get a fair price for their product.”

The Senate bill parallels the U.S.D.A. regulations. Both the Ag Department and the four senators suspect that the meat industry is using its buying power to influence the markets. “Some bad actors have been known to stack the deck in sale barns and this bill protects market competition by prohibiting packers from using prices in livestock contracts that they directly influence,” says Republican Sen. Enzi. This is almost exactly the same language used by supporters of the U.S.D.A. regulations.

So, who’s going to win this one?

•Seventeen of 24 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine last year had black lung. That finding is included in the report on the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster issued yesterday by former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer. 

Twenty-nine miners died in an explosion at the Massey Energy mine in West Virginia, but only 24 could be examined for black lung. The miners were as young as 25 and five had less than ten years in the mines.

The report concluded: “The victims at UBB constitute a random sample of miners. The fact that 71 percent of them show evidence of CWP is an alarming finding given the ages and work history of these men.” 

The rate of black lung for all underground miners is 7.6 percent.

• Bill Sargent writing Friday morning in the Boston Globe describes how the Mississippi River really wants to follow its natural course, which would be down through the Atchafalaya River Basin. The Mississippi has been blocked by man — more specifically, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — from doing what comes naturally. (See the photo above.) 

John McPhee wrote a fantastic story in 1987 on the struggle to keep the Mississippi on its current course. The magazine has put the story up again here.  McPhee:

The water attacking Old River Control is of course continuous, working, in different ways, from both sides. In 1986, one of the low-sill structure’s eleven gates was seriously damaged by the ever-pounding river. Another gate lost its guiding rail. When I asked Fred Smith, the district geologist, if he thought it inevitable that the Mississippi would succeed in swinging its channel west, he said, “Personally, I think it might. Yes. That’s not the Corps’ position, though. We’ll try to keep it where it is, for economic reasons. If the right circumstances are all put together (huge rainfall, a large snowmelt), there’s a very definite possibility that the river would divert—go down through the Atchafalaya Basin. So far, we have been able to alleviate those problems.”

• Kansas Fiber Network, a consortium of 29 independent rural phone providers, should have a 2,600 mile fiber optic network finished by the end of summer. They decided to build their own network instead of paying ransom to Verizon or AT&T. 

• There are now fewer than 1,000 dairy farms in Vermont. In the 1950s, there were more than 11,000. 

• Vermont will require private health insurance companies to cover midwives and home births. 

• Finally, from an editorial in Friday’s New York Times, about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners in 2010: 

A federal investigation has already led to the criminal indictment of the mine’s security chief, who was charged with lying to federal investigators and attempting to dispose of evidence. The Obama administration has toughened regulatory oversight, demanding rigorous inspections and heavy penalties for offending mining companies.

But the state report underlines the urgent need for far stronger safety laws. House Republicans and coal-state Democrats dedicated to Big Coal have refused to move on any sensible legislation.

Miners need whistle-blower protection to raise the alarm about dangerous conditions without fear of losing their livelihoods. Congress should make it a felony to alert managers that mine inspectors are on the way. 

Serial violators like Massey must face the strongest penalties, and the cynical gaming of safety violations with endless appeals must finally end. Hesitant lawmakers claim they need a fuller sense of what happened in the tragedy. They should face up to the 126-page report’s finding that the Upper Big Branch tragedy is a “tale of hubris.”

 

 

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