Local News Politics

Beshear, Rogers to Speak at Prescription Drug Abuse Summit

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers are among several elected officials slated to speak about prescription drug abuse this week at a conference in Florida.

The National Rx Drug Abuse Summit is organized by the Kentucky-based Operation UNITE. It aims to address the growing problem of prescription drug abuse in the southeastern United States.

The event kicks off tomorrow with Rogers’s remarks and a keynote from the U.S. Drug Czar. Beshear will speak afterward during a general session. Seminars during the conference focus on identifying prescription abuse issues, educating the public on the dangers of drug abuse and providing ideas for how states can track and fight illegal prescriptions. Officials from the federal government will also speak, as will elected officers from other states dealing with prescription abuse problems, including Florida and West Virginia.

Beshear has often encouraged state lawmakers to pass laws that crack down on so-called pill mills, which illegally deal prescription drugs. A bill the governor championed this year is expected to be put to a vote Thursday, on the last day of the current state legislative session.

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House Passes Bill to Let States Regulate Coal Ash

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating coal ash—a byproduct of burning coal for electricity. The bill gives control of coal ash disposal to the states, which are required to regulate it as least as stringently as municipal waste.

Environmental groups opposed the bill, arguing the Environmental Protection Agency should regulate coal ash. The EPA has proposed two rules to control the substance, but if the House bill becomes law, it will be prohibited from instituting either rule.

The bill passed 267 to 144. Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth voted against the bill, while Democrat Ben Chandler and Republicans Ed Whitfield, Brett Guthrie, Hal Rogers and Geoff Davis supported it.

The bill’s chances in the Senate are unknown. Many Republicans are expected to vote in favor of it, but some coalfields Democrats have also expressed support.

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House Expected to Vote on Coal Ash Bill Tomorrow

The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a bill tomorrow that will block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating coal ash. The bill has support among House Republicans, but environmental groups are lobbying against it.

The bill is sponsored by West Virginia Representative David McKinley. It would let individual states regulate the disposal of coal ash, which is a byproduct of burning coal for electricity. Under the bill, the states would have to regulate the ash at least as stringently as they regulate municipal waste.

The EPA has unveiled two proposals for regulating coal ash. Scott Slesinger is the Legislative Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says if the bill becomes law, it will block both of those proposals.

“What it does originally is stop the EPA regulatory process in its tracks and replaces a scientifically-driven rule with the congressional environmental standard that is acceptable to the utilities,” he said.

But Slesinger says that’s not so different from what’s going on now.

“So it essentially is very close to the current situation where it’s a straight state-run program and there’s great pressure from the utilities in many states not to regulate them,” he said. “So we’re very concerned.”

The bill is co-sponsored by Hal Rogers and Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. A spokesman for Congressman John Yarmuth says if the bill comes to the floor in its current state, Yarmuth will oppose it.

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House Vote Expected Friday on Bill to Delay Air Regulations

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill tomorrow that would change the way the Clean Air Act is administered.

The bill is called TRAIN for short—the long name is the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation Act of 2011. TRAIN began as a bill to require analysis of the cumulative effect of upcoming environmental regulations, but various amendments, including one by Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield, have changed it into a bill that would delay air pollution regulations, some for years, some indefinitely.

Isaac Shapiro of the non-profit non-partisan Economic Policy Institute published a study of the clean air rules earlier this week, and found:

“In combination, the compliance cost from the Obama proposals is really a small sliver of the economy,” he said. “The total compliance cost from the Obama EPA rules amounts to only 0.1 percent of the economy and that’s a proportion that the economy can readily absorb.”

Shapiro’s analysis says the rules will save millions—or in some cases, tens of millions—of dollars, mostly in reduced health care costs and fewer missed work days. From a purely economic perspective, he says the rules are worth it. And in the case of most of the rules the bill is seeking to delay, Shapiro says they’ve already gone through years of study and analysis.

“It’s the outcome of a very open, transparent, intense process that has to take into account the views of both opponents and proponents of the regulation. So after all this has been done, they’re asking for further delay in this TRAIN legislation and I think that’s inappropriate.”

The bill has 45 co-sponsors, including Kentucky Congressman Brett Guthrie, Hal Rogers and Ed Whitfield. President Obama has threatened to veto the legislation.

Local News Politics

Kentucky Lawmakers Respond to Jobs Plan

Elected officials in Kentucky are split along party lines on President Barack Obama’s jobs plan.

Tonight, the president put forward a $450 billion proposal to create jobs. It calls for infrastructure spending, payroll tax cuts, an extension of unemployment benefits and reforms to Medicaid and Social Security.

Junior Senator Rand Paul was the first lawmaker to issue a response, releasing a video minutes after the speech ended. Paul repeated his calls for a balanced budget amendment and encouraged the president to support cuts in spending and the corporate tax rate.

Kentucky’s four Republican members of the House—Ed Whitfield, Brett Guthrie, Geoff Davis, Hal Rogers—were also critical of the plan.

Democratic Congressmen Ben Chandler and John Yarmuth were supportive of the president’s proposals in statements released after the speech. Yarmuth said he wants to see specific details, but the plan should gain bipartisan support.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, called on Congress to pass the plan, saying numerous infrastructure projects in Louisville could benefit from it.

Obama also called on lawmakers to “stop the political circus” in his speech.

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EPA Wraps Up Tour of Eastern Kentucky Amid Coal Industry Criticism

EPA Region 4 Administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming looks on as Lynch City Council member Stanley Sturgill shows her mountaintop removal on the Virginia side of Black Mountain. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency were in eastern Kentucky last week to meet with residents of four communities affected by coal mining. But as those residents shared their stories and concerns, the coal industry criticized the trip as one-sided and anti-coal.

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There were nine EPA officials on the tour, including Region 4 Administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming and Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice Lisa Garcia. Over two days, members of the non-profit group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth escorted them from Clay County to Knott County to Letcher County, and ended the trip in Harlan County.

“It’s the first entrance to your left when you go up this road.”

Sandy Minton gave the visitors directions to the coal processing plant next to her house. She held a bag full of medication—her daughter’s prescriptions for a variety of breathing problems.

Minton says she’s concerned about the high levels of dust her kids, as well as those in the nearby school are exposed to.

“A lot of these schools, they’re not near anything like this,” she said. “They’re breathing good clean air. And unfortunately there are a few communities around here that’s having to deal with it.

“I could take you upstairs and show you my little girl’s windows, when I open the windows. I mean, in what, a month? [The dust is] an inch thick.”

In Knott County, many were concerned with a proposed permit by Leeco Coal for the Stacy Branch Surface Mine. That permit is one that was subjected to increased scrutiny by the EPA in 2009 and is still under review.

Besides asking the EPA to not issue the permit, the residents talked about broader economic concerns and the few opportunities that exist for young people in the area.

Ivy Brashear is twenty-four, and trying to find a way to stay in her hometown. She’s worried that once the region’s coal is gone, coal companies will pull out and the community will be left with devastated land, health problems and no jobs.

“They’re not going to be this big father-figure benevolent benefactor after those thirty years are up,” she said. They’re going to leave and we’re going to be here with dirty water and dirty air and cancer clusters and birth defects because of what they did. We need your help. We need your help to save what we have.”

Later that night, people packed into a theater in Whitesburg and testified about water pollution, the perils of an economy that’s too dependent on coal and the industry’s political influence.

“I want to talk for a moment about another insidious form of coal pollution, said former Kentuckians for the Commonwealth chair Doug Doerrfeld

“It is hard to overstate the degree to which the influence of coal has also polluted our democracy,” he said. “While coal mining provides just 1 percent of all jobs in the state and the industry contributes 2.5 percent of Kentucky’s economic output, the power of the industry’s money in our political system is overwhelming.”

During the meeting, Fleming and Garcia addressed community members directly. Fleming believes low-income or minority residents are disproportionately affected by pollution. She said her job is to follow the law.

“Y’all know that I’ve spent 17 years as a prosecutor, so adhering to the rule of law in a fair way is something that’s very true to my heart and true to the administrator’s heart as well,” Fleming said.

Fleming said her staff is open to future visits in the region and an ongoing discussion of the issues.

Some coal industry supporters, including Congressman Hal Rogers and chairman of the Pikeville-based Coal Operators and Associates Charles Baird slammed the EPA for not meeting with miners and state regulators during the trip. Baird also criticized the lack of advance notice to members of the media other than WFPL. But there were local media outlets at each event.

And two employees from the state Division of Water were present. Also, Bill Bissett of the Kentucky Coal Association confirmed that he was notified of the tour, and the EPA offered to meet with coal supporters for an hour on Friday.

But many members of the mining industry were at a conference in Lexington. Bissett said he thought the EPA could have made more of an effort to get a balanced perspective during the visit.

Many of the residents who addressed the agency wanted to make one thing clear: they’re not anti-coal. Stanley Sturgill is a former federal mine inspector and a city council member.

“If you’re concerned, you’re branded that you’re against coal, any way, shape, form or fashion,” Sturgill said. “We have tried to get that point across—we’re not. We’re strictly against surface mining; we’re for underground mining.”

Regional administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming has only held her position for a year, and this was her second visit to eastern Kentucky. She says any decisions the agency makes about mining permits will be governed by science and the rule of law and not based solely on testimonials from either side of the debate.

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U.S. House Committee Passes Bill to Divest EPA of Water Program Oversight

A measure that would gut the nation’s Clean Water Act cleared a House committee this morning.

House Resolution 2018 would basically allow states to set their water quality standards on their own. Right now, the federal Environmental Protection Agency administers the Clean Water Act. States can adopt stricter requirements, but the EPA sets the minimum bar.

The resolution gives states veto authority of EPA enforcement, and allows states to decide for themselves whether they’re in compliance with the Clean Water Act.

David Beckman is the director of the National Resources Defense Council’s water program. He says history has already shown HR 2018 is a bad idea.

“We tried it before in this country with states leading the charge and the results were not satisfactory,” he said. “We had rivers on fire.”

Beckman says nationwide EPA enforcement is needed to protect water quality, or else economic factors might get in the way of environmental protection.

“The ability of EPA to kind of set that bar, to be the neutral player, to insure that no state has an advantage or disadvantage by keeping standards low, potentially to attract investment or otherwise, this is part of what has made the Clean Water Act so successful,” Beckman said.

The bill has 33 co-sponsors, including Kentucky Congressman Hal Rogers (KY-05). In a written statement, Rogers said:

“For months, the EPA has overstepped its boundaries, taking dead aim at coal and rural communities. Studies confirm, the EPA’s widespread regulations will cost us billions of dollars and millions of jobs, a pain already stinging the Kentucky coalfields. This bill (H.R. 2018) will rein in the EPA’s overreaching regulations and uphold the original intent of the Clean Water Act, restoring the rights of states to administer and oversee state-led clean water programs.”

The resolution isn’t referred to any committees besides the House Transportation Committee, which passed it out. If there’s interest, it could next go to the floor for a vote.

Local News

BBC Report Covers Federal Spending in “Traditional Dependent Kentucky”

Kentucky’s reliance on federal aid was the focus of a story this morning on the BBC News Hour. The reporter visited Republican Congressman Hal Rogers’s eastern district and talked with a food bank visitor who had run out of options for food and was terrified that government services would be cut (about half of the food pantry’s federal support will be pulled). The story also talked with workers at an earmark-funded kennel. They were  “all in favor of cutting government spending…but not here.”

You can listen to the show here. Skip to 8:40 to hear the piece.

In other media news. The New York Times has a feature on Louisville’s fight against obesity.

Environment Local News Politics

Members of Congress Continue Supporting Measures to Limit EPA

Members of Congress have proposed a number of measures in recent weeks aimed at scrutinizing or limiting the Environmental Protection Agency.

The proposals include: a limit on how long the EPA has to approve or reject mining permits; a block on new carbon emissions regulation; and a call for hearings on the President’s plans to protect waterways from mining.

The lawmakers say the EPA can hamper the coal industry, eliminate jobs and cause energy prices to skyrocket. But environmental filmmaker and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member Ben Evans says that’s not true.

“If our economy is such that we can only grow our economy and have a vibrant economy by polluting and by an industry that really harms the long-term welfare of people and the environment, then I think we need to re-examine what our economy is all about,” he says.

Evans says mountaintop removal and other heavily-automated mining practices have led to job cuts in the coal industry. Further, he says jobs can be created in new energy markets.

Kentucky’s two Senators—Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul—support various legislation changing the EPA’s operations, as does Congressman Hal Rogers.

Local News Politics

Drug Czar Uses Kentucky Experience to Fight Prescription Abuse

The White House Drug Czar is using information gathered during a recent visit to Kentucky in his plan to fight prescription pill abuse.

Gil Kerlikowske visited the commonwealth last month and toured communities hit by prescription abuse. He spoke Thursday with the newly-formed congressional caucus on prescription pill abuse, which is co-chaired by Representative Hal Rogers of Kentucky.

Kerlikowske says a combination of education and enforcement should be used to fight prescription abuse.

While in Kentucky, Kerlikowske echoed Rogers’s earlier call for the Governor of Florida to allow that state’s prescription pill tracking system to be implemented. It’s believed many of the prescriptions abused in Kentucky come from Florida, and the governor has proposed cutting the program to save money and protect Floridians’ privacy.