Scottsbluff Star-Herald. June 26, 2014.
Clean water: As regulators battle producers, alternatives are needed
In Nebraska, we farm. We also process, manufacture, boat, fish, swim and drink water. For the most part, those uses coexist peacefully, However, government regulators often have their eye on what goes into our streams and lakes, and our agricultural producers, which drive our economy, need a place to direct their waste and do it safely. These two sides don't always agree on the definition of safe.
We like to write editorials when Nebraska ranks at the top of national lists. We enjoy it less so when our state is at the bottom. In 2012, 10.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals were dumped into Nebraska's waterways, making Nebraska sixth worst in the nation, according to a report making headlines by the Environment America Research and Policy Center.
The report states that the Lower Platte River is ranked sixth in the nation for highest amount of total toxic discharges, with 3.7 million pounds discharged in 2012. It also names a Nebraska meat producer as the biggest polluter by discharge in the nation.
The report said toxic chemicals dumped in Nebraska include chromium and chromium compounds, which cause cancer, and developmental toxins, such as lead and lead compounds, which can affect the way children grow, learn and behave.
"Nebraska's rivers should be clean — for swimming, drinking and supporting wildlife," said Alex Trebatoski, the campaign coordinator with Environment America Research and Policy Center. "But too often, our waters have become a dumping ground for polluters."
Its findings aren't based on speculation. They come from reports by polluting facilities to the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory for 2012, the most recent data available.
When contacted by the Star-Herald about the findings, a Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality official said the agency had no reason to comment on the report. Its public information officer said the DEQ is comfortable the state is within allowable limits.
The Clean Water Act is a thorny issue among farmers and ranchers. One of the American Farm Bureau's top issues for 2014 includes opposing expansion of the federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.
The Nebraska Farm Bureau's website frames it this way: "Puddles, ponds, ditches, ephemerals (land that looks like a small stream during heavy rain but isn't wet most of the time) and isolated wetlands dot the nation's farmland. The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on March 25 issued a proposed rule that would expand its regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act to these types of land features and waters, giving the agencies the power to dictate land-use decisions and farming practices in or near them. The rule will make it more difficult to farm or change a farming operation to remain competitive and profitable."
The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the act is an attempt to clarify protection. They claim protection rules became unclear after Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006. The public comment period will be open until Oct. 20.
The Environment America Research and Policy Center's report has a few ideas for alternatives — including requiring industry to switch from toxic chemicals to safer alternatives.
It's clear that something needs to happen. Farmers and livestock producers certainly don't need any more hurdles to clear or hoops to jump through. The market alone makes their lives difficult enough. And they've done a lot more in the recent years to be mindful of their impact on the environment.
But all of us, including ag producers, should be concerned about keeping our water clean. Poisoned water won't do crops or livestock any good. The public should make its voice heard in order to help sort out an issue that right now is, frankly, a little muddy.
While the two sides battle it out, a third technology-based solution might be developing. A researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources is working on an answer for cleaning up a large plume of contaminated groundwater just east of Grand Island. Steve Comfort, a soil and water chemist with UNL's School of Natural Resources, recently led a group of students in installing a new version of an oxidant candle that could work to clean up the Grand Island site.
The candle contains a chemical compound called permanganate that mixes with and oxidizes toxic chemicals, turning them into less harmful carbon dioxide and chloride.
Permanganate's usefulness in helping clean up water and wastewater is well-known; the trick is in finding innovative, simple and inexpensive ways to use it, which can help cash-strapped communities looking for pollution solutions. Sounds like a good opportunity for a would-be entrepreneur.
McCook Daily Gazette. June 26, 2014.
'Safer' fireworks substitute creates its own hazard
It was only a year ago when we were talking about banning fireworks altogether because conditions were so dry.
It will take a long time to recharge the ground moisture, but without even adding in all of the overnight precipitation, we've received almost three-quarters of an inch more precipitation than normal for the year, 11.63 inches of moisture.
Last year, we had received only 5.99 inches by today.
Thanks to the rain, firefighters, especially rural firefighters, should get a little bit of a break compared to their usual Fourth of July activities next week.
But that doesn't mean adults should let their guards down when it comes to fireworks hazards related to Independence Day, especially when it comes to celebrating with small children.
The old wire-cored sparklers, infamous for staying hot enough after going out to burn tiny, bare feet, have been outlawed, replaced by sparklers with bamboo sticks.
Another "safe" substitute, however, resulted in 433 calls to the Nebraska Poison Center last year, many around the Fourth of July.
The substitute — glow sticks — contain a liquid called dibutyl phthalate, which has a very strong chemical taste and odor and can cause irritation to the mouth.
"Concerned parents often call because their child's mouth is glowing, or they have gotten the product in their eyes," according to a release from the center.
For the record, there's no need to run to an emergency room if your child does get some of the liquid in their mouth or eyes. Call the center at (800) 222-1212 (program it into your phone or post it on the refrigerator) to find out what to do.
To avoid that call, don't allow kids to repeatedly bend or chew on glow sticks, and keep them away from kids under the age of 3. That's also good advice because the liquid can cause stains.
Conventional fireworks are a poisoning hazard as well, of course, so keep them away from small children who might be attracted by bright and colorful packaging. They contain nasty substances like potassium nitrate, white phosphorus, barium chlorate and arsenic, so keep the poison control number handy.
And, keep your family pets happier by leaving them inside away from the noise and fire.
Buying fireworks from local youth groups and service organizations is a great way to support those activities while celebrating Independence Day.
Or, contribute to the public display put on each year by the McCook Optimist Club. Send your check to the Community Fireworks Fund, C/O Mark Graff, Treasurer, P.O. Box 272, McCook, NE 69001.
Lincoln Journal Star. June 27, 2014.
Driving for taxpayer benefit
It's disappointing that the Lincoln firefighters union is resisting the experiment to see if it would be effective and save taxpayer money to send firefighters to medical calls in a pickup truck.
The union wants to stick with the traditional practice of sending fully equipped fire trucks to all calls.
Lincoln Fire and Rescue started the experiment in 2012. The first year Station 1 used the pickup 49 times. Last year, firefighters at the station used it only 11 times.
Finally, Chief John Huff told the firefighters at the station to take the pickup out on all medical calls or explain why they did not. The union challenged the order.
The premise of the experiment seems reasonable enough. Why send the big rig to a report of someone who has fallen on a downtown street and seems dazed?
A department analysis of the experiment over a period of months showed that the pickup cost 71 cents a mile to operate, compared to $4.03 a mile for a fire engine.
About four of every five calls for service the department receives are medical in nature.
Similar experiments are being conducted in other parts of the country, and some fire and rescue departments have begun using the so-called alternative response vehicles for some calls.
The Lincoln fire union contends the savings are small, and that they come at the expense of safety.
"Arriving without the appropriate vehicle, tools, or equipment not only delays the ability to resolve the emergency, it also now requires that an additional crew respond from further away, reducing the fire and EMS coverage in their assigned area," interim union President Ron Trouba Jr. said in a statement.
Later, Trouba said the union "is confident that if and when the public is presented all data concerning coverage, response times, true and correct vehicle costs or perceived savings, they will stand in support of citizen safety and not alternative methods that are inaccurately marketed as efficient."
The union also thinks it can put an end to the experiment on grounds the chief's order violates the union's collective bargaining agreement in clauses relating to work conditions. The fire chief thinks otherwise.
But if the advantages of responding to all calls with a big fire truck are as clear cut as the fire union members seems to think it is, why don't they just let the experiment play out and remove all doubt?
Like it or not, a fire and rescue operation must always find a place between the public's desire for fire protection and emergency service and the cost the public is willing to pay. The union should support efforts that might make Lincoln Fire and Rescue more efficient.
Kearney Hub. June 28, 2014.
GOP takes risk when it ignores immigration
With House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's defeat by an anti-immigration Republican in the Virginia primary earlier this month, political observers might be tempted to declare immigration reform a dead issue until after the November elections. Such an observation would be mostly correct, as it assumes Republicans are reluctant to address reform because many of their constituents oppose it.
But take a look at the man who will replace Cantor as majority leader in the house, and it's tougher to proclaim immigration reform is a dead issue.
Waiting in the wings to replace Cantor is California Republican Kevin McCarthy. The House's next majority leader represents a district around Bakersfield, Calif., that suitably reflects our nation's changing demographic and illustrates why it could be political suicide if the Republicans continue shying from immigration reform.
McCarthy's district is one-third Hispanic. In fact, the strip mall where he ran a deli when he was younger now houses a Mexican grocery and a Salvadoran restaurant that serves papusas. If McCarthy were to heed only his party's bosses, he would be ignoring the demographic reality of his home district, and that could disappoint enough Hispanic voters to spoil any hopes he has for being re-elected this year.
It might be easy for Republicans such as Nebraska's 3rd District Rep. Adrian Smith to ignore the need for immigration reform because doing so will hardly threaten his chances at the polls.
But an increasing number of Smith's legislative colleagues, including McCarthy, don't enjoy such a luxury. They cannot afford to ignore the realities of their constituencies and ignore immigration, or it's political suicide.
The longer Republicans delay, the greater the damage our broken system inflicts on our national economy. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, a conservative, wrote convincingly recently why he believes it's wrong-headed to ignore the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living and working in the United States.
"If we are serious about advancing our economic future and about creating job growth here in America, then we must realize it is suicidal to suggest closing our doors to the world's entrepreneurs, or worse, to continue with large-scale deportations," wrote Murdoch, who became a U.S. citizen after immigrating from Australia.
So why do so many Republicans resist moving forward on reform? Among their reasons is a deep-seated fear of angering their conservative base. That's a stance that will serve them only as long as it takes for demographics to alter their districts and make them look very much like McCarthy's.