Thursday, October 1, 2015

Talking American Nations at Iowa State, October 6

For those of you in Iowa or covering the campaigns, I'll be speaking on American Nations at Iowa State University in Ames on October 6th.

The talk -- at 8 pm in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union -- is part of the university's National Affairs Series: When Values Are In Conflict, with co-sponsorship from ISU's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication (which, I was surprised to learn, is not named for Portland Press Herald managing editor Steve Greenlee.) It's free and open to the public. Details are here.

Can't make it? Don't despair: CSPAN is taping the talk for future broadcast.

I was last in Iowa a year ago, speaking at Simpson College. Iowa Public Radio did this interview with me.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Federal drug take back rule change curtails Maine data collection, cost saving

Yesterday's national drug Take Back day, sponsored by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, operated under new rules finalized last year, and the changes prohibited some of the public policy benefits of the program.

Back in early 2013, I reported on proposed state and federal rule changes that critics argued would reduce the environmental, cost saving, and drug abuse prevention benefits of Take Back programs in Maine. The federal changes would effectively prohibit longstanding data collection programs by pharmacy researchers that have saved the state's Medicaid program money by reducing the over-prescribing of oft-wasted drugs. The state changes would have allowed incineration of collected drugs at municipal -- rather than hazardous waste -- incinerators.

As I reported in yesterday's Portland Press Herald, both types of rule changes have since been implemented. Details therein.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Talking American Nations and the 2016 election at Colby College, Sept 22

If you live in Central Maine and have an interest in American regionalism, I'll be speaking about American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and the 2016 election in Waterville this coming week.

The lecture, hosted by Colby College's Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, takes place on September 22nd at 7pm on the first floor of Diamond Hall. It's free and open to the public.

Find more details here. Do come and say hello.

My next American Nations speaking event thereafter is at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, October 6th. My next public Maine speaking appearance is on Ocean's End and the environmental crisis in the oceans at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, November 19. More details to come here at World Wide Woodard.

[Update, 9/24/15: Thanks to all who came and filled the house for the talk, and to Colby-Goldfarb for having me.]

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Gov. LePage, upset with EPA, threatens to give them his powers

Gov. Paul LePage, upset with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's position regarding water quality standards around the Penobscot Nation's reservation and other locations in the state, has issued a threat: he'll give up his administration's powers under the Clean Water Act to them.

If it sounds nonsensical, you're in good company, though an attorney for the effected industries says the loss of Maine's delegated water quality programs under the Clean Water Act wouldn't make much difference.

My story in Friday's Portland Press Herald lays it all out, including reaction from all of Maine's members of Congress, who LePage wrote, pleading for help against the agency. The story includes links back to previous coverage of the governor's heated dispute with both the EPA and the Penobscots.

Monday, September 7, 2015

On Penobscot Bay, contamination fears surround port dredging plan

Searsport, Maine's second busiest port, is overdue for maintenance and, its advocates argue, an upgrade, allowing larger vessels to reach the dock, and moderate-sized ones to not have to wait for high tide to enter or leave. But an Army Corps of Engineers plan to do both those things is running into stuff opposition from a wide range of interests on the shores of Penobscot Bay because of how the federal agency has proposed to dispose of the nearly million square yards of dredge spoils that will be produced.

My story in this week's Maine Sunday Telegram explores the issue, focusing on expert assessments of what to do with mercury-contaminated spoils (which the Corps intends to dump in western Penobscot Bay, in conical bottom pockmarks one former Maine State Geologist says are methane vents.) An excerpt:

“If you sat down and tried to find a way to guarantee you would contaminate the entire food web with methyl mercury, they’ve come up with it,” says Kim Ervin Tucker, the Lincolnville attorney representing many of the opponents, including local lobstermen, businesspeople and the Sierra Club. “You can accomplish the project’s goals in a smarter, cheaper way that doesn’t put existing lobstering and tourism and other industries at risk.”
Last week, concerns over mercury contamination in the bay were heightened when a federal judge ordered the owners of the primary culprit, the former HoltraChem plant 20 miles up the Penobscot River, to pay for studies on how to clean up mercury contaminated river bed and estuary areas.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is currently considering whether to grant the project required permits. The head of that department, Patricia Aho, left office Friday, replaced for now by another former Pierce Atwood industrial lobbyist, Avery Day.

[Update, 1920 EST: The Corps, having apparently read this story, withdrew their application today.]

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Facing blowback, Maine gives Jeb Bush's education foundation the cold shoulder

In this week's Maine Sunday Telegram, I report on how the administration of Paul LePage dissolved once-close ties with Jeb Bush's education foundation, which had apparently become a political liability.

Back in 2012, I wrote this investigation of the ties between Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, for-profit digital education providers and the Maine Department of Education, which outsourced much of the drafting of Maine's inaugural digital charter school rules and policies. (The two-part investigation won a George Polk Award that year.) We followed up with additional details here and here and here showing the Foundation's central role in the creation of the "grading schools" initiative, the governor's "education summit" and other education reform efforts.

But after Commissioner Steven Bowen left office in the late summer of 2013, emails and other correspondence show, the relationship quick cooled, and future commissioners didn't even join the Foundation's Chiefs for Change group, which Bowen had been an active participant in. Here's an excerpt:

Foundation officials reached out again...offering to “touch base on how we can best support your efforts after grades are made public.” [the department] again turned them down, and rejected the foundation’s subsequent offer to issue a news release in support of the new grades.

“In sharp contrast to last year, we’ve been able to maintain very positive coverage around the rollout of this year’s grades because we haven’t connected it to any larger national reform work,” [the department spokesperson] explained in a May 14 response. “Honestly, I do not think a statement from the foundation would be helpful to us or our messaging here in Maine at this time, however, we really respect the work the foundation is doing and the importance of school grades becoming more widely used across the county (sic).”

After May 2014, correspondence between the foundation and the department quickly dwindled to the receipt of mass mailings and short, infrequent exchanges of policy accomplishments and news releases.

Enjoy the story.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Has Jack DeCoster, Maine's most infamous businessman, returned?

In yesterday's Portland Press Herald, I have the story of how the Maine egg farms formerly controlled by infamous serial rule-breaker Jack DeCoster have been sold to a company with deep past DeCoster links. Indeed, the owner of Hillandale Farms once ran afoul of Ohio regulators for hiding the fact one of his egg companies was actually controlled by DeCoster, who was reportedly forbidden to run egg operations in that state.

Indeed, Hillandale and DeCoster owned the Iowa egg farms at the center of the infamous 2010 salmonella outbreak that the US Centers for Disease Control estimate sickened 56,000 across the country. Here's an excerpt:

[Hillandale founder] Orland Bethel, whose Iowa egg farm was forced to recall 170 million eggs in 2010, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying before Congress about the outbreak. The contaminated farm – doing business as Hillandale Farms of Iowa – bought eggs, young chickens and feed from the DeCosters’ Iowa egg farm and feed plant. DeCoster also was apparently an investor in the Iowa farm. A Hillandale spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal in 2010 that the farm and the DeCosters’ feed entity were “financially affiliated,” which allowed them to avoid state feed inspections. 

I've written about DeCoster a number of times in the past, including an expose in Down East Magazine back in 2011 (when Republican state legislators were pressing to pass a bill to loosen labor regulations at his Maine farms) and this piece for the Press Herald in April, when DeCoster and his son were sentenced to three months in prison for their role in the salmonella scandal.

It's unknown if DeCoster is still an investor in Hillandale, and unclear if he retains ownership of the Maine egg farms, which were acquired three years ago by Land O'Lakes in a ten year lease-to-own deal.

[Update, 9/2/2015: DeCoster does indeed retain ownership of the farms, as I reported in the August 25, 2015 edition of the Portland Press Herald, along with some other details of the deal.]

[Update, 9/2/2015: The Portland Press Herald ran this editorial Aug. 27 connected with these two stories.]