Tag Archives: welfare

Walker proposes new welfare work requirements

Parents who work fewer than 80 hours a month could face food stamp benefit cuts under a proposal Gov. Scott Walker released this week.

Walker’s proposal also would require adults with children between age 6 and 18 to attend job training and search for work five days a week.

The proposals are part of a package called “Wisconsin Works for Everyone” that Walker released during a series of news conferences across the state.

Under current state law, childless adults in the FoodShare program have to meet the work requirement. They lose all food stamp benefits after three months of non-compliance.

Since the law took effect in April 2015, about 64,000 have lost their benefits.

Under Walker’s new proposal, adults with children who don’t meet the program’s work requirements would face a “partial” reduction in benefits. The governor didn’t say how much the loss in benefits could be.

Walker also is calling for a similar work requirement for people receiving housing vouchers from the federal government.

His proposals could require law changes by Congress and waivers from the Trump administration before taking effect. They would also have to pass the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

Walker has been saying that he hopes to work closely with the Trump administration on a variety of initiatives, including on welfare. Walker is expected to seek a third term in 2018 and will be spelling out his priorities for the next two years in the state budget he releases next month.

The governor provided few details of the welfare reform package this week, saying those would come in the budget.

Both of the new work requirements would begin as pilot programs, but Walker didn’t say where. His outline also doesn’t say how much the new requirements would cost.

Walker said he also reduce child-care assistance from the state once people become employed. Once someone becomes employed and hits 200 percent of the poverty line, the person would start contributing $1 copay for child care for every $3 earned.

Walker also is calling on the Trump administration to clear the way for the state to drug test some welfare recipients.

“We fundamentally believe that public assistance should be a trampoline not a hammock,” Walker said.

Robert Kraig, with the progressive advocacy group Wisconsin Citizen Action, criticized Walker’s proposals, saying they will do nothing to help create more family supporting jobs. Kraig said Walker was penalizing low-income residents for their own poverty.

State Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said Walker wants to create one set of rules for working families and another set of rules for the wealthy and well-connected.

“For too many hardworking Wisconsin families, Gov. Walker’s race-to-the-bottom economy is not working for them. Republican tax breaks that favor millionaires and corporations are shifting a greater burden onto workers,” Shilling said. “Since Gov. Walker took office in 2011, Wisconsin has fallen below the national average for job creation for 20 consecutive quarters. If Gov. Walker really wants to help workers and grow our middle class, Democrats stand ready with a range of proposals to raise family wages, lower student loan debt, invest in infrastructure and expand child care tax credits. It’s time we reward hard work, not the wealthy and well-connected.”

 

Baldwin, Johnson introduce bill to lift protections for wolves

U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are co-sponsors of legislation that would lift federal protections for gray wolves in the Midwest and Wyoming.

The other sponsors are John Barrasso and Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Similar legislation was introduced earlier this year in the U.S. House by Wisconsin Congressman Sean Duffy.

The aim of these lawmakers is to prevent courts from overruling a decision by the Interior Department to remove wolves in Wyoming, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan from the endangered species list.

In a news release, Johnson said, “I strongly agree with the feedback I’ve heard from Wisconsin stakeholders such as farmers, ranchers, loggers and sportsmen that future gray wolf listing decisions should come from wildlife experts, not from courtrooms.”

Baldwin said, “The Endangered Species Act plays a critical role in saving species from the brink of extinction, and when it does, we must acknowledge we have succeeded in restoring wildlife populations by delisting them. According to both federal and state wildlife biologists, this goal has been achieved with the gray wolf.”

She said she also heard “from farmers, sportsmen and wildlife experts, and they all agree. The wolf has recovered and we must return its management back to the state of Wisconsin, both for the safety and economic well-being of Wisconsinites and the balance of our environment.”

The  news release said the senators’ measure would “allow wolf management plans that are based on federal and state wildlife expertise to move forward without any legal ambiguity.”

Those management plans allow the trapping and hunting of wolves, including using dogs in the “sport” in Wisconsin. In Wyoming, the management plan allows unlimited shoot-on-sight killing of wolves across 85 percent of the state.

“A new Congress has resurfaced an old vendetta against imperiled wolves,” said Marjorie Mulhall, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice. “If this legislation is signed into law, wolves  in Wyoming will be subjected to unregulated killing across the vast majority of the state and even on the borders of Yellowstone National Park numerous legal loopholes will authorize widespread wolf killing.”

She continued, “We urge those who support the protection of wolves to call their senators and representatives and tell them to vote down this lethal legislation.”

On the Web

The House bill.

The Senate bill.

Wisconsin congressional delegation contacts.

Judge weighing Utah law banning undercover farm filming

A federal judge is considering whether a Utah ban on hidden cameras at slaughterhouses that was passed amid a wave of similar measures around the country violates the right to freedom of speech.

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby said he’s spent hours considering the issues raised by the case, including the balance between private property rights and the First Amendment.

Animal activists argue the law is an unconstitutional attempt to keep them from exposing inhumane or unsafe practices at factory farms. The state of Utah contends the First Amendment doesn’t allow people to enter private property under false pretenses and record however they want.

“I don’t think there’s a constitutional right to spy,” said Kyle Kaiser with the Utah Attorney General’s Office. The law makes farm facilities safer by barring unskilled undercover operatives, he said.

Shelby questioned both sides closely. He asked whether there’s any evidence of activities asking activists seriously disturbing safety at farm facilities, and Kaiser conceded there was none.

On the other side, the judge asked activists whether business competitors, for example, should be able to plant recording devices to steal trade secrets. Lawyer Matthew Liebman with the Animal Legal Defense Fund said corporate espionage wouldn’t pass legal muster and property owners do have the right to remove someone caught with a camera. But it’s different when the state gets involved, he said.

“What we’re trying to protect against is a government motive to silence speech,” Liebman said. The Utah law was part of national push to stop embarrassing videos from animal-rights groups, not agricultural safety, he said.

The hearing came after a judge in Idaho found a similar law violates the First Amendment _ a win for activists that they’re aiming to repeat in eight states with similar rules.

Idaho is appealing that ruling.

At least five people have been charged under the Utah law since it was passed in 2012, though those cases have since been dropped.

Four were animal activists from California who were cited outside a large Iron County hog farm in 2015. The charges were later dropped because the farm didn’t want to pursue them.

A woman who once faced a misdemeanor count after being accused of filming a front-end loader dumping a sick cow outside a slaughterhouse in 2013 is a plaintiff in the case challenging the law, along with Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Media groups have also joined the lawsuit, saying the law violates the First Amendment.

The Animal Agriculture Alliance, U.S. Poultry and Egg Association and other groups have lined up to support the state.

Horse slaughter controversy still rages

A roadside memorial south of Balmorhea, Texas, includes a metal sculpture of a horse in jaunty pose, a rusty cutout of a dozen steeds in full gallop and an old ranch saddle astride a cottonwood log. Visitors have left more than 100 cards on the fence, each with the same poignant message: “Dedicated to all the slaughter-bound horses, burros and mules that have been hauled down this highway on their last ride.”

Their ride down Texas 17 in crowded stock trailers includes a stop at the stockyards in Presidio, where they are weighed and inspected before continuing south into Mexico.

“Their nightmare journey begins when they enter the slaughter pipeline at the auction house. My ultimate goal would be to keep them all out of those ‘kill-buyer’ trailers,” said Neta Rhyne, 65, of nearby Toyahvale, who erected the memorial last year.

Nearly a decade after the last three horse slaughterhouses closed in the United States — including two in Texas — the trafficking of American horses for slaughter continues and the controversy burns as fiercely as ever.

In 2014, it flared anew when a legislative loophole prompted efforts to open slaughter operations in Oklahoma, New Mexico and elsewhere. That opening since has closed, leaving foreign slaughter the only option.

Since 2007, almost a million American horses have been sent to Mexico and Canada to be killed, butchered and exported to Europe and Asia, where local palettes find the meat a delicacy. A small amount of meat is returned to the U.S. to feed zoo animals.

Last year, the U.S. exported almost 75,000 slaughter horses to Mexico, through Presidio, Eagle Pass, El Paso and New Mexico, and another 40,000 to Canada.

But in the land of Trigger, Black Beauty and My Little Pony, there is a deep aversion to killing and eating what many consider a national cultural icon.

“Public opinion is on the side of the horses,” said Holly Gann of the Humane Society of the United States. “National polling in 2012 showed that 80 percent of Americans oppose horse slaughter for human consumption.”

Opponents, some of whom see the horse as a noble, companion animal, claim the practice of shipping them long distances, with little state or federal oversight, often involves abuse and neglect.

Others, however, say that the roughly 130,000 or more horses exported each year represent an unwanted domestic surplus, and that slaughter, even in Mexico where it can be less than humane, is better than neglect and abandonment at home.

Many of the horses acquired at auctions and shipped by “kill buyers” are young and in good health. And with horse rescue groups already overloaded, there is no obvious way to absorb more unwanted animals.

Repeated legislative attempts to halt the practice have failed since 2006, when the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act was first introduced.

A bill pending in Washington takes a different approach. HR 1942 would declare horse meat unsafe for human consumption because of drugs given to the animals, and also prohibit transportation of horses for human consumption.

If passed, the bill, now lingering in committee, would end horse slaughter.

But for some animal welfare groups already struggling with too many unwanted horses, the prospect of 100,000 or more new animals materializing, year after year, is alarming.

“It’s a terrifying question from a horse rescue person’s perspective. I don’t know what would happen. We would be flooded and we’re already flooded,” said Jennifer Williams, president of Blue Bonnet Equine Humane Society in Austin.

“I think over the course of 10 to 15 years, maybe fewer, it would stabilize. People would realize they don’t have a low-end option to dump all the foals they breed that have no purpose, but that would take time. Horses can live 25 to 30 years,” she said.

For tens of thousands of horses a year, the dusty stockyards east of Presidio, an isolated border city south of Marfa, are the last stop on the way to slaughterhouses in Ciudad Chihuahua and Zacatecas, Mexico.

For most horses, the layover in Presidio is brief: After being inspected by Mexican veterinarians and weighed, they’re reloaded on trailers and sent south on the final leg of the ride.

On a recent morning, about 170 newly arrived horses waited in the pens at the Baeza Cattle and J&R Horse lots, nibbling hay and oat straw.

To the untrained eye, almost all appeared in good health, with only a handful showing signs of aging, neglect or minor injury.

In the subsequent inspections by veterinarians, only one horse was rejected, lot operators said.

“The most common reason for rejection is wounds. The second is ticks. If they can’t walk or are sick, they are rejected,” said Dr. Fernando Trujillo, one of three veterinarians who inspected horses that day at the two lots.

Other horses, Trujillo said, can be turned back because of irregularities in the paperwork and their microchip information.

“Overall, the quality of the horses has improved over the last five years,” he noted.

Horses rejected by Mexican inspectors must stay behind in Texas, and, having suddenly lost most of their commercial value, can be returned to their owners or face a still more uncertain fate.

Five years ago, 46 carcasses were found in a creek bed behind C4 Cattle Co., which went defunct. The illegal dumping prompted an investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, although no citations were issued.

Earlier that year, an animal welfare group complained about hundreds of starving horses and cattle in the Alvarado pens.

The county sheriff concluded the animal cruelty claims were unfounded but sequestered 300 hungry horses until their owners could claim them.

This spring, as first reported in the Big Bend Sentinel, Presidio was forced to confront an extraordinary surge of large animal carcasses being brought to its municipal landfill.

In 2012, city officials say, 12.5 tons of dead horses and donkeys were disposed of there. Over the next three years, 330 tons of carcasses — representing about 1,000 dead animals — were dumped, almost all by the exporters.

City officials said the longstanding charge of $22.50 a carcass is much too low and that the life expectancy of the small landfill is being shortened by the flood of large dead animals.

“Very few other places have this problem. It was really created by the USDA stopping the butchering of horses in the United States. So that forced them down here on the border,” said Brad Newton, Presidio’s economic development director.

Each dead horse, he said, requires a large hole and 3 feet of dirt cover, while normal trash needs only 6 inches. The space taken up by each dead horse could hold $200 worth of compacted trash.

“I guess the people who were trying to protect the horses actually made things worse for them. These are not Presidio horses, we’re just the end of the trail,” he said.

After much haggling with the horse pen operators, the City Council last month approved an increase in the dumping charge to $60 for the first eight horses delivered each month, and $70 each for all beyond that.

The reason for the dramatic 10-fold increase in dead animals in Presidio remains unclear.

Ruben Brito, who runs the J&R Horse pens east of town, which in November alone dumped 75 animals, attributed the sharp rise to normal attrition during a period of very high volume.

In November, J&R shipped 110 loads of horses — representing about 3,300 animals — to Mexico. All told, J&R disposed of more than 400 dead horses and donkeys in 2015, according to city figures.

“I have been accused of being a horse-killer,” said Brito, who has had confrontations with animal protection people on his lot. “The thing that bugs me is they accuse me of all kinds of things, but it’s all just a game to get people to send more money.”

He said the horses end up in Presidio because they’re apparently unwanted elsewhere.

“What are you going to do with these horses here?” he asked.

Pointing to a large black and white paint leaning curiously over the pen fence, he noted: “This mare has never been ridden. Look at its shoes. It’s gentle but it’s not broken, and its never been bred. Who is gonna buy this horse?”

Motioning to another, a stout gelding with numbers branded into its hip, he said, “That’s a rodeo horse, but if you don’t buck, what then? It’s like everything else.”

And because the nearest veterinarian is an hour and a half away, if an injured horse must be euthanized, it gets a bullet in the head, a practice some others have found shocking, he noted.

“We’ve got too much regulation, too many goody-goodies. You can’t be a rancher without having a lawyer by your side,” he complained.

The other currently active operation, Baeza Cattle, is far smaller and disposed of only about 50 animals last year, the city’s figures show.

“If a horse is broke down, if it can’t make it into the truck, you have to put it out of its misery,” said Salvador Baeza, most of whose business is importing cattle from Mexico.

“I’m not in the horse business. I never buy horses. I never own horses,” he said, adding he merely provides a temporary way-station at a charge of $6.50 a horse.

“Our suppliers send us good horses. Do you see horses that have been mistreated?” Baeza asked. “Anytime you put horses in a trailer they can get hurt.”

Brito said that lately, the horse traffic to Mexico has slumped significantly.

“We were doing 15 to 20 loads a week, but now were down to seven or eight. It’s the devaluation of the peso,” he said.

Last year, the number of horses exported to Mexico dropped by about 20,000 to just under 75,000. This year, the pace of exports is even slower, with only about 25,500 horses exported through May.

One reason for the slowdown was a move last year by the European Union to stop accepting horse meat from Mexico. It acted over fears of drug contamination and claims by activists of cruelty and neglect.

The decision came after a welfare group called Animals’ Angels, which regularly does on-the-scene investigations of the trade, from the auction to the slaughterhouse in Mexico, shared its findings with the Europeans.

Its reports, which sometimes include graphic photos of badly injured, starving or abused animals, include accounts of visits made to the border stock pens.

“The Presidio slaughter horse export pens in Texas have a long, sordid history of violating environmental laws, illegal carcass dumping and animal cruelty,” Animals’ Angels wrote in one recent assessment.

In late 2014, Animals Angels’ submitted a thick report to the European Union detailing abuses and possible contamination by pharmaceuticals of horse meat processed in Mexico.

“We flew to Brussels and I met with the European Commission myself,” said Sonja Meadows, founder of the Maryland-based group.

“We showed a video of our findings for the past seven years. We gave them a 100-page report highlighting the transport issue and the food-safety issue,” she said. “I could see they were truly appalled and surprised at the amount of cruelty they saw. I think it kind of caught them by surprise.”

In early 2015, the EU, which had also sent its own inspectors to Mexico and the U.S., including to the stock pens in Presidio, imposed a ban on horse meat from Mexico.

Noting that 87 percent of the Mexican horse meat came from U.S. horses, the final report cited “animal welfare problems” and a lack of confidence in the system designed to ensure the animals have a clean drug history.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not take responsibility for the reliability of affidavits issued for horses originating in the US, and the FVO audit team found very many affidavits which were invalid or of questionable validity,” read the report.

Where Europe had regularly imported most of the horse meat produced in Mexico, that market has vanished. Now, Mexican horse meat is believed to be going elsewhere, and consumed domestically.

“We have found they have shifted to the Russian market, and some to Vietnam,” Meadows said.

Despite its nearly 200 co-sponsors, and fervent support from the Humane Society, ASPCA and other animal welfare groups, HR 1942, the so-called Safeguard American Food Exports Act, appears mired in the political mud of Washington.

Nevertheless, ASPCA vice president Nancy Perry said, the bill has brought progress in the public and political realms on the underlying issue.

“The administration has been overtly supportive of a ban on horse slaughter. (Hillary) Clinton has an animal welfare platform that includes a prohibition on horse slaughter. It just hasn’t been part of the dialogue at that level before,” she said.

And, she said, the ASPCA is convinced that millions of Americans would adopt horses if they were no longer being exported for the benefit of the horse industry.

“Yes there would be disarray and chaos, but the horses would be better off. If we quit incentivizing overbreeding and discarding horses, the market would adjust to the circumstances,” she added.

But some groups that oppose the bill believe it would create bigger problems.

“It’s strictly an animal welfare issue for us,” said Ward Stutz of the American Quarter Horse Association, which, along with the Farm Bureau of America and others opposes HR 1942.

“What do you do with all those horses if that act should pass? I just think the potential for abandonment and neglect is much greater,” Stutz said.

Things probably were better for horses before the closures of the domestic slaughter plants effectively ended oversight by USDA inspectors of the industry, he said.

“For both sides, the humane treatment of horses is paramount. It’s just that some don’t agree that a horse should be euthanized and processed for food,” he added.

Even the American Veterinary Medical Association opposes a legislative ban on horse slaughter without adding protections for the surplus, unwanted horses.

An operator of a North Texas horse auction, who has been involved in the business for 30 years and has sold thousands of horses to the “kill buyers,” says the current impasse will likely continue.

“I think nothing is going to change about this situation. There are people who want horse plants back in the States. That is not going to happen,” he said. “There are people who want to stop the horses from going to Mexico and Canada. That is not going to happen.”

The auctioneer, who asked that his name not be used or business be identified, said the issue has become an untouchable third rail for politicians.

“It’s too controversial. No one will vote for it. No one will vote against it. It doesn’t matter which way they go, people are going to be upset. So, these bills will continue to lay there,” he said of pending legislation.

The closing of the U.S. slaughterhouses in 2007, the economic crash of 2008, and the multiyear drought that followed all have conspired to force the price of horses to record lows, he said.

“They went from about 60 cents a pound to about 20 cents a pound. Now we are running into a shortage of horses. We are lower than anytime in 15 years,” he added of market bottom horses.

Mostly, he said, he just wishes the whole thorny issue, which is bad for business, would just go away.

“We need this deal to quiet down as much as possible. There’s a lot of rescue people who come and buy horses, and we’re OK with that. Anyone is welcome. We sell to the highest bidder and we want the highest prices possible,” he added.

PETA brings ‘Not a Dairy Queen’ to Dairy State for Pride

PETA will take a new outreach campaign that promotes vegan eating to LGBT Pride celebrations this summer, including this weekend’s PrideFest in Milwaukee.

An announcement from the animal rights group said the campaign stars gay vegan icon Alan Cumming sporting PETA’s new pink T-shirt that reads, “Not a Dairy Queen.”

Volunteers wearing the pink shirts will give PrideFest Milwaukee event participants free postcards bearing Alan’s image, which “have information on the back about the cruelty common in the dairy trade as well as the many health benefits of a diet free of all animal-derived food and ingredients.”

PETA said other notable gay vegetarians include Ellen DeGeneres, Boy George, Joan Jett and RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Sharon Needles, who starred in another pro-vegan campaign for the nonprofit.

Pathogens in state’s drinking water is ‘public health crisis’

Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents are at risk of illness from waterborne pathogens in private and public drinking water supplies

Late on a winter night in 2004 in Kewaunee County, six-month-old Samantha Treml was rushed to an emergency room, violently ill from bathing in water poisoned by manure spread on a nearby frozen field that seeped into the home’s private well. The rest of her family got sick, too.

In 2014, seven people visiting Door County were sickened after manure from a large farm made its way into a home’s private water well.

In 2015, Kewaunee County Board member Chuck Wagner discovered that the new $10,000 well he was forced to install two years earlier was again contaminated with viruses and cow manure. Wagner and his wife now use a reverse osmosis system to filter the water before drinking or cooking while they contemplate whether to dig a second new well.

And this year, the Algoma School District is offering free water to residents whose wells are contaminated, although that source has been shut down a few times after vandals damaged the dispenser. In early March, a group of local residents asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide emergency water for Kewaunee County residents with contaminated drinking water.

“It’s astonishing, the number of people who can’t use their drinking water,” said Algoma School District Superintendent Nick Cochart, whose own well is polluted.

Between 2007 and 2010, an estimated 18 percent of 3,868 private wells in Wisconsin tested positive for coliform bacteria — an indicator of disease-causing bacteria, viruses or parasites — according to a 2013 study by researchers with the state Department of Health Services. That translates into as many as 169,200 of the 940,000 Wisconsin households served by private wells exposed to disease-causing pathogens.

The problem also plagues municipal water systems where coliform bacteria accounts for most of the violations of health standards recorded each year. The 2014 Department of Natural Resources drinking water report on the state’s public water systems found 3.7 percent, or 420 of the 11,420 systems, had detectable levels of coliform.

The report said those 420 systems serve about 92,290 people. Most of the violations, 351, were in small public water systems serving motels, restaurants, churches and campgrounds.

Contamination by pathogens is of special concern because unlike pollution by metals or chemicals, pathogens can sicken people after just a single exposure. The gastrointestinal illnesses that result can be life-threatening for people with weakened immune systems such as the sick, elderly and infants.

Pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites are the most frequent causes of illnesses in private water systems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whether it was manure spread irresponsibly on a frozen field, a septic system compromised by pollution-prone geology or untreated municipal drinking water, incidents of pathogens in drinking water in Wisconsin have revealed weaknesses in government oversight of this most basic and necessary resource, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found.

Committees formed as a result of contamination in Kewaunee County recently proposed steps to be taken by the DNR, state lawmakers and others to better protect Wisconsin’s drinking water from agricultural pollution.

These work groups, composed of farmers and residents and federal, state and local officials, were formed after Kewaunee County residents petitioned the EPA in 2014 for help with the county’s water problems.

The recommendations included $300,000 to provide “reparations,” including emergency safe water supplies, treatment systems and new wells for households whose drinking water has been contaminated by livestock manure. Other proposals included voluntary restrictions on spreading manure on sensitive lands, additional staff, heightened oversight and more timely response and enforcement to complaints by the DNR.

George Althoff, DNR spokesman, said the agency is “actively working on formulating short-term and long-term plans to address water quality issues in Kewaunee County.” He added that “this has been and is a priority for the agency.”

“I think we’re making progress,” agreed Russ Rasmussen, a DNR natural resource manager who is coordinating the Kewaunee County effort.

But some residents and others remain skeptical that the DNR will take meaningful action, and they criticize the agency for taking too long to address what some are calling a crisis.

In March, Midwest Environmental Advocates, the public interest law firm that petitioned the EPA on behalf of Kewaunee County residents, shot off another letter to the agency slamming the lack of progress, saying there still has been no “direct action to provide local residents with clean, reliable drinking water.”

The delayed response to the region’s drinking water problems also has attracted the attention of U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Baldwin in March sent a letter to the heads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA requesting “immediate attention to this urgent public health issue and your assistance in making safe drinking water options available as soon as possible.”

One-third of wells unsafe

Recent testing funded by the DNR and carried out by the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh showed the extent of the problem in Kewaunee County, with more than one-third of the 320 wells tested found unsafe to use. Those 110 wells had unsafe levels of coliform, E. coli or nitrate.

Any amount of coliform is considered unsafe. Of the wells found to be unsafe by the DNR testing, 27 percent had coliform; and five wells, or 2 percent, were contaminated by E. coli, which can come from human or animal waste. The second phase of the study will show the exact source of the pollutants.

Wagner discovered in the most recent round of testing that his new well — which he built in 2013 to replace an old contaminated well — is now tainted by four bovine viruses as well as nitrate.

Wagner, who served for 10 years on the state’s Land and Water Conservation Board, said he is convinced clean water and agriculture can exist side by side, but he and other residents are tired of what they say is inaction by the DNR.

“We’re getting mad,” Wagner said.

As for the Tremls, the family eventually was awarded an $80,000 settlement from the insurance company for Stahl Farms, which spread the manure that sent Samantha, now 12, to the hospital. Judy Treml said her family moved to Green Bay over concerns that the water in heavily farmed Kewaunee County is unsafe. The farm also paid a $50,000 fine to the state for violating its DNR permit.

Treml said she believes her family’s move away from Kewaunee County was the right decision.

“This past summer several families had wells that were contaminated because of malfunctions at a farm manure lagoon,” she said. “In Kewaunee County, the problems have gotten even more horrific. In 10 years, it hasn’t improved at all.”

Big farms, big waste

Kewaunee County is home to 20,574 people and 76,000 cows, according to county data. It has one of Wisconsin’s highest concentrations of large dairy farms, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs. Such farms, which have up to 8,000 head of cattle, can produce as much feces as a city, and most of it ends up on nearby farm fields.

Kewaunee County’s 16 CAFOs contribute the bulk of the more than 555 million gallons of liquid manure that are spread on the county’s fields each year, county figures show.

The likelihood that manure from such large farms will contain one or more pathogens is “very high,” according to the EPA, because of the sheer number of animals housed in such operations.

Manure is a veritable stew of more than 150 pathogens that can make people sick, according to a report from the National Association of Local Boards of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These pathogens include E. coli, Salmonella, Giardia and Cryptosporidium. All can cause severe diarrhea and can be deadly for those with weakened immune systems. Infants and young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people who are HIV-positive and those who have undergone chemotherapy — about 20 percent of the U.S. population — are most at risk.

Proposals aim to improve water

Legislation aimed at bolstering protections against manure pollution in areas with fractured bedrock, such as Kewaunee County, was introduced by Democratic lawmakers in January.

“We are dealing with a public health crisis,” said state Rep. Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay, who co-authored the bill with state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. “We have communities in northeast Wisconsin where half of the wells that are tested are contaminated and the water is undrinkable, where residents no longer have access to safe, clean drinking water. That is not acceptable.”

The bill did not advance in the Republican-controlled Legislature. State Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, called it a “political stunt.” He said it was not a serious effort because Hansen and Genrich did not consult him or other Republicans.

In the meantime, Kitchens has introduced a bill of his own that would raise the maximum household income from $60,000 to $90,000 under the Well Compensation Grant Program, which helps owners pay for replacement of wells contaminated by livestock feces. But he acknowledged the change is not a solution to the pollution problems.

Three counties — Brown, Manitowoc and Kewaunee — have acted on their own, passing ordinances that prohibit winter manure spreading or restrict spreading on land with porous bedrock. One of the Kewaunee County work groups formed after residents petitioned the EPA for help has proposed a number of restrictions on spreading manure, including a ban on spreading where bedrock is covered by less than 24 inches of soil.

Kewaunee County’s ordinance passed in the face of strong opposition from the Dairy Business Association, the Midwest Food Producers Association and other agriculture groups. They contend the county does not have the authority to pass such limits, which they say are unnecessary because the state DNR already regulates groundwater.

But a study of the new county regulations, published in 2015 in the journal Resources, concluded the rules have caused “statistically significant reductions” in well contamination compared to other counties with fractured bedrock that only offered voluntary education on best practices to farmers and manure spreaders. The study showed no improvement in those counties.

Tim Trotter, executive director of the DBA, the state’s most powerful dairy lobby, said dairy farmers are serious about ensuring clean and safe water. But owners of some large-scale farms insist more research is needed. They say any new state regulations also must take into account the impact on agriculture.

“I think with any new rules there should be a balance between safety and being practical,” said John Pagel, who owns a large dairy farm and serves on the Kewaunee County Board, chairing the Land and Water Conservation Committee. “We need to keep working together to make sure farming practices are done the right way and at the same time set goals that are achievable.”

Lee Luft, a Kewaunee County Board member who is part of the DNR work groups, said residents will be watching the agency’s actions closely.

“If these recommendations are not implemented,” he said, “my sense is that whatever remaining confidence the residents have in the DNR will evaporate.”

Dangerously high contamination

Many users of private wells may be ingesting pathogens unknowingly because, according to the state health department, only about 16 percent of owners statewide have them tested.

The Tremls tested their private water well after Samantha and other members of the family got sick. The astronomically high levels of contamination caused the county to advise the family to shut off the water and get the children out of the house.

The E. coli count in the Treml well was 2,800 parts per milliliter and the coliform count was 9,800. The EPA considers any amount of E. coli to be dangerous.

The Tremls later discovered the DNR had allowed a neighboring farmer to spread liquid manure on frozen land next to their home after the farmer ran out of storage space. Manure spread on frozen ground can run off into surface water and get into the drinking water supply.

Judy Treml had hoped their ordeal would spur the DNR to action. That did not happen.

“It does make me angry,” Treml said. “I thought they would use our case to learn how to avoid these issues altogether.”

Groups charge DNR regulation lax

The DNR’s seeming reluctance to address concerns about pollution from the big farms is not new, according to an April 2015 investigation by a group called the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, based in the state of Oregon. The group’s “Rap Sheets” report documented a lack of DNR enforcement on large-scale farms in Kewaunee County going back to the mid-1980s.

Using the DNR’s own records, the group uncovered dozens of instances in which large dairy farms violated anti-pollution laws. It found cases including overapplication of manure, failure to report spills, failure to maintain adequate storage, and spreading manure too close to homes and waterways — incidents in which DNR records do not show follow-up to ensure problems were corrected.

The agency disputed the report — saying it was enforcing the law to its fullest authority — but allegations of lax regulation continued to surface.

In October, Midwest Environmental Advocates filed another petition, this time on behalf of 16 residents from across Wisconsin, asking the EPA to rescind the state’s authority to enforce discharge permits under the Clean Water Act if changes are not forthcoming.

And in December, 45 former DNR employees, many with decades of experience, supported that petition in a letter to the EPA. Among the concerns they cited was lax enforcement against polluters, including CAFOs.

Cochart, Algoma’s school superintendent, said he is fed up with delays by DNR in getting help to county residents. “All they do is drag their feet,” he said.

“Somebody needs to provide clean water. The DNR certainly isn’t,” Cochart added. “To me, it’s a basic human right to have clean drinking water. But there are a lot of people here who are spending a lot of money to have clean water.”

Luft, the Kewaunee County Board member, said the high levels of lead in drinking water that plagued Flint, Michigan, are reminiscent of problems in his county.

“It brought home the fact to me that we have a very substantial number of people living without access to safe water,” Luft said. “They live a second-class lifestyle because of it.”

This report was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

About 12 years ago, Samantha Treml, right, then six months old, fell ill after being bathed in well water tainted by manure spread on a nearby frozen farm field. The Tremls moved from their Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, home after that incident, saying they no longer trusted the quality of their water. Recent tests in Kewaunee County funded by the state Department of Natural Resources found 34 percent of wells had unsafe levels of coliform, E. coli or nitrate. — PHOTO: Tad Dukehart / For the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
About 12 years ago, Samantha Treml, right, then six months old, fell ill after being bathed in well water tainted by manure spread on a nearby frozen farm field. The Tremls moved from their Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, home after that incident, saying they no longer trusted the quality of their water. Recent tests in Kewaunee County funded by the state Department of Natural Resources found 34 percent of wells had unsafe levels of coliform, E. coli or nitrate. — PHOTO: Tad Dukehart / For the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Study: Climate change poses health risks

The United States Global Change Research Program this week released an assessment of a growing public health threat — climate change.

The report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment, strengthens the understanding of the risks that a changing climate poses to human health and welfare.

The report also highlights factors that make some people and places particularly vulnerable.

“This assessment not only provides the latest science on questions like how climate change affects our health and who is most vulnerable —  it starts to answer the key questions of how much of an impact climate change will have on different health problems and how many people will be affected,” stated Dr. John Balbus, a senior adviser for public health at the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences.

Some examples of the increased health risks found in the assessment, as provided by the White House on April 4:

  • Air pollution and airborne allergens will likely increase, worsening allergy and asthma conditions. Future ozone-related human health impacts attributable to climate change are projected to lead to hundreds to thousands of premature deaths, hospital admissions, and cases of acute respiratory illnesses each year in the United States by 2030, including increases in asthma episodes and other adverse respiratory effects in children. Ragweed pollen season is longer now in central North America, having increased by as much as 11 to 27 days between 1995 and 2011, which impacts some of the nearly 6.8 million children in the United States affected by asthma and susceptible to allergens due to their immature respiratory and immune systems.
  • Extreme heat can be expected to cause an increase in the number of premature deaths, from thousands to tens of thousands, each summer, which will outpace projected decreases in deaths from extreme cold. One model projected an increase, from a 1990 baseline for more than 200 American cities, of more than an additional 11,000 deaths during the summer in 2030 and more than an additional 27,000 deaths during the summer in 2100.
  • Warmer winter and spring temperatures are projected to lead to earlier annual onset of Lyme disease cases in the eastern United States and a generally northward expansion of ticks capable of carrying the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. Between 2001 and 2014, both the distribution and the number of reported cases of Lyme disease increased in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
  • Increase the risks of water-related illnesses. Runoff from more frequent and intense extreme precipitation events, and increased water temperatures, will increasingly compromise recreational waters, shellfish harvesting waters, and sources of drinking water, increasing risks of waterborne illness.
  • Climate change, including rising temperatures and changes in weather extremes, is expected to increase the exposure of food to certain pathogens and toxins. Rising temperature and increases in flooding, runoff events, and drought will likely lead to increases in the occurrence and transport of pathogens in agricultural environments, which will increase the risk of food contamination and human exposure to pathogens and toxins. This will increase health risks and require greater vigilance in food safety practices and regulation.
  • Climate change will have the largest health impact on vulnerable populations including those with low incomes, some communities of color, limited English proficiency and immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples, children, pregnant women, older adults, vulnerable occupational groups, persons with disabilities, and persons with preexisting or chronic medical conditions.
  • Extreme weather and other events related to climate change will impact health by exacerbating underlying medical conditions, increasing exposure to foodborne and waterborne illness risks, and disrupting infrastructure, including power, water, transportation, and communication systems, that are essential to maintaining access to health care and emergency response services and safeguarding human health.

The climate and health assessment is a product of USGCRP’s National Climate Assessment process and represents a coordinated effort by eight federal agencies — led by the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — and more than 100 experts from across the United States.

The report is accompanied by an interactive web presence powered by the Global Change Information System.

Coinciding with the release of the report, the Obama administration on April 4 announced a series of actions:

  • Expanding the scope of the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children to focus on the impacts of climate change on children’s health.
  • Developing K-12 educational materials on climate change and health.
  • A Climate-Ready Tribes and Territories Initiative, which will provide awards for tribal and territorial health departments to investigate, prepare for, and adapt to the health effects of climate change.
  • An update to the Sustainable and Climate Resilient Health Care Facilities Toolkitissued by the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Designating May 23-27 as Extreme Heat Week, during which federal agencies will take a number of actions to work with community planners and public-health officials to enhance community preparedness for extreme heat events.

 

 

Key findings from the report

From The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment:

Changes in Extreme Heat and Extreme Cold.  A warmer future is projected to lead to “on the order of thousands to tens of thousands of additional premature deaths per year across the United States by the end of this century” from heat.  Any reduction in cold-related deaths is projected to be smaller than the increase in heat-related deaths in most regions. High temperatures can also lead to a wide range of illnesses. Examples of illnesses associated with extreme heat include cardiovascular, respiratory, and renal illnesses; diabetes; hyperthermia; mental health issues; and preterm births.  Even small differences from seasonal average temperatures result in illness and death.  An increased risk for respiratory and cardiovascular death is observed in older adults during temperature extremes.

Impacts on Air Quality. Changes in the climate affect the levels and location of outdoor air pollutants such as ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter.  These changes in ozone are projected to lead to hundreds to thousands of premature deaths, hospital admissions, and cases of acute respiratory illnesses per year in the United States in 2030.  In addition, the area burned by wildfires in North America is expected to increase dramatically over the 21st century due to climate change.  Air pollution from wildfires can affect people far downwind from the fire location, increasing the risk of premature death and hospital and emergency department visits.  Higher temperatures and increasing carbon dioxide levels also promote the growth of plants that release airborne allergens.

More Frequent and Intense Extreme Events.  Climate change will expose more people to increases in the frequency and/or intensity of drought, wildfires, and flooding related to extreme precipitation and hurricanes.  Many types of extreme events related to climate change cause disruption of critical infrastructure, including power, water, transportation, and communication systems, that are essential to maintaining access to health care and emergency response services and safeguarding human health.  Health risks may also arise long after the event, or in places outside the area where the event took place, particularly if multiple events occur simultaneously or in succession in a given location – this could be the result of damage to property, destruction of assets, loss of infrastructure and public services, social and economic disruption, and environmental degradation. Poverty also is a key risk factor, and the poor are disproportionately affected by extreme events.

Altered Timing and Location of Vector-Borne Disease. Climate change is expected to alter the geographic and seasonal distributions of existing vectors and vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus infections, and other diseases spread by vectors like mosquitoes. Rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and a higher frequency of some extreme weather events associated with climate change will influence the distribution, abundance, and prevalence of infection in the mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus, the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in the United States.  Outdoor workers are at a greater risk for contracting Lyme disease and, if working in areas where there are infected mosquitoes, occupational exposures can also occur for West Nile virus.

Increased Risks of Water-Related Illnesses.  Runoff from more frequent and intense extreme precipitation events will increasingly compromise recreational waters, shellfish harvesting waters, and sources of drinking water, increasing the risk that infrastructure for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater will fail due to either damage or exceeding system capacity. Although the United States has one of the safest municipal drinking water supplies in the world, water-related outbreaks still occur—between 1948 and 1994, 68 percent of waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States were preceded by extreme precipitation events. Inequities in exposure to contaminated water disproportionately affects tribes and Alaska Natives, residents of low-income rural subdivisions along the U.S.–Mexico border, migrant farm workers, the homeless, and low-income communities not served by public water utilities—some of which are predominately Hispanic or Latino and African-American communities.

Increased Threats to Food Safety and Nutrition.  As climate change drives changes in environmental variables, such as ambient temperature, precipitation, and weather extremes (particularly flooding and drought), increases in foodborne illnesses are expected. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses per year, with approximately 3,000 deaths.  Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can actually lower the nutritional value of most food crops. Climate-change impacts on food production, food processing and utilization, food prices, and agricultural trade were recently addressed in a separate assessment report on Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System.

Adverse Impacts on Mental Health.  The cumulative and interactive effects of climate change, as well as the threat and perception of climate change, adversely impact individual and societal physical and mental health and well-being.  Mental health consequences of climate change range from minimal stress and distress symptoms to clinical disorders, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.  The mental health impacts of extreme events, such as hurricanes, floods, and drought, can be expected to increase as more people experience the stress—and often trauma—of these disasters.  People with mental illness and those using medications to treat a variety of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events and extreme heat.

Disproportionate Effects on Vulnerable Populations.  Every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change.  People at every life stage have varying sensitivity to climate change impacts.  The most vulnerable populations include individuals with low income, some communities of color, individuals with limited English proficiency and immigrant groups, Indigenous peoples, children, pregnant women, older adults, vulnerable occupational groups, persons with disabilities, and persons with preexisting or chronic medical conditions.

  • Communities of Color, Low Income, Immigrants and Limited-English-Proficiency Groups. Vulnerable populations are at increased risk of exposure given their higher likelihood of living in risk-prone areas (such as urban heat islands, isolated rural areas, or coastal and other flood-prone areas), areas with older or poorly maintained infrastructure, or areas with an increased burden of air pollution. Communities of color, low income, immigrant and limited-English-proficiency groups also experience relatively greater incidence of chronic medical conditions, such as cardiovascular and kidney disease, diabetes, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can be exacerbated by climate-related health impacts.
  • Indigenous Peoples in the United States.  Because of existing vulnerabilities, Indigenous people, especially those who are dependent on the environment for sustenance or who live in geographically isolated or impoverished communities, are likely to experience greater exposure and lower resilience to climate-related health effects.
  • Pregnant Women. Climate-related exposures may lead to adverse pregnancy and newborn health outcomes, including low birth weight, preterm birth, dehydration and associated renal failure, diarrhea, and respiratory disease.  Estimates indicated that there were more than 56,000 pregnant women and nearly 75,000 infants directly affected by Hurricane Katrina and that pregnant women with high hurricane exposure and severe hurricane experiences were at a significantly increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
  • Children. Climate change—interacting with factors such as economic status, diet, living situation, and stage of development—will increase children’s exposure to health threats. Children are vulnerable to adverse health effects associated with environmental exposures due to factors related to their immature physiology and metabolism, their unique exposure pathways, their biological sensitivities, and limits to their adaptive capacity.  Children have a proportionately higher intake of air, food, and water relative to their body weight compared to adults. They also share unique behaviors and interactions with their environment that may increase their exposure to environmental contaminants.
  • Older Adults.  The nation’s older adult population (ages 65 and older) will nearly double in size from 2015 through 2050.  Between 1979 and 2004, deaths from heat exposure were reported most commonly among adults aged 65 and older.  The need to evacuate an area during or after extreme events can pose increased health and safety risks for older adults, especially those who are poor or reside in nursing or assisted-living facilities.  Air pollution can also exacerbate asthma and COPD and can increase the risk of heart attack in older adults, especially those who are also diabetic or obese.
  • Occupational Groups.  Outdoor workers are often among the first to be exposed to the effects of climate change. Climate change is expected to affect the health of outdoor workers through increases in ambient temperature, degraded air quality, extreme weather, vector-borne diseases, industrial exposures, and changes in the built environment.  An increased need for complex emergency responses will expose rescue and recovery workers to physical and psychological hazards.  The incidence of heat illness among active duty U.S. military personnel is several-fold higher than the summertime incidence in the general U.S. population (147 per 100,000 among the military versus 21.5 per 100,000 in the general population per year).
  • Persons with Disabilities.  An increase in extreme weather can be expected to disproportionately affect populations with disabilities, who experience higher rates of social risk factors—such as poverty and lower educational attainment—that contribute to poorer health outcomes during extreme events or climate-related emergencies.  Persons with disabilities often rely on medical equipment (such as portable oxygen) that requires an uninterrupted source of electricity.
  • Persons with Chronic Medical Conditions.  Preexisting medical conditions present risk factors for increased illness and death associated with climate-related stressors, especially exposure to extreme heat.  Hospital admissions and emergency room visits increase during heat waves for people with diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and psychiatric illnesses. Medical conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or mental illnesses can impair judgment and behavioral responses in crisis situations, which can place people with those conditions at greater risk.

U.S. court backs Native American families in ACLU suit

A federal court has dealt another blow to defendants in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over the rights of Native American families in South Dakota.

Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken denied government officials’ motions for reconsideration of his order to them last March to stop violating the rights of Native American parents and tribes in state child custody proceedings.

“Once again the court has ruled that Native American children, their parents, and their tribes are entitled to fair procedures whenever the state seeks to remove children from their homes, as required by federal law,” Stephen Pevar, an attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, said in a news release.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and Rapid City attorney Dana Hanna on behalf of two South Dakota tribes — the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe — and Native American parents who suffered the loss of their children at the hands of the state.

The lawsuit in part charges that Native American children are being removed from their homes in hearings that lasted as little as 60 seconds, and that parents have no chance to present evidence. Last March, the court agreed with seven of the ACLU’s claims, and ordered the state to:

• Provide parents with adequate notice prior to emergency removal hearings.

• Allow parents to testify at those hearings and present evidence.

• Appoint attorneys to assist parents in these removal  proceedings.

• Allow parents to cross-examine the state’s witnesses in the hearings.

• Require state courts to base their decisions on evidence presented during these hearings.

The court also found that the state violated the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law designed to ensure the security and integrity of Native American tribes and families. Late Friday, Viken issued a ruling rejecting defendants’ motions to reconsider; one final outstanding claim concerns whether the state Department of Social Services is returning Native American children in foster care to their homes as quickly as federal law requires.

The defendants are state Judge Jeff Davis, Pennington County prosecutor Mark Vargo, state director of the Department of Social Services Lynne Valenti and Pennington County DSS employee Luann Van Hunnik.

The lawsuit, Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik, was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota in Rapid City.

New USDA rules could improve choices for consumers with food stamps

The Agriculture Department unveiled new rules on on Feb. 16 that would require retailers who accept food stamps to stock a wider variety of healthy foods or face the loss of business as consumers shop elsewhere.

The proposed rules are designed to ensure that the more than 46 million Americans who use food stamps have better access to healthy foods although they don’t dictate what people buy or eat. A person using food stamp dollars could still purchase as much junk food as they wanted, but they would at least have more options in the store to buy fruits, vegetables, dairy, meats and bread.

“USDA is committed to expanding access for SNAP participants to the types of foods that are important to a healthy diet,” Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said in a statement. “This proposed rule ensures that retailers who accept SNAP benefits offer a variety of products to support healthy choices for those participating in the program.”

In 2014, Congress required the Agriculture Department to develop regulations to make sure that stores that accept food stamp dollars, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, stock a wider array of healthy food choices.

Under current rules, SNAP retailers must stock at least three varieties of foods in each of four food groups: fruits and vegetables, dairy, breads and cereals, and meats, poultry and fish. The new rules would require the retailers to stock seven varieties in each food group, and at least three of the food groups would have to include perishable items. In all, the rules would require stores to stock at least 168 items that USDA considers healthy.

The proposal would also require that retailers have enough in stock of each item so that the foods would be continuously available.

The rules could mean that fewer convenience stores qualify to be SNAP retailers. The convenience store industry has argued that it often operates the only stores that serve certain neighborhoods and at certain times, like overnight. Concannon said the department would try to ensure that the rules don’t affect SNAP recipients’ access to food retailers, and the department may consider waiving the proposed requirements in some areas.

The rules come as a key House Republican is pushing for drug tests for food stamp recipients and new cuts to the program.

Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt, the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees USDA spending, introduced a bill earlier in February that would allow states to require drug testing. The move is designed to help states like Wisconsin, where conservative Republican Gov. Scott Walker has sued the federal government, to permit screening.

USDA has pushed back on such efforts, as it did when Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to cut 5 percent from the program during negotiations over the 2014 farm bill. The push comes as SNAP use has skyrocketed — the program served more than 46 million Americans and cost $74 billion last year. That’s twice the program’s 2008 cost.

“While I have not seen Rep. Aderholt’s proposed legislation, I have serious concerns about an approach that could deprive a family of access to food and basic necessities simply because a member of the family is struggling with addiction,” Vilsack said after Aderholt introduced the bill.

1 million could lose food stamps in 21 states, including Wisconsin

More than 1 million low-income residents in 21 states could soon lose their government food stamps if they fail to meet work requirements that began kicking in this month.

The rule change in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was triggered by the improving economy – specifically, falling unemployment. But it is raising concerns among the poor, social service providers and food pantry workers, who fear an influx of hungry people.

Recent experience in other states indicates that most of those affected will probably not meet the work requirements and will be cut off from food stamps.

For many people, “it means less food, less adequate nutrition. And over the span of time, that can certainly have an impact on health – and the health care system,” said Dave Krepcho, president and chief executive of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.

Advocates say some adults trying to find work face a host of obstacles, including criminal records, disabilities or lack of a driver’s license.

The work-for-food requirements were first enacted under the 1996 welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton and sponsored by then-Rep. John Kasich, who is now Ohio’s governor and a Republican candidate for president.

The provision applies to able-bodied adults ages 18 through 49 who have no children or other dependents in their home. It requires them to work, volunteer or attend education or job-training courses at least 80 hours a month to receive food aid. If they don’t, their benefits are cut off after three months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture can waive those work rules, either for entire states or certain counties and communities, when unemployment is high and jobs are scarce. Nearly every state was granted a waiver during the recession that began in 2008. But statewide waivers ended this month in at least 21 states, the largest group since the recession.

An Associated Press analysis of food aid figures shows that nearly 1.1 million adults stand to lose their benefits in those 21 states if they do not get a job or an exemption. That includes about 300,000 in Florida, 150,000 in Tennessee and 110,000 in North Carolina. The three states account for such a big share because they did not seek any further waivers for local communities.

In Tennessee, Terry Work said her 27-year-old deaf son recently was denied disability payments, meaning he is considered able-bodied. And that means he stands to lose his food stamps, even though she said her son has trouble keeping a job because of his deafness.

“I know there’s going to be a lot of people in the county hurt by this,” said Work, founder of Helping Hands of Hickman County, a social service agency in a community about an hour west of Nashville.

Nationwide, some 4.7 million food stamp recipients are deemed able-bodied adults without dependents, according to USDA. Only 1 in 4 has any income from a job. They receive an average of $164 a month from the program.

In states that already have implemented the work requirements, many recipients have ended up losing their benefits.

Wisconsin began phasing in work requirements last spring. Of the 22,500 able-bodied adults who became subject to the change between April and June, two-thirds were dropped from the rolls three months later for failing to meet the requirements.

Some states could have applied for partial waivers but chose not to do so.

North Carolina’s Republican-led government enacted a law last fall accelerating implementation of the work requirements and barring the state from seeking waivers unless there is a natural disaster. State Sen. Ralph Hise said the state was doing a disservice to the unemployed by providing them long-term food aid.

“People are developing gaps on their resumes, and it’s actually making it harder for individuals to ultimately find employment,” said Hise, a Republican who represents a rural part of western North Carolina.

In Missouri, the GOP-led Legislature overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to enact a law barring the state from waiving work requirements until at least 2019. The three-month clock started ticking Jan. 1 for 60,000 people in Missouri, where unemployment is down to just 4.4 percent.

“We were seeing a lot of people who were receiving food stamps who weren’t even trying to get a job,” said the law’s sponsor, Sen. David Sater, a Republican whose Missouri district includes the tourist destination of Branson. “I know in my area you can find a temporary job for 20 hours (a week) fairly easily. It just didn’t seem right to me to have somebody doing nothing and receiving food stamps.”

Others say it’s not that simple to find work, even with an improving economy.

Joe Heflin, 33, of Jefferson City, said he has been receiving food stamps for more than five years, since an injury ended his steady job as an iron worker and led to mental illness during his recovery. He said he gets nearly $200 a month in food stamps and has no other income. Heflin was recently notified that his food stamps could end if he doesn’t get a job or a disability exemption.

“I think it’s a crummy deal,” Heflin said while waiting in line at a food pantry. “I think they ought to look into individuals more, or at least hear them out. … I depend on it, you know, to eat.”

Policymakers often “don’t realize a lot of the struggles those individuals are dealing with,” said Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Some are dealing with trauma from military service or exposure to violence and abuse, Chilton said. Others have recently gotten out of prison, making employers hesitant to hire them. Some adults who are considered able-bodied nonetheless have physical or mental problems.

A study of 4,145 food stamp recipients in Franklin County, Ohio, who became subject to work requirements between December 2013 and February 2015 found that more than 30 percent said they had physical or mental limitations that affected their ability to work. A similar percentage had no high school diploma or equivalency degree. And 61 percent lacked a driver’s license.

“There should have been more thought on how we look at employment and not thinking that people are sitting there, getting food stamps because they are lazy and don’t want to work,” said Octavia Rainey, a community activist in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Some states have programs to help food stamp recipients improve their job skills. Elsewhere, it’s up to individuals to find programs run by nonprofit groups or by other state agencies. Sometimes, that can be daunting.

Rainey said people who received letters informing them they could lose their food stamps sometimes were placed on hold when they called for more information – a problem for those using prepaid calling cards. And in Florida, food aid recipients received letters directing them to a state website for information.

“A lot of these folks, they don’t have computers, they don’t have broadband access,” said Krepcho, the Central Florida food bank executive. “That’s ripe for people falling off the rolls.”