Friday, December 07, 2007

Southwest Va. county starts cleaning out sinkholes

For eons, human beings have treated sinkholes as natural trash bins, where something no longer needed or wanted could be put out of sight, out of mind. But not out of nature's way. Sinkholes are created by water eroding away limestone, so they're open doors into underground drainage systems, which resurface as springs or well water. The workings of such karst areas were not widely understood until modern times, and some people still don't appreciate it.

In rural Virginia, about half the residents still get their water from springs or wells, according to Bill Keith, a district conservationist with the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. He showed up in The Coalfield Progress this week, in a story about Wise County litter control officer Greg Cross (operating the backhoe in photo by Richard Jessee) starting a tough job that few local governments are willing to tackle: cleaning out sinkholes.

"Wise County workers, along with helpers from Buchanan, Dickenson and Russell counties’ litter control departments and inmates from the regional jail in Duffield, pulled several truckloads of twisted, rusting metal out of the sinkhole and away from the valley’s water table," Jodi Deal reports. "Removed from the sinkhole were three vehicles, including an old Volkswagen Beetle and a 1958 Chevy. Workers also found countless eroding gas tanks, mattresses, box springs, water heaters and other large items. Putting those kids of items — particularly the cars and gas tanks — in a sinkhole is very dangerous behavior, Bill Keith explained." (Read more; subscription required)

Post finds trouble in USDA Rural Development loans

A U.S. Department of Agriculture loan program to create jobs in rural areas "has endured nearly $1.5 billion in losses while backing almost $14 billion in guarantees to private banks," reports Gilbert Gaul of The Washington Post. "Actual losses are almost surely higher," but the Post couldn't total them because USDA "refuses to disclose losses on loans to individual companies, even after they go out of business."

This is the latest Post report on the foibles of USDA's Rural Development programs. Gaul delivers a devastating summary: "More than three decades after the loan program was created, USDA officials still don't know whether it works. Funds have gone to firms that have hired foreign workers instead of Americans. Millions more have gone to failing and bankrupt businesses. Most of the jobs are not new. Many are low-tech and low-wage."

There's a lot more, and it's not a pretty picture. "In some cases, creating a single job costs hundreds of thousands of dollars," Gaul writes. "Three-fourths of the jobs that the USDA attributes to its guaranteed-loan program are 'saved,' not new, a Post analysis found. ... Thomas C. Dorr, USDA undersecretary for rural development, did not dispute The Post's findings." He told the paper, "We are making a legitimate effort to deal with all of these issues." (Read more)

Farm Bill deal doesn't mean passage will come soon

Senate leaders agreed Thursday night on how to handle the Farm Bill, "but that won't necessarily translate into a quick Senate vote on the measure," report Peter Shinn and Tom Steever of Brownfield Network. "A new farm law could still be months away."

The deal calls for 20 amendments from each party, many more than had been suggested. "As the Senate begins taking up individual amendments, regional, rather than partisan interests, are expected to drive the debate," Brownfield reports. "For example, one of the amendments Senators will debate would impose a $250,000 hard cap on farm program payments. The amendment is co-sponsored by Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley and North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, both long-time champions of tighter payment limits, and both from states were such limits are popular. But payment limits are not popular in the South, where cotton and rice growers, who tend to be larger than Midwest corn, soybean and wheat farmers, argue their capital intensive crop production practices necessitate a generous safety net."

American Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher told Brownfield that she expects the Senate to pass the bill before Christmas, but "I still think you're betting more on March, maybe April," before it can get through a House-Senate conference committee and avoid a veto from President Bush, whose administration has called the bill too expensive.

Maine paper, then AP, report on suicide of Iraq vet

Local news media can tell many stories others cannot. Since the war in Iraq, they have taken on one of the toughest: the suicides of American soldiers while they are overseas or after they return home. Editor & Publisher has highlighted the newspapers that have addressed the issue, and the Sun Journal, a 34,000-circulation daily in Lewiston, Me., is the latest to do so.

Daniel Hartill, a reporter from the Sun Journal, wrote an in-depth article about one local veteran's story who took his own life on Thanksgiving. The article has been picked up by The Associated Press, which reported in October that at least 147 soldiers had committed suicide while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that at least 283 combat veterans who left the military between the start of the war and the end of 2005 had taken their own lives. To read the AP story based on Hartill's reporting, go here.

Companies putting computer work into small towns

A few weeks ago, we wrote about some American companies that are using home-based customer service agents instead of sending those jobs overseas. Northrop Grumman Corp., a global defense and technology corporation, is taking that step further by opening information-technology centers in seven small towns, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The L.A.-based company picked Corsicana, Tex., and six other small cities, including Lebanon, Va., and Helena, Mont., reports the Times' Peter Pae. The employees at these centers will "develop software and troubleshoot technical problems for clients hundreds or thousands of miles away," he writes. "It costs Northrop about 40 percent less to have the work done in Corsicana than in Los Angeles – savings similar to what would be achieved by sending jobs overseas."

Pae also points to moves by Accenture and Dell Computer as other examples of companies picking up on this trend. The big winners are the small towns because these white-collar jobs can diversify the local economy and have inspired some growth, such as in Corsicana. (Read more)

Thursday, December 06, 2007

In a rural Iowa town with few immigrants, immigration's a big issue; statewide, too

"Strangers are rare" in Iowa Falls, population 5,000, 97 percent of it white, reports Louise Roug of the Los Angeles Times. But to many in the town, and the state as a whole, "Illegal immigration is the top issue in the presidential primary race. To them, it's about fairness and jobs."

Among Iowans who told a Des Moines Register pollster that they were likely to attend one of the nation's first presidential caucuses on Jan. 3, 81 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats consider immigration a key issue," Roug reports. "The issue also has come to dominate the national campaign discussion" in the past week or so.

"Many of the candidates have linked immigration to domestic security," Roug writes. "But in Iowa Falls, where most of the jobs are in construction and residents are older and poorer than the state average, the issue is located squarely in the pocketbook." (Read more)

Study boosts Pa. plan to give all high-schoolers a laptop, but rural schools question long-term cost

A program to give a laptop computer to every high-school student in Pennsylvania "is making students more engaged in class but favors richer schools," educators and advocates for rural and small schools told state legislators this week, reports Christina Gostomski of the Harrisburg Bureau of The Morning Call in Allentown.

"Officials from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools said the program, which does not have a dedicated source of funding, threatens to saddle school districts with large laptop maintenance bills and favors richer school districts that can afford those costs," Gostomski writes.

Gov. Ed Rendell wants every high school to have the program by 2009, "but the program has been contentious and might face a fight for survival in the annual budget battle," The Morning Call reports. The program cost $20 million last school year and $90 million this year. It currently serves 356,000 students.

A study by researchers at Penn State "reported that teachers spent less time on lectures and more time working with students in small groups," Gostomski writes. "The study was based on classroom observations and student and teacher interviews. It did not address any changes in student achievement, but a second study is expected to look at student learning." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Deal preserves federal payments to rural schools, local governments in national-forest areas

Rural counties that have relied on national-forest logging to fund schools and other public services would get "a ramped-down, four-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act [in] the final version of the energy bill," which President Bush may veto, reports Jeff Kosseff of The Oregonian.

Congress passed the 2000 act "to provide safety-net funding to make up for declining timber revenues that the federal government had long shared with rural counties. Oregon has received more than half of the money in the past," Kosseff writes. "The compromise bill would gradually reduce the program's total funding by about 15 percent a year from the 2008 to 2011 fiscal years. It also would spend about $350 million to fully fund another federal payments program, known as Payments in Lieu of Taxes, which is important to states such as Nevada, home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Montana, home to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Lawmakers struck by trip to mountaintop-removal coal mines in Ky.; one says state limits are coming

Efforts to limit the mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal in Eastern Kentucky got a boost yesterday as members of the state House budget committee toured mine sites and talked to opponents of the controversial practice, who "think people in Frankfort don’t care. That may have changed Monday," writes Ronnie Ellis, state-capital reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings.

The committee chairman, Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, told Ellis that committee members were struck by what they saw and heard. “It was very moving,” Moberly said. “It’s one thing to hear it in testimony but it’s another to see it up close and the people who are directly affected by it.” (Photo by Charles Bertram, Lexington Herald-Leader)

Moberly represents a Bluegrass district that drinks from the Kentucky River, which flows from the eastern mountains and has long had much sediment from coal mining. So does Rep. Don Pasley, D-Winchester, who has twice sponsored a bill to ban the disposal of mined material in streams and watercourses, a practice necessary in almost all mountaintop-removal mining. The bill has failed to get out of a House committee dominated by coalfield legislators, but "Moberly said what lawmakers saw Monday will inspire them to pass Pasley’s bill," Ellis reports. (Read more) For more detail, on both sides of the issue, click here for a report from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Moberly told Cassondra Kirby of the Herald-Leader's Eastern Kentucky Bureau, "I don't feel we can stop mining coal. But I think we should do everything we can to make sure the mining of coal doesn't affect the quality of life in those areas." Rep. Charlie Siler, R-Williamsburg, a coalfield lawmaker, told Kirby, "I think a compromise has to be sought in order for Kentucky to move forward in the area of energy. We need to preserve those mountains that don't need to be bothered. But we have to contend with the fact that some mountains are going to have to come down."

The tour was conducted by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a social-justice group that opposes mountaintop removal and asked the panel to visit the region during a debate on a coal-to-synthetic-fuels bill last summer. Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor told Kirby that the committee should see both sides of the issue. "He said he would have liked to take legislators to the top of a reclaimed site to show them the view," Kirby reports. "He said legislators also should see the Hazard hospital, as well as several subdivisions in Perry County -- all of which have been built on flat land created by mountaintop mining." (Read more)

Senate leaders say Farm Bill vote could come soon

There's still a chance the Farm Bill might reach the Senate floor this year, reports Dow Jones Newswires. Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said a compromise could bring the bill to a vote in the three weeks left before the Senate goes on vacation again, Bill Tomson reports.

"I think we're at the point where we should be able to do a farm bill by unanimous consent," Reid told Tomson. Even if a vote is taken, the bill would still need to go through a Senate-House conference committee before it could reach the White House. (Read more)

Reid, did not say when the vote could take place, notes Charles Abbott of Reuters. Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said negotiations on the amendment process were still ongoing. "There are a lot of people that would like to pass the farm bill, on both sides," Sen. McConnell said at a briefing. "That usually produces the kind of environment in which things are possible." (Read more)

Deal could reopen Russia's markets to U.S. beef

Four years ago, the appearance of a case of mad cow disease in the United States prompted Russia to ban U.S. beef. In the time since then, Russians now have a taste for more expensive cuts of meat, and a new deal could reopen that market to U.S. beef, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Sparked by rising oil revenue, Russia's economy now allows for the purchase of more than one million metric tons of beef in 2007, a sharp jump from the 640,000 tons bought in 2001, reports Bill Tomson. Restrictions have made trade with Russia difficult, but the new deal could change that. Without U.S. imports, Russia has not been able to meet demand.

"The new agreement that U.S. and Russian negotiators have been working on for months is said to be compliant with international guidelines laid out by the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE," Tomson writes. "In May, the OIE granted the U.S. a favorable "controlled risk" rating for the way it protects cattle and the human food supply from BSE, a disease that can be transmitted to humans through consumption of tainted meat." (Read more; subscription site)

Oregon paper doing big series on invasive species

For an excellent example of environmental reporting, check out the work being done by The Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore. In September, the state-capital newspaper began a 10-month series investigating the impact of invasive species on the state.

This month's focus is on aquatic plants (at left in Statesman Journal photo by Diane Stevenson) that take over lakes and streams after being discarded from aquariums. Henry Miller reports on the spread of the plants and the state's fight against them.

In the first two installments of the series, the 50,000-circulation newspaper offered an overview of this "biological pollution" and then coverage of invasive mammals. The series has a great presence online, and its site includes searchable databases, photo and video galleries, as well as educational materials.

Monday, December 03, 2007

West Virginia, Kentucky dentists urge states to require dental examinations for school children

Studies have linked oral hygiene to overall health, yet in many places there are gaps in dental care. In West Virginia, a task force of dentists says the state must take action to address an "oral health care crisis," reports The Charleston Gazette. Similar calls are coming from Kentucky, which competes with West Virginia for the dubious distinction of the state with the poorest oral health.

The West Virginia Dental Association says up to 40 percent of the state's children never see a dentist, the Gazette reports. “We see rampant decay,” Dr. Carol Buffington, a member of the task force, told reporter Eric Eyre. “We are in an oral health-care crisis in the state of West Virginia.”

The group recommends that the state legislature require kindergarten students, second-graders and sixth-graders to show proof that dentists have examined them. The group also wants Medicaid expanded to cover low-income adults beyond emergency dental procedures and to increase reimbursements to dentists. To pay for this, the group recommends increasing the state soft-drink tax. (Read more) The Kentucky Dental Association, which has long tried to get a sponsor for legislation requiring a dental exam for enrollment in kindergarten, has secured one.

In a case of squatters' rights, Colorado couple wins in court but not in local opinion

Adverse possession is part of the fine print -- in the law, not a deed -- that comes with property ownership. In short, it means that if you don't use it, you might lose it. In October, a retired judge and his wife in Boulder, Colo., invoked the rule, sometimes known as squatters' rights, to claim part of a neighboring vacant lot — property owned by their neighbors, reports the Los Angeles Times. A judge awarded Richard McLean and Edith Stevens the land since they had used it — unknown to the land's owners, Don and Susie Kirlin — for the last 20 years, reports DeeDee Correll.

"The doctrine of adverse possession, which says a person can gain possession of property after using it without challenge by the owner for a certain length of time, isn't a new or obscure legal doctrine," Correll writes."Still, its application in this case has the residents of this university town fuming." Don Kirlin said the seized property is worth about $1 million, and that he thought it was joke when he heard about the case. Many in the community took the Kirlins' side. There was a protest outside the property that drew 200 people, and state legislators are considering changes to the law, Correll reports.

Rules about adverse possession vary from state to state and can require five to 30 years of uninterrupted used to be invoked. California requires five years of use and the payment of property taxes at the same time. Kentucky requires 15 years of unchallenged use. (Read more)

Shakeouts seem to be starting in biofuels industries

"Mergers and a bankruptcy last week in the ethanol business reveal an industry that is consolidating," write Bill Bishop and Richard Oswald in the Daily Yonder. "Will there be room for rural communities and local investors to profit from biofuels?" That question may take a while to answer, but it seems likely that the ethanol and biodiesel industries are starting shakeouts in which big producers will swallow up smaller ones, which often have local investors.

"The big news in rural business over the past week, to us at least, was the rapid-fire consolidation in the alternative-fuels business," Bishop and Oswald write. "VeraSun Energy Corp. made a deal late last week to purchase the smaller U.S. BioEnergy Corp. in an all-stock deal that could make the combined companies the largest producer of ethanol in the United States by the end of next year. Archer Daniels Midland Co. produces the most ethanol now and expects to gin out 1.34 billion gallons by the end of next year. The larger VeraSun, however, would be producing over 1.6 billion gallons by the time 2008 finishes. ... The deal is widely seen as the most prominent example of consolidation in what had been a rapidly expanding industry. But recently there has been a glut in ethanol production and per-gallon profits have dropped dramatically."

The Yonder notes that construction has stopped on a locally owned ethanol plant being built in Rock Port, Mo. That could be "a signal of how hard it may be for rural communities and small investors to participate in the prosperity generated by renewable fuels produced from farm raised feed stocks," Bishop and Oswald write.

A shakeout also seems likely in the biodiesel industry, which "is struggling to cope with soaring soybean-oil prices, a glut of production capacity and a poorly developed distribution system," reports Nancy Cole in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. "The entire biodiesel industry is confronting difficulties, said Jenna Higgins, communications director for the National Biodiesel Board, the industry trade association based in Columbia, Mo." In a long story, Cole reports biodiesel companies shelving construction plans and going into bankruptcy. (Read more)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

As coal mining increased, safety agency cut staff

Between 2002 and 2006, the number of coal-mining operations nationwide increased by 9 percent. At the same time, the number of federal inspectors was cut by 18 percent" by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, writes Ken Ward Jr. of the Sunday Gazette-Mail in Charleston, W. Va.

"The result? Agency officials never conducted more than 150 required inspections at more than 100 underground mines across the coalfields, according to a government audit. MSHA officials not only missed required inspections, but they misled agency managers — and the public — about inspection completion rates."

As reported before on The Rural Blog, the worst problem was in southern West Virginia, "where 85 percent of the missed inspections occurred, according to an audit by the Labor Department’s inspector general," Ward writes. "In MSHA District 4, which covers southern West Virginia, the inspector general found missed inspections at 85 of 165 underground mines. . . . The staffing situation was worst in Southern West Virginia, where MSHA had just 0.44 inspectors per MMU," or mechanized mining unit. (Read more)

Rural caucus-goers will outnumber urban ones in Iowa, campaigns say; new polls drive new tactics

As Sen. Barack Obama and former Gov. Mike Huckabee took narrow leads in polls of Iowa caucusgoers, supplanting Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Gov. Mitt Romney, The Washington Post reported that rural voters are expected to have disproportionate influence in the Jan. 3 caucuses. "Campaign officials describe the pool this year as typically older, more likely to be rural than urban, and more inclined to pick a candidate based on practical issues such as electability rather than on ideological grounds," Peter Slevin and Shailagh Murray report.

The latest Iowa Poll for The Des Moines Register, conducted Nov. 25-28 (results in Register chart), found women shifting from Clinton to Obama, Thomas Beaumont reports: "Obama leads with support from 31 percent of women likely attend the caucuses, compared to 26 percent for Clinton. In October, Clinton was the preferred candidate of 34 percent of women caucusgoers, compared to 21 percent for Obama. Women represent roughly six in 10 Democratic caucusgoers. . . . Other troubling news for Clinton included a sharp decline in support from members of union households, where she was the preferred candidate with support from 34 percent in the October poll. In the new poll, Clinton is third among union households with 21 percent." The poll's margin of error was 4.4 percentage points, so both leads were statistically insigniifcant.

The poll of Republicans "shows Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, leading Romney 38 percent to 22 percent among those who consider themselves born-again Christians. In October, Romney edged Huckabee 23 percent to 18 percent among people in that group, which accounts for one-half of all likely caucus participants." But Register columnist David Yepsen cautions, "Huckabee should be concerned about his turnout operation. He's thinly staffed, and Romney has the better organization. Look for Romney to start pouring everything into Iowa to stave off an upset loss that could derail his entire candidacy." (Read more)

Huckabee, speaking at the Cheshire County GOP holiday party, aired tonight on C-SPAN's "Road to the White House," played up his rural roots. He said he was the first in family to graduate from high school, and on his mother's side, was "one generation removed from dirt floors and outhouses." He also recalled using Lava soap: "I was in college when I found out it's not supposed to hurt when you take a shower." Huckabee will appear on the renewed "Don Imus Show" on RFD-TV at 7:30 a.m. CST Tuesday, its second day back on the air, reports Michael Shear on The Trail, the Post political blog: "When Imus was forced out, many politicians and former guests said they regretted their appearances on the show and said they would no longer be guests if he returned to the airwaves. Huckabee was not one of them. From the beginning, he said Imus had made a mistake and should be allowed to move on." Huckabee told USA Today earlier this year, "He's continued to have me on his show when I said stupid things. . . . What Imus said was wrong, but he seems genuinely sorry." (Read more)

UPDATE, Dec. 3: Romney shifted gears over the weekend and scheduled a speech this Thursday on religion, reflecting the possibility that his Mormon faith is giving him trouble with some voters, perhaps especially with rural people unfamiliar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. At an "Ask Mitt Anything" town-hall meeting at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, telecast on C-SPAN, a male questioner who appeared to be about 65 said, "Your religion is a concern to many people. I'd like to hear your answer to that question." Romney replied that Americans should not base their vote for president "on where a person goes to church," quoted Abraham Lincoln on "political religion" of the nation being support for the rule of law and the Constitution, and mentioned the constitutional provision that there shall be no religious test for public office. For a take on new tactics by Romney and Clinton, who is now questioning Obama's courage and integrity, by Peter Nicholas and Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times, click here. For a Post story by Anne Kornblut on the Clinton-Obama developments, click here.

Weekly Iowa editor calls for thought on immigrants

As immigration became the leading issue in the Republican race for president, thanks in part to an undue emphasis by CNN in its recent YouTube debate, a weekly newspaper editor in Iowa asked his readers to step back and think about the issue and how it has affected their community and state for the better.

"Thousands of immigrants have worked in our town’s two meatpacking plants, working hard, hoping for a better life for their children, sending money home to Mexico and other nations to help their families left behind. They build businesses and churches, they add color and richness, they learn English as they can and they help an isolated rural community grow and prosper," wrote Art Cullen of the Storm Lake Times.

"Yes, we need secure borders. We need to know just who is living and working in Storm Lake. We also need workers in our meatpacking plants as the first generation moves up the economic ladder. If we don’t cut the meat here, be assured that the meat will get cut somewhere else and those jobs are lost to us. What we really need is to open up the immigration quotas to fill our low-skilled, medium-skilled and high-skilled job shortages." (Read more)

Most of the Times' Web site is only for subscribers, but access to the editorial comes to us by way of, which adds a brief biography of Cullen, right, and his paper: "
Art Cullen, 50, is editor of the Storm Lake Times, a twice-a-week newspaper serving the diverse and growing community of Storm Lake, which in the 2000 Census topped 10,000 for the first time in the town’s history – while all other county seat towns around it continued to decline in population. Cullen grew up in the community when it was nearly all-white. He went on to St. Thomas College in St. Paul, Minn. In his journalism career of nearly 30 years in Iowa, he first served as editor at the Algona Upper Des Moines and Kossuth County Advance, then managing editor at The Daily Tribune in Ames, and news editor/editorial page editor at the [Mason City] Globe-Gazette, before returning home in 1990 to help his brother John Cullen launch the Storm Lake Times. John Cullen is the paper’s publisher."

Iowa ag chief seeks $22 million to fight animal odor

Iowa's new agriculture secretary wants to spend $22 million over the next five years to find ways to control livestock odor. Bill Northey told a gathering in Fort Dodge that "Livestock producers are interested in odor-fighting technologies," which would be voluntary even if the state Legislature approves the plan, Bill Shea writes for the Fort Dodge Messenger.

"This offers a chance to really address the science behind it and get some stuff on the ground," Northey said at Iowa Central Community College, the day after he unveiled the idea before a state legislative committee. "The plan, he said, is to set up odor-fighting technologies on farms across the state and then assess how well they work," Shea reports. "He said he hopes to have some results to share with farmers after the first year of the program."

Two techniques Northey expects to be tested are vegetative buffers and biofilters, which "place natural substances such as wet bark near the ventilation fans of animal confinements. He said the wet bark reduces odor by 40 percent to 70 percent, but requires farmers to install bigger fans. . . . Currently, there are no state laws to regulate odors from livestock confinements." (Read more)

The plan got a salute from the Storm Lake Times, which said in an editorial, "For years the state has tried to deny that we have a problem, but now we are acknowledging that we have work to do at the state level. . . . This could be the first major step in ending the bitterness and division that has plagued rural Iowa for more than a decade." (Read more)