Saturday, May 31, 2008

Diesel costs have schools seeking extra money

Diesel fuel prices are so high, raising costs for rural school systems that depend on buses, that West Virginia may need to have a special legislative session to give schools the money they need to pick up and deliver students when school begins in August. "North Carolina education officials have also asked for legislative help," The Associated Press reports. "Texas lawmakers have said they will re-evaluate their state's school funding system."

The state Department of Education asked Gov. Joe Manchin for $5 million this week, and he is considering a special session to appropriate the money. The schools got $63 million this year for transportation systems, $15 million of it for fuel, "but officials project they'll need at least $19.5 million," AP reports. "The $15 million was based on 2006 cost figures, but diesel fuel has increased $1.52 a gallon, to $4.38, just within the past year. Since 2003, school bus fuel costs have nearly tripled." (Read more)

In Appalachia, Obama needs to get uniform dirty, as Jackson did; he'd be like poke, humorist says

Some of the commentary about the presidential primary elections in Kentucky and West Virginia has painted with too broad a brush, leaving the impression that racism is a common trait among Appalachians. A couple of pieces by people who actually know something about the region make clear that plenty of Appalachians are ready to embrace candidates of color.

In the Daily Yonder, Bill Bishop, right, recalls Jesse Jackson's trip to Eastern Kentucky during his 1988 presidential campaign, in which Jackson "drew respect and a following. A reported 4,000 people crammed the high school gym in Hazard to listen to Rev. Jackson speak. Sen. Barack Obama might have been able to pull 4,000 people to the Hazard high school gym in 2008, but he never came to Eastern Kentucky. He held rallies in Louisville, Ky., and Charleston, W.Va,, the two largest cities in the states. But he never ventured into the coalfields." (Kentucky has two coalfields, one shared with West Virginia.)

"In effect, he rejected the people of Kentucky and West Virginia," Tammy Horn, is senior researcher at Eastern Kentucky University's Environmental Research Institute, writes in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "When two states such as West Virginia and Kentucky contribute to half of the energy needs of the nation, a candidate should at least care to create a perception that he acknowledges the people of those states. Not to do so may make some people, dare we say it, bitter." (Read more)

Bishop says Jackson's 1988 trip changed the reverend's life, making him an advocate for poor whites, often in Appalachia. In late 1998, "Jackson brought President Bill Clinton to a gathering of CEOs from Bell Atlantic, Frito Lay, TCI, Citigroup and the New York Stock Exchange to talk about poverty in the mountains. Jackson told the business elite that this was the time to make a commitment to Appalachia. ... He turned to Clinton and reminded him that those who wore 'clean uniforms' never got in the game. 'Those who play have stains on their uniforms,' Jackson said. If you eat an early breakfast in the mountains, there’s a good chance you’ll sit next to some miners fresh off the hoot-owl shift. Their uniforms and their faces will be smudged from their jobs underground. They showed up for work and they expect their politicians to show up, too."

So, Obama still has a clean uniform, and the betting is that he won't get it dirty in West Virginia or Kentucky, where Hillary Clinton beat him badly. But a longtime Eastern Kentucky political and humor columnist (who is also a Republican) writes in the Herald-Leader that Obama would be a tonic to the political system much like pokeweed, above, can be. (Southeastern Outdoors photo)

Pikeville lawyer Larry Webster, left, puts his observations in the mind of Slemp, one of his regular characters: "The country people have always used poke to clean them out in the spring. You have to be fairly close to plumbing to eat poke, but with some fried, salt-cured shoulder and a boiled egg or two, Slemp would be willing to take the risk. ... Slemp thinks Obama will act on the government like poke acts on people, which would be a real good thing. Slemp has nothing against the sons of admirals or the sons of the 41st president or the wife of the 42nd, but he thinks them unlikely to have the desired poke effect. It appears that all of those kinds of people will only further impact the national bowel."

As for the rumor that Obama is a Muslim, stated as fact by the Republican judge-executive of neighboring Leslie County, Webster writes: "He wishes Obama actually was a Muslim, saying it would be a good time to have one for president. Slemp says that if Republican county judges can turn Christians into Muslims, the safest thing would be to lock the county judges up in Guantanamo before somebody hires them to turn all Christians into Muslims. Most of the women Slemp knows could use a good veiling." (Read more)

What goes around comes around: Globalization now helps Danville and parts of Southside Va.

Danville and much of the rest of Southside Virginia declined economically along with the linchpins of the Piedmont: tobacco, textiles and furniture, all hurt by globalization, especially the latter two. Dan River Fabrics (in photo by Misscharo) is down to 50 employees from its former 15,000. But now, "The powerful global economic forces that swept away thousands of jobs over the past two decades are now working in Danville's favor," and for other towns in the region, The Washington Post reports. "New companies are moving in to breathe life into once-tired economies across the industrial corridor in central and southwestern Virginia and in Southside, a strip of generally poor counties in the south-central part of the state."

Ylan Q. Mui reports for the Post, "The weakening dollar has made the United States more attractive to foreign investors. Companies from England, Canada and India have recently opened operations or expanded in Danville." The latest is Swedwood, the manufacturing subsidiary of the IKEA home-products chain, and one reason is rising oil prices. "Shipping Ikea's popular Expedit bookshelves to the United States, for example, costs more than it does to make them, said Joseph Roth, the company's U.S. public affairs manager," Mui writes. To get the plant, which is supposed to eventually employ 700, "The city paved its entry with new facilities, secured permits and state Tobacco Commission grants" -- money from Virginia's share of states' 10-year-old settlement with cigarette manufacturers.

At Swedwood's log-cutting (IKEA's version of a ribbon-cutting) last week, Gov. Tim Kaine said, “Sometimes people hear about globalism and think ‘what are we going to lose next? Globalism is also about winning, and so many of the announcements we’ve done here in Danville are foreign companies wanting to come to the United States. …There isn’t a reason we have to be afraid of globalism.”For the story by Sarah Arkin of the Danville Register & Bee, click here.

Danville still has a long way to go, the newspaper said in a May 1 editorial: "The best long-term solution is raising education levels and worker skills, which helps people get better-paying jobs that offer health insurance, which leads to more preventative care and the faster, more intensive treatment of disease, which typically leads to longer, healthier lives." Noting a recent report that people in the region are living shorter lives, the editorial concluded, "Declining life expectancies are another result of the long slumber that Danville has only recently started to awaken from. If we understand how we wound up with these problems, it’s easier to get started on the solutions." (Read more)

The local hero is retiring City Manager Jerry Gwaltney, who also successfully pushed Danville as a regional shopping hub for several rural counties. A shopping center that will employ 1,300 to 1,600 is under construction. A list of Gwaltney's successes ran in a Register & Bee story on his retirement. Writing in the Daily Yonder, Danville native John Borden asks, "Can Danville as a whole rebuild its economic life and energize its educational and social life after seeing its textile- and tobacco-town identity definitively become part of the historic past? Is there a unique next chapter? If not, does this mean that the city over time becomes just another distribution center of the national consumer culture, helping to deliver what the focus groups say is good to every corner of our country. Will people finally speak 'proper' English and then have nothing to say?' (Read more)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Dream of 'clean coal' seems farther away as feds, utilities take more steps backward than forward

Despite an advertising campaign by the coal industry and lip service from the three main presidential candidates, the idea of "clean coal" is only that. And prospects for making it a reality are "lagging badly," The New York Times reports.

"In the last few months, utility projects in Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Washington state that would have made it easier to capture carbon dioxide have all been canceled or thrown into regulatory limbo," Matthew Wald writes. "The failure to start building, testing, tweaking and perfecting carbon capture and storage means that developing the technology may come too late to make coal compatible with limiting global warming."

We've reported on the Energy Department's pulling the plug on the proposed FutureGen plant in Illinois, which was supposed to prove the technology. The department, citing cost overruns, wants to divvy up the work into smaller projects, including power plants now on the drawing board, but faces political opposition in Congress. More important, though, are the long-term concerns, which Wald summarizes nicely:

"Scientists need to figure out which kinds of rock and soil formations are best at holding carbon dioxide. They need to be sure the gas will not bubble back to the surface. They need to find optimal designs for new power plants so as to cut costs. And some complex legal questions need to be resolved, such as who would be liable if such a project polluted the groundwater or caused other damage far from the power plant."

Unless those questions are answered soon, electric companies may "build the next generation of coal plants using existing technology," Wald writes. "That would ensure that vast amounts of global warming gases would be pumped into the atmosphere for decades." One alternative is an intermediate step, coal-gasification plants that would be more efficient and emit carbon dioxide per kilowatt. Duke Energy has proposed such a plant in Indiana. (Read more)

LEARN MORE ABOUT IT: The prospects for carbon storage, climate change and the future of mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal will be among the topics at "Covering Climate Change and Our Energy Future in Rural America," an Oct. 15 workshop that will precede the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Roanoke. The conference home page says the workshop is open only to SEJ members, but the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues will offer sponsorships to coalfield and other Appalachian journalists to attend. Check the Institute's home page for details, to be posted soon. For an agenda of the workshop, click here.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

North Carolina legislator files bill to ban use of coal mined by mountaintop-removal strip mining

A legislator in North Carolina, the state that supposedly ranks second in the use of coal mined by removing mountaintops, filed a bill this week to ban use of coal mined in that way.

"Mountaintop removal coal mining is an extremely destructive form of strip mining found throughout Appalachia, with some mines as big as the island of Manhattan," The Herald Dispatch of Huntington, W.Va., reported in a story on the bill. "Coalfield residents say that it tears apart communities, poisons water supplies, pollutes the air and destroys our nation's natural heritage – while only making the climate crisis worse."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Pricey Harrison, said, "Mountaintop removal coal mining presents a clear and present danger to the Appalachian Mountains, which are home to a vibrant and indelible culture, stunning biodiversity and enormous economic potential."

North Carolina, which has no coal mines, would be the first state with such a law. Appalachian Voices, a group opposed to mountaintop-removal mining, says North Carolina is second only to Georgia in its use of mountaintop-removal coal, getting 61 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tennessee to get open-records appeal office, but agencies will be able to charge for large requests

Tennessee is about to get its the "first major revision of its open records law in 25 years. The bill has been delivered to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who is expected to sign it. “He’s been supportive of the bill throughout,” Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, told Virgie Townsend of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"The bill creates the Office of Open Records Counsel to deal with open records issues for local government and requires open records requests to be available within seven days," Townsend reports. "The bill also contains a temporary provision that will allow agencies to charge requesters for their actual time spent filling the request if it takes more than five hours," which seems to be a growing trend among states. Iowa officials recently enacted a three-hour rule.

Tennessee's open-records law has been ranked among the nation's worst. "Agencies don’t have a deadline for responding to records requests, custodians don’t have to provide a legal reason for denying records requests and citizens don’t have a place to go to find out how to acquire public records," Townsend writes. "Gibson said that the new bill remedies those problems." (Read more)

Keeping tabs on sex offenders in rural areas may be a more common police task than you think

Here's a story that could be done in many rural communities, maybe more than you might realize. Read on.

Detective Amanda McNamee of the Dickinson, N.D., Police Department is assigned to keep tabs on the small city's 20 registered sex offenders. "In addition to being fingerprinted, photographed and swabbed for a DNA sample, (sex offenders) must register with local law enforcement officials within three days of moving into a community," Dan Barry writes in the The New York Times.

"This includes providing home address, employer’s address, e-mail address and any information regarding motor vehicles, schools and 'social networking.' Every now and then the police department sends a news release to the local newspaper to report that a high-risk offender has moved to town. Its boilerplate text explains that notification is being made 'in the belief that an informed public is a safer public,' but that the information 'is not to be used to threaten, harass, assault, or intimidate the registered offenders.' In the end, one person monitors the registered sex offenders of Dickinson: Detective McNamee, 27, the wife of a night-shift supervisor at the Baker Boy plant and the mother of two children, one 19 months old, the other 4 months old."

McNamee became one of only two women on a force of approximately 25 when she joined in 2003. After several years of riding patrol, she transferred to the investigations unit in 2006 and recognized "an opportunity to improve the way the department kept track of the city’s registered sex offenders. Now she has her 'high-risk guys,' her 'moderate-risk guys' and her 'low-risk guys,' a few of whom reside upstairs from her office, in the Southwest Multi-County Correction Center. She makes a point of meeting each one of these inmates to say, 'When you’re out, I’ll come see you.'" Eleven low-risk offenders are checked on by Detective McNamee every few months, but "she gives much closer scrutiny to her five moderate-risk offenders and her four high-risk offenders... She keeps track of them through telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings that are nothing if not guarded."

Officers of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault "believe a law passed in recent years restricting where registered sex offenders may live have caused many to move to rural areas," writes James Nash in The Courier of Montgomery County. "The new law, barring offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools, parks or day care centers, was part of U.S. House Bill 8, also known as Jessica’s Law, which went into effect on Sept. 1 of last year. It also eliminated the statute of limitations in cases of child sexual assault and doubles the statute of limitations for other sexually violent offenses, therefore increasing the number of offenders required to register.

The bill was named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl whose kidnapping, rape and murder in 2005 by a registered sex offender gained national attention. Additionally, House Bill 8 included a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years to life for aggravated sexual assault of someone under 14 years old, and the option of the death penalty or life without parole for a second aggravated sexual assault against someone under 14. It also requires sexually violent predators who are civilly committed — instead of criminally — to wear a global position system device for the rest of their lives. Texas was the thirty-second state to adopt Jessica's Law."

Most states have passed laws that restrict where sex offenders can live, which may result in many relocating to rural areas. Is this a problem in your community, and if so, is there a Detective McNamee in your community?

Seeking more smartphones for rural areas, group asks FCC to ban exclusive maker-provider deals

Technology has the potential to advance the lives of individuals, the ingenuity of businesses, and the productivity of communities, but only when such devices or services are available. The Rural Cellular Association filed a petition May 20 asking the Federal Communications Commission to ban exclusive agreements between cellular phone makers and service providers, which RCA said would provide rural residents with more opportunities to acquire the most recent cellular technology.

The association of 82 small and rural cellular service providers "contended the exclusivity agreements are 'anticompetetive' and 'unfair' because they stifle consumer choice and often mean premium prices for users," writes Scott Carlson for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.: "The group also contended such exclusive arrangements are creating another 'digital divide' between urban and rural America. Those consumers affected usually live in rural areas where service is not available from some wireless carriers who also control the sale of advanced handsets, the group said in its petition."

The petition mentions several specific devices, including the Apple iPhone, Verizon's Voyager, and the Samsung Ace, that utilize multimedia and Internet technology. Many national cellular phone companies "do not offer adequate coverage in rural areas," writes Chase Higgins on "Some customers have no choice but to be with the smaller carriers. The petition claims these subscribers should not be left out in the cold when it comes to new handsets" and the technology that accompanies them.

RCA says many consumers wind up "being channeled to purchase wireless service from a carrier that has monopolistic control over the desired handset and having to pay a premium price for the handset because the market is void of any competition for the particular handset." The group said in its petition, "Americans living in rural areas who cannot get any coverage from the carriers benefiting from these exclusive arrangements are also harmed, since they are denied the technological benefits of many of the most popular handsets available today. The Commission must ... reverse the increasingly common practice of exclusive handset arrangements that deprive rural area residents of the benefits of evolving technology."

The petition, which claims all rural areas are affected by "these exclusive arrangements," cited rural areas from 16 states. "The agreements essentially increase the digital divide between urban and rural areas" RCA counsel David Nace told the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho,

Monday, May 26, 2008

Rising energy prices spur gas leasing among landowners who don't know how to get best deal

Here's a story that could be done by lots of rural journalists, and probably needs to be done by many, to keep their readers, viewers or listeners from getting taken. The Associated Press reports, "Unsuspecting property owners around the country are getting trampled in an old-fashioned land rush by natural gas companies and speculators trying to lock up long-ignored drilling rights quickly and cheaply. Stories of fast-talking industry representatives using scare tactics to strong-arm people into signing lowball leases are popping up in rural areas and suburbs from New York to West Virginia to parts of Indiana and Texas."

This is an old story in places familiar with oil and gas drilling, but rising energy prices have prompted leasing activity in many areas that are unfamiliar with it, or among landowners who haven't seen it in many years and lack working knowledge of the process -- knowledge that can help them get better deals and avoid unnecessary damage to their property if it is drilled. We first reported this April 8 in an item about gas leasing in Appalachia; the AP story (for which we could not find a reporter's byline or newspaper's credit line) also mentions the Illinois Basin, which extends into Indiana and Kentucky.

The story tells the cautionary tale of Brad Castle, a farmer and convenience-store owner in Rowlesburg, W.Va. Castle thought he had cut a good deal when he leased 800 acres for $5 an acre and the standard royalty of one-eighth of production, until more land agents showed up offering as much as $350 an acre. "There's got to be a law broke[n] somewhere," he told the reporter. We doubt it, though Castle does report a possible fraud, saying the leasing agent told him that drillers could get his gas without paying him anything. That may be true, but it certainly would be illegal.

In most states, landowners can form a pool that companies find more attractive for development and for which they are willing to pay higher prices. The story mentions a group of farmers in New York's Broome and Delaware counties that got $2,411 an acre and a 15 percent royalty for a five-year lease. Typically, such leases are renewable; they also can be renegotiable, if the landowner gets that right up front.

West Virginia lawyer David McMahon and the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization advise landowners to "take their time and refuse to be rushed into signing leases," AP reports. McMahon "also suggests rejecting standard leases in favor of documents containing protections against roads, potential pollutants such as saltwater injections, and use of depleted wells for gas storage. Herschel McDivitt, director of Indiana's Division of Oil and Gas, offers similar advice. "There just aren't a lot of savvy landowners out there," McDivitt said.

In Pennsylvania, Penn State horticulture specialist Thomas Murphy has organized a program to help landowners get the best deals. One session recently attracted a standing-room-only crowd of 1,200. For a report on his work, from Deborah Benedetti of Penn State Outreach magazine, click here. For Penn State's Web site on the subject, click here.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Raided meatpacker was repeatedly notified that workers were using bogus Social Security numbers

"The politically-connected meatpacking company where almost 400 undocumented workers were arrested earlier this month ignored repeated government warnings about the use of false identification papers amongst its employees," according to an affadavit by a federal agent, Lynda Waddington reports for the online Iowa Independent.

The agent swore that Agriprocessors Inc. "received a dozen letters from the Social Security Administration in 2005 and 2006," Waddington writes. "The letters stated that up to 78 percent of the businesses' workforce provided Social Security information that did not match with government records." Immigration agent David Hoagland said, "Agriprocessors has repeatedly been made aware that large numbers of its employees were using Social Security numbers that have discrepancies for each tax year from 2000 to 2005."

Waddington's story details the many political contributions made by owners of the plant in Postville, Iowa. It remains to be seen whether they will face criminal prosecution, as more than 300 workers at the plant have. At a forum sponsored by La Prensa, a Spanish-language paper in western Iowa, immigration lawyer Jo Ann Barten predicted similar raids, perhaps soon, reports the Independent's Doug Burns. He and LaPrensa Editor Lorena Lopez collaborated on a story for her paper about the raid. To read it, click here.

Appalachian Democrats say Obama could carry their states in fall if he would spend time there

The headline is "Will Obama fight for rural votes?" but the story in today's Lexington Herald-Leader is almost all about Appalachia -- specifically, Kentucky and West Virginia, where Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama like a rented mule in primaries this month. The prevailing view of Democrats quoted by Linda Blackford is that if Obama spent time in Appalachia, he would overcome some of the resistance based on his race and false rumors that he is a Muslim (cited as fact by one top Republican county official to Blackford).

The hopeful Democrats cite the example of John F. Kennedy, who spent half the month before the 1960 West Virginia primary showing voters in the Mountain State that "he wasn't wearing the pope's clothes," said Charles Peters, who was Kennedy's Kanawha County chairman and went on to serve in his administration and found The Washington Monthly. Obama made only one campaign stop this year in West Virginia, and likewise in Kentucky, and lost both by more than 30 percentage points.

We have no doubt that Obama could gain many votes by spending time in Appalachia and finding common ground like that state Rep. Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg, Ky., mentioned to Blackford: "He could say, 'I'm one of you, I've been looked down upon because of my color and we've got to overcome these stereotypes.' I think that would sell pretty well up here. People want to hear him say things, like 'I'm not a Muslim, I'm not part of this sect that hates America.'"

But time is the most pecious commodity for presidential nominees, the election is now about electoral votes, and Kentucky and West Virginia only have eight and five, respectively. The real battle in Appalachia this fall is likely to be in Pennsylvania and Ohio, particularly the "Pennsyltucky" congressional that runs from Pennsylvania to Kentucky. Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz noted on Huffington Post the importance of Pennsylvania and Ohio to Democrats.

In Ohio and Pennsylvania, the map looks more favorable to Obama than those below, which ran with Blackford's story. Peters told her that Obama also needs to make an effort in other regions. "They still have to try because these people exist all over the country " he said. "I just think they (the Obama campaign) didn't realize how hard they had to fight back. It's got to be a multi-pronged attack." Text in the graphic below contains an error; Obama did better in Kentucky than in West Virginia, but worse in Eastern Kentucky.