Saturday, October 18, 2008

Feds to ease stream rule for mining mountains, but both presidential candidates have other ideas

UPDATES: For an editorial in The New York Times that explains the stream-buffer-zone issue, click here. For detailed reports on the conference and a ground-level, panoramic photo of the mine at right, click here. (Photo of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia by Theresa Burris of southwest Virginia's Radford University, via Southwings flying service)

As the Bush administration took another step that would ease mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal, there were repeated indications this week that a new president will restrict it.

A leading foe of mountaintop mining predicted that Barack Obama would, as president, issue regulations that would largely outlaw it. A John McCain representative reiterated that the Republican nominee would end the practice, but said he wasn't sure how. An Obama representative noted that the Democrat favors a legislative solution, but he didn't rule out other measures.

At the same meeting, a key congressman on the issue said he didn't favor any changes in the law. But he also said, in response to facts cited in a question, that state and federal regulators have misinterpreted the law in a way that allows mountaintop mining without the development required in such cases. Here are the details:

Yesterday, the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining issued an environmental impact statement supporting its plan to allow dumping of rock and dirt from mines into perennial or intermittent streams, which the industry says is necessary in mountaintop-removal mining. Current regulations prohibit mining activities within 100 feet of such streams, but OSM has allowed valley fills to bury such streams and ephemeral streams, which flow only after precipitation. It would still require mines to avoid streams "to the extent possible."

Mountaintop removal, which occurs on the rugged Cumberland-Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, was a major topic this week in Roanoke at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, which started with a seminar, "Covering Climate Change and Our Energy Future in Rural America," co-sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, the leading litigator against mountaintop mining, said at the seminar that "Valley fills need to be stopped" by adminstrative regulation, and "I think the Obama administration is going to give us what we need." While some of his allies want to do that by changing the federal strip-mine law, Lovett said, "My hope is that Congress does not get involved." He said in a follow-up interview that he wants to avoid Congress because "I don't think Congress will do it." He noted that two key West Virginia Democrats, Robert Byrd and Nick Joe Rahall, are chairmen of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee.

During the conference's closing panel today, Rahall, right, he does not favor changes in the law. He said the variance it allows for mountaintop removal has provided much-needed flat land for development in Central Appalachia. For such a variance, the law calls for a higher or better use of the land than before mining. About 60 percent of the mined land in the region in the last three years has been placed in unmanaged grassland, Virginia Tech forester Jim Burger said at another conference session yesterday. Asked how such land could be considered a higher or better use than a mixed mesophytic forest with productive hardwood trees, Rahall first replied as if he didn't understand the question, but when it was repeated, he said, "It's a regulatory misinterpretation of the law." Asked earlier about OSM's proposed repeal of the stream-buffer rule, he said he would leave that issue to the courts and the regulators.

Rahall appeared with David Jenkins, government affairs director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, which supports McCain, and David Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs for the Sierra Club, which is supporting Obama. McCain said last month that he wants to end mountaintop removal, and Obama also said he does not support the practice, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reported last month. Yesterday, asked how their candidates would end mountaintop mining, Jenkins said one option for McCain would be the "stream saver" bill in Congress, which would outlaw valley fills that bury streams. Hamilton noted that Obama supports the bill but said there may be other options.

Watch The Rural Blog and for more reports on discussions about coal at the SEJ conference, which concludes Sunday with readings by authors including Wendell Berry, Ann Pancake, Denise Giardina and Penny Loeb, all of whom have written about coal mining and Appalachia. The conference's opening gala featured West Virginia singer-songwriter Kathy Mattea, whose latest CD is "Coal." She sang "Cool of the Day" by Jean Ritchie and "Coming of the Roads" by Billy Edd Wheeler. A look at the lyrics will tell you why.

Annie Proulx, journalist turned writer of the rural West, is moving from Wyoming to New Mexico

Annie Proulx, who "has often criticized the literary establishment for knowing nothing about what goes on in America outside its cities," is leaving southern Wyoming and the landscape that inspired her short story-turned-movie, Brokeback Mountain, which she now says she wishes she had never written.

"I moved to Wyoming for the long sightlines and the walkability, but I've had enough," she told Susan Salter Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times. Her reasons are not explicitly stated, but Reynolds reports, "The road into the house, though beautiful, turns to mush for much of the year -- weather prevents mail and visitors, and Proulx, 73, worries about emergencies. She lives alone, with no hired help ... " Reynolds suggests that Proulx's leaving has little or nothing to do with her story's subject, homosexuality among cowboys, saying that people in the town of Saratoga, population 1,700, know about the story, but no one there knows Proulx -- which we doubt. (Los Angeles Times map)

Proulx told Reynolds that she wishes she had never written the story because she has been inundated by manuscripts, screenplays and letters from men who rewrite or serialize it and tell her "I'm not gay, but . . . ' They think that just because they are men, they understand men better than I do," Proulx said. The story, she says, "was about homophobia in a place." It was part of a Close Range, the second in what Reynolds calls "an astringent triptych of Wyoming story collections," beginning with Bad Dirt and concluding with Fine Just the Way It Is, recently published. Bad Dirt, published when Proulx was 53, "was a backhand swipe at the mythology of the West -- the old beliefs that aren't really true, like the idea that there are no homosexuals in Wyoming," she told Reynolds. "Everyone here is playing some role: the brave pioneer woman, the cowboy."

Proulx started her career as a journalist, writing for the outdoor magazine Gray's Journal, and as a novelist follows the journalistic approach of the French Annales School, "which involves looking carefully at documents, receipts, census reports, recipes -- any record of daily life," Reynolds reports. She uses this -- although not, she says, the actual characters -- along with bits of dialogue picked up in bars and restaurants. Her life is a whirlwind of bits of paper, notes on envelopes, notebooks that cohere, tornado-style, into her tight, unsentimental stories. For this, she needs time and isolation, so her anonymity in Saratoga is a good thing. But there is a larger problem. Writers, especially famous ones, do not make good neighbors in the warm and fuzzy sense. Locals don't always appreciate seeing themselves in fiction's wobbly mirror." Her next destination is Albuquerque.

For journalists contemplating novels, Proulx has some implied technical advice: In writing, she uses a computer ("the enemy of careful writing") only as "a joinery device," assembling and revising handwritten material. She told Reynolds, "There's something about the rhythm of writing on the page with a pen that is richly fulfilling -- like drawing a picture." (Read more)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Obama trying for West Virginia's 5 electoral votes

With previously toss-up Virginia now in blue on most Electoral College maps, Democrat Barack Obama has started advertising on television stations throughout West Virginia, a heavily rural state that "rejected his primary season appeals," The Associated Press reports. "In a sign that pocketbook concerns are trumping any prejudices, a recent AP poll showed that Obama has inched up among whites with no college education while McCain has lost ground."

The Cook Report, which rated West Virginia as solid for Republican John McCain, now says West Virginia is a toss-up. "The Cook Report was likely influenced by a survey Oct. 4-8 by American Research Group Inc., which showed Obama actually leading in West Virginia 50 percent to 42 percent for McCain, with 8 percent either undecided or voting for someone else," talk-show host Hoppy Kercheval writes in the Charleston Daily Mail.

Before "the bottom fell out of the stock market, and voter anxiety over the economy trumped all other issues," Kercheval notes, "even West Virginia Democratic Party leaders privately conceded there was no way that West Virginia, with its conservative values, would vote for Obama." He notes that many voters in the state have already seen Obama ads aimed at Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. (Read more) President Bush carried the state in 2000 and 2004.

UPDATE, Oct. 18: Ben Smith of Politico reports polling and anecdotal evidence suggests some whites with racist views will vote for Obama because of the economy. "Obama has run better than past Democrats in prosperous states with little history of tension, such as Colorado and Iowa, and worse in working-class states in the Appalachian belt," Smith writes. "His campaign has been structured around this dynamic and may actually have overestimated the number of white Democrats in the region unwilling to vote for him because of his race. . . . Obama has also ignored Southern states with a history of deep racial division, from Arkansas to Missisissippi, in favor of those that have seen an influx of new voters from the north — Virginia, North Carolina and Florida." UPDATE, Oct. 20: Obama may visit West Virginia, AP reports.

N.C. State Fair works to be more eco-friendly

With their bright lights, cooking grease, and energy-consuming rides, state fairs are not traditionally easy on the planet. But one state is attempting to alleviate some of its fair's environmental impact.

The North Carolina State Fair, which started yesterday and runs through Oct. 26, has set up four recycling stations at the fairgrounds, in an attempt to reduce the trash created by aluminum cans and drink bottles. Many of the lights on rides will use light-emitting diodes, which use 1/200th of the energy used by regular lightbulbs. There will also be a "Green NC" exhibit, writes Martha Quillin in The News & Observer of Raleigh, to show visitors "ways to reduce their carbon imprints and invite them to promise to be better environmental stewards."

"I'm kind of proud of us," said Bill McClure, facilities engineer for the fairgrounds. "We're trying. Some of the stuff that we're doing now, we've been talking about for 20 years." One of the more interesting initiatives started on the fairgrounds was the underground installation of three 1,000-gallon tanks to collect used cooking oil. The oil will be converted to biodiesel and used to fuel farm machinery on state-owned research farms and tractor-trailers that deliver commodities to schools. (Read more)

Washington state speeds produce inspection by giving all its inspectors portable computers

In Washington state, inspecting produce for export has just gotten a lot easier, now that all inspectors have portable computers. Washington state is the third-largest exporter of fruits and vegetables in the U.S., and Jim Quigley, the state Agriculture Department's fruit and vegetable program manager, told The Associated Press, "We're the only state I'm aware of to put these kinds of tools in the hands of our inspectors."

Inspectors enter information about the quality of produce, using drop-down menus to guide them to examples of quality in particular types of fruit, rather than voluminous reference books they once used. Their inspection information is quickly sent to the department's Web site, allowing exporters and trade associations monitoring crop movement to access the information immediately. The technology is "speeding the inspection process," writes AP's Shannon Dininny, "while making it easier for industry officials to gather information necessary to market the crop and monitor shipments." (Read more)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Market threatens bonds for college expansions

The economic downturn may have repercussions for proposed new community and technical schools, a key source of higher education for rural areas. In West Virginia, "A recent report indicated the bond market had cast doubt over $80 million in construction projects at several of West Virginia’s community and technical colleges," writes Fred Pace of The Register-Herald in Beckley.

Some proposed expansions have been put on hold but others are continuing. "We have been told to continue to move forward, but we haven’t been given specific dates, so projects could be delayed or they could remain on schedule," Dr. Ted Spring told Pace.

It appears that the expansion of the community and technical college system remains a priority in West Virginia despite economic difficulties. "Recent state legislation has strengthened community and technical college training," writes Pace. "There are approximately 21,000 community and technical college students statewide, according to the state’s latest statistics." (Read more)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Wyoming governor wants to slow down fast-track process for oil and gas drilling on federal land

"Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal is once again calling on federal lawmakers to rework a rule that lets agencies bypass painstaking environmental studies in order to fast-track oil and gas drilling," writes Chris Merrill of the Casper Star-Tribune. The concern has to do with the notion of categorical exclusion, which "allows land managers to skip in-depth environmental reviews for individual oil and gas drilling projects in areas where three wells have already been drilled, and where a previous environmental analysis was conducted within the past five years," adds Merrill.

The impetus for "categorical exclusion" dates to 2005, when the Bush Administration was pushing to increase domestic energy production. It was seen as a way to remove redundant hurdles from the process handled by the Bureau of Land Management. The Democratic governor questions the rule "because it fails to account for the cumulative impacts of hundreds of categorically excluded rigs," Merrill writes.

Freudenthal does not seem to include areas where a drilling plan has been put in place, such as the Pinedale Anticline. New drilling under categorical exclusions could exacerbate environmental problems. "The region has already experienced unhealthy and potentially poisonous levels of ozone pollution in recent winters," writes Merrill. "These kinds of categorical exclusions could potentially work to undo much of the emissions reductions and wildlife protections that will be achieved by Ultra, Shell and Questar on the Pinedale Anticline in the coming years."

Auditors from the Government Accountability Office are expected in Wyoming by the end of the month to review how the BLM has implemented categorical exclusions in Wyoming. Conservation groups hope the presence of the GAO signifies that Congress has concerns about the issue. (Read more)

Why rural parents put children in private schools

Are parents in rural communities increasingly seeing private education as the best option for their children? The numbers remain relatively low, about 6 percent for the 2003-04 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but "the impact is great" because parents making the switch tend to be better educated and more involved in their children's education, reports Judy Owens for the Daily Yonder.

"Rural parents generally withdraw their children from the public system for two reasons: They believe that private schools offer a better education and/or they think that public education fails to teach ethical behavior, to instill traits like honesty and kindness," Owens writes. There is also a concern among rural parents that their children are not receiving a moral education in public schools. They are concerned by what "they perceive as the lack of principles, morals and leadership in the public schools," Owens writes.

This concern has been dismissed by proponents and those who work in the public school system. Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, told Owens, "My own personal experience is that most of these people are the kinds of leaders who I believe most parents would be absolutely pleased with in administering their children's education."

There is evidence that children who are educated in private schools perform better academically. "A Harvard University analysis showed that private-school 4th and 8th graders performed better in math and reading than their public school counterparts," notes Owens. "Catholic and Lutheran schools showed the highest performance, but evangelical Protestant schools achieved parity with public schools in math and exceeded them in reading, the study said."

Rural parents are also disturbed by school consolidation. They view public schools as an arm of the government and not a part of the community. Dea Riley of Whitesburg, Ky., told Owens, "I felt a greater social and community connection with the private school than I have ever felt with public schools." (Read more)

FCC chair would hike phone fees to help expand broadband; critic says rural bills would rise most

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commissions wants to raise fees to help get broadband access to unconnected regions of rural America. Kevin Martin is seeking to reform "intercarrier compensation," the fees one service provider pays another when connecting a call on the other's network, in plan that should be released in the next few days. The proposed rate increases would be covered by larger "subscriber line charges" and other fees passed on to the subscriber.

"The subscriber line charge appears on local phone bills, and is currently capped at $6.50 per month for consumers by the federal government," writes Martin is expected to suggest lifting that cap to $8 or $8.50." Ben Scott, policy director for the advocacy group Free Press, says Martin's plan will result in the largest phone bill increases being passed on to rural customers, since rural companies would have to recover more lost revenue.

Tessler writes that Martin "is expected to suggest that certain carriers be required to use Universal Service money to invest in and roll out broadband networks." The Universal Service Fund subsidizes telephone access is sparsely populated -- and thus, cost prohibitive -- areas of the U.S. (Read more)

New biodiesel standards should expand its market

Biodiesel just became a more reliable fuel, as the non-profit standard-setting organization ASTM International published new fuel specifications that will regulate performance and emissions when the fuel is used in diesel engines.

The specifications set the quality for blends containing more than 5 percent biodiesel. Supporters say the new specifications will make a fuel some see as more environmentally friendly more attractive to consumers. Julie Harker of Brownfield Ag News writes that Bob McCormick, the principal engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, says the new standards will "lead to an expansion of markets for biodiesel while at the same time ensuring that users have trouble-free performance." (Read more)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Palin's rural adviser quits, says office needs more Alaska Natives but Palin gets 'a bum rap' on rural

A journalist who was Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's rural adviser resigned yesterday, saying the policy-making governor's office needs more Alaska Natives, who account for 20 percent of the state's population. "Natives have said they felt neglected when Palin, now the Republican vice presidential nominee, made appointments to her administration, including the rural adviser post," The Associated Press reports from Juneau.

The adviser, Rhonda McBride, is a former Anchorage television journalist who specialized in coverage of rural health but is not a Native. "I definitely think it would help to have an Alaska Native in this position," McBride told AP, which learned of her resignation when it obtained an e-mail she sent to to some Native leaders. She told them, "In all honesty, have never felt authentic in my role." She told AP that "she would return to journalism to help bring attention to Native issues."

McBride told The Rural Blog that she was not resigning under protest. "I'm resigning to return to reporting, because that's how I feel I can best help rural Alaska," she said in an e-mail. "I've come to agree that having an Alaska Native in that position is more important than ever. Rural communities, which are largely Native, are fighting for survival. The high cost of fuel has created a class of Alaskans known as energy refugees, Rural Alaskans who are fleeing to the urban centers because they can't afford to live there anymore." That threatens the viability of local schools and communities, she said.

She added, "Palin, to some extent, gets a bum rap on Rural Alaska. The previous governor, Frank Murkowski, eliminated a community revenue sharing program that helped prop up villages. Palin pushed to reinstate it. She fully supported Power Cost Equalization, a subsidy that helps lower power bills for Rural Alaskans, who pay some of the highest rates in the nation." To read McBride's e-mail to The Rural Blog, in a Word 2007 document, click here. For theAP story, click here.

Some N.J. prisoners covet farm work assignment

At first glance, Jones Farm, set on 250 acres in West Trenton, N.J., seems like any other dairy farm. Workers raise and milk cows on one side of the farm, while, on the other side, the milk is pasteurized and packaged. But then you get a look at the uniforms -- instead of overalls or jeans, these workers are wearing bright orange jumpsuits with "DOC," for Department of Corrections, across the back. The farm is part of AgriIndustries, a six-farm operation owned by the New Jersey DOC used to supply milk to the prison system, and staffed by minimum-security prisoners at the end of their sentence.

It's an unusual situation for many of the prisoners, who often come from urban areas writes Nyier Abdou in The [Newark] Star-Ledger. "I'm from the streets. When I first came here, I said, 'There's no way I'd be on a farm," said Anthony Howlen, 42, of Trenton, who works with the calves at the farm. "And here I am. It's not as bad as I thought."

The work is one of the most desirable in the prison system, but prisoners are often surprised to find how much they enjoy the work. "Aw, man, it's great. I don't miss a day of work, just so I can come out here," said Lopez, who is serving time for burglary and drug possession at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility. "If I have the choice I'll come every day."

"The milk and other AgriIndustries products are sold to 14 state institutions, including Human Services and Military and Veterans Affairs departments and the DOC itself, at a minimal profit," , "saving taxpayers an estimated $1 million a year, according to AgriIndustries administrator Frank Papa. (Read more)

Will black nominee boost low rural black turnout?

With only three weeks to go until Election Day, we are getting perhaps the last big round of analysis of the voting patterns of two key demographics -- rural voters and African-American voters. Joseph Williams of the Boston Globe combines the two to look at rural African Americans, and says that voter turnout for this demographic is difficult to predict.

This uncertainty is even more pronounced in the South, where the percentage of rural blacks turning out to vote is significantly lower than among their counterparts in metropolitan areas. "People in the Southern countryside tend to have lower incomes and poorer educations, but the difference is especially pronounced when race is considered," Williams writes.

Lonnie Mosley, an African-American factory worker from South Boston, Va. (pop. 8,500), says disillusionment with politics has kept him from voting for the past 11 years. The 2000 presidential election, which centered around disenfranchised black voters in Florida, proves that whites "run the system," Mosley says. "They've got so much power over the black community. They have the upper hand."

But others see this election as a chance to change the political scene. "I talk to people coming out of the barber shop. I talk a lot about Obama. I talk positive," said Wayne Ferguson, the owner of a predominantly black barbershop in South Boston. "We have a chance to make history. We have a chance to make a difference. You never know until you try, and every vote counts. More so now than ever." (Read more; hat tip to the Daily Yonder)

The high cost of immigration enforcement

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, taxpayers paid $5.2 million through Aug. 21 for the May 12 raid of the Agriprocessors Inc. meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, reports William Patroski of The Des Moines Register.

The cost of the raid, $13,396 for each of the 389 illegal immigrants taken into custody, has sparked fresh debate about immigration reform. Scott Frotman, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, told Patroski, "It raised serious due process issues, and it may have compromised federal investigations into labor abuses by the company's management."

On the other side of the debate some feel that failure to enforce immigration laws will simply be an impetus for more illegal immigration. U.S. Rep. Steve King, a very conservative Iowa Republican, told Patroski, "If we start saying, 'Well, it costs too much money to enforce the law,' then we will see more and more of these radical, pro-illegal immigration activists drive more wedges between us and make it harder to enforce the law." (Read more) For earlier posts on aid on The Rural Blog about the raid, click here, here and here.

Wall Street's worst week was better for rural firms

After a disastrous week in the stock market, the Daily Yonder reports that its index of rural-oriented stocks, the Yonder 40, fared better than both the Dow and the S&P. Since July 2007 the Dow dropped 37 percent, the S&P 40 percent, while the Yonder's lost only 30 percent. While not exactly good news, it suggests that rural-oriented firms have fared slightly better in the economic crisis. (Yonder chart)

The Yonder created the index to serve as a barometer of the rural economy. The stocks are made up of publicly traded companies that "do much of their business in rural America," it explains. All but two of the stocks dropped last week. Tractor Supply and Plum Creek Timber both made modest gains but, writes the Yonder's Bill Bishop, "For the rest of the 40, the news was mostly grim, as prices dropped in the face of good news and bad." For example, "Family Dollar Stores reported that its fiscal fourth-quarter net income rose 41 percent on strong sales, likely spurred by government stimulus checks," but the stock still dropped 9 percent last week. Frontier Communications was down 27 percent, DirecTV Group lost 21 percent and Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. sank 29 percent. (Read more)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Immigration reform key to stabilizing farm labor, domestic fruit and vegetable production?

Ron Smith of the Southwest Farm Press says in an editorial that reform of the immigration system is vital if U.S. fruit and vegetable growers are to remain viable. Because the labor supply for these farmers is nearly entirely made up of foreign-born workers, many of whom are in the country illegally, it is difficult to maintain adequate labor force. "Of 1.6 million serious farm workers in the United States, 80 percent are foreign born, and of those 70 percent are unauthorized," Smith writes. Farms struggle to keep workers because of their tendency to move, either around the U.S. or back to their native countries.

Smith quotes Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform: "We need a system that allows a transition to permanent status." There is evidence of how devastating a labor shortage can be for the industry. Regelbrugge said, "In 2006, Northern California lost one-fourth of a pear crop. In 2007, Michigan lost $1 million worth of asparagus." These losses are pushing many to downsize their growing operations, forcing the U.S. to import a larger percentage of its fruits and vegetables. "A recent Texas survey indicated more than 75 percent of producer respondents indicated they would consider downsizing operations because of labor shortages," writes Smith. "More than one-fourth were moving production out of the United States. More than one-third were considering moving out of the country. And some shut down operations."

Proponents of immigration reform are supporting measures to create a more stable workforce by allowing more foreign workers to enter the U.S. legally. AgJOBS and Emergency Agriculture Relief Act are two examples of legislation intent on accomplishing that goal. Many groups, including labor unions, are opposed to guest worker programs. "Other challenges include 'an epidemic of state and local laws,' and a tendency to blame employers as 'the common denominator'," Smith writes. (Read more)

Bootleggers spread havoc on the Alaskan tundra

In much of rural Alaska the sale of alcohol is illegal. Many of these places are dominated by native people whose culture did not include alcohol until whites brought it. (Angel Franco photo of liquor being taken from a plane)

Dan Barry of The New York Times writes from the town of Bethel, "Many rural Alaskan communities consider alcohol to be the primary accelerant for crime, domestic strife and other social problems, and either ban it outright or, as in Bethel, tightly restrict its use."

As in rural areas of the Lower 48, restrictions on the sale of alcohol have led to bootlegging in the Alaskan tundra. "A fifth of R&R — which stands for Rich & Rare, a highbrow name for a bottom-shelf blend — sells for $10 or so in Anchorage," adds Berry. "But that same bottle can sell for as much as $300 in a dry village in the tundra, making R&R the bootlegger’s current alcohol of choice and the trooper’s alcohol of interest. . . . A case of bootleg whiskey in a small Alaska village of 600 people can shut down that village for a week.”(Read more)

Va. cockfighters decry laws quashing their sport

New laws in Virginia have essentially outlawed all cockfighting in the state, a move that supporters of the blood sport say ignores tradition and a need for oversight.

"What happens is the people who've been wanting order and setting rules get out, and then they're not there to police it anymore," Tommy Greene, whose family has been breeding chickens for cockfights for five generations, told Mason Adams of The Roanoke Times, which ran the photo. "There's the [Virginia Gamefowl Breeders Association] people and there's some other people. Why punish us? The law was more than adequate."

In the past two years, lawmakers have cracked down on cockfighting. "In 2007, Congress passed a law increasing the penalty for transporting animals across state lines for the purposes of fighting from a Class 1 misdemeanor to a felony," Adams notes. "The General Assembly passed legislation this year that strengthened penalties for animal fighting and effectively closed the loopholes that allowed [legal cockfighting]."

The story shows that the Times continues to chase stories of interest where it finds them, not just in its backyard, as most papers do now. Blackstone is in Southside Virginia, 130 miles and two and a half hours from Roanoke. (Read more)

Schools having trouble meeting increasingly high standards set under No Child Left Behind Act

States with rigorous school testing standards are finding that their schools are being penalized under the No Child Left Behind Act. A New York Times article says this is one of the factors that is leaving solid schools in jeopardy under the law, which is especially controversial in rural areas.

The NCLB law requires schools to show a yearly increase on students scoring "proficient" or above on state testing, with the goal of getting 100 percent of students achieving that by 2014. Two years of not meeting goals brings more sanctions. In South Carolina, which is widely considered to have one of the nation's most rigorous testing standards, 83 percent of schools missed last year's goal, Sam Dillon reports for the Times. “The law is diagnosing schools that just have the sniffles with having pneumonia,” said Jim Rex, the South Carolina schools superintendent. Meanwhile, states such as Wisconsin and Mississippi, with much more lenient testing requirements, had little problem meeting NCLB goals. (Read more)

An Associated Press report says an increase in school failure rates could have a significant rural impact. One of the first sanctions imposed on schools failing to meet NCLB goals is that students may transfer to higher performing schools in the same district, but many rural school districts only have one school. Also, after three years of not meeting goals, schools are required to pay for tutoring, placing an additional strain on already tight budgets. (Read more)

Horse neglect could rise due to drought, economy

The director of equine protection for The Humane Society of the United States warns that horse neglect may be on the rise in the coming months, as drought and a rough economy tighten farmers' purse strings. Keith Dane told Greg Kocher of the Lexington Herald-Leader that the drought has drastically reduced farmers' hay supply, and horse owners in crisis can prevent most cases of horse neglect by turning early to horse-rescue groups. "If they anticipate they are going to have a problem, they should seek help before it becomes a problem for the horse and before it becomes a welfare issue and the horse needs to be seized or, even worse, possibly euthanized," Dane said.

Dane also said the Humane Society hopes to begin accrediting horse-rescue programs in the next year. Most such operations are in good shape, "but then there are some that are on shaky ground," he said. "So there's a need to ensure the public, to ensure Congress, to ensure the horse industry that horse rescues that are in operation meet a certain standard." (Read more) Dane was in Lexington Saturday to honor U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Hopkinsville), who was named the organization's "Horseman of the Year" for his efforts to help horses.

Where do the candidates stand on health care?

Health care can be one of the most important issues in an election, but also one of the most complicated, so it often doesn't get the coverage it deserves, especially in newspapers without wire services. But there are plenty of online resources for stories, or just for linking, about the positions of candidates in this year's presidential race. Susan Brink of the Los Angeles Times offers a very useful summary:

The Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports independent research on healthcare, finds fundamental differences between the two plans. The organization has summarized the candidates' positions in 22 areas, including prescription drugs, healthcare disparities, preventive medicine and chronic disease management. Go to

The Kaiser Family Foundation has several tools exploring McCain's and Obama's positions on health issues, including a side-by-side comparison of the candidates' proposals to reduce the number of uninsured and deal with public programs like Medicare, their positions on taxing employees' health benefits and their plans to pay for it all. The site also includes comparisons of the candidates' positions on stem cell research, electronic medical records, medical malpractice, mental health parity, prescription drug costs, women's health and veterans' health. Go to

The Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, estimates that over 10 years, McCain's plan would cost the federal budget $1.3 trillion, while Obama's plan would cost $1.6 trillion. Go to

Political scientist Jonathan Oberlander, associate professor of social medicine and health policy and administration at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, offers an analysis of the candidates' plans in the Aug. 21 New England Journal of Medicine, including a chart with key points. For this and other journal reports on the campaign, look for the "Election 2008" label at

Brink also notes a University of Virginia debate between the candidates' health-policy advisers, avalable in podcast or mp3 download, and competing views from Physicians for a National Health Program and the libertarian Cato Institute.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Private-sector loans, not Fannie and Freddie, triggered the mortgage crisis, McClatchy reports

In the run-up to the Iraq War, one news organization more than any other employed the skepticism and watchdog reporting called for in such a situation: the Washington bureau of Knight-Ridder Newspapers. Knight-Ridder is no more, but the bureau lives on under the McClatchy Co., and it still has a hard-nosed approach, displayed this weekend in a story on what caused the mortgage meltdown and the financial crisis. We relay this story not only because it has a rural angle, but because McClatchy reporters' work often doesn't reach as large an audience as those at major national newspapers.

Rebutting "a conservative campaign that blames the global financial crisis on a government push to make housing more affordable to lower-class Americans," David Goldstein and Kevin G. Hall report, "Federal housing data reveal that the charges aren't true, and that the private sector, not the government or government-backed companies, was behind the soaring subprime lending at the core of the crisis."

The charges focus on mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Hall and Goldstein write, "In an effort to promote affordable home ownership for minorities and rural whites, the Department of Housing and Urban Development set targets for Fannie and Freddie in 1992 to purchase low-income loans for sale into the secondary market that eventually reached this number: 52 percent of loans given to low-to moderate-income families, [which] represent a small portion of overall lending."

"Between 2004 and 2006, when subprime lending was exploding, Fannie and Freddie went from holding a high of 48 percent of the subprime loans that were sold into the secondary market to holding about 24 percent," the reporters write. "Fannie and Freddie were subject to tougher standards than many of the unregulated players in the private sector who weakened lending standards, most of whom have gone bankrupt or are now in deep trouble."

The story also largely debunks the notion that the meltdown should be blamed on the Community Reinvestment Act, a 1977 law designed to stop discrimination against minorities and see that banks recycled money in their local markets. "Only commercial banks and thrifts must follow CRA rules," Goldstein and Hall note. "The investment banks don't, nor did the now-bankrupt non-bank lenders . . . that underwrote most of the subprime loans. These private non-bank lenders enjoyed a regulatory gap, allowing them to be regulated by 50 different state banking supervisors instead of the federal government. And mortgage brokers, who also weren't subject to federal regulation or the CRA, originated most of the subprime loans." (Read more)

But when it comes to the broader, global financial crisis caused by the mortgage meltdown, the Clinton administration bears part of the blame, a man who headed the Securities and Exchange Commission in the last three years of the administration told ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom. Arthur Levitt "acknowledges that he and his colleagues a decade ago 'beat back' regulatory efforts that could have prevented credit markets from becoming so precariously balanced they were 'milliseconds' from disaster," Sharona Coutts and Jake Bernstein report. (Read more)

Issues of food, health, energy, trade and national security converge, posing basic policy questions

The next president may have to be "Farmer In Chief," Michael Pollan, Knight professor of journalism at the University of California, writes today in The New York Times Magazine.

"The era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close," Pollan writes in an 8,250-word letter to the president-elect. "What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact — so easy to overlook these past few years — that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security." And it is now intertwined with energy, the rising cost of which makes it play a larger role in food production, and the use of crops to make energy.

It now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of "modern supermarket food," Pollan reports. In 1940, the ratio was 2.3 to 1. "After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do," Pollan writes.

Pollan touches on perhaps his favorite subject, "the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet," and predicts that growing food shortages in other nations will make "the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food." He also notes the possibility that terrorists may try to contaminate the food supply, but adds, "The good news is that the twinned crises in food and energy are creating a political environment in which real reform of the food system may actually be possible for the first time in a generation."

Pollan's attacks on monoculture farming and confined animal feeding operations may prompt traditional agribusiness interests to dismiss his ideas, but he identifies some fundamental policy choices worthy of consideration. We can't do justice to his essay with a simple blog item. Read it.