Thursday, December 31, 2009

New laws show a historic turn on Tobacco Road

The annual story about new laws taking effect on New Year's Day has a rural angle: The new statewide smoking bans in North Carolina and Virginia, still two of the leading tobacco-growing states.

North Carolina's ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, which actually takes effect Jan. 2, is "among the most surprising new laws," The Associated Press says. "There are exceptions for country clubs, Elks lodges and the like, but the change is a dramatic one for North Carolina, whose tax coffers long depended on Big Tobacco.

"Virginia approved a similar law that took effect Dec. 1, but it's more accommodating to smokers because it allows establishments to offer areas in which to light up as long as they have separate ventilating systems. Not including Virginia and its partial ban, smoking will be banned in restaurants in 29 states and in bars in 25, according to the American Lung Association." (Read more)

Pilgrim's Pride to pay $4.5M in immigration case; Pilgrim family members demoted, ousted by JBS

Fresh out of a bankruptcy that left some of its contract farmers holding mortgages for chickenhouses that no longer had plants to supply, Pilgrim's Pride Corp. has agreed to pay the federal government $4.5 million "to settle a two-year investigation into identity theft and hiring people not authorized to work in the United States," Rita Jane Gabbett of MeatingPlace reports. "As part of the settlement, Pilgrim's Pride recognized that its voluntary compliance programs can be enhanced to more accurately identify unauthorized persons who seek or gain employment through identity fraud or other unlawful means."

The agreement was with the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. ICE raided five Pilgrim's Pride locations in 2007 and 2008, finding 338 unauthorized workers, but no civil or criminal charges were filed. "The news comes days after Pilgrim's Pride announced it had emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy after completing a 13-month restructuring that included selling a 64 percent share in the company to JBS USA," Gabbett notes.

Meanwhile, the chief operating officer of JBS, Wesley Mendonca Batista, has replaced Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim as chairman of Pilgrim's Pride, and Lonnie Ken Pilgrim, the company's vice president, and Richard Cogdill, its chief financial officer, have been removed, Ann Bagel Storck of MeatingPlace reports, citing a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

States struggle to keep up with natural-gas drilling; EPA tells New York state to be careful

"State oil and gas regulators are spread too thin to do their jobs," ProPublica reports, in the nonprofit journalism outlet's latest look at natural-gas drilling. The country has "nearly one million active oil and gas wells, a number that's likely to climb as the feverish growth in natural-gas exploration continues," Abram Lustgarten writes.

Lustgarten examined the states where drilling has expanded rapidly. "While the number of new oil and gas wells being drilled in the 22 states each year has jumped 45 percent since 2004, most of the states have added only a few regulators," who are usually also responsible for overseeing oil drilling. "Those with the widest gaps are Texas, which is already grappling with the most drilling, and New York, which is expected to soon have the fastest rate of growth. As regulators' workloads have grown, enforcement actions -- the number of times violations were recorded and acted on -- have dropped in many states, often by more than half. That could mean companies are complying with the law -- or that inspectors aren't checking the wells." In our experience, both are true, but better compliance usually follows better enforcement.

There were exceptions; in Kentucky since 2006, drilling has declined but enforcement actions have increased. In Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the state that provided the example that Lustgarten used to start his story, drilling declined greatly this year but staffing and enforcement actions have gone up. ProPublica has a state-by-state database here; its latest wrapup story is here. UPDATE, Jan. 5: The database has been updated with information from Montana, where enforcement is up.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency, responding to New York state's proposed drilling regulations, told the state "that it had major concerns about how proposed hydraulic drilling for natural gas would affect public health and the environment, and urged it to undertake a broader study of the potential impact," Mireya Navarro of The New York Times reports. "It recommended that “essential environmental protection measures” be taken before the state begins to review permit applications for the drilling." (Read more)

How religious is your state? By what measurement?

Mississippi is far and away the most religious state, ranking first in "absolutely certain" belief in God, daily prayer, weekly worship attendance, and the percentage of residents who say religion is very important in their lives, according to polling data compiled by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The next 10 most religious states, based on the importance respondents attach to religion, are all in the South. In other categories, Utah and Kansas are in the top 10. The least religious states are those in New England, followed by Alaska, though Arizona and Colorado rank among them on church attendance. For an interactive table of the categories and the states, click here.

EPA lays out possible penalties for states if they fail to clean up Chesapeake Bay

We reported in September that the Environmental Protection Agency was going to get tough with states and localities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (right) in a redoubled effort to clean up the estuary and rid it of "dead zones" where fish and shellfish can't live. Yesterday, EPA laid out the possible penalities for compliance. David Farenthold of The Washington Post reports, "EPA officials said they might:
-- Object to state-issued permits for new sources of pollution, such as factories, sewage-treatment plants or suburban storm sewers.
-- Require states to offset pollution in one area by cutting it in another. If a state can't find ways to curb pollution from farms, for instance, the EPA could require stricter cuts from sewage-treatment plants.
-- Take tighter control of federal money that goes to states for antipollution programs, to make sure it is used to solve outstanding problems."

However, Farenthold notes, "Clean-water laws make it easy to crack down on pollution that comes out of a pipe, such as treated sewage and factory discharges. But they give states less power to crack down on pollution that doesn't come from pipes, such as the fertilizer and animal manure that wash off suburban lawns and farm fields." (Read more)

Rural school group has news, data and analysis on education issues and trends

The Rural School and Community Trust is an excellent watchdog in Washington for rural education, and often a good source of information for reporters who cover rural schools. Its latest Rural Policy Matters newsletter has several stories of interest:

Race to Top revisions slightly better for rural schools, plus a detailed analysis

Large, very-low-poverty districts benefit in Title I formula at expense of high-poverty districts large and small

Rural districts with low graduation rates are high-poverty, high-minority

Helping Students Prepare for College, with rural adaptations (registration required)

Kansas City Fed economists see little risk of sharp drop in farmland values in the near term

The value of farmland is an important underlying factor in the rural economy. The recession has "cut farm incomes and also cooled residential and recreational demand for farmland," reducing farmland values slightly, and while they have "held relatively steady" this year, increased volatility in agriculture markets and the prospect of higher interest rates makes some wonder, "Are today’s farmland values another bubble getting ready to burst?"

So write Jason Henderson, a vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and Assistant Economist Maria Akers in the latest edition of the bank's Main Street Economist. But after going through a detailed analysis of the data, as well as current and historical trends, they sees "little risk of a sharp collapse in farmland values in the near term" because "near-term projections suggest that returns to crop production may be strong enough to support recent cropland value gains." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Repoened rural refinery in Kentucky accuses Marathon Oil of unfair competition

A small oil refinery Southern Kentucky, recently bought in bankruptcy and reopened, is accusing Marathon Oil Corp. of unfair competition that is about to run it out of business. Marathon says a deal the refinery proposed would violate federal and state laws.

Lawrence Barker of Somerset Energy Refining wrote in an open letter to Marathon, dated Dec. 15 and published in the Dec. 26 Somerset Commonwealth Journal, that trucker-brokers who once delivered to Somerset are going 172 miles northeast, to the Marathon refinery on the Big Sandy River at Catlettsburg, because Marathon is paying them "additional incentives that SER simply cannot match." Barker said Barrett Oil of Albany has "threatened to divert to Marathon" Jan. 1, and "This refinery will close without the Barrett deliveries."

"Barker asked Marathon to refuse future purchase of regional crude reserves, and to cease the trucker’s incentives, instead giving local producers a higher price for their crude," Commonwealth Journal Editor Ken Shmidheiser wrote, calling Barker's letter "a David-versus-Goliath challenge." In return, Barker offered to provide Marathon a rare type of crude and co-sponsor advertising that would give Marathon credit for saving Somerset's 100 jobs.

Marathon spokespersons said they had not been asked to comment on the letter until contacted today by The Rural Blog. "We deny that those allegations are appropriate or correct," spokeswoman Angelia Graves said in an interview. She said Marathon told Somerset that its proposal "violates anti-trust laws," and her company is "not going to engage in any discussion with them or anyone else in the industry that is anti-competitive." Marathon's Dec. 18 letter is posted here.

In the interview today, Graves first said "Our company pays the market price," and she was asked if that included the trucker incentives Barker mentioned. "I'm not sure what he's referencing there," she said. "I'm not familiar with the individual arrangements, but we deny there's any intent to engage in any practice that is in violation of the law."

'Whoppers of 2009' and other FactCheck reports can help thwart inaccurate, misleading assertions

The folks at FactCheck, who do a good job of separating truth from fiction in politics, have published "Whoppers of 2009," their most outrageous examples of inaccurate and/or misleading assertions. The list, and future reports at, can help local news media avoid passing along bad information from interviewees, letter writers and so on.

"The list of howlers includes the false claim that the stimulus bill would dictate to doctors what procedures they can and can’t perform, and assertions that health care legislation would require seniors to get advice on how to commit suicide," Lori Robertson, Brooks Jackson and Jess Henig write. "Democrats exaggerated the problems their legislation aims to fix — at one point Obama falsely accused an insurance company of being responsible for the death of an Illinois cancer patient."

FactCheck is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. For its report, click here.

More concern about livestock antibiotics' effect on people creates more pressure for regulation

"More and more Americans — many of them living far from barns and pastures — are at risk from the widespread practice of feeding livestock antibiotics," The Associated Press reports. "These animals grow faster, but they can also develop drug-resistant infections that are passed on to people. The issue is now gaining attention because of interest from a new White House administration and a flurry of new research tying antibiotic use in animals to drug resistance in people."

Reporters Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza write that they looked at the issue for six months. They start their story with a compelling dateline (Frankenstein, Mo.) and anecdote, about a farmer who nearly lost his leg after being gored by a boar with a strep infection that was resistant to antibiotics. After finding that he and his pigs all has the same resistances, he "tossed his hypodermic needles, sacked his buckets of antibiotic-laced feed, slaughtered his herd and started anew," Mason and Mendoza report. They also write about an Iowa farmer who feeds his pigs an antibiotic that is not absorbed by their digestive systems.

"Farm groups and pharmaceutical companies argue that drugs keep animals healthy and meat costs low, and have defeated a series of proposed limits on their use," the reportyers write. "Thirteen percent of the antibiotics administered on farms last year were fed to healthy animals to make them grow faster. Antibiotics also save as much as 30 percent in feed costs among young swine, although the savings fade as pigs get older, according to a new USDA study." Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., is fighting for a law that would ban giving antibiotics to animals unless they are sick. (Read more)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stimulus funds allocated to rural areas go to some places in metro areas; definition of 'rural' at issue

"Nearly a quarter" of the $12 billion in economic-stimulus funds that has been paid out after being designated for rural areas, most of it in loan guarantees for home buyers, has gone to localities in "the nation's biggest metropolitan areas," Brad Heath reports for USA Today. "The spending reignites a longstanding debate over what 'rural' really means in an increasingly urban nation." Congress wrote definitions into the bill that allowed the aid to "small, far-flung suburbs" in metropolitan areas, Heath writes. Because metro areas are deifned by county lines and commuting patterns, much rural territory can be included. For a detailed explanation of how the federal government can define "rural," click here.

UPDATE, Dec. 30: Dawn House of The Salt Lake Tribune reports that few Utahns have taken advantage of the loan guarantees and none have applied for stimulus-funded business loans, both administered by the Department of Agriculture. "The loan programs aren't well known because the agency has no money for advertising -- and few think of the USDA as a bank," House writes. "Rural residents often find out about programs through word of mouth or when a state or federal agency refers them to the USDA Rural Development office." (Read more)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Drilling in Marcellus Shale leaves more chemicals than expected, as Congress reconsiders exemption

Gas drilling companies leave a lot more water and chemicals in the Marcellus Shale formation, right, than they did in similar formations elsewhere when they won an exemption from federal regulation four years ago partly with arguments that relatively little drilling fluid remained, Abram Lustgarten of ProPublica reports. The news could affect debate on a bill in Congress that would eliminate the exemption. (ProPublica map)

"When lawmakers approved that exemption, it was generally accepted that only about 30 percent of the fluids stayed in the ground. At the time, fracturing was also used in far fewer wells than it is today and required far less fluid," Lustgarten writes. "Three company spokesmen and a regulatory officials said in separate interviews with ProPublica that as much as 85 percent of the fluids used during hydraulic fracturing is being left underground after wells are drilled in the Marcellus Shale." (Read more)

Meanwhile, Mike Lee and Elizabeth Campbell of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram report on problems caused by a disposal well for chemicals used to extract gas from the Barnett Shale, a formation similar to the Marcellus. "There have also been reports of problems in small-town water wells and private water wells across the Barnett Shale," they write.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Miner who campaigns for safety gets good writeup

Ralph Dunlop of The Courier-Journal has a great profile in the Christmas Day paper of "perhaps the most active, relentless and combative mine-safety advocate in Kentucky, at least among working coal miners," Scott Howard of Harlan County.

Health bill will benefit rural poor, but maybe not Democrats in 2010

If you have time on this Christmas weekend to read only one political analysis of the health-care issue, we recommend the thorough, evenhanded and salient piece by John Harris, editor in chief of Politico, and reporters Alexander Burns and Josh Gerstein. It says both parties have staked their near-term and maybe long-term future on the issue, and offers scenarios that would benefit each party.

The story has one paragraph which should make rural journalists realize their responsibility to illuminate the issue for their readers, listeners and viewers, not just trade in one-sided opinion pieces. Harris writes, "The political impact of the bill could be amplified by its geographic reach. Many of the bill’s long-term benefits in terms of insurance subsidies for the poor will go to states in the South where Republicans have held sway for decades. However, many of the beneficiaries will be minorities and the rural poor, who have traditionally had a low turnout in elections." (Read more)

States' competition for stimulus funds for schools is stimulating policy proposals and debate

Education reporters, take note: "The federal Race to the Top competition is helping to drive a flurry of measures nationwide aimed, at least in part, at making states stronger candidates" for part of the $4 billion available for school reform from the economic stimulus package, Eric Roebelen of Education Week reports. Examples: Tennessee might evaluate teachers partly on student test results, and Alabama might get charter schools. Both ideas have stirred opposition. Some states have already implemented changes, hoping to get a funding boost as they face more budget cuts. (Read more)

Small daily gives frank look at troubled local bank

For most of the time since the banking crisis hit, more than a year ago, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues has encouraged community newspapers to report on the health of their community banks, using easily available public information gathered by federal regulators and public-interest organizations. We have no idea how good the coverage has been nationwide, but we think it would be hard to beat what we've seen this week in The State Journal of Frankfort, Ky.

First the newspaper reported that the leading bank in town, Farmers Bank & Capital Trust Co., plans to start repaying the $30 million it borrowed from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and that its non-performing loans increased from $29 million to $44 million over a six-month period earlier this year, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Reporter Paul Glasser also cited a recent report by the bank to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., revealing that it lost money in September, after making $4.3 million in September 2008.

Those are the kind of figures that could make depositors worry about the solvency of their bank. The newspaper confronted those fears and figures in an editorial (accompanied by a cartoon), saying, "This doesn’t mean the local bank, or its holding company, is on the brink of failure. Most failed institutions are said to have troubled asset ratios of 100 percent." But the editorial also noted that the bank plans to sell stock to repay TARP "at the risk of diluting current shareholders," that the Investigative Reporting Workshop of the American University School of Journalism reported the bank's troubled assets rose to by more than a fifth this year, and its "troubled asset ratio" was 36.9 percent in September, far above the national average of 14.1 percent. And it went back to the start of TARP, noting that the “Treasury Department insisted the loans were not bailouts of participating banks, merely a helping hand to get sound institutions through tough times. But ProPublica, a nonprofit group of investigative journalists, said some of the banks 'have turned out to be not so healthy.'”

The editorial continued relating the local situation to the national, saying the bank "is in the same predicament as its customers: Even though some economists say the recession is over, the recovery is too weak to make anyone feel especially secure. [It] finds neither businesses nor individuals are in the mood to borrow much money, which inevitably depresses the bank’s revenue outlook," the editorial continues. "If Americans really have resolved to reduce their indebtedness, that’s not a bad thing. Farmers Bank was established in an era of fewer consumer goods when people found it prudent to borrow only if they really needed to, and vigilant bankers kept them from diving in over their heads. It’s past time for financiers, and the rest of us, to rediscover the proven wisdom of living within our means."

That's a frank and helpful look at a town's most powerful financial institution, by a newspaper that has a circulation of only 8,000 and is often considered the "local little sister" to metropolitan papers in Louisville and nearby Lexington. While Frankfort is the state capital, it is not metropolitan; it has a population of only 27,000 and a county population of fewer than 50,000, so The State Journal is still very much a community newspaper. It's owned by Ohio-based Dix Communications and makes its edtorials available online only to subscribers, but Opinion Editor Ron Herron has graciously alllowed the pertinent editorial page to be posted on the Institute site, here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A leading newspaper association executive retires

Bill Monroe of the Iowa Newspaper Association, one of the best and longest-tenured state newspaper association executives, is retiring after 29 years. He will be succeded by Chris Mudge, who has been assistant director.

In this week's INA Bulletin, Monroe writes that the association is a national leader because its 250 or so newspapers are almost all community papers: "Perhaps because there is no Top 50 market newspaper in Iowa, our members are more alike than they are different from one another. They know they can accomplish much working together. . . . They are willing to contribute to a foundation which, in turn, provides them with top quality training at a very affordable cost."

INA probably has the most extensive training program of any state newspaper group. "Our Foundation is the leading state press association foundation, having raised more money in the past three years than any other and exploding the programming options for our members," he writes. We're glad to provide an amplifier as Bill toots the INA horn. Best wishes in retirement, Bill.

Passage of climate bill in 2010 looking less likely

Bruised by the health care debate and worried about what 2010 will bring, moderate Senate Democrats are urging the White House to give up now on any effort to pass a cap-and-trade bill next yearThe prospect of a final vote on health-care reform early in 2010, and the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit to produce anything close to a binding or global agreement, make it unlikely that the Senate will join the House in passing climate-change legislation, several observers have opined this week. The latest is electric-industry reporter Liam Denning of The Wall Street Journal.

"Selling even a multi-lateral settlement to Americans was going to be difficult in the wake of the 'Climategate' revelations throwing doubt on the science of global warming," Denning writes. "Unilateral legislation ahead of next year's mid-term elections now looks all but impossible. Meanwhile, the alternative route of having the Environmental Protection Agency regulate carbon emissions as pollutants would likely provoke strong legal challenges." (Read more)

UPDATE, Dec. 24: Not just legal challenges, the Journal's Ian Talley writes:. "As part of a deal on a bill to increase the nation's debt limit, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) will allow the GOP to submit a controversial amendment to temporarily suspend new emissions regulation. The agreement was reached late Tuesday. . . . A similar amendment wasn't allowed to come up for a vote earlier this year. Capitol Hill pundits say the majority leader likely feared Republicans might win the vote, with many Democrats also expressing concern about proposed greenhouse-gas regulations." (Read more)

UPDATE, Dec. 27: "Bruised by the health care debate and worried about what 2010 will bring, moderate Senate Democrats are urging the White House to give up now on any effort to pass a cap-and-trade bill next year," reports Politico's Lisa Lerer. She writes that the wary Democrats number "at least half a dozen" and include Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Kent Conrad of North Dakota. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Heartland Publications in Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Heartland Publications LLC, publisher of about 20 daily newspapers, 30 weeklies and other mostly rural publications, "filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Monday after agreeing with its major lender on a plan to cut the company's debt load by more than half," The Associated Press reports. "The company said the newspapers — in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia — would continue operating as usual." For a Wall Street Journal story by Jacqueline Palank, click here. For Heartland's own story, click here. For a list of Heartland's papers by state, with frequency and circulation data, from the Editor and Publisher Yearbook and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, click here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Health bill would boost Medicare payments in states where most counties are sparsely populated

The Senate health-reform bill "would increase Medicare payments to hospitals and doctors in any state where at least 50 percent of the counties are 'frontier counties,' defined as those having a population density less than six people per square mile," Robert Pear reports for The New York Times. "The Congressional Budget Office has determined that Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming meet the criteria." (Read more)

The bill also includes $10 billion for non-profit community health centers, officially called federally qualified health centers, and $4 billion for expansion of the National Health Service Corps, "which provides loan repayments and scholarships for primary care doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and mental health professionals," both pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The Nation notes.

Other winners, as well as losers, are tallied in a list from The Associated Press. For interactive, side-by-side comparisons of the Senate bill with other versions, from the Kaiser Family Foundation, click here. UPDATE, Dec. 23: Differences in the House and Senate bills may be hard to reconcile, writes the Los Angeles Times' Janet Hook, who knows Congress like the back of her hand. UPDATE, Dec. 24: Here's the latest example of that.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

2 looks at mountaintop removal: Fear of violence between sides partly animated by religion

Vicki Smith of The Associated Press notes that protesters on both sides in West Virginia have been charged with battery and writes: "Both sides are fighting for a way of life. The miners see the mountains as their livelihood. The environmentalists see them as divine and irreplaceable creations."

Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal reports from Kentucky: "Beneath Appalachian mountains wreathed in mist, dozens of religious leaders gathered to decry a mining practice they see an as affront to both God and nature ... but ... at First Baptist Church in Pikeville, a congregation replete with miners and those in coal-related businesses ... say they 'thank God we've got the coal.' . . . Both sides ... speak of a spiritual duty to strike a balance between jobs and nature, but they see that balancing point at different places.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Congress appropriates funds for USDA program to cover some of dairy farmers' heavy losses
For the USDA release, click here. For another release, on USDA purchase of cheese to help farmers and food banks, click here.

U.S., 20 other nations to research emissions of greenhouses gases from farms

Black leaders want inmates counted where they're from, not where incarcerated (often rural)

Nelson for health bill; change reassures gun owners, helps osteopathic, allopathic med schools

U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska said this morning that he is prepared to join his fellow Democrats in voting for the health-care reform bill, "clearing the way for final passage by Christmas," Shailagh Murray of The Washington Post reports.

"Democratic leaders spent days trying to hammer out a deal with Nelson, and worked late Friday night with Nelson on abortion coverage language that had proved the major stumbling block. But Nelson also secured other favors for his home state," Murray writes. "Asked if he was prepared to support the bill, Nelson said, 'Yeah'."

This may be part of the deal: Majority Leader Harry Reid's floor amendment "aims to relieve gun owners' concerns that reform would view gun ownership as an unhealthy lifestyle and charge them higher premiums or deny them coverage altogether," Chris Frates reports for Politico. "The amendment says that nothing in the bill requires people to disclose whether they own a gun and gun ownership cannot be factored into premiums or coverage decisions."

The biggest section of the amendment creates a grant program for osteopathic and allopathic medical schools to help recruit "students most likely to practice medicine in underserved rural communities, providing rural-focused training and experience, and increasing the number of recent allopathic and osteopathic medical school graduates who practice in underserved rural communities." All rural doctors in Nebraska attend allopathic or osteopathic medical schools, according to this page on the University of Nebraska's medical school Web site.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Rural Blog is on holiday, sort of

THE RURAL BLOG WILL POST LESS FREQUENTLY AND MORE BRIEFLY THROUGH JAN. 10. If you have items to offer, e-mail them to or Happy holidays!

Ky. to have its first legal bear hunt in 100 years

A bear overpopulation has led to what will be the first legal Kentucky bear hunt in 100 years this weekend. "As bears have become a sight-seeing attraction and sometimes a nuisance for state parks in Harlan, Letcher and Pike counties [on the state's mountainous southeastern border], local hunters have been eager to add black bears as a big game animal," Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

"Kentucky is kind of a unique spot in this region of the United States because they historically had not had bears in great numbers. West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia have had bears for decades," Steven Dobey, bear program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, told Hjalmarson. "Their return has been, in the grand scheme, more recent." Dobey estimates there are about 300 black bears in Letcher, Harlan and Pike counties, the only three open to bear hunting tomorrow.

The hunt won't be easy. Only 10 bears may be taken, and many are holed up in their dens during this time of the year. Snow is expected to limit the number of hunters, and much of the hunting area will be private land that is best known to locals, limiting the number of out-of-town hunters. The use of dogs and bait is also not permitted in the Kentucky hunt, as it is in other states, Hjalmarson notes. (Read more)

Monsanto pledges to let farmers use gene-spliced soybeans after patent expires

Contrary to the widely held belief that seed giant Monsanto would require companies to discontinue use of its Roundup Ready 1 soybeans after the patent expires in 2014, the company now says it will continue to allow use of the technology. The announcement "countered a widespread impression in the agriculture business that Monsanto planned to force farmers and seed companies to migrate to a successor product called Roundup Ready 2 Yield, which will remain under patent and is more expensive," Andrew Pollack of The New York Times reports.

The Roundup Ready 1 soybeans will become the first widely grown biotechnology crop to lose patent protection since gene splicing became a mainstay of crop science in the 1990s, Pollack reports. Since farmers and seed companies will no longer have to pay royalties to Monsanto on the gene after 2014, the soybeans could become agricultural biotechnology’s equivalent of a generic drug. We reported Wednesday that an Associated Press review of confidential Monsanto contracts revealed why the company's stranglehold on the seed market had become the subject of an antitrust investigation.

"This is a pretty big concession for Monsanto," Shawn Conley, a soybean specialist at the University of Wisconsin, told Pollack. Monsanto officials said they were confident that most farmers and seed companies would move to Roundup Ready 2, which the company thinks will have higher yields, and that other desirable traits would be added to those crops over time. (Read more)

Researcher envisions Appalachia as honey corridor

An English professor turned bee specialist is hoping to reinvent the way surface mines are reclaimed to include a little more honey. Tammy Horn, a Kentucky native and senior researcher at Eastern Kentucky University, envisions the future of Central Appalachia as the "honey corridor." Her plan starts with reforesting the more than 33,000 surface-mined acres in Eastern Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia in a way that supports bee pollination, Karin Fischer of The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

One day, Horn hopes for 25,000 bee hives on former strip mines, but for now her project, Coal Country Beeworks, has 53 hives on five sites. One of the first mining companies to agree to Horn's plan was the International Coal Group, which followed her plan to include trees, shrubs and flowers that pollinators prefer in the reclamation plan for one of its surface mines. The signature tree for Appalachian apiarists is the sourwood, which has been rarely seeded on reclaimed land, Fischer reports.

"People wouldn't drive five miles to see a reclaimed surface-mine site, but they come 1,000 miles to see a bee yard," Don Gibson, ICG's director of permitting and regulatory affairs, told Fischer. Already more than 250 people have visited the three ICG sites that house the bee project. The company uses these visits as an opportunity to talk about modern-day mining and reclamation methods. "If this region can see the economic promise going forward," Gibson added, "it will be a benefit for everyone involved." (Read more)

As more rural residents drive to jobs elsewhere, fire departments have trouble finding volunteers

Seventy-two percent of the nation's more than 1.2 million firefighters are volunteers, says the National Fire Protection Agency. That percentage is a lot closer to 100 percent in rural communities, where many are finding it harder and harder to even fill a full crew, David Miller of the Nebraska-baded Center for Rural Affairs reports.

"You go through times when there are a shortage of people. In our community especially ... there are a lot of people that work out of town," Tarz Mullinex, the chief of Beresford (S.D.) Fire and Rescue, told Miller. "So, you always cherish anybody that happens to be employed in town or a business person to be on the fire department for the day time fires." South Dakota uses a program called mutual aid, which alerts nearby towns of large fires in areas with a small department.

Finding businessses willing to let their employees leave at a moment's notice to respond to a fire is also difficult. "There are no laws requiring business owners in South Dakota to let volunteer firefighters answer emergency calls while they are working," Miller reports. "For employers it becomes a delicate balance between running a business and protecting the community." (Read more)

EPA delays decisions on coal ash as one-year anniversary of Kingston spill approaches

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday it will delay the release of proposed new rules on the handling and disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had promised the rules proposal would be issued before the end of the year, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. The announcement came five days before the one-year anniversary of the Dec. 22 collapse of the coal-ash impoundment at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant near Kingston, Tenn.

That spill sent more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash, containing more than 2.6 million pounds of toxic pollutants, into local streams, fields and homes, Ward writes, and gave new ammunition to environmental groups campaigning for stricter regulations on coal ash. "In October, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report said the Obama administration was considering a 'hybrid' approach that would regulate some coal-ash dumps as hazardous waste sites and subject others to less strict non-hazardous waste rules," Ward reports.

Last week the Electric Power Research Institute warned in congressional testimony that an EPA hazardous-waste designation for coal ash could force nearly 200 coal-fired power plants nationwide to close. Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans, a longtime advocate of tougher coal-ash regulations, told Ward the EPA delay was "unfortunate," and she hopes that EPA "will prevail over the power industry's fear mongering and campaign of disinformation." (Read more)

Terri Likens, editor of the weekly Roane County News, reflected this week on the spill and her newspaper's coverage, including an aerial view: "It was on that chilly morning flight that I finally was able to really comprehend the enormity of the TVA disaster. I knew then that the coverage of this event was going to be nearly a full-time beat." The recession kept her from replacing a reporter," So with a national-level disaster taking up even more time, we had to tackle what we could while taking a hit to the newsroom. I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish — even while short-staffed — in dealing with this disaster." (Read more)

Calif. Central Valley's dichotomy stems from water

Traveling south on Interstate 5 from San Francisco to Los Angeles offers drivers an interesting glimpse at the widening water disparity in California's Central Valley. The view out the driver-side window is one of green fields and dark, leafy orchards, but the view out the passenger-side window is one of sand-colored grass and ground worn to dust. The difference between the two sides, Lisa M. Hamilton reports for the San Francisco Panorama, is water.

"Money alone can't solve the economic crisis taking place on the Westside," Hamilton writes. "Only one thing can: water." Hamilton's narrative is too comprehensive and in-depth to do justice by excerpting here, but we encourage you to read her examination of the greater forces at work in the Central Valley drought. (Read more)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Newspapers offer cheap subscriptions, free job-wanted ads to the local unemployed

Three newspapers in rural Georgia have developed "highly specialized economic recovery packages" for subscribers, reports the SNPA Bulletin of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. They're following the lead of The News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill., which announced this summer that it would offer renewable three-month subscriptions to the unemployed for $1.

The Daily Citizen, in the carpetmaking center of Dalton, was the first Georgia paper to follow suit. In late October, the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. paper began selling the unemployed subscriptions for $1. "Interested residents needed only to bring verification to the newspaper that their home address matched the address where they were receiving their unemployment check," Sean Ireland writes for SNPA.

Publisher William Bronson wrote, “We want area residents who are experiencing difficult times to stay connected to their community . . . while also helping them find a job.” He said the 12,500-circulation paper “will be delivering these newspapers at a loss, but we feel it is more important to connect those looking for a job with those hiring as soon as possible.”

In November, The Dahlonega Nugget, a 5,400-circulation weekly southeast of Dalton, and the Times Georgian of Carrollton, an 8,000-circ. daily just southwest of Atlanta, started similar measures. The Nugget offers renewable three-month subscriptions for $1 to any local resident looking for work. “With the local unemployment rate now over 11 percent, we want to make sure that none of our readers are forced to give up their connection to the community for economic reasons,” said Wayne Knuckles, right, editor and publisher of the Community Newspapers Inc. paper. “We all have to work together to keep our community strong during these tough times, and this is one small way The Nugget can help.”

The Times-Georgian, owned by Paxton Media Group, is offering discounted three-month subscriptions for $5 to unemployed readers, and free, eight-line classified "job wanted" ads for up to two weeks at no charge. “We know many jobs sites today require a fee and might require a family to move,” said Publisher Leonard Woolsey. “We’d just like to make sure everyone fully explores the employment opportunities in Carroll County without any out-of-pocket expense to them.” He added, “Many of our subscribers and readers have supported us in the past,” Woolsey said. “We need to make sure we are there to give back in their time of need.”

Rural schools less likely to have advanced math

Students in rural areas and small towns have less access to higher-level mathematics courses than their peers elsewhere, says a new study from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Nearly 50 percent of rural and small-town students attend schools that only offer one to three advanced math courses, and only 10 percent have access to seven or more advanced math courses, defined as those beyond algebra II and geometry.

Suburban and urban schools offer, on average, three to four more advanced math courses than rural schools, Carsey reports. Only 15 percent of suburban students have three or fewer advanced math courses to choose from, while 58 percent of urban and 41 percent of suburban students have seven or more courses to choose from.

The report warns that students who do not take these courses typically score lower on assessment tests, which can restrict their higher education and job opportunities. "Limited access to advanced math courses limits the number of qualified students filling the job pipelines in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM fields," lead author Suzanne Graham, assistant professor of education at UNH, said in a news release.

Limited course offerings in rural schools are not limited to math, Carsey reports. Only 53 percent of rural schools offer advanced placement courses in any subject, compared to 72 percent in small towns, 85 percent in suburbs and 78 percent in cities. (Read more)

First round of stimulus broadband grants issued

Vice President Joe Biden announced the first of 18 projects for rural broadband investment funded by the stimulus act today. Other first-round winners will be announced on a rolling schedule between now and February. For the initial list, click here.

An outline of the initial investment from the White House shows an initial concentration on so-called "middle-mile projects." The middle mile is the link between "last-mile," or far-flung, Internet connections and the network of large, high-bandwidth fiber optic cables that span the globe and are known as the Internet backbone. Additional investment in rural last-mile networks will also be funded through the stimulus act to communities where middle-mile investment is not enough to make last-mile service cost effective for private providers.

"President Obama appears to have struck the right balance with the initial announcements on broadband infrastructure awards," Laura M. Taylor, chief policy officer of Connected Nation, a broadband-promotion group, told The Rural Blog in an e-mail. "While the supply-side projects are obviously important for broadband stimulus efforts, effective demand-side programs are critical to accompany these network deployments if we hope to see any sustainable positive economic effects."
Taylor added, "Connected Nation research in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio shows that the largest barrier to broadband adoption is a lack of awareness about broadband’s benefits. Across these three states, 44 percent of those without a home broadband connection say 'I don’t need broadband.' Among vulnerable populations such as low-income residents, minorities, and people with disabilities, this awareness challenge is even greater."

UPDATE, Dec. 17: Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post reports that $212 million of the $183 million in grants go to middle-mile projects. The largest grant, $39.7 million, aims to bring broadband "to about 70 rural communities in upstate New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont," Kang writes. "In northern Georgia, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about $33 million is to be spent on a project to help bring the area's 40,000 homes into the high-speed Internet age." Biden went to Dawsonville, Ga., to announce the grants.

The next largest grant, for $25 million, is for an 1,100-mile fiber-optic network in Maine. "The network will pass through more than 100 communities with 110,000 households and will connect 10 University of Maine campuses," Errine Haines of The Associated Press reports. "Other projects receiving funds include a 4G wireless network to be built by an Alaska Native Corporation in southwestern Alaska, a fiber-to-the-home project in a remote corner of New Hampshire and computer centers for 84 libraries in Arizona." (Read more)

Many rural young adults want health insurance but find it unaffordable

Young adults often choose not to buy health insurance, but others need it and can't afford it, according to a commentary from a University of Kentucky student for National Public Radio, via the Appalachian Media Institute.

"When it comes to health care, I do have options — just not good ones," writes Brittany Hunsaker, left. She explains that when she turned 19 she aged out of Kentucky's insurance program for low-income youth, and soon a health condition made her choose between oral surgery and textbooks for the semester; textbooks lost.

"In the rural county where I grew up, it's not just youth who don't have insurance," writes Hunsaker, who is from Whitesburg in Letcher County. "Adults, unemployed or underemployed in minimum wage jobs, are also without coverage." She explains as she gets older she worries her health will keep getting worse, but for now she ignores aches and pains and simply Googles her symptoms to see if they are serious enough to warrant a medical bill.

Graduating from college doesn't seem to offer any more health insurance coverage for Hunsaker; she doesn't have any friends who earned a job with coverage after graduation. "A sick workforce only intensifies an already sick economy," she writes. "It's hard to work when you can't afford eyeglasses for your astigmatism, dental work for your rotting teeth, or medicine for pneumonia. We're constantly being told we are the future of the country, but we're starting out a step behind." (Read more)

Some rural states not seeking new U.S. education funds, saying rules are skewed for urban schools

Some rural states are seeking money in the first round of Race to the Top, the U.S. Department of Education's new program to encourage innovation and progress in schools, because they feel the regulations cater to urban areas, Alyson Klein of Education Week reports. For instance, Vermont chose not to apply because it would be penalized for not having charter schools, even though it felt it had innovative public schools. North Dakota will also be passing on the first round, but plans to tailor a unique plan for the second round due to the state's "rural nature."

"Most of the federal grants are organized around concentrations of poverty; we don't have really have concentrations," Rae Ann Knopf, Vermont's deputy commissioner of education for transformation and innovation, told Klein. Knopf, who previously worked in the Philadelphia schools, said she appreciates the need to help urban districts, but told Klein, "There are states in other rural areas that really would like to do some good work." (Read more)

You can see the list of states applying for Race to the Top funding here.

Tap water can meet legal limits and still pose risks

The tap water you drink may be within the legal limit for several contaminants but still pose a significant health risk, The New York Times reports in the latest in the paper's series on water quality.

After reviewing records from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey, Charles Duhigg reports government scientists have evaluated 830 of the contaminants most often found in water supplies and have determined that many of them are associated with cancer or other diseases, even at small concentrations, but almost none of the chemicals have been incorporated into water-protection laws. (Read more)

One example: the legal level of arsenic in drinking water. A community could drink perfectly legal water and one in every 600 residents would likely develop bladder cancer, a risk is roughly equivalent to receiving 1,664 X-rays, Duhigg reports. You can see The Times map of the 25 water systems with the highest arsenic levels below.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sunshine Week, March 14-20, will shine on local, unsung heroes in the battle for open government

Sunshine Week, March 14-20, will highlight “Local Heroes” who have played significant roles in fighting for open government in the United States, especially unsung heroes.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors will soon distribute materials explaining a variety of ways for participants to select and celebrate “Local Heroes” in their communities and states. Newspapers will be asked to share this information with their communities during Sunshine Week, along with commentary, editorial cartoons, graphics and public-service ads that ASNE will provide.

Sunshine Week was started in March of 2005 as a way to create a national dialogue about the public´s right to know. It is funded primarily by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation but also has received major organizational support from the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Society of Professional Journalists and others. Sunshine Week information and promotional material can be found at

26,500 schools failed to get mandatory number of kitchen inspections last year

The Child Nutrition Act requires school kitchens be inspected at least twice a year, but USA Today reports 18,000 schools only had one inspection last year and 8,500 more didn't have any. The latest report is part of the newspaper's ongoing series on school lunch safety. Data from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the norovirus, whose transmission is linked to improperly handled food, accounted for one-third of the 23,000 food-borne illnesses reported in schools from 1998-2007, Peter Eisler and Blake Morrison report.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school lunch program, acknowledges that the two-inspection rule is almost impossible to enforce, USA Today reports. Federal data show that more than half the schools in eight states failed to meet the required two inspections last year. In Maine, fewer than 1 percent of school kitchens were inspected the required two times. Other high-ranking states were Alaska, New Mexico, New York, Colorado, New Hampshire, California, Utah and Massachusetts.

USDA requires only that states report the number of schoolsit inspected, not which specific schools were examined. You can see USA Today's state-by-state breakdown of inspection data here. (Read more)

Last week, USDA provided a sample of school lunches to federal lawmakers and staffers to "show lawmakers the improvements the department has made in the nutritional quality -- and taste -- of the $1.2 billion in school commodity foods and to win support to fund further improvements," Jane Black of The Washington Post reported. (Read more)

Pilot projects in health bill could mirror success of Extension Service on farms, surgeon-writer says

As Congress moves toward a decision on health-care reform, one shortcoming often mentioned by Republicans is reliance on pilot programs to fix the ever-increasing cost of medical care. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, has cited pilot programs to reach the conclusion, "This bill doesn’t even meet the basic goal that the American people had in mind and what they thought this debate was all about: to lower costs." (And to cover the uninsured, we might add.)

Before dismissing pilot programs in favor of a grand solution, Congress should look to the success of such programs in U.S. agriculture, writes Atul Gawande, a surgeon and staff member of The New Yorker. At the start of the 20th century the U.S. was trying to improve farm productivity to raise its standard of living and reach its potential as an industrial power, Gawande reports. Instead of enacting grand solutions, like later Communist collective and scientific farms, the U.S. decided to begin its agriculture reform with a pilot program: the Cooperative Extension Service, funded by fedreal, satte and local governments. What started as one demonstration farm in 1903 expanded to the appointment of 33 extension agents the next year and eventually to 750,000 demonstration farms by 1930.

"There are, in human affairs, two kinds of problems: those which are amenable to a technical solution and those which are not," Gawande writes. He places universal health care in the first group, but says reforming agriculture or rising medical costs belong in the second. "No nation has escaped the cost problem: the expenditure curves have outpaced inflation around the world," he writes. "Nobody has found a master switch that you can flip to make the problem go away. If we want to start solving it, we first need to recognize that there is no technical solution."

Gawande contionues, "The history of American agriculture suggests that you can have transformation without a master plan, without knowing all the answers up front. ... Government has a crucial role to play here — not running the system but guiding it, by looking for the best strategies and practices and finding ways to get them adopted, county by county. Transforming health care everywhere starts with transforming it somewhere." (Read more)

Non-profit opens a statehouse bureau in Illinois

As statehouse coverage continues to dwindle around the country, a non-profit organization has opened a bureau in the state capital of Illinois. The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity will publish online at, Bernard Schoenburg of the State Journal-Register in Springfield reports. Scott Reeder, who had been Statehouse bureau chief for Small Newspaper Group for a decade, will be managing editor for the three-person staff.

The Franklin Center, which believes new technology can make government more transparent, is offering its content free to other news outlets via a Web site. "I think journalism is really radically changing, both as our business model changes and our format for presenting the news changes," Reeder told Schoenburg. "This offers an opportunity to present the news in a variety of formats, and I find that very exciting." The group will operate from a rented space in a private building instead of the Capitol's suite of media offices because the Franklin Center failed to get voted in as a member of the Illinois Legislative Correspondents Association this summer.

"A key gateway issue for membership is whether you’re an established news organization, and they have not shown us a track record," ILCA President Ray Long of the Chicago Tribune told Schoenburg. "They’re free to reapply." The Republican background of Franklin Center President Jason Stverak has also been questioned. "ABC News can’t hide the fact that the host of their Sunday morning news program, George Stephanopoulos, is a former senior official with the Clinton administration as well as a senior member of his presidential campaigns," Stverak told Schoenberg in an e-mail. "ABC news as well as Franklin Center shouldn’t be judged by the work history of their staff, but by the content they are producing." (Read more)

AP: Confidential documents detail Monsanto's stranglehold on U.S. seed market

Last month we noted a report from The Washington Post about new allegations of monopoly power against seed and chemcial manufacturer Monsanto. Now The Associated Press has obtained confidential contracts detailing "how the seed giant is squeezing competitors, controlling smaller companies and protecting its dominance over the multibillion-dollar market for genetically altered crops." The company is using its wide reach to control the ability of new biotech firms to get wide distribution for their products, Christopher Leonard reports.

The confidential documents reveal the St. Louis-based firm has agreements with some 200 smaller companies for the right to insert so-called "Roundup Ready" genes into strains of corn and soybeans. One contract provision bans independent companies from breeding plants that contain both Monsanto's genes and the genes of any of its competitors unless Monsanto gives prior written permission, Leonard reports. Another provision stipulates if a smaller company changes ownership, its inventory with Monsanto's traits "shall be destroyed immediately."

As Monsanto tightens its stranglehold on the seed market, with its genes implanted into 95 percent of all U.S soybeans and 80 percent of U.S. corn, seed prices have been increasing steadily, Leonard notes. Now the Department of Justice and at least two state attorneys general (Iowa and Texas) are investigating whether the company's practices violate anti-trust laws. Thomas Terral, chief executive officer of Terral Seed in Louisiana, recently refused a Monsanto contract because he felt it had too many restrictions. "The only person I would have value to is Monsanto, and I would continue to pay them millions in fees," he told Leonard.

A Monsanto spokesman told Leonard that he couldn't comment on many specifics of the agreements because they are confidential and the subject of litigation, but "We do not believe there is any merit to allegations about our licensing agreement. Our approach to licensing many companies is pro-competitive and has enabled literally hundreds of seed companies, including all of our major direct competitors, to offer thousands of new seed products to farmers." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Congress requires delivery of mail on Saturdays

The catch-all appropriations bill that Congress passed over the weekend includes language requiring the Postal Service to deliver mail six days a week, a relief for many rural newspapers that have Friday or Saturday editions.

"This mandate probably eliminates all chance of an end to Saturday delivery in this calendar year," because there are no signs that Congress will take up the issue, National Newspaper Association lobbyist Tonda Rush told her clients. However, "It will arise anew this summer as the 2011 appropriations bills come up. NNA is working closely with the committee staffs to make sure they know our concerns," even as Congress considers the troubled finances of the USPS.

Switch to digital TV leaves some rural areas with signal breakup, fewer stations; story needs telling

The switch to digital-only television signals over the summer received lots of media attention in the months before the transition. But six months later, how smoothly has the transition gone in your community? As a letter to the editor in The Washington Post from Mark and Sally Pfoutz in Purcellville, Va., points out, signal interruptions are plaguing some rural areas. We've noticed similar problems, and this seems like a story that needs updating in many localities, and nationally.

Some of those commenting on the Pfoutzs' letter said they get fewer stations now than before. The Federal Communications Commission has a searchable DTV reception map here, showing what stations should be broadcast in each ZIP code. "Actual signal strength may vary based on a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, building construction, neighboring buildings and trees, weather, and specific reception hardware," the FCC says. "Your signal strength may be significantly lower in extremely hilly areas." Rural journalists, take note.

Coal industry, regulators discuss how to reverse growth in black-lung disease; a lower limit?

Over the weekend we passed along a report that the Mine Safety and Health Administration would lower the limit on miners' coal-dust exposure in an effort to fight coal workers' pneumoconiosis, generally known as black lung, as rates of the disease are growing, especially among younger miners.

Other reports have suggested that MSHA was backing off earlier intentions to lower the limit. Now it appears those signals were part of a negotiation process with the coal industry. The process includes discussion of the limit, Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal reports. Another recommendation on the table is a requirement that dust monitors alert miners when they reach their exposure limit for the day. (WSJ chart)

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that roughly 9 percent of workers with 25 years or more in mines tested positive for black lung in 2005-2006, up from about 4 percent in the late 1990s. The rates also doubled for people with 20 to 24 years in mining, including many in their 30s and 40s. More than 10,000 miners have died from black lung during the past decade, compared with fewer than 400 from mine accidents.

MSHA officials attribute the black-lung increase partly to longer work shifts and companies' uneven dust-mitigation practices, Maker reports. A spokesman for the National Mining Association declined to comment on possible causes for the increase or on the negotiations. Safety officials told Maher that much of the easily accessible underground coal has been mined, and companies are increasingly dependent on thinner coal seams, which requires cutting through rock, which creates more dust. (Read more)

As ExxonMobil buys into natural gas, some drillers adopt more environmentally friendly drilling plans

The chief obstacle to natural gas drilling around the country has seemed to be the environmental concerns associated with the hydraulic fracturing process used to drill gas from deeply buried shales. New, more environmentally friendly drilling methods have begun to catch on, but aren't generally mandated and the industry has been reluctant to implement them nationwide, Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica reports.

"Sometimes environmental considerations aren't the same as the public considerations, and many times the economic considerations don't fit," David Burnett, a Texas A&M associate research scientist and founder of government- and industry-funded Environmentally Friendly Drilling, told Lustgarten. "There could be better management practices used. We have to find a balance."

Among the improvements: replacing some toxic chemicals with "green" fluids, cutting carbon-dioxide emissions by transporting gas through pipes instead of trucks, using natural gas instead of diesel fuel to power drilling rigs, and taking extra steps to seal methane leaks. Still, the most challenging step in making gas drilling more environmentally friendly is dealing with the wastewater, Lustgarten reports. One possible solution is recycling.

Lustgarten, who has been on the fracking story for months, says the industry continues to resist federal or state mandates for their implementation. Industry officials say the new processes are not applicable in every situation and location. "No matter what we do, we are capitalists here in the U.S.," Richard Haut, the Houston Advanced Research Center project director, told Lustgarten. "We do have to look for a balance between environmental issues and development." (Read more)

At least one oil company is making a major bet on the future of natural gas. Monday, ExxonMobil purchased XTO Energy, the nation's second largest gas producer, Jad Mouawad and Clifford Krauss of The New York Times report. "This is not a near-term decision; this is about the next 10, 20, 30 years," Rex Tillerson, the chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, told reporters in a conference call. (Read more)

Monday, December 14, 2009

At Agriculture and Rural Development Day in Copenhagen, farmers in rich and poor nations split

Saturday was “Agriculture and Rural Development Day” at the United Nations conference in Copenhagen on climate change. It was "quite a historic meeting ... never before has agriculture been elevated in such a prominent position" in such negotiations, Lucy Knight, chief political correspondent for Rural Press in Australia, reported in a video report with her story.

Knight wrote, "The key theme was to discuss ways agriculture can be part of any new climate change deal, and how the sector can adapt and mitigate climate change but still secure food production. . . . It looked at the strategies needed to address climate change while farmers are still faced with the task of needing to double food production in the next 40 years."

Here's the part we found most interesting: "There was an obvious rift between developed and developing agricultural nations, as there is at the top level of the broader talks," Knight writes. "African farmers in particular are adamant the focus of any deal for agriculture must be on funding for climate-change adaptation, while other developed nations have stressed the need for recognising the role agriculture can, and does already, play in mitigating carbon, and why international accounting rules under Kyoto need to change to reflect this." (Read more)

West Virginia pot confiscation at an all-time high

West Virginia State Police say they achieved a record amount of marijuana confiscations in 2009. Including indoor and outdoor crops, police say they eradicated 222,621 plants, up from about 140,000 last year and 44,000 in 2007, Ben Adducchio of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports. The total value of the confiscated plants, at $2,000 per plant (which can sometimes be an over-estimate), was almost $450 million.

State Police Cpl. Michael Smith told Adducchio that the state ranked in the top five nationally in marijuana confiscations. "West Virginia has a near perfect climate for cultivating marijuana. It has a moderate Southern latitude temperature range; it has ideal growing conditions," Smith said. "A lot of the texture of the state is remote. West Virginia has a culture that is familiar with farming, so there are a lot of areas where it can be grown." (Read more)

In September we noted a report from The Associated Press detailing how marijuana seizures were up this year in the major production areas of California and Central Appalachia. The AP reported California remains the No. 1 marijuana producing state. In November, Glenda Anderson of The Post Democrat of Santa Rosa, Calif., reported seizures in the state had already hit 4.4 million plants, up from 2.9 million in 2008. Is your state a leader?

Gangs making Indian Country more violent, fearful

An increase in gang violence is being blamed for increased vandalism, theft, violence and fear that are altering the texture of life in parts of Indian Country. "This stunning land of crumpled prairie, horse pastures turned tawny in the autumn and sunflower farms is marred by an astonishing number of roadside crosses and gang tags sprayed on houses, stores and abandoned buildings, giving rural Indian communities an inner-city look," Erik Eckholm of The New York Times reports.

Some reservation gangs have more than 100 members, Eckholm writes, while others have just a few dozen. Indian gangs are more likely than their urban models to fight rivals, usually over some minor slight. "The Justice Department distinguishes the home-grown gangs on reservations from the organized drug gangs of urban areas," Eckholm writes, "calling them part of an overall juvenile crime problem in Indian country that is abetted by eroding law enforcement, a paucity of juvenile programs and a suicide rate for Indian youth that is more than three times the national average."

Attorney General Eric Holder has proposed large increases in money for the police, courts and juvenile programs, and for fighting rampant domestic and sexual violence on reservations, Eckholm reports. The Navajo Nation in Arizona has identified 225 gang units, up from 75 in 1997. Even as police budgets are augmented, some tribal leaders see cultural revival as their best hope for fighting gangs. "We’re trying to give an identity back to our youth," Melvyn Young Bear, the Oglala Sioux tribe’s appointed cultural liaison at its Pine Ridge, S.D., reservation, told Eckholm. "They’re into the subculture of African-Americans and Latinos. But they are Lakota, and they have a lot to be proud of." (Read more)

3 Kentucky counties explore joint economic effort

In April 2008 we reported on Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredsen's attempt to overcome traditional county rivalries to forge multi-county economic development, which many experts agree can make a difference in recruiting and retaining jobs. Now a similar effort is afoot on the Tennessee border in Western Kentucky.

Officials in Todd, Trigg and Christian counties are pushing for the creation of a tri-county economic development council, Jennifer Hunter of the Kentucky New Era in the Christian County seat of Hopkinsville reports. Citing a Tennessee Valley Authority study that highlighted the benefits that would come from a tri-county partnership, the county governments have signed an agreement to explore the possibility. (New Era graphic)

Such county alliances are still rare, and this one has several hurdles to jump before becoming a reality. City and state officials in all three counties must agree to the partnership, Hunter reports. The county executives are finishing drafts of the bylaws and a budget, with hopes of a mid-January meeting with economic-development officials.

Several years ago Kentucky implemented a policy that awarded extra points to regional efforts when awarding grants. "We’ve agreed that it’s a worthy idea that’s worthy of further considerations," Christian County Attorney Mike Foster told Hunter. "We’ve agreed to work together in a cooperative and joint fashion to explore the viability of the project." Christian County Judge-Executive Steve Tribble cautioned that the plan still has a way to go: "I don’t know if there’s opposition, but I think there’s a lot of questions that particularly cities and city councils would have about how this works." (Read more)

Subsidy to help logging areas hurt by species protection expands to areas with little logging

A federal program designed to help rural counties where logging operations were hurt by attempts to protect an endangered bird now benefits counties across the country, many of which have limited or no tie to the logging industry, The Associated Press reports. One Senate supporter says it's simply an example of a program expanding to get the votes it needs to stay alive.

Since Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in 2000, "the program has distributed more than $3 billion to 700 counties in 41 states with national forests and helped fund everything from schools to libraries to jails," AP reports. Originally the program focused on the handful of Western states affected by the 1990s battle to protect the northern spotted owl, AP reports. Oregon alone has received almost $2 billion of the funding, and still gets the most.

However, when Congress renewed the law last year, Western states saw their share of funding drop while at least seven other states received increases of over 100 percent. Among those benefiting the most are Utah (636 percent), Alaska (528%), Kentucky (303%), Tennessee (188%), Colorado (184%), North Carolina (150%) and Virginia (150%). The states that received some of the biggest increases were those whose senators supported the law the most.

"Timber was harvested in some of these states in the 1980s -- the basis for the original spending formula -- but at far lower levels than the Pacific Northwest, where timber was king," AP reports. The new formula takes into account national forest acreage in each state and county and includes an adjustment based on per capita income and other factors. "Frankly, we had to broaden the program in order to get the support to go ahead and do a reauthorization, and that's exactly what we did," New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman told AP. (Read more)

AP: Climate science isn't pretty, but it's not faked

We've reported twice before, here and here, that the controversy dubbed "Climategate," about stolen e-mails from some of the world's top climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in southeast England, has been overblown. The Associated Press looked at the controversy, concluded likewise, and moved a story over the weekend, saying that climate science may not be pretty, but isn't faked.

Since almost all daily newspapers and broadcast stations are members of the AP, we have a higher threshold for using the wire service's reports here. But we note this one because climate change is an issue that has serious ramifications for rural America, including places not served well by dailies and TV stations, and because many people, including some rural journalists who should know better, continue to cite the e-mails as proof of fraud. That is vast overstatement, if not just plain wrong.

AP reports, "E-mails stolen from climate scientists show they stonewalled skeptics and discussed hiding data — but the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked." The 1,073 e-mails show the scientists harbored some fleeting, private doubts even as they told the world they were certain about climate change, but the exchanges don't undercut the vast body of evidence showing human-caused global warming, says the story by three AP reporters.

Mark Frankel, director of scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, also reviewed the stolen e-mails and concluded there was "no evidence of falsification or fabrication of data, although concerns could be raised about some instances of very 'generous interpretations.'" The most alarming information AP discovered was the "stunning disdain" for global warming skeptics and what appears to be a reluctance to share any information with them.

"This is normal science politics, but on the extreme end, though still within bounds," Dan Sarewitz, a science policy professor at Arizona State University, told AP. "We talk about science as this pure ideal and the scientific method as if it is something out of a cookbook, but research is a social and human activity full of all the failings of society and humans, and this reality gets totally magnified by the high political stakes here." (Read more)

GAO report says biofuel production will need to be weighed against increased demand for water

We reported last month that the recession may prevent the U.S. from ever using the full amount of biofuel Congress mandated in 2007, but now increased biofuel production may have a new obstacle: water supplies. "As demand for water from various sectors increases and places additional stress on already constrained supplies, the effects of expanded biofuel production may need to be considered," a new report from the Government Accountability Office says. In U.S. Department of Agriculture Region 7 (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas) 323.6 gallons of water is used to produce every gallon of ethanol, Art Hovey of the Lincoln Journal-Star notes.

In USDA Region 5, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri, irrigation is needed less for corn production, and only 10 gallons of water is used to produce each gallon of ethanol. The GAO offered no recommendations with its findings, Hovey reports, but it did make the connection between more mandated ethanol production in the years ahead, more corn and "water-constrained regions of the United States where corn is grown using irrigation."

"The vast majority of corn in this country is rain-fed," Steve Sorum of the Nebraska Ethanol Board told Hovey. "Of that portion that's not rain-fed, a great portion of it occurs in Nebraska and the Dakotas," which overlie the vast Oglalla Aquifer. Sorum said the report "presents us with unique challenges." He pointed to new more drought-resistant corn as one way to cut water use, and added that the amount of water used at plants to make ethanol, also factored into the GAO numbers, has declined from the six-gallon level of a few years ago but still used in the report. (Read more)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rural job loss in recession less than elsewhere, but some places are suffering badly

Rural counties have lost a smaller share of jobs in the recession than metropolitan or exurban counties, but some rural regions have some of the heaviest losses in the nation, the Daily Yonder reports.

"Rural counties across the U.S. have lost 3.5 percent of their jobs. In the country as a whole, there were 4.5 percent fewer jobs in October of this year than in December 2007. In urban counties, job loss reached 4.7 percent," Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo write. "National figures on job loss, however, miss the point. The face of this recession changes dramatically from place to place. In rural Utah, for example, there has been a nearly 5 percent increase in jobs in the last two years."

As the map above indicates, the worst rural job loss has come in Alabama, "which has 13.1% fewer jobs than when the recession began," the Yonder reports. As a state, Alabama has had "a larger decline than even battle-scarred Michigan." Bishop and Gallardo note that both states rely heavily on the trouble automobile industry.

The Yonder has tables showing the rural, urban and exurban job loss for each state since the recession began, and the 50 rural or exurban counties that have lost and gained the most jobs. For the report, click here. Click on the map for a larger view.

Tim McGraw's 'Southern Voice' is a song, a theme, a message and a lesson that all need hearing

"It’s a cliché among liberals to look at the rural American South with snobbery and scorn," David Masciotra writes for the Daily Yonder, and he gives examples, before touting Democrat and social critic Tim McGraw’s new single, “Southern Voice,” from his album of the same name, as "required listening for country music fans — and for liberals who amuse themselves, and no one else, by pretending that the American South is simply a pit of toothless, rump-scratching, drunken low-lives whose favorite hobbies are burning crosses, incest, and dropping out of school."

Masciotra calls the song "a desperately needed and musically exciting documentation of the vastly rich contribution the South has made to American culture," with references to the Allman Brothers, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Dale Earnhardt and Rosa Parks." I was once a disc jockey at a rural station in Southern Kentucky that played all those artists, and would still like to have a station formatted on the overlap between country, rock, blues and bluegrass.

That sort of "roots music" is harder to find in larger markets, dominated by large companies that program to niche audiences. And it's getting harder, Masciotra writes: "For most of the history of popular radio, small markets and the nation’s regions were given equal power when determining the Billboard chart rankings. For example, John Mellencamp grew in popularity throughout the Midwest before making it to flagship stations in New York and Los Angeles. Lynyrd Skynyrd started first as a Southern band. Recent changes in the way Billboard compiles its rankings have given priority to stations in the largest markets. And that is killing the kind of heartland rock played by Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Tom Petty and Bob Seger."

That's why "Springsteen’s 'Devils and Dust,' a subtle anti-war folk song told from the perspective of an active-duty solider in Iraq, and Mellencamp’s 'Our Country,' an anthem calling for unity against bigotry, poverty, and war, received greater airplay on country radio and Country Music Television than they did on rock formats," Masciotra writes. He says McGraw is one of the best at what makes country music successful, dealing with "real life issues of love, communal struggle and solidarity, as well as the existential dread and joy that bridge Saturday night and Sunday morning [I hear Ralph Stanley calling]. . . because he carries a commitment to progressive reform and a willingness to wrestle with the darker side of human nature, both personal and political. It is through this multi-colored, cracked lens that McGraw sings his music, looks at the world, and raises his 'Southern Voice'."