Friday, March 06, 2009

Wisconsin high school athletic association sues Gannett Publishing to stop game videostreaming

In 2007, more than one state saw a battle between its state press association and the governing body of high-school athletics over the right to cover games. Now the fight in Wisconsin has involves a group of newspapers. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association has sued Gannett Publishing after its Appleton paper, The Post-Crescent, provided streaming video of a playoff game on its Web page.

WIAA's lawsuit says it has the rights to any "transmission, Internet stream, photo, image, film, videotape, audiotape, writing, drawing or other depiction or description of any game action, information or commercial used" of athletic events at its member schools. Citing Colin Fly of The Associated Press, Editor & Publisher's Mark Fitzgerald writes,"The WIAA awarded a Wisconsin photography firm a contract for the exclusive resale of photos from sports events -- and restricted resale by other media. Many Wisconsin newspaper ignored the ban, and the WIAA did not push enforcement -- though it kept the policy on its books and promised to 'revisit' the issue in the future."

The WIAA's lawsuit demonstrates "uncomprehensible overreach," Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Peter Fox told Fly. "They are essentially saying all these news reporting products are subject to WIAA control. If Wisconsin weekly and daily newspapers go ahead and capture these athletic events in certain forms of blogging or video or still photography, [the WIAA is saying] that Wisconsin newspapers can't use them in certain circumstances and they are owned by the private vendors that the WIAA has selected." (Read more)

Investor-owned utility won't build Iowa coal plant

Construction of a coal-fired power plant in Iowa has been canceled, with officials citing economic, environmental and regulatory pressures as the cause. Alliant Energy's decision to scrap the proposed Marshalltown plant reflects growing concerns in the industry over the challenges faced by coal plants. For example, last March, we reported about a Missouri power plant canceled over regulatory fears; in October, we covered the impact of the credit crisis on coal plants.

“While our company is disappointed in this missed opportunity to further Iowa’s efforts to grow its economy and position our state as a leader in renewable energy, we will continue to focus our efforts on expanding our renewable energy resources and energy efficiency initiatives and reducing our environmental impact,” Tom Aller, president of Interstate Power and Light Co., a subsidiary of Alliant Energy, said in a statement.

Aller's emphasis on renewable energy left some environmentalists hopeful about the direction of the company, writes Lynda Waddington of The Iowa Independent. “They really do seem to get that they are going to have to go towards renewables and energy efficiency, if they want to get the support of Iowans,” said Mary McBee, one of more than 700 Iowans who wrote letters to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in opposition to the construction. But other energy industry executives partnered with Alliant in the project now worry about their ability to meet the energy needs of the area. (Read more)

UPDATE, March 9: In a column, reporter Ken Black of the Marshalltown Times-Republican blames Alliant's decision on the election of "a president who said he wants to regulate and tax coal power plants out of existence." And he analyzes the impact: "If the recession is prolonged and drags on for years, this plant was our ticket to a boom when everyone else was in a bust." (Read more)

Town idol's move causing uproar in Tennessee

UPDATE, Oct. 25, 2012: A move is afoot to get a new statue to replace this one.

There's no place like home for Minnie Pearl since a bronze statue of the Hickman County, Tennessee, native and country-music comedienne has been moved from its original location on the courthouse square in Centerville.

In 2005, Centerville resident Rod Harris spearheaded and helped pay for the 900-pound bronze statue of the icon with the help of an anonymous donor. But the donation came with a caveat: It was not to be moved from its spot in front of the courthouse's eastern entrance without Harris' permission -- a problem for officials trying to implement a $700,000 downtown renovation, since Minnie's location interfered with traffic. But Harris disagrees. "That particular position was the very best position," he told The Tennessean. "Minnie Pearl should be center stage, or she won't be there."

The dispute reached new levels over the weekend when Harris took matters into his own hands and hauled Minnie Pearl away in his truck. (Photo from the Hickman County Times, which is not online.) Now, folks in the county are wondering if and when Minnie will return, while Harris continues negotiations with the town 50 miles west of Nashville. "I'm right in what I done," he told The Tennessean's Clay Carey. "I had an agreement that was ignored."

The character of Minnie was created "in the late 1930s by Sarah Ophelia Colley [later Cannon], a Centerville native who studied drama at the exclusive Ward-Belmont finishing school in Nashville," Carey notes. "As Minnie Pearl, she became the first female member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1940, joined the cast of the long-running cornpone TV show Hee Haw in 1969, and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1975." (Read more)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Do 'isolated' and 'empty' mean that rural doesn't measure up? An incorrect implication, writer says

It's a rare item in The Rural Blog that can make your mouth water, your blood boil and your mind wander. But we have the makings of one, thanks to Curtis Seltzer, land consultant and "Country Real Estate" columnist from Highland County, Virginia.

The seminal source for his weekly piece was a recent story in The Washington Post, in which reporter David Farenthold told the engaging tale of how maple-syrup makers in the county were fighting to overcome climate change, lack of the younger generation's interest in their industry and the destruction of a major sap-to-syrup processing facility. Farenthold wrote, "The Allegheny Mountains cursed Highland with isolation but blessed it with a combination of weather, soil and sugar maples, creating an island of New England south of the Potomac River."

“‘Cursed with isolation?’ No one here thinks that," Seltzer, right, e-mailed Farenthold. "We are not isolated from the nation’s politics, economics, wars, culture, media and intellectual ferment. Four mountains and two-lane roads do protect us from many of the things about which reporters in the Post’s newsroom regularly complain.”

After his "knee jerk" message to the writer, Seltzer wrote, "His words got me to thinking: In what sense, if any, is rural America isolated and empty? And what difference does it make? We seem to be about as plugged in as other Americans with television, high-speed Internet and cell phones." We take exception to the Internet point, but endorse the rest:

"We are subject to the same laws, taxes, gasoline prices, global warming, interest rates, stock markets, foreign-policy adventures and telemarketers. It takes us less time than city folks to do many routine things like see a doctor, but more to be greeted at Wal-Mart or eat Thai, both of which are an hour’s drive away. Like many communities, we are isolated from blue-collar manufacturing and high-income, white-collar jobs. We are also largely isolated from gangs, drugs and sirens."

Farenthold also called Highland County "one of the emptiest" in the East. Seltzer wrote, "To casually characterize us as isolated and empty is, I think, implied code for saying we don’t quite measure up because rural is different. The increasing number of urban people moving to the countryside quickly understand that they have not entered a vacuum. Their neighbors are people — not quaint relics, not noble rustics. Like everyone else, we are individuals with good points, bad points, and all points in between. When off-hand descriptions marginalize the 50 million who live in rural America, harm is done. We become the outback other, zoo specimens that are interesting to observe but dangerous in the wild." (Encarta map)

Blood boil? Mind wander? Here's the mouth-watering part, from local Larry Merritt, 66, quoted by Farenthold: "It's like nothing you've ever experienced," he said. And it's nothing like that grocery-store stuff that pours out of the plastic lady's head. "If you order a filet mignon and end up with Spam." (Read more) And we are obliged to note that the 51st annual Highland Maple Festival will be held March 14-15 and March 21-22. For a more detailed report on the local industry, from Andrew Jenner in Lancaster Farming, click here.

Texas playwright Horton Foote has died at 92

Described as "the subtle prose-poet of small-town Texas" by Lawson Taitte of the Dallas Morning News, Horton Foote was a playright for rural America. Most of his plays took place in a fictional small town similar to Wharton, Tex., where he was born. His portrayal of southeastern Texas was a trademark of Foote's throughout a career that lasted nearly 70 years. (Associated Press photo by Kathy Willens)

"Generally his scripts dealt with ordinary people in recognizable, if stressful, family situations," writes Tiatte. "The dialogue was always spare and elegant, but frequently the plot went in a slightly quirky direction that kept audiences guessing." (Read more)

The Daily Yonder dubbed Foote "Rural America's greatest playwright." He won Academy Awards for his screenplays of To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies and won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for drama for "The Young Man from Atlanta."

If proposed Bible Park can't clear hurdles with local officials in Tenn., Ky. county may try to get it

UPDATE, March 6: The Lebanon City Council "voted unanimously to rescind all previous action on the Bible Park," J.R. Lind reports.

As arrangements for the proposed Bible Park USA near Lebanon, Tenn., bog down and head for a decisive vote, The Lebanon Democrat reports that Simpson County, Kentucky, on the states' border and Interstate 65, might be an alternative location.

"An official with the commonwealth's Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet told The Lebanon Democrat last week that state officials had met with Bible Park backers, but there were no offers or incentives on the table. Former Mayor Don Fox has repeatedly insisted that high-level Kentucky officials have been working to lure the park to the Bluegrass State," J.R. Lind reports.

Simpson County Judge-Executive Jim Henderson "said he had 'a lot of conversation' with park representatives, but that those meetings never became public and that he has had only 'cursory' discussions since the park tapped Lebanon as its home last fall," Lind writes. Henderson told him, "I believed they were willing to build a first-class project and as long as that were still the issue, I'd be happy to have them here." Henderson said those discussions had not been made public. "Our community as a community never knew," he said. "We were very careful about that." (Read more)

Lebanon and the Wilson County Commission plan to use bonds backed by tax-increment financing and a 5 percent privilege tax to support location of the park, on Interstate 40 east of Nashville. In December, the plan fell one vote short of commisison approval. Last month, a foe of the idea filed an ethics complaint against the commission over the issue. The developer, Entertainment Development Group, offered last week to "fund an economic study if that's what it takes to get bonding," Lind reported. (Read more)

And as long as we're giving you lots of links to Lebanon Democrat stories, here's one to a story about the paper's redesign.

'Organic' does not necessarily mean 'safe'

The national outbreak of salmonella from organic peanut products from Georgia and Texas has many wondering what exactly does "organic" mean. "Although the rules governing organic food require health inspections and pest-management plans, organic certification technically has nothing to do with food safety," reports Kim Severson and Andrew Martin of The New York Times. This may be somewhat of a shock for many shoppers who spend more to buy organic thinking they are making a safer food choice.

The Department of Agriculture is responsible for certifying foods as organic. To accomplish this they deputize "as official certifiers dozens of organizations, companies and, in some cases, state workers," write Severson and Martin. "These certifiers, then, are paid by the farmers and manufacturers they are inspecting to certify that the standards have been met. Depending on several factors, the fee can be hundreds or thousands of dollars."

In the case of the Georgia plants, a private certifier took nearly seven months to make the recommendation that the USDA revoke the plant's organic certification. "Some shoppers want food that was grown locally, harvested from animals that were treated humanely or produced by workers who were paid a fair wage," add Severson and Martin. "The organic label doesn’t mean any of that." (Read more)

Daylight time starts Sunday, earlier than ever

Daylight Saving Time will begin in the wee hours of Sunday morning, earlier than ever, under the energy bill Congress passed in 2006. The early start is especially notable as many areas are still facing snow and cold from a particularly brutal winter.

McClatchy Newspapers offer a useful time-line outlining the history of DST, noting that it was first promoted by Benjamin Franklin, and first used nationwide in the U.S. during the World War I. The article also includes trivia, such as this gem: "In 1999, a terrorist attack on Israel's West Bank was thwarted when the terrorists failed to take into account the switch back to standard time. The bomb went off an hour early, killing only the terrorists." (Read more)

But while DST lends itself to amusing anecdotes and complaints about shorter nights, it is also important to note the effects DST may have on safety, especially as children wait for school buses by rural roads.

Blog offers savings strategies for rural shoppers

With most people facing tighter budgets, advice on how to pinch pennies abounds, but much of the advice is geared toward coupon clipping and price shopping, advice that is not necessarily applicable to rural resudents with a lack of shopping options. The blog Engineer a Debt Free Life is tailoring its advice to such folks in a five-part series, "25 ways to save money and bargain shop in small towns and rural areas."

The first two parts of the series have been published, suggesting strategies like signing up for, the program that allows retailers to donate a percentage of purchases made by a UPromise patron to be applied to college costs, or asking if local stores will price-match coupons from larger chains. (Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Big broadband project in Vermont, denied capital by economic downturn, looks for stimulus money

"The economic stimulus package, which sets aside $7.2 billion for broadband initiatives, could provide a crucial lifeline to municipalities struggling to bring broadband access to millions of Americans who don't have it," Amol Sharma of The Wall Street Journal writes from Turnbridge, Vt., where an effort to get faster Internet access "shows how the financial turmoil has exacerbated the already daunting challenge of reaching the most sparsely populated areas of the country." (Photo by Lam Vo)

Turnbridge and 21 other Central Vermont towns joined together for a broadband project, which "has struck out with state authorities, big investment banks and wealthy individual investors," so now it's counting on the stimulus, Sharma reports. ""People are truly afraid their communities are going to die if they aren't on the communications medium that drives the country culturally and economically," project manager Timothy Nulty told Sharma. "It's one of the most intensely felt political issues in Vermont after health care." Sharma adds, "Nulty sees broadband deployment not just as a short-term job creator but as a long-term investment in critical U.S. infrastructure, the equivalent of rural electrification in the 1930s and 1940s."

In the Journal's Digits blog, Sharma notes, "Critics have attacked municipal Internet projects, calling them taxpayer-sapping money-losers and ventures better served by the private sector.
But if President Barack Obama is serious about wiring rural America with high-speed Web access, these efforts ... will play a key role." For Sharma's detailed story, click here. For his blog post and nice, three-and-a-half-minute video version of the story, here.

Obama appears unlikely to keep promise to hold national rural summit during his first 100 days

The White House "appears to be modifying a campaign promise that arguably helped propel Barack Obama into the White House," reports Howard Berkes of National Public Radio.

In October 2007, Obama promised voters in Iowa that he would hold a summit in the state on rural issues during his first 100 days in office. He was trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls, but three months later, he won the Iowa caucuses and was on his way to the Democratic nomination. But now, 44 days after assuming power, his administration has still not made plans for a summit on rural issues and earlier supporters are growing skeptical.

Just after November's election, two key rural figures spoke out about the importance of rural vitality. Obama "made a very strong commitment on coming back to Iowa to hold a summit on the future of rural America," said Chuck Hassebrook of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs said in a November interview with NPR. Berkes also reports that Debby Kozikowski, vice chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and founder of Rural Votes, a group that campaigned for Obama, is raising questions. "Keeping that promise is critical to moving rural economies and rural life forward," she told Berkes.

A week after the inauguration, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, indicated the summit might not be held in the time frame promised. The White House indicated likewise this week when questioned by Berkes and The Rural Blog. While not directly saying the summit would have to wait, spokesman Shin Inouye said, “The greatest issue facing rural America, and all Americans, is the need to get our economy back on track. As he works to address this critical issue, President Obama is committed to hearing from and addressing the needs of rural America. In both the stimulus bill and his budget overview, his administration is taking affirmative steps to help strengthen rural America. He is working with his cabinet, advisors and Congressional allies to form a comprehensive rural agenda, and is planning on hosting a forum to discuss those ideas.”

Inouye is director of specialty media in the White House Office of Media Affairs. For Berkes' story, click here.

This 'Pickens plan' is for wild horses, and federal officials say it's problematic; money short, too

Last year, Madeleine Pickens, wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, proposed a sanctuary for the more than 30,000 wild horses and burros. This week she discussed her plan with a House subcommittee and said it would be good for the country while also saving the government almost a billion dollars over the next decade.

Despite being initially welcomed as a way to save the horses from euthanization, the Pickens plan is being regarded as "problematic," Matthew Daly reports for the Associated Press. "We really appreciate Mrs. Pickens' proposal, but it has presented some problems," said Ed Roberson, assistant director of renewable resources and planning for the Bureau of Land Management, which runs the wild horse program.

"Roberson said officials are willing to continue talks with Pickens, but face 'unique challenges' in trying to care for wild horses while keeping down costs that topped $36 million last year," Daly writes. The integration of private and public funds also has some officials concerned. The BLM says annual costs could grow to $85 million by 2012 if the program is not changed.

Senators offer alternatives to Obama plan to end direct payments to farms with sales over $500,000

Arguments against President Obama’s plan to limit direct payments to farms with more than $500,000 in annual sales mounted yesterday.

Keith Good of and Charles Abbott of Reuters reported that two senators offers alternatives. Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin said the better approach would be shut off direct payments to grain, cotton and soybean growers on the basis of adjusted gross income, perhaps $200,000 or $250,000 a year. North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan argued that limit on payments to growers is the first step in curbing farm spending since there is effectively no limit now. Dorgan is a supporter of a $250,000 a year cap. Abbott notes, “Obama proposed a $250,000 payment limit too but it has gotten little attention.”

"The 2008 farm law set a $40,000 a year limit on direct payments and $65,000 a year for counter-cyclical payments but no limit on price supports," Reuters noted. "The limits on direct payments and counter-cyclicals can be doubled by a farm family because spouses are eligible for payments too." noted that Jerry Hagstrom and Chris Clayton reported for the subscription-only site DTN, “Under the WTO, direct payments and conservation payments are not classified as trade distorting, and for that reason, they garner more support by trading partners to be maintained. Loan-deficiency payments and counter-cyclical payments are considered trade distorting because of the way they move with price levels. Because of that, Grassley said, future farm programs are going to be more prone to look like direct payments than other programs being used right now and a cut in direct payments now would diminish any position in the trade talks.”

Supreme Court says environmental challenges to rules on public lands require personal impact

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday that environmental groups can no longer challenge "federal regulations on public lands unless they can prove they are themselves directly threatened by the proposed rules," report Sara Goodman and Dan Berman of Greenwire. The decision backs Bush administration contention that "environmental groups do not have the standing to sue the Forest Service on land management policies that might contradict congressional action," write Goodman and Berman.

At issue in the case, Summers v. Earth Island Institute, was whether the Forest Service had violated a 1992 law designed to ensure that "the agency considers public comment when it writes land and resource management plans -- when it enacted regulations that severely limited the rights of notice, appeals and public comment on certain projects that it deems to have little environmental impact," add Goodman and Berman.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer questioned the future ramificaitons: "Would courts deny standing to a holder of a future interest in property who complains that a life tenant's waste of the land will almost inevitably hurt the value of his interest -- though he will have no personal interest for several years into the future? Would courts deny standing to a landowner who complains that a neighbor's upstream dam constitutes a nuisance -- even if the harm to his downstream property (while bound to occur) will not occur for several years? Would courts deny standing to an injured person seeking a protection order from future realistic (but nongeographically specific) threats of further attacks?" (Read more)

States consider closing gun-permit information

As reported here several states are considering laws making confidential permits to carry concealed guns. That debate, which has pitted open-government proponents against gun advocates and has had its unsavory moments, escalated in Tennessee after The Commercial Appeal of Memphis "posted government records on the Internet that showed who had gun permits," reports the newspaper's Thomas Hargrove. Some who disliked that posted editors' addresses on the Web, causing some concern for the journalists' safety.

"The press wants to put a scarlet letter on these people," said Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. "This serves no public good. It's potentially dangerous to post these lists." Open-government advocates argue that a database of individuals with gun-permits allows the press to investigate state practices for issuing the permits. Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said journalists have used the database to show that state officials do "a lousy job" keeping gun permits from people with mental-health problems. "The fact that these records are public" allowed the press to prove that the Tennessee Department of Safety "was issuing permits to convicted felons."

Bills to end public access to gun permits have been filed in Alabama, Arkansas, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia. In Tennessee, the deck may be stacked against open-government advocates; 34 of the 132 state's legislators have right-to-carry permits. To read more and see a list of them, click here. To view the gun-permit database at The Commercial Appeal, click here.

Rural energy counties in West lag behind peers

A report by Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., titled Fossil Fuel Extraction as a County Economic Development Strategy, has found that rural counties in the Western U.S. that do not depend on mining coal or drilling for oil and gas fare better than those that do. "Counties that have a large percentage of workers mining coal or drilling for oil and gas have weaker economies than counties without natural resources," reports Bill Bishop for the Daily Yonder. (Headwaters map shows energy counties in yellow and peer counties in blue)

Counties that are economically vested in mining and drilling have slower growth, more out-migration and lower rates of household income, the reports says. Energy producing counties "also had had a slightly less educated workforce, a greater gap between high- and low-income households, less ability to attract investment and retirement dollars and they created less economic diversity."

"The Headwaters researchers found that energy-intensive counties were like the hare in the race with the tortoise," writes Bishop. "Counties rich in oil, coal and gas race ahead when energy prices spike, but in the long run, the tortoise counties win the race." Energy counties certainly see a boom when prices for fossil fuels spike, but when booms end those counties go into decline. The recent drop in gas prices has seen this phenomenon occur in parts of the West.

The report says, “In counties that have pursued energy extraction as an economic development strategy ... the long-term indicators suggest that relying on fossil fuel extraction is not an effective economic development strategy for competing in today’s growing and more diverse western economy.” (Read more)

Obama targets Bush rule on endangered species

Another part of the eleventh-hour regulations by the Bush administration, rolling back environmental safeguards, is set to be undone. "The regulation lifted longstanding requirements that agencies contemplating actions that might affect endangered species consult with scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service and to take their guidance into account," reports Cornelia Dean of The New York Times.

President Obama announced a review of the Bush aregulation at an event to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Department of the Interior. The president said it was “false” to say people must choose between economic growth and environmental protection. Further claiming that, "agencies must return to the former practice of seeking and acting on scientific advice."

"A rider undoing the Bush change has been attached to the budget bill, and if it passes, the change would be undone," writes Dean. There is also a bill that would reinforce the Bush administration's changes. Republicans are claiming that reverting to the previous standards could slow many projects created by the stimulus package. (Read more)

Bring back the CCC, The Mountain Eagle opines

In the wake of the ABC News documentary, “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains,” many are looking for ways to improve the grave realities of life in parts of Appalachia. The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., suggests re-creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided labor for a wide range of projects during the Great Depression.

"When we get to dreaming about how to help change the lives of young men and women who are living without much hope today – stuck in poverty, nothing to look forward to, no obvious reason to stay in school, not much chance of finding a job, dealing and doing drugs because that’s what their peers are mostly doing – we don’t look back to the War on Poverty," the weekly opines. "We look back further, dreaming of a time when the federal government acted boldly and decisively to help millions of Americans who were down on their luck, and we dream about whether something like that could happen again."

The Obama administration has made clear its intention to create green jobs. Those types of jobs are a perfect fit for a CCC model, the Eagle argues, noting that the Regional Reforestation Initiative and the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team have started a project to reforest old strip mines in Letcher County, which the Eagle serves. Unfortunately, "not much of the just-enacted economic stimulus seems aimed directly at rural Appalachia," the paper notes. "Regional joblessness is rampant, and thousands of young men and women are on the slippery slope of hopelessness." And while huge amounts of taxpayer dollars are spent to try to prevent the problems of Appalachia, $50,000 to $75,000 to keep a single drug abuser in jail for a year, not enough is being spent to treat the causes of the problems. (Read more)

EPA's done zip about widespread coal-ash threat

The collapse of an earthen dam that was holding back a billion-gallon coal-ash pond in East Tennessee brought the dangers of the waste into the public discourse. The December spill covered 300 acres, destroyed homes, polluted a water supply and a river. "But what happened in the Volunteer State represents just a small slice of the potential threat from coal ash," reports Kristen Lombardi of The Center of Public Integrity. "In many states — at ponds, landfills, and pits where coal ash gets dumped — a slow seepage of the ash’s metals has poisoned water supplies, damaged ecosystems, and jeopardized citizens’ health." (Billings Gazette photo)

In July 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified 63 “proven or potential damage cases” in 23 states where coal ash has polluted groundwater and damaged local ecosystems. In some cases contamination has resulted in multimillion dollar payouts to local residents whose drinking water had been contaminated by coal ash. Lombardi writes, "Despite the litany of damage, there’s no meaningful federal regulation of coal ash on the books; indeed, oversight of ash disposal — much of it stunningly casual — is largely left to the states."

According to a 2005 Department of Energy report, the latest data available, "there are 194 landfills and 161 ponds containing coal ash in 47 states," adds Lombardi. There are also an unknown number of abandoned coal mines which are used to store coal ash. The amount of coal ash appears to be increasing as the EPA increases emission standards requiring power companies to capture more particulates and metals.

Despite data that shows that there are 180 ponds and pits containing coal ash that are unlined or partially lined the EPA has yet to "designate coal ash 'hazardous' under federal waste laws — a key designation that triggers strict controls for handling, transporting, and dumping waste: power plants, for instance, would have to use expensive protections such as liners at disposal sites, or regularly monitor groundwater for any leaching," writes Lombardi. EPA analysis has concluded that coal ash sites pose a cancer risk from arsenic at 900 times safe levels. (Read more) To view an view an interactive map of coal-ash sites throughout the country click here.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Community newspapers cite data showing they're in much better shape than metro counterparts

Community newspapers continued to fare much better than their metropolitan counterparts in the last quarter of 2008, according to data gathered by Suburban Newspapers of America and the National Newspaper Association, the main national organization that includes rural weeklies.

The organizations surveyed hundreds of community papers and found that total advertising revenue was down 6.6 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007. That was a steeper decline than those reported in earlier quarters of 2008, ranging from 1.7 to 2.7 percent, making the annual decline 3.6 percent. But those figures were still far better than those for the U.S. newspaper industry, in which most revenue goes to dailies.

The Newspaper Association of America, the main interest group for dailies, reported revenue declines ranging from 13 to 18 percent in the first three quarters. "Glennco Consulting Group estimates an overall industry decline in fourth quarter advertising expenditures of 21 percent, and many large companies have reported declines in excess of 20 percent," NNA said in a news release.

Community newspapers "are not reducing staff in significant ways," the release said. "In fact, only half of the reporting companies had staff reductions in 2008, almost entirely through attrition. Indeed, with a focus on growth strategies, 26 percent of the reporting group launched new products in 2008." SNA President Nancy Lane said, "The declines in 2008 are clearly economy-driven. Community papers are affected by the current economic downturn but they are not in a crisis."

The survey tracked financial data for all publications except dailies with circulations over 100,000. Most SNA and NNA members have much smaller circulations. "Due to the wide variety of reporting procedures, only total advertising was tracked," the release said. (Read more)

Stimulus will clean up abandoned mines in West

"One of the nation's longest-running environmental eyesores is poised to become a critical jobs engine for the rural West," thanks to $105 million in the economic stimulus package, reports Scott Streater of Greenwire. "The Interior and Agriculture departments expect to set off a hiring boom among idled industry and agricultural workers whose charge will be to clean up thousands of abandoned hardrock mines that once formed the backbone of the region's economy, but whose greater legacy is one of toxic wastes and thousands of miles of contaminated rivers, creeks and streams."

The projects will be determined by the National Park Service, which will get $50 million; the Bureau of Land Management, which is getting $30 million; and the USDA's Forest Service, with $25 million. Never has so much money gone into hard-rock mine cleanup, and some question the efficacy of it, Streater reports. "Among the arguments made by critics is that such projects come with too many bureaucratic hurdles, including long lead times for environmental assessments and compliance with other provisions of federal law. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters during a conference call last week that the Park Service and BLM will select projects whose environmental assessments have been completed." (Read more)

To keep track of stimulus spending, go to the government's site and the Stimulus Watchdog site of ProPublica, the "independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest."

Bid to make transportation department in Georgia less parochial draws opposition from rural officials

"Newspapers in rural Georgia have begun exploring the implications of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s effort to consolidate the state’s various transportation agencies," reports Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "His legislation would diminish the role of the board that governs the state Department of Transportation, whose members are selected by congressional district. Funding is also spread out among those 13 districts."

In an opinion piece published in Georgia papers, Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson called the DOT parochial and a “tangled web of bureaucracy that makes it virtually impossible to hold anyone accountable.” That brought a retort from Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, who told the Tifton Gazette, “I know everyone in the metro areas of the state is frustrated with traffic, but it doesn’t mean we should crucify the DOT.”

The issue also arose at the other end of the state, at a meeting of the Dalton City Council, where "officials expressed concern Monday about proposed changes in state transportation planning and funding," reports Charles Oliver of The Daily Citizen. He quickly noted that a local lawyer is one of the 13 board members.

Since this is our first blog item from The Daily Citizen, we pass along one of our favorite newspaper staff biographies: "Jimmy Espy is executive editor of the Daily Citizen. He is available for speaking engagements, lectures, bar mitzvahs and cockfights."

Shutdown of his mine led Ky. legislator to file bill reducing required emergency medical staffing

Remember that item we ran last week about the Kentucky legislator who benefited directly from coal mines and is pushing a bill to reduce the number of mine emergency technicians at a mine from two to one? Turns out he filed the bill after one of the mines was shut down briefly for not having any technician on duty, reports John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Cheves writes, "In an interview Monday, Hall confirmed that Kimara was mining his coal when it was cited, but said that it would be unfair to blame him for the actions of his contractor. However, the incident does prove how hard it is for small mines to reliably find two of the state's 4,565 certified METs to work on a crew at any given time, Hall said." Steve Earle, a United Mine Workers of America official and lobbyist, told Cheves, "I think Mr. Hall clearly has a conflict of interest here. He needs to drop this nonsense and pull this bill."

Cheves also adds this new tidbit about another legislator from the Appalachian coialfield: "Another lawmaker, House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, is a paid consultant to Beech Creek Coal, giving Hall advice about coal markets." (Read more)

Kentucky license plate shows support for coal

Kentucky residents have a new way to show support for the coal industry. Borrowing a theme from West Virginia, the Bluegrass State is offering a "Friends of Coal" license plate, and officials say it has already proven extremely popular.

The state requires 900 applications before a specialty license plate will be produced, a process that can take three years. This plate got those applications in only five months, perhaps because the industry promoted it. “The process was extremely quick," said Dave Moss, the director of governmental affairs with the Kentucky Coal Association and a board member of Friends of Coal, told John Middleton of the Harlan Daily Enterprise. "We had 1,179 people signed up for the plate when we turned it over to the cabinet.”

Moss says the license plate provides an opportunity for people to show their support for the industry and for miners, even when they do not have family members working in coal. Harlan County Clerk Wanda Clem told Middleton, “The miners deserve to be honored for their work. They really provide a great service, and they deserve all of the recognition they get." The specialty plates cost $34, compared to $21 for the standard license plates. (Read more)

New York offering gas cards to rural job seekers

To help rural job seekers in their search for employment, the State of New York is offering gas cards worth $25 to $50 to offset transportation costs. Residents in 34 counties will be eligible for a total of $250,000, which will be allocated to individual counties for distribution.

The program hopes to counter difficulties created by distance and lack of public transportation. "Unemployed workers in our rural counties face unique difficulties in their job hunt," said M. Patricia Smith, New York's labor commissioner. "Often they must drive long distances simply to apply for a job, attend an interview, or work on their resume at our One-Stop Career Center. All that driving costs money."

Jim Stinson
of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle notes that the general requirements are that "a recipient must be unemployed, actively looking for work, and be registered at and working with the One-Stop Career Center." The One-Stop Centers are public programs offering free job search support and training. The cards will be offered until the end of June, or until the program's money runs out. (Read more)

Rural superintendent explains how kids' brains work, and local weekly passes it on to the public

Education is the great hope for economic development of poor rural areas, but that has become a rote statement with not much deeper understanding of how education works -- especially early-childhood education, which experts say must be expanded if many poor children are to achieve their potential. Educators need to explain that, and rural journalists need to report it.

The Coalfield Progress of Norton, Va., understands that, so its latest edition has a great story headlined "Brain not wired for modernity: Schools chief offers insights during workshop." (Progress photo by Melanie Lane) Staff Writer Jodi Deal reports on a speech by Wise County Schools Superintendent Jeff Perry at a teachers' workshop that was open to the public:

"Eighty percent of what humans do is based on subconscious instincts, urges and thought processes, Perry told the crowd. Learning a little more about what’s happening and why can help teachers tailor lessons to take advantage of the way the brain works, not work against it. The same knowledge can help parents relate to their children, and could even come in handy for routine interaction between adults."

The story, less than 900 words and an easy read, is a good example of how newspapers can help develop more detailed understanding of important issues. The Progress site is subscription-only, but the story is posted on the site of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, here. It includes a sidebar with basic and interesting facts about the brain.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Rural broadband needs addressed by stimulus, but poor city residents say it shortchanges them

Rural residents are not alone in a lack of broadband access, but while they're reaping benefits from the stimulus package, critics say others are being left behind. They worry that the urban poor are being ignored.

The stimulus dedicates $250 million to service and training in cities, compared to the $7.2 billion set aside for rural areas. Cecilia Kang writes for The Washington Post that "interest groups say the amount is not enough to help an estimated 21 million low-income people get online." While rural areas suffer from a lack of broadband options, urban areas face the problem of paying for service, rather than a lack of access.

Judith Theodore shuffles between public libraries in Washington, D.C., so her oldest child can use a computer on homework and she can look for a job. She notes that her son received his first failing grade after the library's networks crashed. "The Internet is becoming as important as electricity and gas," she said. (Read more)

Coalition lobbies against more ethanol in gasoline

An unlikely coalition of interests is opposing the idea of raising the amount of ethanol in gasoline as a way of boosting the market for the fuel. "Automakers, makers of outdoor equipment and some environmentalists - oppose allowing gasoline with 15 or 20 percent ethanol," reports Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register. Even some in the ethanol industry see the plan as impractical because it would raise the ethanol limit in some but not all cars.

"Under a proposal being studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the higher blend would not be allowed for use in models more than a few years old or in equipment such as chain saws or lawnmowers, because of questions about whether they would be harmed by the higher ethanol content," writes Brasher. EPA has said that it will take considerable time and research to determine what effect higher levels of ethanol will have on all vehicles.

Car makers, engine manufacturers, oil refiners, environmental groups and the American Lung Association have warned the EPA and Congress against relaxing restrictions on ethanol without extensive research amongst fears that it will increase air pollution and damage car engines. But raising the limit could be a temporary fix for the ethanol industry whose struggles have been well documented since gas prices began falling. (Read more)

More deadbeat dads (and moms) are a sign of the times; small daily lists names and amounts owed

The poor economy has seen a rise in the number of parents delinquent in their child support payments. A report by Paul Glasser of The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky., circulation 10,000, found that 72 local individuals in Franklin County, population 46,000, owed as much as $55,499 and as little as $271 in payments. And using the state open-records law, he listed the debtors and the amounts. We've never seen a newspaper do that, but it sounds like a good idea; might even make some pay up.

"A total of about $1.4 billion in child support payments are owed in 325,000 cases across the state," writes Glasser. Franklin County Attorney Rick Sparks says payments are down 1 percent. "Simply put, people just aren't working," he told Glasser. "We have seen a lot of requests to modify, reduce or hold child support payments in abeyance."

Frankfort is the state capital and government is the county's major employer, but it also has some industries. A few have closed in the last year, putting many out of work and making it more difficult to pay child support. Between June and December 2008 the county attorney's office was able to collect 56 percent of the $2.9 million in child support obligations. (Read more)

Smoking ban hurts social life at small-town bars

"Small-town and working class bars are supposed to be a bit irreverent, dimly lit places to escape the bully boss, pending divorce or the drudgery of a Working Joe life," Douglas Burns of Carroll, Iowa, writes for the Daily Yonder. "Smoking is a part of this for many Iowans – or it least it was (legally) until last July 1, when bars were included (by one vote in the Iowa House) in a sweeping indoor smoking ban."

Some view a smoking ban in rural Iowa bars as a disruption of the social life of many small communities, Burns reports. Bar owners in many rural communities say they have seen as much as a 40 percent drop in business, and attribute that drop to the impact of the smoking ban. "Unlike in the suburban chain eateries or urban centers," Burns writes, "there isn’t a replacement class of patrons flocking to the fill the stools left behind by dispirited smokers."

Paul Lasley, a co-investigator of the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll and chairman of the sociology and anthropology departments at Iowa State University, said that the anger being directed at the smoking ban may be part of a larger problem. “I suspect that part of that is the acknowledgment that it’s not the same anymore,” he said. (Read more)

High court hearing coal case that could set rules for judicial recusal, argue against judicial elections

UPDATE, March 3: The Associated Press reports, "The court's four liberal justices and the conservative-leaning Anthony Kennedy all expressed support for a ruling that the Constitution's guarantee of a fair trial could require judges not to participate in a case in which there was a likelihood of bias." (Read more)

The Washington Post offers a good one-two punch on the question of electing judges, especially appellate judges in big-money races, as the Supreme Court prepares to hear a case closely related to the issue: The appeal of a 3-2 ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court in which one justice refused to disqualify himself though the winning party, Massey Energy Chairman Don Blankenship, was largely responsible for his election.

Backing the loser, Virginia coal operator Hugh Caperton, "are a number of unlikely compatriots -- Wal-Mart siding with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, for instance," reports the Post's Robert Barnes. The center's James Sample told him: "It's about the fundamental responsibility of the judiciary: a fair hearing before an impartial arbiter. ... This is a fact-bound, multi-factor, worst-of-the-worst scenario; if any sort of floor exists for due process, this is the best case to plumb those depths." A Post editorial put it another way: "If ever there was a case that illustrated why electing judges is a bad idea, it is the one out of West Virginia."

Blankenship argues that he "made lawful contributions to and on behalf of now-Justice Brent Benjamin," Barnes notes. "As in other political causes he has supported, he has a right to his political views about who is best to serve on the West Virginia Supreme Court. And there is no evidence that Benjamin had anything to gain financially from the dispute between Caperton and Blankenship, the only reason for recusal the Supreme Court until now has recognized."

Most of those on the other side "worry about the role money now plays in judicial elections," Barnes reports. "Wal-Mart joined with Lockheed Martin, Pepsi and other corporations on Caperton's side, telling the court in a brief that requiring Benjamin's recusal 'would signal to businesses and the general public that judicial decisions cannot be bought and sold.' Justice at Stake, a judicial reform group that has been sounding the alarm about the role of money in judges' races, notes that the amount of money raised by state supreme court candidates from 2000 to 2007 was almost $168 million, nearly double that raised during the 1990s. Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor is among those sharply critical of those elections.
The Justice at Stake brief, joined by Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and a host of others, warns the court that it would 'weaken state reform efforts' to find no 'constitutionally significant threat to equal justice' in the case." However, "no one proposes a clear line for what level of support" should be found to require judges to withdraw from cases. For more of Barnes' story, click here.

The Post editorial concludes, "States should consider barring judges from considering cases involving litigants or lawyers who were directly or indirectly responsible for campaign contributions beyond a certain limit. More fundamental, states should consider abolishing judicial elections in favor of an appointment system that distances jurists from politics and fundraising." (Read more)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

New senator from N.Y. tries to broaden appeal beyond her rural congressional constituency

Appointed Democratic U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who represented a largely rural, white and Republican congressional district, is trying to win over new constituents in New York City and other urban areas who can't accept the fact they have a senator who has a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association.

"She has tried to assure voters -- and colleagues -- in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn that a lawmaker from a rural GOP House district can represent a broader, more urban constituency," wrotes Lois Romano of The Washington Post. "While she says her views aren't necessarily changing, there is no question that she is tweaking them as she goes."

"I will always protect hunters' rights. Always," Gillibrand told Romano. "I will always protect the Second Amendment. I will make sure every American has the right to own a gun. . . . That's very different from how do we protect our communities from gun violence, how do we reduce gang violence, how do we make sure we have a strong trafficking law to make sure criminals don't have access to guns? ... I do not support the NRA's agenda. I support my constituents' agenda."

New York's senior senator, Democrat Charles Schumer, came to her defense: "She is going to be able to evolve without being seen as a flip-flopper. ... When I was a congressman, I never voted for a farm subsidy. Now I do because I have constituents who have farms. That's what the system is about." (Read more)