Friday, April 03, 2009

Mont. governor backs horse-slaughterhouse bill, except section that would limit suits by Montanans

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has partially vetoed a bill that would allow construction of a house slaughterhouse in the state. He removed a section that would have limited the power of Montana citizens "to bring a legal challenge to a license approving a horse-slaughter facility," reports the Helena Independent Record.

"Supporters have said a slaughter plant not only would bring needed investment and jobs to Montana, but also would provide a place for people to dispose of unwanted horses, which most Montanans consider livestock," writes Mike Dennison of the Billings Gazette. "Opponents argued that a horse-slaughter plant is not the type of development Montana needs, noting that such plants have been shut down in other states across the nation." (Read more)

"My proposed amendments do not prevent the licensing and operation of a horse slaughter facility in Montana,” wrote Schweitzer, a Democrat. “My amendments retain those aspects of HB 418 that clarify existing law to ensure that a horse slaughter facility, if licensed to operate in Montana, conforms to Montana’s current laws pertaining to all livestock slaughter facilities. My amendments are focused on eliminating what I believe is the unnecessary and potentially harmful special treatment that would be granted to one particular industry." (Read the letter)

If a legislative majority rejects the governor's amendments, as the sponsor wants, Schweitzer will get the original bill "for an up-or-down veto," the Independent Record reports. (Read more)

Low-power FM stations give rural communities their own voices; bill would open up frequencies

Low-power FM radio stations serve many vital functions for small rural communities. Local organizations get out the word about their services, let people know about opportunities in the area, build support and participation for community projects, and warn residents about potential emergencies. "Already there are about 800 low-power FMs on the air, mostly in small towns and rural areas," Kate Blofson writes for the Daily Yonder. "Many are community stations, adding a welcome breath of participatory local radio to the airwaves."

In Emmettsburg, Iowa, local folks started their own station after one moved to a larger town. "KEMB-LP covers high school sports, festivities like the county fair and recent St. Patrick's Day celebration, local meetings, and summertime municipal band concerts," Blofson reports. "The station plans to expand its coverage, to air city council and county supervisor's meetings." (KEMB photo shows Brent McAllister and Rick Jones)

The Local Community Radio Act, (HR 1147) introduced by U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., and Lee Terry, R-Neb., would lift restrictions on low-power FM, opening up more frequencies for it. Cheryl Marshall of WMMT in Whitesburg, Ky., a full-power, non-profit station, says that in her southeastern Kentucky region, there is no effective emergency communications system, so "local radio often steps in," writes Blofson. "She affirms the important role local radio plays in communicating with citizens about all kinds of public issues -- of safety, health, and the environment." And because the stations have low power, equipment and operating costs are relatively low. (Read more)

Tests after coal-ash spill suggest long-term risks

According to state and federal agencies, air and water samples taken near the coal ash spill at Kingston, Tenn., "have shown no significant health risks," reports Dave Flessner of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "But some soil and water samples closest to the ruptured sludge pond taken soon after the spill showed elevated levels of toxic materials, including arsenic, mercury and selenium."

A hundred days after the spill, the Tennessee Valley Authority is bringing in medical experts to asses long-term health risks. There are growing signs that those risks could be significant. "Avner Vengosh, a professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University, who has studied the Kingston ash spill, said part of the Emory River showed arsenic levels more than 100 times greater than what is acceptable in drinking water," writes Flessner. Dr. Vengosh said other samples of the river downstream showed elevated levels of mercury."

"Many people fear that they are poisoning their family by staying where they are," Sarah McCoin, of the Tennessee Coal Ash Survivors Network, told the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. "TVA is not listening to us. It’s as if they don’t care."

A separate report by the Environmental Integrity Project says "TVA records over the past decade indicate heavy metals have been detected around all six of the TVA coal plants that use wet ash disposal," writes Flessner. Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA official who heads the EIP, said "TVA plants are routinely discharging toxic metals at levels that are predicted to damage aquatic ecosystems or make fish unsafe to eat." (Read more)

Stimulus funds can be used to build new schools

Schools will have flexibility in using stimulus money on school construction projects, according to guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Education. While the stimulus only explicitly allowed room for modernization and repairs on existing schools, the guidelines say that "districts may spend recovery funds on any activities authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act and other statues — including the federal impact-aid program, which authorizes funds for building new schools," write Stephen Sawchuck and Erik W. Robelen for Education Week.

Critics say construction of new schools could quickly deplete the $44 billion allotted for education. But Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that flexibility is needed in creating a stronger educational system. “There’s a need to do renovation and rehabilitation,” he said. “You have areas that are significantly overcrowded, and children jammed into buildings. That doesn’t work.” (Read more)

Rural schools often face the most challenges in constructing new school buildings. Lack of funds and pressure from state governments to consolidate districts often result in little support for schools with outdated or overcrowded facilities. But a 2002 study by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, a non-profit educational group, found that despite these pressures, the more personalized education available through smaller school districts often made them a better investment than larger schools. (Read more)

Cattle rustling goes up as the economy goes down

Some farmers are finding that the economic crisis is having another affect on their livelihood: the number of cattle reported missing in 2008 was up significantly from 2007, indicating that cattle rustling is on the rise. "It’s a big spike," said Jim Arnott, sheriff in Greene County, Missouri, where cattle rustlers have struck 10 times since October. "Usually we’ll go a year or two with no thefts, but it’s really picked up. In these economic times people are taking desperate measures, whether it’s stealing, or whether they’re trying to come up with money through insurance fraud."

Missouri has been hit particularly hard, writes Malcolm Gay in the New York Times, becaise it has many smaller livestock operations that don't always have someone watching the cattle. Also, the state has no "brand law," requiring owners to register brands with the state. But other areas are also feeling the effect. Nearly 200 cows were stolen from an auction market in South Dakota last month, and Wyoming officials say that from 2007 to 2008, the number of cows reported stolen rose from 90 to 225.

The job of recovering the stolen animals is made even more difficult by time constraints. "Down here, a sheriff lives or dies by whether he keeps the cattle thefts down," said Sheriff Joey Kyle of Christian County, Mo. "But there are no serial numbers on hamburgers." (Read more)

Community-supported agriculture growing in Ky.

Kentucky has seen community-supported agriculture thrive, thanks in part to its "near-perfect environment" of rural areas and metropolitan areas, says a sustainable agriculture lecturer at the University of Kentucky. Mark Keating says Kentucky has approximately 35 CSA partnersships, though it started in the state only five years ago.

"Community-supported agriculture is a subscription-based program where consumers buy 'shares' in a farm's output," writes Carol Spence for UK's College of Agriculture. "This entitles them to season-long regular deliveries of freshly harvested produce or other farm products, such as meat or dairy products." They can range from large-scale operations, pooling produce from a number of farms, to small ones drawing from one farm. (UK photo)

Since CSAs tend to crop up in urban areas, they provide an opportunity to bridge the urban-rural divide. "It's such a personal thing, and yet it's such a communal thing," says Keating. "The degree to which customers will support their farmer and the length they will go to support the farmer is really exceptional." (Read more)

Congress rebuffs Obama on a farm subsidy limit; he meets with a key rural Democrat to mend fences

President Obama knows he made a mistake in proposing to cut off farm subsidies to households with sales of more than $500,000 a year, an idea that didn't survive in the budget resolutions the House and Senate passed this week, reports David Rogers of Politico.

Obama "hurt himself strategically by coming forward with what the administration now admits was a poorly conceived plan," Rogers reports. "Critics argued that this would affect even moderate-sized Midwest producers, and to help preserve rural support, the House resolution leaves the farm program intact, with none of the changes proposed by the White House." The Senate called for money-saving changes in crop insurance, which Obama had proposed.

Rogers reports that Obama met at the White House last Friday with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who "had opposed the president’s stimulus bill in February but backed the budget despite continued anxiety over the projected deficits."
The White House and allies in the farm community were worried “we were getting off crosswise with the president and agriculture, and that would be a problem long-term if we got off on the wrong foot,” Peterson told Politico. “The president got to understand where I was coming from, got to know me.”

“The only thing I can justify out of this is they’re being honest,” Peterson said of the high deficits. “When I go home, I’m going to catch hell about this. But we’ve been asking for an honest budget, and I didn’t vote for most of this stuff that created this deficit.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilscak has hinted that the debate on subsidies is just beginning. "Let's see where things end up," Vilsack said during an interview with Reuters last week. He said deficit hawks in Congress would press for cuts and there are many ways to reach the goal of focusing farm subsidies on family farmers. (Read more) At the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture this week, Vilsack chose to focus his remarks on topics other than the potential fight over subsidies. He commented on a plan to buy food from struggling industries to be used in the federal food nutrition program. This plan includes $30 million in walnuts, $20 million in pork and $2 million in lamb. The plan also includes buying excess milk for the program to help ailing dairy farmers. Other topics discussed were the food safety net programs, civil rights in the USDA and the food safety system. To read his comments click here. Looking to aviod a potential confrontation the cap on subsidies the secretary stayed relatively mum, saying that, "The 2008 Farm Bill to cap farm subsidies was only a starting point, not a line in the sand," reports the Bemidji Pioneer. (Read more)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

One last idea from Archie Green, via the Mt. Eagle: Pay writers, photographers to document our times

When he died last month, Archie Green, advocate for hard-working Americans, was trying to get Congress to create a modern version of the Federal Writers Project and other government programs that documented life during the Great Depression. The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky., picked up the ball with an editorial this week.

"Times and techniques have changed, but Archie Green's vision is timeless and timely," the crusading weekly says. "One of the ways we got through the Depression was by learning that we’re all in this together. One of the ways we’ll get through the present mess is by rediscovering that truth and recording the evidence. To twist an ancient saying around, when someone plants a tree (on an old unreclaimed strip mine, let’s say) someone else should be there to record it: otherwise we’ll never hear the sound of solidarity or see the evidence of recovery." (Photo by John Vachon of cantaloupe cooperative planting in Indiana, 1940, for Farm Security Administration, via Indiana University)

The paper likens Green to the character of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, anticipating his death and wishing for a mystic legacy: "It don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark — I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look — wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build — I'll be there, too."

The Eagle doesn't make articles available online to non-subscribers until two weeks after publication, but the editorial is posted here, on the site of the Instutute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Cigarette makers cut tobacco growers' contracts

Tobacco farmers who signed contracts with cigarette makers late last year have been surprised in the last month by the companies' unilateral reductions in the amount they will buy, and in some cases outright elimination of their contracts.

"In the last several months, the tobacco economy has changed dramatically," Kara Keeton reports for The Farmer's Pride, a Kentucky newspaper. "The global economic downturn, increasing foreign supplies of lower quality tobacco, tax increases, smoking restrictions, health issues, shifts to smokeless tobacco products, increasing availability of imports, movement of cigarette production overseas, and possibly anticipated FDA regulation are reducing domestic needs" for burley tobacco, Kentucky's main variety and the one used in cigarettes.

David Sutton, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, the largest cigarette maker, said, “When you get into a challenging environment as we are in, we have to continually look at those forecasts and make adjustments on what we will have to buy from growers.” Keeton reports that Philip Morris has four levels of cuts -- none, 10 percent, 30 percent and 100 percent -- based on "quality of the leaf and delivery of contracted pounds" in prior years.

Companies began contracting with growers before the federal tobacco program of quotas and price supports was repealed in 2004, but the end of price supports eliminated most burley auctions and left growers at the mercy of the companies, as they were before the program began during the Great Depression. “We knew this was coming; we didn’t know when,” Kentucky grower Ray Tucker of Shelby County told The Farmer's Pride. (The paper does not post stories online, but Keeton's article is on the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues site, here.)

The Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association buys leaf, but is unable to offer contracts, and the auction market is pure risk without price supports, Keeton notes, quoting University of Kentucky tobacco economist Will Snell: “Unlike other crops that might have access to safety net measures of the Farm Bill or futures markets, tobacco farmers have no way to manage price risk other than through contractual agreements, primarily with multinational tobacco companies. At this time there is limited communication within the industry, no market news to report prices received, no federal grading, and minimal public data and analysis for growers.” For Snell's detailed advice to growers, click here.

Emery Dalesio of The Associated Press notes, "For generations, tobacco growers were a protected class, as lawmakers across the South defended the golden leaf as stridently as politicians from Michigan and New York do automakers and Wall Street. It remains a huge business: The tobacco crop in North Carolina alone, where farmers produce nearly half the value of the entire U.S. output, was worth $686 million last year. But lawmakers don't look out for Big Tobacco as they once did." (Read more) AP fails to explain the main reason: Since the program was repealed, there are many fewer tobacco farmers. Their individual crops are larger, but their small numbers give them little political clout. Kentucky, which once has more than 50,000 growers, now has about 5,000.

Ariz. weekly tells well the story of rural physicians

The story of recruiting doctors to rural areas is an old one, but as long as the need exists, it's worth telling. Pete Aleshire of the Payson Roundup in Arizona, one of the nation's larger weekly newspapers (circulation 18,000), does a nice job of introducing the issue in human terms:
Midnight phone calls.
Lack of specialist backup.
Ever-present patients.
Big city wives.
Oh, the challenges of being an up-to-date doctor in a small town.

Of course, then there’s the great relationships with your patients, the tight-knit medical community, the community connections, the nice house, the acreage and fishing just down the road.
Ah, the joys of rural medicine.
Aleshire also gives the basic data: "While 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas — only 9 percent of the nation’s doctors practice in those areas, according to a study of rural medicine published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Worse yet, only 3 percent of students in medical school say they intend to practice in a rural area."

He adds, "People living in rural areas generally have more medical problems, which reflects higher poverty rates — which in 2000 ran at 14 percent in rural areas and 11 percent in urban areas. Moreover, people living in rural areas are less likely to have medical coverage, which means their doctors more often find themselves treating patients without insurance."

For the whole 1,500-word story, click here.

EPA says it needs another year to see if vehicles can stand more ethanol in gasoline

The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that it will take another year of testing to determine whether higher levels of ethanol can be blended into gasoline without harming engines, Tom Doggett reports for Reuters.

Currently, ethanol makes up 10 percent of blended gasoline, but the industry is pushing for a higher share, arguing that federal law requires increasing percentages of renewables in the nation's energy mix. A petition from 53 ethanol manufacturers proposes raising the blend to 15 percent. In opposition, "Oil refiners want the government's biofuels mandates suspended, citing the limits on how much ethanol can be blended into gasoline," Philip Brasher writes for the The Des Moines Register. Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, told Brasher, "We're using as much corn as this country can for fuel." Read more here.

Drevna was among witnesses at a Senate committee hearing. To read the prepared testimony or watch a Webcast of the hearing, click here.

Center identifies top 10 rural health concerns

As the national debate over health care reform begins to heat up, the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs has released a "Top Ten" list of rural issues that need to be considered when determining the path health care will take in the U.S. Among the issues discussed in the report, "Making Health Care Work for Rural People": coverage that is "universal, continuous and affordable," options for small businesses and the self-employed, improved emergency services in rural areas, and better access to health care providers. Where are these issues present in your community? (Read more)

Coloradans fight to keep their water out of bottles

In the Western U.S., where water is often sparse, bottled-water companies are facing opposition as they try to tap local springs. In a scene replayed in communities across the country, residents in rural Chaffee County, Colo., are battling with Nestle Waters North America, which wants to bottle 65 million gallons of water from an aquifer near Salida, pop. 5,300, each year.

"I'm afraid they will pump and pump until they suck it dry," Michele Riggio, a Salida resident who has led the fight against Nestle, told DeeDee Correll of the Los Angeles Times. While Nestle says it plans to replace the water with water purchased from nearby Aurora, residents are skeptical, wondering what will happen if the area faces a drought. Opponents also say that the company's trucks will affect traffic on narrow mountain roads.

Nestle says the opposition is more philosophical than practical. "It's more a debate about corporations, who owns the water, and what is the best and highest use of water," said Bruce Lauerman, a natural-resources manager for the company. Noah Hall, professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and an expert in water law, told Correll that more communities are opposing such plans: "By the nature of its business--taking water out of the ground and putting it in a bottle and selling it--Nestle is a lightning rod for opposition wherever they go." (Read more)

On Obama's Day 1, EPA focused on mountaintop removal, objecting to King Coal Highway permit

The Environmental Protection Agency began stricter scrutiny of mountaintop-removal strip mining on the Obama administration's first day in office, objecting to a permit for a major coal company's mine that would help create a path for the proposed King Coal Highway in southern West Virginia.

"On Jan. 20, EPA Region 3 officials in Philadelphia sent a letter ... objecting to issuance of a valley fill permit for Consol of Kentucky’s Buffalo Mountain Surface Mine," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "I’ve posted the letter here and a copy of the Corps’ public notice on that permit here."

The King Coal Highway, from Huntington to Bluefield, would be build in part through mountaintop-removal mining. "The project is a favorite of most local and state politicians, and a move to further delay it would be unpopular with some powerful folks," Ward writes. "EPA says it does not believe that the Corps can issue this permit unless and until it conducts a detailed Environmental Impact Statement to weight the potential environmental damage." (Read more)

Scientists say groundwater can be used to store greenhouse gas, but water wars are starting

Scientists have found that underground water can be used to store the main greenhouse gas, but Tara Lohan of The Nation reports that "The battle for control over the world's dwindling freshwater resources has already begun." Most of her story is about conflicts in Asia, but she also reports on tension between the U.S. and Mexico over the Colorado River and its recharge of groundwater.

The study about groundwater storage of carbon dioxide was done by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Manchester. For a story by Michael Kahn of Reuters, click here.

Mainers want to repeal school consolidation law

Maine legislators heard from rural residents upset over a loss of control over their schools, as they re-evaluated a 2007 law consolidating school services. If history is any indication, the state will probably face a referendum in November on repeal of the law.

The law was aimed at saving money, but "referendum supporters see consolidation as an assault on local control, especially in rural areas known for moose-crossing signs and vast forests separating small towns," writes Associated Press reporter Glenn Adams. "They say the law has failed to deliver savings to local districts." Rep. Peter Edgecomb, who sponsored a bill to reform the law, called consolidation was a "strong-armed tactic that has no place in our rural state."

Supporters of consolidation, including Gov. John Baldacci, say that the bill has saved $36 million each year by eliminating duplication of services. The bill reduced 94 school administrative units to 24. (Read more)

Enviros draw lines in West for energy development

Environmental groups want vast swaths of the rural West off-limits to energy projects. They "fear that a boom in solar and wind energy could endanger wildlife," report Peter Henderson and Bernie Woodall of Reuters. "The western United States is home to sunny deserts and windy plains -- but also many endangered or threatened species."

The "Path to Green Energy" maps (right) were produced by the National Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society. They include many areas that would likely be off-limits to development, such as parks, but also include proposed wilderness areas and "areas that are key wildlife habitats -- where environmentalists might put up a fight with developers," Reuters reports.

The maps were developed with funds from Google Inc.'s philanthropic arm, google.org. They are available here via Google Earth, the basic version of which is downloadable for free.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Biden, Vilsack visit N.C. to tout help for rural areas

"Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Eastern North Carolina today to announce $1.76 billion in stimulus funding to help an estimated 15,000 rural families buy homes across the country," reports The News & Observer of Raleigh. "The visit comes as economies of rural communities are plummeting -- and much faster than the rest of the country," according to data reported here.

Biden and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Faison, N.C., to highlight $635,000 in economic stimulus money being used to expand a rural health clinic, one of many such examples around the nation, and Pikeville, where a volunteer fire department got a $50,000 grant and $1 million loan for a larger station that can house ladder trucks. For the story, photos and videos, click here. UPDATE, April 2: The firehouse grant was approved during the Bush administration, Mark Johnson of The Charlotte Observer reports. (Photo by Corey Lowenstein)

"We're here to try to make rural America stronger, and this is just one of many examples across this great nation," Biden said. "We understand that the health of small towns like yours is essential for our nation's well-being, as well as it is to help big cities like Charlotte and other cities. It's essential -- it's essential -- that small towns, rural towns be healthy, and are growing, and have access to everything that is needed for the well-being of their citizens."

The trip was the latest in which Biden or President Obama have visited states that turned Democratic in last year's election and are key to their re-election prospects in 2012. In fact, as Chuck Todd of NBC News notes, the president and first lasy beat Biden to the Tar Heel State. Biden's remarks included a political aside, according to a White House transcript: "As I was getting out of the car, the President called me from Europe, from the G20 meeting, to discuss another matter. . . . He said, 'Joe, where are you? Where did I get you?' 'Well,' I said, 'I'm in eastern North Carolina.' He said, 'We won there, didn't we?' (Laughter.) No, actually, that's not what he said. He said, 'Tell everybody I said hello.'" For the White House press release, click here.

Number of statehouse reporters down by one-third in six years, American Journalism Review finds

Reflecting what has been reported here for some time, American Journalism Review has "found a staggering loss of reporting firepower at America's state capitols," Managing Editor Jennifer Dorroh writes, reporting on the magazine's fifth count of statehouse reporters and the first since 2003.

"The tally found only 355 full-time newspaper reporters at the nation's state capitols, a 32 percent decrease from just six years ago," Dorroh reports. "It discovered that 44 statehouses have fewer full-time reporters than they did six years ago. The number of full-time reporters remained the same in four states and increased modestly in two."

While the reductions are not surprising, given what has happened to newspapers in the last few years, they come at a time when more watchdog journalism is needed, Dorroh notes: "The gutting of America's capitol press corps comes just as a large portion of the federal stimulus package becomes the responsibility of state governments." Issue coverage is a problem, too:

When reporting on health care reform in Connecticut, "I and a couple reporters had the story to ourselves," says Ted Mann, a statehouse reporter for The Day of New London. "The smaller the room gets, the easier it is for the government to go around the press and avoid answering questions they don't want to answer."
One bright spot, relatively speaking, may be The Associated Press. It "has a robust presence at many capitols, although it, too, has cut back at some," Dorroh reports, quoting AP Managing Editor Michael Oreskes: "We view statehouse coverage as essential and are acutely aware of our increasing responsibility at state houses as others are forced by hard times to reduce their presence. We have about 85 fulltime state house reporters and expand this significantly during legislative sessions. We have added more people this year than in past years for the reasons I described."

However, AP usually cannot function as a watchdog on individual legislators or area delegations, long an area of specialty for statehouse reporters from smaller papers. And even those that still have reporters often find them stretched thin. "Following layoffs in November, [Walter] Jones is the lone statehouse reporter for Morris Communications' four Georgia dailies, whose readership does not overlap," Dorroh writes, quoting him: "There are four legislative delegations to watch. Trying to keep up with all of them is not going to leave a lot of time for statewide watchdog stuff." (Read more)

Merle Hansen dies; was advocate for family farms, conservation, civil rights, world peace

Merle Elwin Hansen of Newman Grove, Neb., died at 89 on March 27. "He was a farmer, an organizer, a civil rights leader, a conservationist, a conservationist and a peace activist," reports the Daily Yonder. "He was participant and an integral part of the great debates and decisions of the last century." (Photo from Norfolk Daily News)

Among Hansen's many accomplishments were serving as a leader in American Agriculture Movement and helping organize the mid-1970s "Tractorcade" to Washington, D.C. "He helped found the National Family Farm Coalition," the Yonder notes. "He was the ag adviser to Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in 1984 and '88. He helped with the first Farm Aid concert in 1985." Hansen was also an accomplished farmer, "raising purebred Charolais, starting a fertilizer business, selling seed." (Read more)

For a 1,543-word obituary by John Hansen, apparently a son, in AgObservatory, click here.

Fla. bill filed to thwart doctor shopping; Ky. paper takes note, since many shoppers come from there

Florida state Rep. Kelly Skidmore has proposed a law to monitor prescriptions distributed in her state and close a pipeline that sees people travel to Florida to obtain pain killers to abuse and sell. "The lack of such a program has made Florida the place that people from 38 states that do have such programs go to get their drugs," reports Valarie Honeycutt Spears of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, from whence many of Florida's drug shoppers come.

Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a physician, wrote Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul on March 20, encouraging him to support Skidmore's bill. "Interstate issues remain because controlled substance abuse problems transcend state borders, thus increasing the likelihood of interstate doctor shopping in the 12 states without prescription monitoring programs," Mongiardo wrote. Skidmore says Florida has the top 25 doctors dispensing oxycodone in the United States and a report published by the Broward County grand jury said the number of South Florida pain clinics had doubled since August of last year.

Doctors in Kentucky say they have patients who travel, sometimes together in vans, to obtain large quantities of pain medications. Roger Browne, a Florida doctor who was convicted of taking part in a conspiracy to distribute oxycodone pillsm had a client list that included 500 people from six counties in Eastern Kentucky. He admitted at a plea hearing in November that he knew there was a high probability the pills would be distributed illegally in Kentucky. (Read more)

New book provides personal accounts of mountaintop-removal mining

A new book due out April 17 by Kentucky writers Silas House and Jason Howard provides testimonies from individuals on the front lines of the fight to stop mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal. Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal takes a hard look at the controversial practice and the people and landscapes it affects.

"House and Howard’s book includes interviews of 12 diverse people, ranging from activists known across Appalachia, such as Jean Ritchie and Kathy Mattea, to less well-known individuals who are fighting within their communities, such as Larry Bush and Judy Bonds," reports The Corbin Times-Tribune. "Each account is prefaced with a biographical essay that establishes the interview settings and the subjects’ connections to their region."

The two men, who met at the Hindman Settlement School's Appalachian Writers Workshop, both come from coal families. A fact that House says they both proudly admit. But House, who now teaches at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., adds that he got involved in the campaign against mountaintop removal in 2005 when another Kentucky writer, Wendell Berry, invited all Kentucky writers to tour mountaintop removal sites. It was an experience which House says changed his life. "Once you’ve seen it up close like that, and had people look you right in the eye and tell you their stories about the way it is destroying their lives," he said, "you can’t turn away." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Federal judge blocks blanket permitting of mountaintop-removal strip mines

The regulatory noose on mountaintop-removal strip mining tightened again this morning. Eight days after the Environmental Protection Agency objected to some mountaintop-mining permits and suggested it might try to block them, a federal judge in West Virginia ruled today that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can no longer use a blanket process to issue such permits until it fully examines the environmental impact of such a process.

District Judge Joseph Goodwin wrote, "The loss of thousands of miles of streams in Appalachia over the past twenty years, and the loss of over 200 miles of streams in West Virginia alone vividly illustrates the impacts associated with mountaintop mining." For a copy of the decision, click here.

When Goodwin issued a preliminary ruling in 2004, coal companies began applying for individual permits "more frequently ... than the streamlined process" under a "nationwide permit," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "But the ruling is still another blow to the coal industry, and a victory for citizen groups who are fighting to reduce or eliminate mountaintop removal." (Read more)

Critics say federal food-safety bill would put unfair burdens on small and organic farms

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 aims to prevent food contamination like the salmonella outbreaks that have caused sickness and widespread recalls over the past few years. But many say that the bill would put stress on family and organic farms.

The safety plans that would be required are already present in larger factory farms. "Small farmers and small processors only do one chicken, one pig, one cow at a time," Texas farmer Kay Richardson told Fred Afflerbach of the Temple Daily Telegram. "You’re not going to have that possibility of cross-contamination like you do in the big areas." Richardson and other critics of the bill say it will place undue burden on farms like hers. "There’s just no way they can possibly comply with it. It takes a person working almost full-time to do it," says John Stone, spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Carter.

But the bill's supporters say it is necessary to prevent outbreaks like those resulting from salmonella contamination of peanut butter, spinach, tomatoes, and, most recently, pistachios. "The bottom line is that too many American families are getting sick from the food they eat and that needs to change," Liz Richardson (no relation to Kay Richardson), spokeswoman for Trust for America’s Health, a non-profit organization that supports the bill. “But reform can absolutely be accomplished in a way that strengthens small farms and bolsters America’s food industry as a whole." (Read more)

USDA's Economic Research Service says global swoon to be easier on farmers than others

What does the global economic crisis mean for American farmers and their communities? While farmland values and commodity demand have declined, the effects have been ameliorated by gains made by farmers in 2007 and 2008, which allowed farmers to start the crisis on "solid financial ground," the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service said in a comprehensive report yesterday.

Looking forward, less international demand for exports and declining energy prices will be the two biggest economic factors affecting American agriculture. But "because the U.S. farm sector went into the crisis with record-high exports, prices, and farm income, the declines, although substantial, will bring agriculture back to trend outcomes," the report says.

The largest uncertainty facing agriculture will be the value of the dollar. Despite that unknown, the authors say the industry should be optimistic: "While there is a great deal of uncertainty concerning the full magnitude of the U.S. and global recession, the effects of the crisis are expected to be less severe for U.S. agriculture than for many other sectors of the U.S. economy." (Read the report)

Wisconsin puts stimulus money into rural bridges

Wisconsin's targeting of economic stimulus money for rural bridges is raising some eyebrows in major media. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that most of the 37 bridges that will receive federal funding carry fewer than 1,000 vehicles per day, with average daily traffic of 538. One carries 10 per day. The independent investigative site ProPublica noted the story today. (Journal Sentinel photo by Mark Hoffman shows bridge over the Rock River in Addison)

Officials said rural bridges got priority because they are generally smaller and less complicated to design, and the stimulus favors "shovel ready" projects. "Engineering and design plans had to be in place, and the contracts for the work needed to be ready to go by March 2010," write Tom Held and Ben Poston. "Given the tight deadlines, infrastructure projects with the greatest public safety needs aren't necessarily the ones that received funding."

Traffic was not necessarily a factor. "For a town, this is the only way (a bridge) will ever get improved. Will you tell the farmer who has to haul his milk over the bridge that only gets 100 cars a day that his bridge won't ever be fixed?" asked Michael Erickson, who manages the state's local-bridge improvement program. John Kropp, highway engineer in Manitowoc County, said, "We're looking at bridges that take 15 to 20 cars per day, but they still serve the same purpose as the bridges in Milwaukee, getting people from one side to the other." (Read more)

Appalachian coal producer to shut down one week

In the latest sign of a softening market for coal, Alpha Natural Resources is idling most of its mines in Virginia and Kentucky for a week in April. Jenay Tate of The Coalfield Progress in Norton, Va., reports, "The move is driven by growing stockpiles of coal in the wake of dwindling demand from electric utilities and steel producers, company officials say."

“We have nowhere to put the coal,” Alpha spokesman Ted Pile told the Progress. The move will affect 1,280 employees in Virginia and 354 in Kentucky. It includes seven underground mines, three strip mines and three preparation plants operated by Paramont Coal Co. and D-R Coal Co. in Virginia and Enterprise Mining Co. in Kentucky. (Read more; subscription required)

Fish and Wildlife Service says to stay out of caves in 13 states, to slow spread of fungus killing bats

"From Maine to North Carolina to Kentucky, people are being asked to stay out of caves where bats hibernate, in an effort to slow the spread of a disease that's killed half a million of nature's only flying mammals in just over two years," reports Jim Bruggers of The Courier-Journal in Louisville.

"White-nose syndrome" is a fungus that causes bats to come out of hibernation early, and many die from cold and lack of food. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls it a "wildlife crisis of unprecedented proportions" in which entire species could be lost, causing population explosions among mosquitoes and other pests. The agency is advising people to stay out of caves in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, where the disease has been found, plus Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, where it could easily spread. An agency spokeswoman said cave explorers could be carrying it from cave to cave.

"It's amazing how fast it's moved south," Steve Thomas, an ecologist at Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park, told Bruggers. While the advisory doesn't apply to park or commercial caves, it could be extended. (Read more)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Blair Mountain, scene of epic labor battle, is put on National Register, but may be mined anyway

A West Virginia mountain that saw the largest armed conflict in U.S. labor history, in 1921 between miners who wanted to unionize and coal operators who got government help to prevent it, has been named to the National Register of Historic Places. But while labor and environmental groups sought the designation, it may have no effect on plans to strip-mine the area's mountaintops for coal. (Encarta map)

The place "includes a 10-mile stretch of Logan County ridges where thousands of miners fought federal troops as part of a United Mine Workers organizing fight," Ken Ward Jr. writes for The Charleston Gazette. "The designation covers about 1,600 acres, along a fairly narrow strip that runs northwest from near the town of Blair."

Ward reports, "The designation does not block mining, and according to state officials could not have been made unless land-owning companies in the area agreed to it." However, Massey Energy Co,, which wants to mine the area, "and several land companies filed suit to stop the state historic preservation office's support for the national site designation," Ward notes. (Read more)

VA data show exodus of veterans to rural America

For reasons no expert seems able to explain completely, this decade has seen an exodus of military veterans to rural areas. About one-third now live outside metropolitan areas, compared to only one-fourth in 2000, according to Department of Veterans Affairs data reported by Mike Swift of the San Jose Mercury News. Nationally, rural areas have only a fifth of the total population.

"Even though there are 3.2 million fewer veterans than in 2000, there are 1.3 million more of them living in rural America, a 20-percent surge," Swift writes. "V.A. demographers cannot completely explain the rapid shift," though one reason is probably that "veterans leaving the service tend to settle near a military installation," and several West Coast bases have been closed, leaving a greater concentration of bases in the Southeast, the nation's most rural region. Also, Vietnam veterans are reaching retirement age.

"The rural growth is particularly striking among Vietnam-era veterans where their numbers are up in rural states like Montana, Idaho and even South Dakota," Swift reports. He quotes one: "They like to be someplace where it's quiet and comfortable, without a lot of outside interference. There's a lot of difference between the hustle and bustle of the city and being in the countryside." (Read more)

Swift's story is also about the difficulty veterans' groups have maintaining American Legion and VFW posts in some areas. Sounds like a good place to start your own reporting, along with the VA data. (Hat tip to the Daily Yonder)

Hawaii becomes a model for telemedicine, an increasingly popular strategy for rural health care

Telemedicine proponents gathered recently in Hawaii to discuss the progress within the field. Helen Altonn reports for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that the practice, which connects doctors and health specialists online with patients in other locations, is a growing trend that is particularly advantageous for rural areas and isolated patients.

"In essence it affords the ability to electronically transport the physician to the patient instead of the patient to the physician," Dr. Jay H. Sanders, who has been called the "father of telemedicine," told Altonn. "It's really a life-or-death situation in many areas."

The first of its kind in Hawaii, the event featured speakers from the field, including Sanders, who is president and chief executive officer of the Global Telemedicine Group. Altonn reports that Sanders is credited with developing the first statewide telemedicine system in the United States, the first correctional telemedicine program and the first "tele-homecare" technology, called "The Electronic House Call."

The advantages to telemedicine services include connections between academic centers and rural hospitals where trauma surgeons can be scarce. Additionally, Sanders said specialists are able to effectively examine patients by a CAT scan or MRI and refer that information to the attending doctor on call.

Obstacles faced by the telemedicine practice include old Medicaid coverage rules and issues with licensure. Still, Sanders looks to Hawaii's reimbursement plan as a model and is certain that the cost savings associated with telemedicine make it a priority, especially with the new administration. "Very shortly you will be able to see me on the cell phone. It will be major technology for telemedicine." Read more.

South Dakota 25th state with strong smoking ban

Half the states now have “a strong smoke-free law that includes restaurants and bars,” following enactment of a stronger law in one of the more rural states, reports the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

South Dakota became the 25th such state when Gov. Mike Rounds signed a bill March 19. It bans smoking in bars, restaurants, lounges, video lottery casinos and Deadwood gambling halls. The law, which takes effect July 1, is an extension of a ban passed in 2002 that limited smoking in most public places. Beginning July 1, smoking will be allowed only in motel rooms and a limited number of cigar bars and smoke shops.

The Rapid City Journal quoted Rounds: "I think in this case, the health concerns top the other concerns that were expressed." Opponents of the ban are concerned with interference in business owners' rights and decreased patronage and revenue. The Capital Journal in Pierre quoted Rounds: “This will provide an opportunity for individuals who have not patronized these locations because of the smoke. I hope they will become new customers for businesses concerned about the loss of patrons.” Read more here.

As sesquicentennial approaches, old and new Souths debate promotion of Confederate history

"With the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War coming up in 2011, efforts are underway in statehouses, small towns and counties across the South to push for proclamations or legislation promoting Confederate history," reports Dahleen Glanton of the Los Angeles Times. But an updated, romanticized view of the Confederacy is a tough sell for Southerners concerned about its affiliation with slavery.

Confederate history is recognized throughout the South, with Confederate Memorial Day observances. (Texas and Arkansas mark it the same day as the federal holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) According to Charles McMichael, commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, "More than a thousand municipalities hold parades and festivals on the holiday and efforts are underway to spread it nationwide, state by state."

In recent years some have tried to make the Confederacy appear more multicultural, noting that blacks, Latinos and Jews fought for it. But many still see it as the embodiment of slavery. "To say that it is not racist but about multiculturalism is an attempt to adopt a modern mind-set," Jonathan Sarris, associate professor of history at North Carolina Wesleyan College, told Glanton. "You can call it a victory for the forces of multiculturalism when even the defendants of the Confederacy feel they have to pay some lip service to the idea of tolerance." (Read more)

Metro reporter uses Census of Agriculture to write about urban sprawl and measures to control it

As suburban areas expand, some rural jurisdictions "are imposing impact fees and other regulations on new residential development to keep suburban sprawl from encroaching on farmland," reports Carrie Whitaker of the Cincinnati Enquirer. She draws on the recent Census of Agriculture to provide data that illustrate sprawl.

While opponents of urban sprawl see it as a threat to local farms, some farming interests see land sales as an opportunity, and oppose measures that discourage them. "The best way to save farms is to develop land where it's appropriate and preserve the rest," Joe Cornely of the Ohio Farm Bureau told Whitaker.

Whitaker focuses on a county near Cincinnati: "2007 Census of Agriculture data show that from 2002 to 2007, Warren County lost farms at one of the highest rates in the state, from 1,036 farms to 896, a 14 percent decline," adds Whitaker. In adjoining Butler and Clermont counties, the declines were 10 and 8 percent, respectively. "During the same time period, the number of U.S. farms increased 4 percent." The farm count is easy to find; it's the top line of each county's page in the census. To search by state, click here.

Before the recession hit the housing industry, as many as 600 new homes a year were being built in the county's Hamilton Township. "To cope with growth costs, the township imposed an impact fee on new development that led to a bitter and unresolved court challenge from home builders," writes Whitaker. "Government officials also have changed a zoning code to limit the density of homes in rural areas." (Read more)

Iowa plant will use corncobs to make fertilizer, reducing use of often expensive natural gas

A plant to be built in Menlo, Iowa, "will be the first of its kind in the U.S. to convert biomass into fertilizer," reports Dan Piller of The Des Moines Register. "The SynGest Menlo plant will use 150,000 tons of locally supplied corncobs per year to manufacture 50,000 tons of bio-ammonia annually, enough to fertilize 500,000 acres of nearby Iowa farmland under corn."

Typically, chemical fertilizers are made by extracting nitrogen from the air using natural gas. The shift to using biomass could be good news for farmers because of the move away from gas. "Farmers have fought soaring fertilizer costs caused by volatile swings in natural gas prices," writes Piller. "In the last half-decade the average price for fertilizer has increased from less than $200 per ton to more than $1,000 per ton." (Read more)

Rural job loss now outpacing urban

As reported here rural job losses in the recession were proportionately less than those in urban areas until November 2008. Since then, rural losses have has accelerated so quickly that they are greater than in urban areas. (Rural Policy Research Institute chart)

"Rural counties lost 3.4 percent of their jobs during the 12 months ending in January 2009," reports the Daily Yonder. "Urban counties lost 2.8 percent of their jobs." The distribution of job loss in rural America has varied. Areas with many manufacturing jobs have been hit particularly hard, while farming areas have been hurt less. Areas with mostly mining jobs have actually seen a slight increase in jobs, roughly half a percent. (Read more)

Ga. agricultural college starts rural studies degree

Students interested in promoting rural communities have a new opportunity at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. The college, in Tifton, Ga., is offering a new bachelor's degree in Rural Studies. The program offers three different areas of concentration: Rural Business and Economic Development, Rural Arts and Culture, and Rural Community and Social Affairs. The college notes that "graduates of the program might find careers with private sector organizations that deal with rural issues, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. Other possibilities include historic preservation, rural history, rural sociology, global studies, journalism, or public administration." (Read more)

Forest owners might earn carbon credits through better management that increases CO2 absorption

There may soon be a way to make money from your woodland without cutting timber. A "cap and trade" system to limit carbon-dioxide emissions will create a market in carbon credits, and forests that are professionally managed should be able to earn credits because they take up more of the greenhouse gas than unmanaged woodlands.

In Eastern Kentucky, where the great majority of the Appalachian forest is privately owned, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development is lining up woodland owners through its Forest Opportunities Initiative. "I think it's going to get me and other woodland owners to say 'Hey, maybe there's a reason to manage my woodlands,'" Jack Stickney, who owns a large farm in Estill County, told Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "You know how it is when it comes down to money. That gets people's interest."

The big question is how much money. "In Europe, where the government regulates carbon trading, the price is $10 to $20 a ton, Mead writes. "If the price here were $20 a ton, an Eastern Kentucky landowner could make more than $66 an acre each year." However, the market for credits could disappear if Congress goes with a carbon tax instead. (Read more)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Kentucky, West Virginia each have a favorite candidate to lead federal strip-mine office

With the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers apparently at odds over regulating mountaintop removal, attention has turned to the leadership of agency that is supposed to be at the forefront of regulating strip mining for coal: the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, in the Department of the Interior.

The two states with the most at stake, West Virginia and Kentucky, seem to have their favorite candidates: West Virginia University law professor Patrick McGinley and Lexington lawyer Joe Childers. Childers was endorsed for the job yesterday by The Courier-Journal of Louisville, "in an interesting move," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette in his Coal Tattoo blog.

Ward says groups opposing mountaintiop removal have focused on using the Clean Water Act, administered by EPA, rather than the Interior agency. "OSM has never lived up to its broad mandate to protect coalfield communities and the environment," he explains. "Just read this report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or this blueprint for fixing OSM written by longtime Kentucky environmental lawyer Tom FitzGerald," of the Kentucky Resources Council. "A strong OSM could go a long way to helping with the myriad of problems facing citizens in coalfield communities." (Read more)

UPDATE, April 2: The war of the Big Sandy continues, as Gazette editorial page endorses McGinley.

'A Bub in the woods,' with Secret Service in tow

Having predicted immediately after his election that Barack Obama would plant a garden at the White House, rural land consultant Curtis Seltzer pens another Country Real Estate column in which "Bub" again visits Highland County, Virginia, this time as president, and learns about the Appalachian forest. Excerpts:

“You’re looking at a mixed-age forest, heavy to maples lower down and oaks higher up.”

“So this isn’t close to wilderness, what I’m walking through?”

“No, it’s just some west-facing woods at about 3,000 feet that have been used for timber since the late 1700s. Genuine wilderness is almost impossible to find in the East.” . . .

“Why are those trees dead?”

“They’re hemlock. A little bugger called the woolly adelgid killed them a couple of years ago. Some survived, but with a lot less green.” . . .

“Maybe the kids and I will plant a tree or two at the White House.”

“While you’re at it, plant a couple in a national forest where they will be part of the country’s sustainable energy future.”

“You know what? I might like to be remembered as the first green President more than the first black President.”

Seltzer offers a few laughs, mostly about the Secret Service. To read his full column, click here.

Virginia coal counties may get wind power stations

Debra McCown of the Bristol Herald Courier writes from the town of Appalachia, Va.: "Coal is central to this region’s past and part of its future, but a new future is taking shape on the strip-mined ridges." While a coal-fired power plant "rises skyward on one end of Wise County, a field of wind turbines proposed for land on the Virginia-Kentucky line is signaling this region’s potential for a shift toward green energy."

Dominion Power, which is building the coal plant neat St. Paul, is expected to join with BP Wind for permits to build up three wind-energy generating stations atop the county's Black Mountain and on East River Mountain in Tazewell County, which borders West Virginia. Other sites are being considered. (Read more)

The partnership "believes it has found wind energy sites that sidestep two of the main objections to such projects — ruination of scenic views and inappropriate land use," reports Jeff Lester of Coalfield.com, the site for Wise and Dickenson County papers. "Because of the region’s very steep ridges, the sites under study are all but unseen from developed or heavily-traveled areas, they say. And while many mountain communities object to disturbance of pristine ridgetops or potential land grabs against reluctant residents ... virtually all the land under study is reclaimed ridgetop strip mines or actively mined sites owned by Penn Virginia Resources, with almost no homes nearby." (Read more; subscription required)

Northwest loggers adadpting to greener economy

Harold Jones, right, has always made his money cutting trees, usually big ones, in the Pacific Northwest. Now, he illustrates changed circumstances, new attitudes and common ground among loggers and environmental interests in the region, reports William Yardley of The New York Times. (Times photo by Leah Nash)

"With the housing market and the economy in crisis, some rural areas have never been more raw. Mills keep closing. People keep leaving. Unemployment in some counties is near 20 percent," Yardley reports from Lowell, Ore. "Yet in parts of the region, the decline is being met by an unlikely optimism. Some people who have long fought to clear-cut the region’s verdant slopes are trying to reposition themselves for a more environmentally friendly economy, motivated by changing political interests, the federal stimulus package and sheer desperation."

Mills are making energy from bark and brush, jobless loggers are looking for stimulus-funded jobs thinning national forests to make them less fire-prone, and small-scale timber owners like Jones are "going green" by getting certification that their tracts are professionally managed. "The certification process, supervised by the American Tree Farm System, requires Mr. Jones to manage and replant his land under the supervision of a professional forester," Yardley explains. "It is intended in part to give small tree farmers some credibility within the sustainable forestry movement." (Read more)