Saturday, June 13, 2009

Stimulus $ will repair old soil-conservation dams

The Department of Agriculture will use $50 million of federal stimulus money in 11 states to shore up soil-conservation dams that are reaching the end of their 50-year design lives, Julie Harker reports for Brownfield Network. "A lot of people that live in rural America don't even know that these dams are protecting them," David White, chief of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, told Harker.

"White says metal rusts and concrete wears down over time and in many small, rural areas the dams protect the drinking water supply," Harker writes, adding that some of the impoundments are now surrounded by development, giving the dams a high-hazard classification and requiring work to meet higher safety standards. The $50 million will be spent on about 25 dams. White says about 1,700 of the 11,000 dams are high-hazard. White "says engineers are going to be assessing those watershed dams to see what needs to be done to fix them," Harker reports.

Obama restarts cleaner-coal plant Bush killed

As expected, the Obama administration has given new life to FutureGen, a project in the president's home state of Illinois to build a coal-fired power plant designed to capture and store most of its carbon-dioxide emissions. But the $1 billion investment doesn't mean the plant will be built; that decision will be made "after design plans, detailed cost estimates and a new funding structure is worked out" with coal and utility companies that are co-sponsors, reports Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post.

The original plan called for capturing 90 percent of the carbon dioxide. That "has been changed to between 60 and 90 percent," Kindy reports. The administration of President George W. Bush canceled the project in 2007 after the private firms chose Mattoon, Ill., as the site for the plant over two sites in Bush's home state of Texas, Kindy notes. (Encarta map) "The Illinois delegation, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, launched a fierce battle to save it. Bush administration officials said rising costs caused them to abandon the commercial-scale plant and replace it with plans to build several smaller plants that will also test and develop the carbon-capture technology." (Read more)

"It will take up to four years to bring the 275 megawatt power plant into operation," reports Herb Meeker of the Journal-Gazette and Times-Courier of Mattoon and nearby Charleston. "A well at the site, which covers more than 400 acres, will pump the greenhouse gases more than 6,000 feet underground for long-term storage in geologic deposits." (Read more)

UPDATE, June 17: The decision "is getting poor reviews from environmentalists," Ben Geman reports on The New York Times' Greenwire blog. "The purpose of FutureGen was to test technologies that could later be deployed on a commercial scale," John Thompson of the Clean Air Task Force told Geman. "Yet in moving from a 90 percent to 60 percent threshold, the project will achieve levels that are no higher, and maybe even lower, than several commercial projects already at advanced stages of development." A Department of Energy spokeswoman "noted that the original goal of 90 percent remains but that the earlier level to begin with would help the project," Geman reports.

Counties let roads revert to gravel to save money

Hard times are hard on some hard-surfaced roads: those in states and localities that can't afford to maintain them. In Michigan, Indiana, Vermont and probably other states, counties are letting blacktop roads return to gravel, reports Tim Martin of The Associated Press.

About one-fourth of Michigan's counties, "largely left out of the federal stimulus package, which focuses on highways and other major thoroughfares, say they can't afford some costly repaving projects and have crushed up deteriorating roads," Martin writes. "About 50 miles have been reverted in the last three years."

In Montcalm County, about 50 miles north of Grand Rapids, "Crushing the pavement and laying gravel cost about $10,000 a mile. Repaving a mile with asphalt would cost more than $100,000. The county had patched the roads in bits and pieces for years. But with potholes the size of steering wheels and no money for an extensive repaving, crews figured it wasn't worth another piecemeal job. ...The new gravel on Lake Montcalm Road actually offers an easier ride than the crater-filled pavement it replaced. Motorists have stopped driving on the roads' shoulders to avoid potholes. But speeds have slowed and there are complaints about chipped and cracked windshields from flying stones. ... And while gravel roads typically are cheaper to build, they aren't always cheaper to maintain." (Read more)

Feds withhold list of 'high hazard' coal-ash ponds, say individual communities should be warned

Is there a coal-fired power plant near you? Does it put its ash in a disposal pond? Is that pond one of the 44 identified as "high hazard" by the Environmental Protection Agency? Is your community one of the 26 near those ponds? Answering the last two questions may be difficult, because the Obama administration has declined to release the list, citing Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Homeland Security fears about terrorist attacks on the ponds. But local news media may be in a better position than national media to get answers.

Senators and representatives said yesterday that the administration should release the list. "If these sites are so hazardous and if the neighborhoods nearby could be harmed irreparably, then I believe it is essential to let people know," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. An unidentified EPA official told Dina Cappiello of The Associated Press that the agency intended to release the list until it for a June 4 letter from the Corps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Army Corps "did not recommend secrecy, but advocated the information be made public judiciously in each community where the coal-ash piles are located," reports Jim Bruggers of the Louisville Courier-Journal, quoting Corps spokesman Gene Pawlik: "We don't release a consolidated list of information ... as a single document." Bruggers adds: "Instead, he said, the Corps recommends making the information available to emergency responders and local officials, and the public through community meetings." Eric Halpin, special assistant for dam and levee safety for the Corps, told AP that federal policy says "you shouldn't make it easy for the bad guys to do their jobs" by releasing lists.

"A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman said late Friday that the Corps position was not the final word on the matter and could be reversed. A final recommendation will be made by the FEMA administrator after a review by the National Dam Safety Review Board," Cappiello reports. "The sites have existed for years with little or no federal regulation. And oversight at the state level varies, with some treating coal ash ponds like dams used for power generation and flood control and others not regulating their construction or siting at all." (Read more) For example, Indiana officials declined to tell The Courier-Journal if any sites in that state are on the list, but Kentucky has its own rating system that "considers ash ponds at four power plants to be high hazard, meaning they could cause death or serious damage if they fail," Bruggers writes.

Is the administration really following a strategy of releasing the information to individual communities? Seems to us that local news media should find out, by asking EPA headquarters or regional offices if their communities are among the 26 at risk.

Friday, June 12, 2009

House Agriculture Committee dislikes climate bill

"If there were any doubts that members of the House Agriculture Committee have serious concerns about the Waxman-Markey climate change legislation, all one needed to do was listen to Thursday’s seven-hour hearing on this subject,"reports the Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse. "Democrats and Republicans repeatedly challenged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack over his belief that farmers and ranchers can benefit from climate change legislation if it is structured appropriately. "

Pressed to say whether he favors the bill, Vilsack said he does not support the current version but said it is a work in progress that can be improved. "It appears that the number of Democrats opposed to the measure is growing, not shrinking, which will create a huge challenge for Speaker Nancy Pelosi," Agri-Pulse says.

Rural dealers took the biggest hit from Chrysler

An analysis by the Daily Yonder shows that the 789 dealerships that lost Chrysler franchises are disproportionately rural.

The analysis estimates that 32.5 percent of the closed dealerships are outside metropolitan areas, which according to Census Bureau estimates have 16.5 percent of the U.S. population. The most rural areas, in which 6.6 percent of the population lives, will lose nearly a fifth of all the dealers Chrysler chose to close, Julie Ardery reports. (Yonder chart) The analysis was based on rural-urban commuting area codes, which draw distinctions below the county level and include a "micropolitan" designation for urban areas not large enough to be metropolitan.

Some in Congress, like Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., were outraged. "Watching it all," he told the Senate Commerce Committee, "I'm wondering, who's making the decisions in this country about who's too big to fail and who's too small to matter." (Read more) General Motors has not revealed its list of dealers to be closed but has said it would retain the largest presence of an automaker in rural America.

Areas that mine and burn coal may be more susceptible to flu because of arsenic, study says

A study has found that even slight arsenic exposure can weaken the immune response to H1N1 influenza, Facing South reports. Arsenic is found naturally, mostly in minute amounts, but is also a pollutant emitted in large quantities by power plants and industrial facilities.

Conducted by the Marine Biological Laboratory and Dartmouth Medical School, the study found arsenic delays the immune system response of those who contract the H1N1 virus, increasing the risk of death. While parts of the United States have naturally high levels of arsenic in groundwater (map), the role of industrial pollution in the release of the pollutant is a cause for concern and the researchers concluded that even low levels of arsenic exposure can result in decreased immune responses.

“Of the top 25 industrial emitters of arsenic and arsenic compounds via point-source air emissions (that is, releases through confined streams like smokestacks) in 2007, 22 were coal-fired electric power plants, according to the most recent Toxic Release Inventory data available” from the Environmental Protection Agency, Facing South reports. Industrial facilities like copper refineries in Texas and Utah are also large emitters of arsenic. ISS found that the pollution was greater in the South, affecting Kentucky, North Carolina, and Georgia, among others. (Read more)

FDA regulation of tobacco is about to become law

"For the first time since Americans began smoking, the federal government is about to control how tobacco products are made, marketed and sold in the United States," James R. Carroll reports for The Courier-Journal on the Senate's 79-17 vote to have the Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco. The House has passed a similar bill and is expected to approve the Senate version, and President Obama says he will sign it.

Senators from tobacco states voted against the bill. North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan was the only Democrat to vote against it, reports Barbara Barrett of McClatchy Newspapers, noting, "North Carolina tobacco interests said new regulation would cost jobs, hurt farmers, and maintain the market dominance of tobacco giant Philip Morris of Virginia, maker of Marlboros." (Read more) Philip Morris supported the bill.

Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky said the bill "is nothing more than an attempt to eliminate our national tobacco industry." The Kentcky-based Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association "will wait to see how the regulations are written, but president Roger Quarles said the multi-state group wasn't opposed to FDA regulation -- as long as it isn't used as a guise for prohibition," Carroll reports for the Louisville newspaper.

Spencer County, Ky., tobacco farmer Scott Travis "said he expects additional federal requirements to reduce yields and make the product less profitable," Carroll writes, quoting him: "A lot of the ways that we have always raised tobacco will probably be changed to meet the new demands of the FDA regulations. … If that's what we have to do to raise tobacco to stay in business, well that's just what we'll have to do, I guess." University of Kentucky tobacco economist Will Snell said the impact of regulation "will be lessened by the reality that about 80 percent of U.S.-grown burley is consumed overseas," Carroll writes. (Read more)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rural electrics say climate bill treats them unfairly

Rural electric cooperatives get 80 percent of their power from coal, so they have big problems with the climate-change bill moving through the House. That's not the only reason; they think they would be shortchanged by the bill's allocation of carbon allowances, which reflects a compromise made by investor-owned utilities without the co-ops' input.

Former Rep. Glenn English, president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, told the House Agriculture Committee today that the formula "creates winners and losers in different regions of the country." Those are mainly coal-dependent areas in the South and Midwest, a press release from NRECA said. English said the bill would give co-ops in Kentucky only 59 percent of what they deserve; the figure would be 61 percent in Illinois and Minnesota, 62 percent in Arkansas and 63 percent in Ohio.

English said the allowance should be based on the carbon content of the fuel burned by a utility, to "protect those consumers most exposed to the costs of achieving emissions reductions." Not only are the co-ops dependent on coal, English said their customers have lower than average household incomes: $61,416, almost $10,000 a year less than the national figure of $71,212. To read English's remarks, click here.

Agencies announce plan to 'significantly reduce' environmental harm from mountaintop removal

At the same time President Barack Obama was rolling out his plan to reform health care, three federal agencies were announcing a memorandum of understanding to deal with another controversial topic, mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal. "Administration officials announced that they are taking a series of short-, medium- and long-range steps that they say will allow mountaintop removal to continue, but reduce the impacts to communities and the environment," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

The agreement involves the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior, which includes the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. EPA says the agreement is "designed to significantly reduce the harmful environmental consequences of Appalachian surface coal mining operations, while ensuring that future mining remains consistent with federal law."

The plan will eliminate the Corps' streamlined permitting process for mines, as The Washington Post reported this morning. The Justice Department this week appealed a federal judge's decision tossing out the fast-track system, but Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said that was only a procedural step to preserve a potential appeal. She spoke in a conference call with reporters.

Beyond fast track, the impact of the plan is unclear. Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes was unresponsive when asked if his agency would apply its new buffer-zone rule to "the footprint of valley fills, a move that would block new fills in perennial and intermittent streams," Ward reports. "Until we know exactly how OSMRE under Obama plans to interpret the rule, the move to overturn the Bush changes really doesn’t mean a darned thing."

Ward's post on his Coal Tattoo blog includes links to the conference call, the memorandum of understanding, a Corps-EPA memo to regional offices on coordination of permit reviews, and a letter from EPA explaining how it will review Corps permit decisions.

Reaction from environmental interests so far has been unfavorable. The Kentucky Resources Council said it appreciates the new policies but "harbors serious concerns regarding whether the proposed reforms go far enough to assure full implementation" of the Clean Water Act and the federal strip-mine law, Director Tom FitzGerald said in a detailed statement. He said the EPA's schedule could lead to inadequate review of permit applications, and called for OSMRE to "take a much more significant role in minimizing the footprint" of all forms of surface mining and do a better job of enforcing the 1977 strip-mine law.

Fitzgerald said OSMRE and state permitting agencies have ignored the law's requirement to restore mined land to its original elevation, allowed valley fills to be created by dumping blasted rock instead of constructing engineered structures, and failed to the cumulative impact of mines on a watershed. He said they should, among other measures, require coal companies to use fewer fills, allow only the mining method that would most quickly restore vegetation to the land, and if practicable put blasted rock in fills above the mine site rather than valley fills below. For the full statement, click here.

Ward highlights FitzGerald's statement in a nice roundup of comments. His succinct summary: "The announcement drew littleraise from either side of the debate." On Grist, Jeff Biggers quotes mountaintop-mining foes Teri Blanton of Kentucky, Judy Bonds and Cindy Rank of West Virginia and Paul Ryder of Ohio. Ryder said, "These maneuvers," Ryder said, "are fooling no one." Bonds called it "pure political subterfuge." Blanton said, "Today’s annnouncement is encouraging but we will have to wait and see if this is going to be good or bad." (Read more)

Digital TV switch is at midnight tomorrow night

The switch from analog to digital television airwaves will arrive at midnight tomorrow night, after being postponed by Congress. Across the nation, millions are still not ready for the switch, including many in rural areas. “We predict that for many households this will be six months to a year before this gets sorted out,” Mike Didow of DTV Across America told Julie Harker of Brownfield.

Congress first planned the conversion to digital signals in 2006, but the switch was pushed back to Feb. 17 of this year to manage consumer confusion and offer equipment. Older analog TV sets that rely on antennas need a converter box for the switch, which costs $50 to $80. But two weeks before Feb. 17, the $1.5 billion set aside for $40-off coupons for the boxes ran out and Congress again postponed the switch back to June 12.

Didow said the Federal Communications Commission has “under-appreciated” the issues surrounding antennas used by many rural viewers, incorrectly assuming that the converter box would be the biggest rural need, and that “Every household would have an outdoor antenna mounted 30 feet off the ground.” He said those antennas must be unobstructed by trees or foliage. (Read more)

Kim Hart reports for The Washington Post that the transition overseen by the government was poorly managed and consumers were not clearly informed about the cost and effort involved in the switch. For example, although TV sets with digital tuners will receive broadcasts, experts are now saying that antennas may need to be adjusted or replaced with more powerful ones at an additional cost.

David Cooker and Tiffany Hsu report for the Los Angeles Times that buying a digital TV can run at least several hundred dollars, and a subscription to cable or satellite services generally costs $45 or more per month. Such issues have left experts estimating that nearly 3 million people nationwide will wake up to useless TV screens Saturday. Hart writes, "Those most at risk of losing programming -- seniors, non-English speakers, low-income viewers and rural residents -- are among the more than 14 million households that rely heavily on over-the-air signals to receive critical public-safety alerts, news and weather reports."

Rural doctors debate California hospitals' authority to employ physicians directly

Two doctors have used the power of the pen in a rural newspaper to argue about a California bill that would allow rural hospitals to directly employ physicians and attract more doctors to such areas. California is one of only five states that ban the practice. Dr. Hamid Rabiee, a neurologist at Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding writes for The Record-Searchlight that the bill would cost doctors their independence and objectivity, but Dr. John Harch, a general surgeon and trauma surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Mount Shasta, says the legislation could bring more physicians and better medical care to rural regions.

Rabiee argues that Assembly Bill 648 supports a "corporate" style that first evolved when mining companies hired physicians to care for their employees -- a decision that led to loyalty conflicts for the doctors. In response, "Physicians, courts and legislatures prohibited corporate practice of medicine in an effort to preserve physicians' autonomy and improve patient care." He says reversing that course would gradually transform a physician from a patient advocate into a gatekeeper for cost control, and rural areas should find other ways to attract doctors.

Harch argues that the shortage of doctors in rural areas is too severe to wait for better options. He says the tendency of rural areas to have high proportions of low-income and uninsured patients, who offer less reimbursements for doctors, also hurts promotional efforts. Hospitals directly hiring physicians could alleviate typical administrative and operational concerns that would accompany running a medical practice, he argues. In turn, physicians could put more energy into patient care and serving the unique needs of rural communities. "If rural hospitals had the ability to directly hire physicians, they could provide the economic incentive to attract and retain these physicians, resulting in increased access to quality health care services for millions of rural residents." (To read the articles click the writers' names.)

Legal battle continues over local sports coverage

After airing a live high school football game on its Web site last November, The Post-Crescent of Appleton, Wis., along with parent Gannett Co. and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, is being sued by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. Editor and Publisher reports that the legal scuffle is principally what events and mediums newspapers have the right to cover, an issue that has arisen in many states.

The WIAA maintains that it owns the rights to the game because it organized, supervised and sponsored the event. The suit also alleges that the Post-Crescent's decision to air the game infringed upon the association's ability to generate revenue, although WIAA is only seeking online rights and no monetary damages. Newspaper advocates from Wisconsin, Arizona and Illinois, as well as Gannett and the The Associated Press, are supporting The Post-Crescent's decision. Dan Flannery, executive editor of The Post-Crescent, told Editor and Publisher, "We believe news organizations should be free to cover news with whatever technologies are at our disposal. We don't believe it's WIAA's jurisdiction to tell us how to operate our business."

The case, which is scheduled for trial Feb. 8, is being closely watched by athletic organizations and newspaper groups across the country as Peter Fox, executive director of the WNA, says this case "has advanced further in the legal system than in any other state." Don Craven, an attorney who represented the Illinois Press Association in a similar case two years ago, says WIAA's suit is largely based on TV revenue. "They don't own a commodity to sell, market or otherwise control," he said. "They should put on a very nice tournament and get out of the news business."
(Read more)

Feds have plan to end fast track for mountaintop-removal mines, but appeal ruling against fast track

The Obama administration will announce today an agreement among federal agencies that "proposes to end a fast-track approval process for new mining permits in Appalachia, requiring that they undergo a more detailed environmental review," The Washington Post reports. "It would also reassert federal oversight over state-level regulators, allowing checks of their work for evidence of lax scrutiny, and would try to close loopholes that allow waste rock to be dumped near streams."

Nevertheless, lawyers in the Justice Department yesterday "filed a notice that they plan to appeal the latest federal court ruling that — if not overturned — would require more stringent regulation of mountaintop-removal coal mining," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. The March ruling "blocked the Corps [of Engineers] from approving new coal-industry valley fills through a streamlined Clean Water Act approval process. Coal industry lawyers have also indicated that they will appeal." (Read more) Ward asks on his Coal Tattoo blog, "Why does the administration one day file an appeal of a court ruling that blocked streamlined permit reviews, and then the next day announce it’s going to end those streamlined reviews?" (Read more)

Obama said in his campaign that he wants to end mountaintop removal. When White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley told David A. Fahrenthold of the Post that the practice "is allowed under current federal law ... and until that changes, we have to use the tools that we have," Fahrenthold asked her if she will ask Congress to ban it. "We're still early in that discussion," she replied.

Sutley said the agreement is designed to provide a clear administration policy on mountaintop removal. "But there's no guarantee of that," Fahrenthold writes. "As outlined yesterday, the administration's agreement is more like a promise than a policy, pledging better scrutiny of the mines but providing few specifics about how that would work in practice." (Read more)

The Post says in an editorial that Obama is on the right course, because he needs allies to pass a bill that would try to limit climate change. "Coal will remain an essential energy source for some time, while ending mountaintop removal mining would require action in Congress," the newspaper says. "There it would be opposed by coal-state members whose help Mr. Obama needs to get the more ambitious climate-change bill passed." (Read more)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Corps of Engineers cutting trees on levees, getting opposition from landowners and outside experts

"The Army Corps of Engineers is on a mission to chop down every tree in the country that grows within 15 feet of a levee," out of fear that the roots could undermine the flood-prevention structures and in response to criticism after Hurricane Katrina, reports Cain Burdeau of The Associated Press. "But environmentalists and some civil engineers insist the trees pose little or no risk and actually help stabilize levee soil."

Burdeau reports from Columbia, La.: "Thousands of trees have been felled already, though corps officials did not have a precise number of how many will be cut. ... The saws are buzzing despite the outcry from people who say the trees are an essential part of fragile river and wetland ecosystems. ... Experts outside the corps say a tree has never caused a U.S. levee failure." The corps says trees caused a dam to fail in Georgia more than 30 years ago, and "also wants to get rid of trees for safety reasons. A treeless levee is easier to inspect and repair during a flood." Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, based in Madison, Wis., told Budreau, "If you're going to have a levee, you have to be able to maintain a levee and make it safe."

Sometimes, the engineers back off. In Columbia, hundreds of sycamores, live oaks, elms, pines, cedars, magnolias and crepe myrtles surrounding an 18th-century French colonial estate and plantation were marked for the chain saws, but the corps finally agreed to let the local levee district cut only a few dozen. (AP photo by Kita Wright: John Youngblood on the levee in front of his home on the plantation.) In California's Central Valley, "The corps sought to clear oaks, cottonwoods, willows and other vegetation from 1,600 miles of levees," AP reports. "State wildlife officials complained that the policy would destroy habitat, and residents in Sacramento and elsewhere objected that it would have turned rivers into little more than barren culverts. The corps eventually dropped the idea." (Read more)

For the corps' list of "unacceptably maintained" levees, click here. For more on the corps' levee safety program, click here.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Virginia Democrats make rural choice for governor

He owns a mule named Harry S Truman and comes from a county so small that it doesn't have its own newspaper. But state Sen. Creigh Deeds won the Democratic primary for Virginia governor tonight, thanks in large measure to an endorsement from The Washington Post. That jump-started Deeds late in the race, and he routed former Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe and former state Delegate Brian Moran. He will face Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who was unopposed for the Republican nomination. (AP photo)

"The contest comes freighted with personal drama: Four years ago, Deeds lost the attorney general’s race to McDonnell by just 323 votes," note Andy Barr and John Harris of Politico. "It most likely will also carry a national echo. Virginia governors' races, like New Jersey’s, always attract attention from political devotees because they are one of the few games in town in odd-numbered years." Deeds backs abortion rights and gun rights. For an item on a Post profile of Deeds (whose first name is pronounced "Kree"), click here.

Deeds "was written off as a serious contender just a few weeks ago," reports Michael Sluss of The Roanoke Times. "Moran and McAuliffe tried to blunt Deeds’ momentum by attacking his legislative record, particularly his support for gun rights and his vote for a proposed gas tax increase to fund transportation improvements. Deeds defended his stances and said his rural background and centrist philosophy would better position him to forge compromises on difficult political issues such as transportation funding and expanding background checks at gun shows." (Read more)

Times Senior Editor Wayne Yancey writes, "I don't know whether newspaper endorsements matter much in a general election, but in a primary, well, clearly a lot of Democrats in Northern Virginia paid attention to the Post. That gave Deeds -- from tiny Bath County -- pretty powerful street cred in the suburbs." (Read more) The endorsement "apparently helped give the otherwise obscure Deeds a second look in the vote-rich Washington suburbs and helped bolster his claim that he would be the most electable Democrat in the fall," Barr and Harris write. "Nearly as striking as Deeds’s starburst was McAuliffe’s fizzle. He had the most famous name, the most money to buy ads and organization, the most support from organized labor and by far the most dynamic personality. But, in a stock phrase of political operatives, sometimes the dogs just won’t eat the dog food." (Read more)

McAuliffe tried a rural issue, calling for making energy from the chicken manure that pollutes Chesapeake Bay. He got 26 percent of the vote, barely ahead of Moran, and carried very few jurisdictions. But two were in the Appalachian coalfield: Wise County and its independent city of Norton. For the Post's coverage, which includes an interactive map of results, click here.

Biggest animal-ID hearing yet draws from 6 states

More than 200 farmers and ranchers came to Jefferson City, Mo., today, "to speak their minds about the USDA’s National Animal Identification System," reports Brownfield Network's Julie Harker. "Throughout the day, only a few people testified in favor of a mandatory animal ID system – one of them was booed away from the podium. Most who spoke on the record either want NAIS kept voluntary or they don’t want it at all." (Brownfield photo: The crowd, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack via video)

Harker reports that the crowd at USDA's ninth "listening session" on NAIS was the largest yet, drawing people from Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. "In general, farmers at the hearing agree, the real problem for food safety begins at the processing door and not with independent farmers," Harker writes.

Some, such as northwest Missouri farmer Richard Oswald, see unfairness in how a mandatory NAIS would affect small farmers and confined animal feeding operations. "We are told that we must reveal in the most exacting of ways what livestock we have and where they are daily, even though ours are not the livestock causing the problem in the first place," he said. "Get this: Imported animals and CAFO-raised livestock won’t be required to have individual animal IDs like our animals, because they will come from farms so large that they’d only have to have one number for thousands of head, or maybe no number at all."

Oswald, right, prepared his testimony and published it on the Daily Yonder as the hearing began. He concluded, "After months, even years, of hearing first that animal ID would be good for markets, then that it was needed to protect against terrorism, next that it would control food contamination, and now that we need it to prevent disease, I am exhausted by unending propaganda and unlimited excuse. ... What they propose won’t make livestock healthy, it won’t create more competition in the marketplace, it won’t keep America safer, and it won’t improve my profits. I’d like to thank USDA, but what their plan offers to do is increase my costs, wrap me in red tape, and make it impossible for me to earn a living producing food while it grants control of that production to corporate giants. So I’ll save my thanks for when they go back to being government for the people, and finally restore my right to do honorable work for a free nation." (Read more)

UPDATE, June 10: Oswald has a story on the Yonder about the hearing, laying out in detail farmers' issues with a mandatory system. To read it, click here.

Ethanol, biodiesel interests cry foul at EPA's calculation of their greenhouse-gas impact

Advocates of ethanol and biodiesel argued at a hearing today that the Environmental Protection Agency was out of bounds when it decided to use "land use changes around the world and years into the future" in estimating the fuels' environmental impact, Brownfield Network reports.

“There is so much uncertainty in trying to account for international impacts that it renders the regulatory process incapable of determining a specific number,” said Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen, reports

Mark Stowers, a vice president of leading ethanol maker POET, said EPA calculation models "have severe problems and limitations, including 'failure to make apples-to-apples comparisons with gasoline,' and an underestimation of corn and ethanol yields," report Ken Anderson, Tom Steever and Bob Meyer of Brownfield. (Read more)

Manning Feraci of the National Biodiesel Board acknowledged that federal law "requires EPA to consider significant indirect emissions when calculating a renewable-fuels emission profile," but said EPA should not "rely on faulty data and unrealistic scenarios that punish the U.S. biodiesel industry for wholly unrelated land use decisions in South America." For the DomesticFuel story, click here. For a longer story from Environment News Service click here.

Closer personal ties in rural towns may make them more vulnerable to epidemics, study suggests

The friendly nature of rural towns could be their downfall in an epidemic, a recent study at Kansas State University suggests. It found that found 35 percent of rural residents said they would be willing to visit other people in the community during a major epidemic -- making sociability a liability in the case of spreading germs, United Press International reports.

Researcher Todd Easton ran a computer simulation of a hypothetical disease outbreak and found that by Day 20, everyone would have contracted the disease. "In a rural setting, you're maybe more likely to watch out for all of your neighbors, and your neighbors may also be your uncles, aunts and other family members," he said.

Another KSU professor, Caterina Scoglio, agrees and says managing epidemics in rural areas requires different tactics than in cities and suburbs. "What are used as mitigation strategies in cities will not be so effective in rural areas," she said. "In cities, people have a lot of informal contact with one another, but looser ties." (Read more)

Lack of dentists an issue in Va. governor's race; primary being held today

The shortage of doctors in rural areas has been well documented, but Michael Laris reports for The Washington Post that the increasing lack of dentists, especially in rural towns, is among the issues that have been debated by Democratic candidates for governor of Virginia, who are on the primary ballot today.

All three governor candidates have promised progress, but Laris writes that “The candidates are less clear, though, on the projected price tag, and exactly where they would find the money” to implement programs that address the disparity.

Good oral hygiene and dental care have been empirically linked with overall physical health, but programs dedicated to bringing more dentists to rural areas have been downsized due to budget cuts and a shrinking number of public health dentists. Limited access to dental care means many people live with rotten teeth and infected gums that only worsen with time -- problems that typically end in tooth extraction. "Understand, there's nothing quite like that kind of pain,” Terry D. Dickinson, a dentist who is executive director of the Virginia Dental Association, told Laris. “These folks come in and are very stoic and don't complain. Just seeing them, it breaks your heart that they had to put up with that kind of problem." (Read more)

Nominee to oversee USDA conservation programs and Forest Service withdraws his name

Homer Wilkes of Mississippi, President Obama's nominee for undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and the environment, a job that oversees the Forest Service and conservation programs in the Department of Agriculture, has withdrawn his name, citing personal reasons.

"Lobbyists who follow USDA said the withdrawal came after a bump in the road came up in Wilkes' background investigation," Noelle Straub and Allison Winter report on The New York Times' Greenwire blog. "Wilkes was unknown to many forestry, environmental and farmland conservation groups in Washington. Conservation advocates were pleased with his nomination." For more background, click here.

Shrinking manufacturing base in rural areas has big impact, especially on those close to retirement

Stable farmland prices provide a financial cushion for farmers, but rural Americans who relied on manufacturing jobs aren’t feeling quite so lucky. In a followup to his story on land prices, Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports that the trend of closing rural factories has accelerated with the economic downturn.

Randy Badman (right, with his wife, Marge, in photo by Berkes) was laid off in 2005 from the original Vise-Grip plant in DeWitt, Neb., after 36 years of service. He has since been laid off two more times and lost 40 percent of his 401-K. In October 2008, the plant closed and moved to China.

Such an exodus has left people like Badman searching for jobs and facing a bleak economic climate that is arguably worse in rural areas. Ernie Goss, an economist at Creighton University in Omaha, told Berkes that the loss of companies in rural America leaves much a bigger footprint because of the limited infrastructure of small towns. When businesses close and people leave, or are forced to leave, "The burden of the infrastructure costs is spread among fewer and fewer individuals and fewer and fewer families," Goss says. "If every one of those retirees could take a chunk of the infrastructure with them, [which] would not have to be paid for by those who remain, you'd be OK. But, you've got schools, the sheriffs' departments, the county court clerk. All these are affected by this. It's not a small thing."

To survive, people like the Badmans, who were close to retirement, are having to rethink their future plans. They are part of an effort to get a new company to move into the vacant Vise-Grip plant, but the tough economy is a major obstacle they face. While Goss told Berkes he expects the situation to improve, "It's hard to tell a person who's over 50 years of age, 'Well, just hang on for another 5 to 10 years. It'll get better.' " (Read more)

Drillers in N.Y. to tell state the chemicals they use to fracture rock; bills filed to require it across U.S.

Natural-gas drillers have agreed to give New York state regulators a list of the chemicals used in fracturing underground rock formations to release gas, reports Tom Wilber of the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. "Industry officials have long resisted demands by activists to make the information public because they consider it a trade secret," Wilber notes. (Read more)

Official studies in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado have concluded that hydro-fracturing has damaged water supplies, reports Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica., an independent, nopn-profit news site. Geochemist Anthony Gorody of Houston's Universal Geosciences Consulting told Lustgarten that the Colorado study was "junk science," and that pollution cases "are like plane crashes -- the extent tends to be fairly limited. I do not see any pervasive impact."(Read more)

Drilling has long been linked to water pollution, but the issue of deep gas drilling has risen as companies prepare to tap largely undrilled reserves such as the Marcellus Shale that runs from New York to far eastern Kentucky. Members of the U.S. House from New York and Colorado have introduced legislation to require disclosure of the ingredients.

Dairy farmers consider slaughter, milk dumping

The depressed milk market has put dairy farmers in dire straits; many are burning through their life savings, and two farmers have killed themselves, Jerry Hirsch reports for the Los Angeles Times. California farmer Tom Marchy, left, sold his herd of 1,100 Holsteins and began planting corn instead. (Times photo by Gary Kazanjian)

Milk prices are roughly half of the cost of production – “Every carton sold in the supermarket represents a loss on the farm,” Hirsch writes. In most of 2008, the milk price hovered around $17 per 100 pounds, but when the economy tanked in the fall, that price dropped to $10. Hirsch reports that “Farmers generally need at least $16, and often more, per 100 pounds to break even.”

Advocates like the National Family Farm Coalition continue to rally for more measures like emergency floor prices to protect the 57,000 dairy farmers nationwide. Slaughtering milk cows is one option supported by Cooperative Working Together, a voluntary organization in Arlington, Va.,. which is sending about 103,000 milk cows to slaughter over the next several months to reduce the milk supply by about 1 percent. Some dairy farmers are also considering dumping their milk. "If they are not going to allow us to make a living, we will just dump it down the drain," Arie DeJong, who owns several dairies and 20,000 cows in California and Arizona, told Hirsch. "We just can't keep losing money like this." (Read more)

Lower estimate of economically recoverable coal bad news for 'clean coal' plans of industry, utilities

The United States doesn't have as much coal to mine as previously estimated, now that "Government geologists for the first time are applying to coal fields the same kind of math that’s long been applied to other resources, such as oil and gas — that is, how much stuff is economically recoverable?" Keith Johnson writes for The Wall Street Journal. "The conclusion: If coal is cheap, it isn’t so abundant. If coal is abundant, that’s because it isn’t so cheap."

That is not good news for coal and utility companies that hope for "clean coal" power plants that can trap carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. "That’s because capturing coal’s emissions requires a lot of energy," Johnson writes. "A new book by Harvard University’s Belfer Center estimates that clean-coal plants use 30 percent more energy than traditional plants — that is, clean coal plants require more coal to produce the same amount of energy as dirty coal plants. The push for clean coal already faces numerous obstacles, including hefty costs, regulatory uncertainty, and simple geology. If cheap and abundant coal is actually neither, clean coal’s future starts to look even blacker." (Read more)

For the study by the U.S. Geological Survey, click here.

Monday, June 08, 2009

'Smurfs,' state lines help meth makers grow in Ky.

Methamphetamine labs are on the rise in Kentucky and other states because makers of the drug are using simpler ways to make it and circumventing laws designed to make it more difficult to accumulate meth ingredients, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"The number of labs across the state fell from 604 in 2004 to 302 in 2007, but that number rose to 405 in 2008, according to the Kentucky State Police," Estep writes. "The upward trend continues this year, according to police around the state. In far western Kentucky, the Pennyrile Narcotics Task Force cleaned up 49 meth labs the first five months of this year compared with 10 in the same period last year."

Kentucky has a statewide electronic system to track sales of the ingredients and warn pharmacists not to sell to buyers who would exceed purchase limits. "To get around the restrictions, meth cookers have started having multiple people buy cold and allergy pills so none of them goes over the limit. They call that smurfing," Estep reports. "They also leave Kentucky to buy products in nearby states without similar controls, police said." (Read more)

Lack of rural broadband creates more than digital divide; also social divide from lack of global links

The readers of USA Today, who are disproportionately metropolitan, had the opportunity to understand an important facet of many rural Americans' lives today, by reading a 1,600-word story about the need for extension of high-speed Internet service, or broadband, to rural areas that don't have it. We've published a lot about this issue, but Leslie Cauley's story lays out the basic arguments and blends them with personal examples to create a rich picture of the problem. A glance box summarives the federal program to expand broadband.

(Encarta map) Reporting from the West Texas town of Plains, population 1,450, Cauley begins, "The people who live here are still waiting for the digital revolution to arrive." Outside the city limits, broadband is spotty, expensive and often unreliable. Rural folks don't like to complain, farmer Jeff Roper told Cauley. "They work hard, love their communities and wouldn't think of living anywhere else," she writes. "But that doesn't mean they don't want, and need, to be connected to the outside world."

Much has been written about the need for rural broadband to bridge the "digital divide" between urban and rural America, but "There's also the social divide to consider," Cauley notes. "While websites such as Facebook and Twitter might seem like mere entertainment, they also turn the Internet into a town hall meeting that spans the globe. Broadband is essential to that cultural shift, and to making sure consumers can participate."

Cauley says the best argument for rural broadband is jobs. Actual evidence of that is scant, but she cites without contradiction estimates by Connected Nation that "a 7 percent increase in broadband penetration in underserved parts of the country could stimulate the economy by more than $134 billion." (Read more) For more on Connected Nation, click here.

Supreme Court: W.Va. justice should've quit case of coal firm whose CEO spent $3 million for him

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that a justice of West Virginia's highest court should have recused himself from a case involving Massey Energy Co., the largest coal producer in Appalachia, because the company's top executive had financed a campaign to have the justice replace an incumbent after the initial lower-court verdict.

"By a 5-4 vote, the justices held that West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Brent Benjamin should have removed himself from deciding the case because Massey Chief Executive Don Blankenship (left) had spent $3 million to help him get elected to the court," James Vicini reports for Reuters. The opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing vote in big cases; he was joined by the court's liberals, while the four conservatives dissented.

It marked the first time the high court had called for a judge's recusal in a case related to judicial elections; Kennedy wrote that there was no question about it because the facts of the case were “extreme by any measure.” He said there was “a serious, objective risk of actual bias” that threatened the plaintiff's rights to due process. “Just as no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, similar fears of bias can arise when — without the other parties’ consent — a man chooses the judge in his own cause.”

Chief Justice John Roberts said he "would give the voters of West Virginia more credit than that," and said Benjamin won the election comfortably (a margin of 6.6 percenatge points). He predicted that the decision “will inevitably lead to an increase in allegations that judges are biased, however groundless those charges may be,” doing much more to “erode public confidence in judicial impartiality” than a ruling in Massey's favor would have. Roberts listed "dozens of questions that he said the majority had raised without really answering, and that the lower courts will have to wrestle with," David Stout reports for The New York Times. (Read more)

Kennedy said Massey and its allies who filed friend-of-the-court briefs (there were 16 total, on both sides) cited "no other instance involving judicial campaign contributions that presents a potential for bias comparable to the circumstances in this case." On the Law Blog of The Wall Street Journal, Nathan Koppel reports judicial reaction to the decision is favorable. (Read more)

The court ordered the West Virginia court to reconsider "its 2008 ruling that reversed a 2002 verdict by the Boone County circuit court to award $50 million to Harman Mining Corp. and its president, Hugh Caperton," Reuters reports. The court's vote on that ruling, and other in the case, were 3-2, but Massey said it was confident that a replacement justice, to be named by the other four, would rule likewise. (Read more) UPDATE, June 10: Blankenship issued a statement replying to the decision. For a nicely told story of what a long, strange trip led to it, read this story by Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Vilsack trims his sails a bit on which agency should oversee carbon-credits system for farmers

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has toned down his comment of several days ago that the Department of Agriculture should oversee the carbon-credits system that would be created by the climate-change bill moving through the House -- another source of disagreement with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.

In Kentucky on May 27, Vilsack said he would push Congress to give his department authority to monitor farming practices that earn carbon credits, since USDA has more than 2,000 offices, and employees "in virtually every county in the country." But on Friday, his department's Daily Radio Newsline paraphrased him as saying "that it's too early, probably not even productive to talk about what agency runs a cap-and-trade system."

USDA narrator Gary Crawford said in the report, "Some farm groups are insisting that the Agriculture Department," not EPA, "run that system" of carbon credits for farmers. "It's not either-or," Vilsack said. "There's a lot of work that's going to have to be done if this thing's structured right, so we just want to make sure that ... the important role agriculture can play in climate change is recognized."

Vilsack said, "I think Congress is going to have to figure it all out. We're not the ones who make policy, we're the ones who implement it." But he also indicated that USDA and EPA, which wants to run the whole program, have roles in that discussion as the bill moves through Congress and will keep talking with each other. "Both agencies need to work together," he said. "This is very complicated legislation, and . . . I'm absolutely committed to working with EPA."

At the same Kentucky meeting, Vilsack sided with members of Congress against EPA's stand that indirect changes in land use, even overseas, should be part of the calculation of the environmental impact of corn-based ethanol. Vilsack told reporters that EPA's proposal is still "subject to peer review," and he is confident that a final rule on the topic will find him and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in agreement. (Read more)

EPA cuts by half its estimate of money farmers could make from carbon storage under climate bill

"New government estimates suggest farmers would make a lot less money than previously believed" from the pending legislation to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, reports Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register. "That could make it more difficult than it already is for Democrats and the Obama administration to sell a climate bill to farm-state members of the House and Senate."

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2005 that nearly 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide could be kept out of the atmosphere by changes in forest and farm practices, about a fourth of it from less tillage, which keeps more crop residue in the ground. "But in analyzing the House bill, the EPA estimated that the carbon credits from agriculture and forestry likely won't exceed 300 million tons until after 2040," Brasher notes. "Even then, virtually all of those offsets would come from planting and preserving forests, not through agriculture."

Turns out that EPA didn't realize how many farmers had adopted no-till and minimum-tillage methods. The estimate also chenged because of the 2007 energy bill, which "mandated the use of biofuels made from crop residue and other sources of biomass, which means there will be less plant material, or carbon, left in soil to earn carbon credits," Brasher explains. (Read more)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Owensboro, Ky., honors brothers who published a great paper and continue to serve the community

At a time when newspapers are having more difficulty than ever fulfilling their public-service role, a Kentucky town took time yesterday to honor two brothers who gave it one of the best small newspapers in the United States and turned the money they got from selling it into philanthropic projects that have continued to advance the community.

John and Larry Hager of Owensboro, population 52,000, sold their interests in the Messenger-Inquirer about 20 years ago. "John Hager would go on to start the Public Life Foundation, which helped spark the We the People group that has had success in encouraging public involvement in government," the paper's Dariush Shafa reports. "Larry Hager Jr. went on to create the Hager Educational Foundation, which has given out more than $1 million in grants since its creation in 1990."

The brothers' interests reflected the editorial position of the newspaper, where John largely handled the editorial side and Larry the business side. "I never saw John make a major editorial decision at the newspaper that was selfish," said David Boeyink of Indiana University, who edited the editorial page for nine years in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when the Messenger-Inquirer was named one of the nation's five best small newspapers. Boeyink said the paper looked out for the marginalized and the vulnerable, and followed "the hard path of changing institutions and culture."

John Hager, right, who bought out his brother about five years before selling the paper (to A.H. Belo Corp., which five years later sold it to Paxton Media Group), said he and his sibling were not on the same track, but they started from the same point: concern for "the vulnerable and the voiceless." Larry Hager, left, told the crowd at RiverPark Center, "Service to your fellow man turns out to be the most satisfying thing you ever do. ... Let's go out tomorrow and keep on doing it." (Read more; subscription required)