Saturday, July 18, 2009

Coal interests say boycott of Tenn. tourist sites to protest Alexander's support of bill is spreading

We reported more than 10 days ago that subsidiaries of Arch Coal were boycotting Tennessee tourist sites because Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of that state is sponsoring a bill that would greatly limit or ban mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal. The boycott is spreading, others in the Appalachian coalfield told Roger Alford, a Kentucky correspondent for The Associated Press.

Roger Horton, director of Citizens for Coal, which started the boycott, "said some 5,000 coal miners already have joined the week-old boycott, which he hopes will spread to involve all of the nation's 81,000 coal miners," Alford writes. "Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor said he expects the boycott to grow. ... Democratic state Rep. Fitz Steele, a former miner in the eastern Kentucky coalfields, said the boycott is gaining steam beyond the miners themselves. Store clerks, waitresses, even politicians whose livelihoods are affected by mining are taking part."

On the other hand, "TECO Coal, with headquarters near the Tennessee border, initially announced that it had joined the boycott, saying the legislation hurts miners and businesses in the region. Days later, however, the company relented, and spokesman Jim J. Shackleford issued a statement of apology." (Read more)

Book traces history of methamphetamine in the Midwest through Oelwein and Ottumwa, Iowa

The rise of methamphetamine, that most rural of manufactured drugs, began in part because of "the crumbled local agricultural economy" around the southeast Iowa town of Ottumwa in the late 1980s, Nick Reding writes in the new book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. Or so says reviewer Charles Homans in the latest issue of The Washington Monthly.

"Falling tax revenues had left local law enforcement underfunded, understaffed, and unable to stop" Lori Jane Arnold, who built the first midwestern meth lab in Ottumwa and set up a distribution system, Homans reports. "Hard-up fertilizer suppliers and farmers were happy to cut deals on large volumes of anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer ingredient that is also used in meth processing."

Reding "wants to situate the meth phenomenon as part and parcel of the broader economic and social forces that transformed the rural Midwest, in often wrenching ways, in the late twentieth century," Homans writes. "The drug’s Middle American evolution, he argues, was a basically rational product of a global economy that in many respects has not been much more forgiving to rural America’s residents than the drug trade."

The small town in the book's subtitle is not Ottumwa, population 24,000, but the former meatpacking town of Oelwein, pop. 6,700 and 150 miles north. "Reding’s group portrait of Oelwein’s residents is nuanced and complex in a way that journalists’ depictions of the rural Midwest rarely are," Homans reports. "Unfortunately, Reding pushes the big-think conceit of Methland a bit too far, trying to fit drug traffickers in a geostrategic context as a sort of geographically dispersed 'disconnected state,' drawing strained parallels between Mexican drug cartels and American pharmaceutical companies, and generally struggling for a unified theory of 'the meaning of meth'." (Read more)

UPDATE, July 21: Tim Egan, Outposts blogger and "op-extra" writer for The New York Times, likes the book and quotes Reding as saying meth is “the only example of a widely consumed illegal narcotic that might be called vocational, as opposed to recreational.” It's a stimulant, not a narcotic, but the point seems well taken. (Read more)

Rural airports get big share of stimulus money; ProPublica has help, networking to track spending

The Federal Aviation Administration has finished allocating the $1.1 billion Congress gave it for airport improvements, and rural projects are getting much of the money, Michael Grabell reports for ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news service that is paying much attention to stimulus spending. (For its pages on how to track the spending and join its stimulus reporting network, click here.)

"The biggest winners aren't the busiest airports. And more than $100 million is going to airports that have fewer than one flight an hour -- airports that cater to recreational fliers, corporate jets or remote communities," Grabell writes. "The stimulus was designed to supplement infrastructure funding, not supplant it. Projects weren't eligible if they had already received money from federal, state or local governments, or from private sources such as landing fees, and that ruled out many bigger, busier airports. ... The government also waived the usual requirement that airports put up some of their own money, making the stimulus grants attractive to smaller airfields."

A version of this story was co-produced with CBS News, which aired it on the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric. Here's a map of the airports that got money. To enlarge it, make it interactive and check individual airports, click on it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Rural Democrats push leverage in health reform

As health-reform legislation begins to take shape in bills marked up by committees, and the Congressional Budget Office warns that no version it has seen so far would rein in costs, rural Democrats are having an impact and figuring in negotiations for a final product.

Fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, many of them from rural areas, "joined Republicans to provide the winning edge for an amendment aimed at preventing the creation of duplicative government health programs," notes Alex Wayne of Congressional Quarterly. The amendment in the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed 29-27 and got seven Democratic votes, six from Blue Dogs. On the other two House committees with jurisdiction, "four of the five Blue Dogs who have had a chance to pass judgment on the bill have voted against it, with only Mike Thompson of California, a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, supporting it in committee," CQ reports.

Meanwhile, President Obama today aligned himself with West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, "suggesting that a new independent board make the decisions on how Medicare pays hospitals and doctors," Noam Levey reports for the Los Angeles Times.

"Until now, the president has carefully deferred to lawmakers developing healthcare legislation, in part because many believe that the Clinton administration's decision to write its own healthcare bill 15 years ago alienated Congress and contributed to that initiative's failure," Levey writes. "But pressure has been growing on the administration and its congressional allies to do more to restrain the nation's $2.5-trillion healthcare tab. And many specialists believe one key to curbing costs is to remove reimbursement decisions, which are now made by Congress, from the political process."

For the House Education and Labor committee summary of the bill, click here. For a good roundup of increasing party and interest-group advertising on the issue, much of it targeting individual House members and senators, click here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Iowa journalist Jay Wagner dies of cancer at 45

Our friend Jay Wagner died yesterday at 45, after a long battle with cancer. We quote Chase Martyn of the Iowa Independent: "A journalist for all of his adult life, Wagner grew up in northwest Iowa and edited his family’s award-winning newspaper, The N’West Iowa Review. He also worked for the Des Moines Register, The Iowan magazine and Business Publications Corp. in Des Moines. Often eager to joke around with colleagues, Wagner was known as a straight shooter in print but a witty, independent-minded conservative around friends." (Read more)

Jay covered the 2008 presidential caucuses and legislative session for the Independent, an online publication. “Jay was a terrific writer and an important early member of our Iowa team,” said David Bennahum, president and CEO of the Center for Independent Media, which funds the Independent. “His coverage of the Iowa caucuses was incisive and astute. We are very saddened by the news of his death, and send our condolences to his family and friends.” After leaving the Independent, Jay started a blog, the last posts on which were about cancer.

We valued Jay as a friend of The Rural Blog and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, and as one of the relatively few journalists who took on the daunting mission of covering and interpreting state-level news for rural readers. And we will always remember rooting online for our respective teams, Drake and Western Kentucky, in that epic 2008 NCAA Tournament game ended with Western's three-pointer. Jay e-mailed, "Well, shit." But then he wrote, "I am numb. What a finish. I will be rooting for you. Shoots my brackets to heck AND kills the story I was writing for the Christian Science Monitor on Drake. I want a rematch."

Dairy crisis takes an emotional toll on farm families

The dairy crisis has farmers grappling with record low prices and the prospect of losing their livelihood, and the situation has taken a deeply emotional toll, Lynda Waddington reports for The Iowa Independent, an online publication. If you're looking for a good example of how to to a feature story on the crisis, here's one. (Iowa Independent photo)

Near Stockport, Ia., the Lunsford family runs a small dairy farm, L & L Ayrshires, where cows and calves are known by names, generational history and personalities. A daughter, Jennifer Lunsford, told Waddington, “This is a family farm. It isn’t just because we run and operate the farm, but because all aspects of what we do and how we treat the herd is as family. We give them the same considerations that other people give to pets or extended family.”

That bond is beyond an industry gone awry, says clinical psychologist Mike Rosmann, executive director of AgriWellness. He says consumers have become disconnected from the food supply and take too lightly the connection farmers and livestock share. “Our understanding of where food comes from deteriorates because we kind of take it for granted.” Facing foreclosure, Rosmann told Waddington, is when farmers are most vulnerable. “These farm families become very afraid that where they get meaning in their lives will be removed from them.” (Read more)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bill Clinton tells foundations their philanthropy in rural America is 'woefully inadequate'

Foundations' help for rural America is "woefully inadequate," but rural advocates need to make better arguments to get more foundation help, former President Bill Clinton said today at a conference on rural philanthropy at his library in Little Rock, sponsored by the Council on Foundations.

Clinton said the national poverty rate can't be reduced without focusing on rural development, and suggested that alternative energy, anti-obesity and reforestation programs should be included in the mix. "We can beat up on people and say they should give more money in rural America, but we should give them some new ideas," he said, adding that rural and urban charities should find ways to cooperate.

Andrew DeMillo of The Associated Press reports: "The 42nd president, who was born in Hope and raised in Hot Springs, said that he believed that charities that work in rural areas should find more ways to work with charities that work in urban areas. When asked about the state of rural areas, Clinton said that charities in those areas should find ways to create hope for the people living there." (Read more)

The legacy of meth: Contaminated homes, unwary homeowners, sick children and huge costs

Anna Holt, 2, needs breathing treatment because of an illness that began in the family home contaminated by methamphetamine. Her mother, Rhonda, "developed migraines. She and her husband, a factory worker, had kidney ailments," The New York Times reports. "More than five years after they moved in ... the couple discovered" that their home in Winchester, Tenn., had housed a meth lab. "The Holts’ next realization was almost as devastating: it was up to them to spend the $30,000 or more that cleanup would require." (Josh Anderson photo for NYT)

Reporters Shaila Dewan and Robbie Brown write, "Federal data on meth lab seizures suggest that there are tens of thousands of contaminated residences in the United States. The victims include low-income elderly people whose homes are surreptitiously used by relatives or in-laws to make meth, and landlords whose tenants leave them with a toxic mess. Some states have tried to fix the problem by requiring cleanup and, at the time of sale, disclosure of the house’s history. But the high cost of cleaning — $5,000 to $100,000, depending on the size of the home, the stringency of the requirements and the degree of contamination — has left hundreds of properties vacant and quarantined, particularly in Western and Southern states afflicted with meth use."

The problem is expected to grow because meth-lab seizures are increasing, by 14 percent last year, and meth makers are adopting a simpler method. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has missed an end-of-2008 deadline to establish standards for meth contamination and cleanup. "Without standards, professional cleaners say, it is easy to bungle a job that often requires gutting and repeated washing," the Times reports. "About 20 states have passed laws requiring meth contamination cleanup, and they use widely varied standards." (Read more)

Aug. 12 is deadline to apply for expenses-paid seminar on energy issues at Ohio State in Sept.

Journalists reporting on energy costs, trends in the global energy market, the cap-and-trade system in the climate-change bill, and the impacts on their communities, are invited to apply for the expenses-paid McCormick Specialized Reporting Institute on Energy Solutions Sept. 20-22 at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

The conference is designed to provide a small group of journalists with direct access to national leaders and the time to delve deeper into energy research and policy analysis. Confirmed speakers include Dr. Steven Koonin, newly appointed energy undersecretary for science; Richard Sandor, founder of the Chicago Climate Exchange; and Don McConnell, president of energy technology at Battelle Laboratories, the world's largest nonprofit research and development organization.

The conference will be hosted by the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism, the John Glenn School of Public Affairs, Battelle, and Ohio State's Institute for Energy and the Environment. Funding from the McCormick Foundation will provide meals, lodging and a travel stipend for journalists selected to attend. To apply, go to and fill out the online application by Aug. 12. For additional information, contact Jessica Barnes at 614-247-8796.

FDA opposes 'non-therapeutic' livestock antibiotics

The head of the Food and Drug Administration told Congress Monday that the agency favors banning the use of antibiotics in livestock except to prevent disease. FDA commissioner Joshua Sharfstein said "Purposes other than for the advancement of animal or human health should not be considered judicious use,” and added that the FDA believes all medications used for prevention and control of livestock should only be administered by veterinarians.

Critics have said overuse of the drugs, usually to encourage animal growth, has led to increased antibiotic resistance in humans. Activists groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists estimate 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on food animals, typically to promote weight gain or improve food consumption; others say the bulk of animal antibiotics are used to fight disease.

Sharfstein testified at a House Rules Committee hearing on H.R. 1549, sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., the committee chair. "The bill generally would eliminate the use of 'non-therapeutic' antimicrobials in food-producing animals unless they can be proven to pose no danger to human health. These 'non-therapeutic' uses are defined in the bill as 'any use of the [critical antimicrobial animal drug] as a feed or water additive for an animal in the absence of any clinical sign of disease in the animal for growth promotion, feed efficiency, weight gain, routine disease prevention or other routine purpose'," Tom Johnston of MeatingPlace reports. Slaughter's press release on the bill is here. A 2:49 video clip of Sharfstein's testimony, from Slaughter's site, is here.

Charles Abbott reports for Reuters: Last year, Denmark voluntarily banned its use of antibiotics for livestock growth promotion. The Pew Environment Group told Abbott that the ban had little or no effect on farm productivity, and human antibiotic resistance decreased, but the American Veterinary Medical Association says resistance in Denmark was unchanged while hog disease increased. (Read more)

Power-grid plans prompting regional competition

Creating a national power grid for renewable energy has become a high priority for the federal government but catching the wind for it is exposing some rifts in the plan, Matthew L. Wald reports for The New York Times.

The strongest potentials for wind and solar energy are in the Great Plains, but “An influential coalition of East Coast governors and power companies fears that building wind and solar sites in the Midwest would cause their region to miss out on jobs and other economic benefits,” and is trying to block a mandate for such lines, Wald writes. East Coast governors are suggesting that New England farms should get a piece of the economic benefit of hosting wind turbines and new transmission lines. They wrote in a letter to House and Senate leaders in May “this ratepayer-funded revenue guarantee for land-based wind and other generation resources in the Great Plains would have significant, negative consequences for our region.”

The energy and climate-change bill passed by the House would allow the federal government to overrule state objections to new power lines, but only west of the Rocky Mountains. Dan Reicher, an energy initiative leader at Google, told Wald the issue is both simple and complex. “The areas with the most attractive renewable energy resources often don’t overlap with the places where the push for job creation is strongest,” he said.

The debate deepens when critics say proposed power lines could also be used to transfer coal-fired power. Coal plants unable to sell power because of congestion in the current power grid would be helped, but at a cost to the ‘renewable’ standard. The issue includes cost-supply questions, economic development concerns and environmental sustainability, Branko Terzic, a former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission member, told Wald. “Those three goals are not always concurrent and could be in conflict.” (Read more)

Monday, July 13, 2009

News-Gazette, University of Illinois J-school unveil project to report on local economic disparities

Champaign County, Illinois, population 171,000, "is home to a world-class university, chic new downtown lofts and more than 350 restaurants. It is also home to more than 58,600 residents – nearly one in three – who are impoverished or near poverty, according to 2007 Census Bureau data."

So report freelance writers Shelley Smithson and Pam G. Dempsey for The News-Gazette of Champaign-Urbana, in the first of a series "to engage citizens, educators and other media in an ongoing examination of poverty and its related issues in Champaign County," an editor's note says. The project director is Rich Martin of the University of Illinois School of Journalism, and journalism students will be involved. The project will include an interactive Web site "where citizens can access and contribute information about these issues," overseen by Brant Houston, the school's Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

"While news stories will be a significant part of this project, a major goal will be to provide access to information about the community to those citizens who seldom get that access," the editor's note says. "The project is funded by the Marajen Stevick Foundation, a News-Gazette community foundation; a matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a journalism foundation based in Miami; and contributions from the University of Illinois." (Read more)

Farmers slow to sign up for alternative subsidy that would cut direct payments but might pay off

"Would-be reformers of farm programs should take note: Farmers won't easily part with the subsidies they've been getting, even if they make more money from a new program," writes Philip Brasher, Washington correspondent for The Des Moines Register. His example: lack of signups for a subsidy designed to supplant one that President Obama has tried and failed to cut, direct payments.

The new program is Average Crop Revenue Election, which Congress created "to better protect producers against losses in farm revenue, either through poor yields or steep drops in commodity prices," Brasher reports. "In return for a guaranteed floor under farm revenue that the program would provide, growers must give up a portion of their annual direct payments." As of July 7, only 1,434 of the nation's 1.8 million farms had signed up for ACRE.

Experts say some farmers are waiting to see how commodity prices behave before the Aug. 14 signup deadline. "Recent declines in corn prices makes it more likely that corn growers would get subsidies under the ACRE program," Brasher explains. Other reasons: The program is complex, signees must stay in it until 2012, and renters must get landowners' permission to enroll their acreage. And, of course, there's that 20 percent cut in direct payments. "It's giving up the direct payment that is the primary factor," Kyle Phillips, who farms near Knoxville, Iowa, told Brasher. He is "waiting to see what happens to corn prices." (Read more)

Obama picks rural physician for surgeon general

A woman who established a rural health clinic in a fishing community on the Alabama coast, then rebuilt it twice after hurricanes, is President Obama's nominee for surgeon general of the United States.

Regina Benjamin, right, is founder and CEO of Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic. She won a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation last year and "has never sought the spotlight, but instead dedicated her medical career to helping underserved populations in a rural area of her home state," Marrecca Fiore reports for Fox News. "The under-the-radar Benjamin is certainly a contrast to Obama's first pick for surgeon general, CNN TV doctor Sanjay Gupta, who turned down the job."

Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent writes, "Benjamin came to the small village when she was just out of medical school, as part of a national program that forgave tuition for doctors who would agree to serve in an impoverished area. When her commitment was met, she stayed. Even as she gained national notoriety and higher-profile job offers, she stayed." She was the first African American woman president of a state medical association, and "the first black woman and the youngest doctor elected to the American Medical Association's board," Fiore reports.

Waddington writes, "It remains to be seen exactly how much influence will be afforded to the office by the Obama administration, but having an individual in the post who has intimate knowledge of doctor drain, the nursing shortage and other basic barriers to access in rural areas can only benefit under-served areas throughout the nation. Benjamin is poised to be the third woman to serve in as surgeon general, and the first woman from a non-military background." (Read more) For reports on the nomination from The Associated Press and Benjamin's local newspaper, the Mobile Press-Register, click here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Rural Democrats demand changes in health-reform bill, delaying its unveiling

Rural, conservative Democrats have forced leaders of the House's Democratic majority to delay unveiling of President Obama's health-care bill. Their concerns "include the need for more cost containment measures, protections for small businesses and a focus on rural health care," Erica Werner reports for The Associated Press.

The rural Democrats are part of a group of moderates and conservatives, domimated by the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs, who have millions of rural constituents. Their message to party leaders: "Don’t model public coverage on Medicare. Don’t force doctors or small businesses to participate. And don’t shut out Republicans," Patrick O'Connor reports for Politico.

O'Connor writes that a Friday meeting of members and leaders "centered on Medicare’s already controversial reimbursement rates for health care providers. Moderates echoed long-standing complaints from doctors and private insurers that the current rates are too low, particularly in under-served, rural communities. Authors had already taken steps to remedy this perennial problem, one Congress addresses each year by approving tens of billions to reconcile the annual shortfalls. But they need to go further before many of these disgruntled moderates will sign on."

However, O'Connor notes. "Giving more money to rural states would either make the entire system more expensive or divert money from other communities that will make their own arguments for funding. One of the ideas floated late last week, according to an aide, was to use whatever savings lawmakers can muster from these public plans into more money for rural communities that are struggling to recruit sufficient doctors and nurses."