Friday, September 25, 2009

Weekly editor checks economic-stimulus data, finds school districts that no longer exist

"In Kansas, 11 school districts that no longer exist are on the U.S. Department of Education’s distribution list for stimulus funds. They are set to receive nearly $600,000," Jennifer LaFleur reports for ProPublica. "We found these school districts when Kirby Ross, managing editor of the Phillips County Review in Phillipsburg, Kan., alerted us that our county-by-county stimulus tracker included two districts in his area that didn’t exist."

"We checked more states and found that other consolidated or dissolved districts were on the list. In Missouri and Iowa, a handful of closed districts were listed as receiving stimulus funding.
That doesn’t mean stimulus checks will be arriving to empty buildings. In instances where money is allocated to a closed district, it typically is divvied up among the districts where the students now attend." (Read more)

Number of Rhode Island farms increases, apparently from demand for local food

Rhode Island saw the creation of 361 more farms between 2002 and 2007, an increase that analysts suggest coincides with the growing demand for local food. “People see buying local as a benefit in a lot of different ways," Kristen Castrataro, of URI Extension Services, a group that provides research and assistance to farmers, told Talia Buford of the Providence Journal. "Economically, it’s keeping a lot of our hard-earned money in the state. The more you spend in the local community, the more stays in the local community.”

The "green industry" -- nursery, horticulture and turf '' accounted for 67 percent of Rhode Island farms' market sales in 2002, and 60 percent in 2007. Kenneth Ayars, chief of the division of agriculture of the state Department of Environmental Management tells Buford that the decrease resulted from more farmers shifting to fruits, vegetables and livestock.

Rhode Island farms depend largely on direct-to-consumer sales, averaging $25,270 a year in direct market sales, the third highest level in the country, Buford reports. “This ain’t Nebraska," Stu Nunnery, director of the Rhode Island Center for Agricultural Promotion and Education, tells Buford. "And regional agriculture is based more on the direct market model, which is to produce not high volume, but lower-volume, high-quality specialty crops and products and sell them directly to the consumer at retail, rather than wholesale.” (Read more)

West Virginia power plant to become first to capture and bury some of its carbon dioxide

American Electric Power's Mountaineer plant in New Haven, W.Va., is poised to become the world's first commercial power plant to capture some of its carbon-dioxide emissions and bury them underground when a new system goes online in the coming days. "The hope is that the gas will stay deep underground for millennia rather than entering the atmosphere as a heat-trapping pollutant," Matthew L. Wald of The New York Times reports.

AEP plans to begin the experiment with two wells that will use between 15 and 30 percent of the plant's energy output. Plans call for Mountaineer to bury 100,000 tons annually for two years, about 1.5 percent of the plant's emissions. The economic viability of Mountaineer's plan remains uncertain, Wald reports; some energy experts argue that the process could prove more expensive that solar or nuclear power. Environmentalists also fear that once the carbon dioxide is injected into the ground it might pollute water supplies and cause earthquakes, though the Environmental Protection Agency says the latter is highly unlikely.

Environmental groups also fear that success of the project might lead industry and government officials to drag their heels in investments in renewable energy, Wald reports. “Coal is the drug of choice of a major industry with a lot of political power,” David H. Holtz, executive director of Progress Michigan, an environmental group, told Wald. Many scientists emphasize Mountaineer's location, within a dozen miles of four other plants, in the so-called "Megawatt Alley" as a reason for optimism. Wald writes: "If the technology spread to all of them in a cost-effective way, many say, it could have a broad impact on the coal industry." (Read more)

Rural Oklahoma towns offer insight into how to foster entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurs have proven their worth in revitalizing rural America, but how exactly do small towns foster entrepreneurship? Brian Whitacre and Lara Brooks examined five rural Oklahoma towns with successful entrepreneurship records to determine just that, and wrote up their findings for the Daily Yonder earlier this month. The towns benefited from geography and natural amenities, but they were from four diverse geographic regions with very different levels and types of amenities. (Yonder map by Whitacre and Brooks)

Emphasizing Main Street was the first strategy Witacre and Brooks noticed from the successful towns. "Cordell has emphasized its history and proudly promotes its unique courthouse, while also looking to the future," they wrote. "Now there are high-speed fiber optic lines in place for businesses requiring them."

For neighboring Davis and Sulpher, putting aside their traditional geographic rivalry was key to working together, teh pair found. "The turning point came when key individuals from both communities applied for and received an Initiative for the Future of Rural Oklahoma grant that helped them think about their shared goals and walk through the issues they had."

Pryor, the home to the largest rural industrial park in the U.S., was an example of a rural community "focusing on its assets," Whitacre and Brooks write. The local high school featured a workforce development program that provided students the type of professional certificates businesses at the park required.

Woodward, in northwest Oklahoma, proved that small businesses need to diversify. "The arrival of Wal-Mart has prompted small business owners to find niche markets that complement the big-box retailer, such as creating customized versions of clothing or materials, or specializing in older, vintage retail," the Yonder reports. (Read more)

Schools in every state violate drinking-water rules

Roughly one in five schools supplied by a water well has violated the Safe Drinking Water Act in the past decade, and such schools are the largest violators of drinking water standards, The Associated Press reports from Environmental Protection Agency data. Better check to see if any are in your area.

Eight to 11 percent of U.S schools are supplied with water from their own wells. Schools with public water have also violated the standards. "In California's farm belt, wells at some schools are so tainted with pesticides that students have taken to stuffing their backpacks with bottled water for fear of getting sick from the drinking fountain," AP reports.

EPA says a recent spike in violations can be largely attributed to stricter standards. "There's a different risk for kids," Cynthia Dougherty, head of the EPA's Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, told AP. EPA cannot require testing at all schools and mainly provides environmental guidance.

Schools with unsafe drinking water make up only a small percentage of the country's 132,500 schools, AP reports. Water supplies violated standards in about 100 school districts and 2,250 schools with well water. Those schools had 5,500 separate violations between 1998 and 2008 and 577 in 2008, up from 59 in 1998. California led states with 612 violations during the period, followed by Ohio (451), Maine (417), Connecticut (318) and Indiana (289). Half the violators in California were repeat offenders, including one elementary school that had been cited 20 times.

Older schools on public water systems also were more likely to violate the standard due to the prevalence of lead piping. "There is just no excuse for this. Period," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told AP. "We want to make sure that we fix this problem in a way that it will never happen again, and we can ensure parents that their children will be safe." (Read more)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

'Fed' written on chest of hanged census worker in Ky. county where feds have been active for years

UPDATE, Oct. 1: Patrik Jonsson of The Christian Science Monitor writes about why police may be keeping mum about the probe, to the extent of not ruling out the unlikely possibility of suicide.

A U.S. census worker was found hanging with "fed" scrawled on his chest in Clay County, Kentucky, on Sept. 12, a fact that went unreported until last night, when Devlin Barrett and Jeffrey McMurray of The Associated Press put it on the wire. The victim was Bill Sparkman, left, a substitute teacher from adjoining Laurel County, who was doing interviews for the Census Bureau in preparation for the 2010 census. Authorities say they have not determined the cause of death but call it an "apparent homicide." AP reports, "The FBI is investigating whether he was a victim of anti-government sentiment. ... Attacking a federal worker during or because of his federal job is a federal crime." (Corbin Times-Tribune photo)

Sparkman worked with the Census since 2003 in five counties. AP quotes retired Kentucky state trooper Gilbert Acciardo's warning to Sparkman: "I told him on more than one occasion, based on my years in the state police, 'Mr. Sparkman, when you go into those counties, be careful because people are going to perceive you different than they do elsewhere.'" But Roy Silver, a sociology professor at Southeast Community College in Harlan County, told AP, "I don't think distrust of government is any more or less here than anywhere else in the country."

But when it comes to the federal government, Clay County is a special case. It is a hotbed of marijuana cultivation, mainly in the Daniel Boone National Forest, which covers much of the county, and Sparkman's body was found on forest property. For nearly 30 years, federal and state authorities have targeted pot growers in Clay and adjoining counties, and in the last several years, the Justice Department has won indictments and convictions of officials and other local residents for vote fraud, other corruption and other crimes. And resistance to federal authority in the area dates back more than a century, to the era of major moonshine stills. Ironically, the county's largest employer is a federal prison. (Encarta map) Cary Stemle talked to folks who know these things and filed a story for Time.

The AP reporters quote a Manchester Huddle House waitress who feels the government needs to "stick their nose out of people's business." They write, "Manchester, the main hub of the southeastern Kentucky county, is an exit off the highway, with a Wal-mart, a few hotels, chain restaurants and a couple of gas stations. The drive away from town and toward the area where Sparkman's body was found goes through sparsely populated forest with no streetlights, on winding roads that run up and down steep hills." (Read more)

That was surely written by McMurray, who is based in Lexington; Barrett apparently doesn't have sufficient background on the county. On MSNBC last night, liberal talk-show host Rachel Maddow "asked him if he "had seen any evidence that the crime had political motivations," Rachel Weiner reports on The Huffington Post. He replied, "I don't think federal law enforcement would still be involved a week and a half after the body was found if there wasn't still that very serious concern."

In the blogosphere, there is also ill-informed speculation, like this from Chris McGreal, Washington correspondent of The Guardian: "Although law enforcement officials say that southern Kentucky is not considered a particular hotbed of anti-government sentiment, there is little doubt that growing right-wing and libertarian anger at Barack Obama and his administration is increasingly belligerent." McGreal notes that "Local police also consider it possible that Sparkman was killed because he came across illegal activity," but the officer quoted mentions methamphetamine, which is primarily a concern of state police, not federal agents.

UPDATE, 9/28: In the best of the national stories we've seen so far, Morgan Bowling, editor of the Manchester Enterprise, tells Carol Morello and Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post: "People are puzzled by what happened to Bill Sparkman. A lot of people have said, 'Who knows what he might have walked into?'" The Post cites Dee Davis, president of the Whitesburg-based Center for Rural Strategies, in its description of Clay County: "It is in many ways a typical eastern Kentucky county, left struggling when coal companies went out of business and tobacco farming became less lucrative. Now, the largest employers are the school board, a hospital and a Wal-Mart." (Read more)

UPDATE, 10/1: In the McCreary County Record, Peter Ferrara objects to some of the stereotypical coverage by national and international media, and writes, "It’s just one more black eye on a region that already suffers from a lot of negative stereotypes. I have lived in the Daniel Boone National Forest for a pretty long time. The people here may be a proud and isolated bunch, but they are decent and honest and we deserve better." (Read more) Agence France-Presse is now on the story; you can read its account here.

Florida tomato grower strikes his own deal to raise workers' wages, may break impasse

A long-running quest of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to increase wages for migrant farmworkers in Florida may have reached an important turning point. East Coast Growers and Packers has reached an agreement with Denver-based burrito company Chipotle to pay workers an addition penny per pound for all Chiptole tomatoes they pick, Elaine Walker of the Miami Herald reports. The agreement will cause a 64 percent increase in the price per 32-pound bucket. (Herald photo by Nuri Vallbona)

The agreement comes after several years of negotiations between CIW, a farmworker activist group, and various restaurants to increase worker wages. The group had reached deals with Burger King, McDonald's, Subway, Taco Bell and Whole Foods, but most of that money is still sitting in escrow accounts, never reaching workers, Walker reports. East Coast decided to break from the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which had threatened to fine members who participated in the agreements, in making the deal with Chipotle.

"I would rather be unpopular with my competition and do the right thing,'' East Coast sales manager Batista Madonia Jr. told Walker. "I believe when you do the right thing for your worker, it gives you a better worker and a better company.'' Madonia says he's already entered negotiations with other chains about similar deals. We previously reported about CIW's agreements with Yum! Foods and Burger King in 2007 and 2008 respectively. (Read more)

UPDATE 9/28: The CIW and East Coast have reached an agreement with The Compass Group, which operates 10,000 cafeterias in public schools, hospitals and government buildings including the U.S. House of Representatives, to pay an additional 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes. One cent per pound will go directly to the workers, Jane Black reports for The Washington Post. Compass subsidiary Bon Appetit Management Co. threatened to not serve tomatoes in any of its cafeterias this winter if no tomato grower would agree to pass on the extra penny to workers. (Read more)

Farm profits dive as consumers enjoy lower prices

Researchers at the University of Illinois are predicting a net loss of $8 per acre of corn and $15 per acre of soybeans for U.S. farmers this year, the largest loss since the 1980s, Art Hover reports for the Lincoln Journal Star. The price for corn is too low for most farmers to make a profit, but too high to trigger extra federal price supports. (USA Today graphic)

Agricultural economists at the University of Nebraska predict that the Cornhusker State's net farm income will fall from $4 billion in 2008 to $2.5 or $2.6 billion in 2009, a drop of about 35 percent. Farmers who bought fertilizer and other planting supplies before the prices of those commodities and corn dropped will face an even tougher economic outlook, Hover reports. Two positive bright spots for farm profits are a predicted record production this year and the first profit potential for cattle farmers since 2007. (Read more)

The dire predictions for farm profits have led American grocery shoppers to enjoy lower prices at the market. The average retail price for a gallon of milk was down 91 cents, Marisol Bello reports for USA Today, and the average price for a pound of bacon was down 25 cents from 2008. Ag economists blame initial linkage of the H1N1 flu to the pork industry and sluggish corn prices for the drop in prices of farm products, but competition between groceries for consumers during the recession has also played a large role in lower prices at the supermarket. (Read more)

'Fracking' may reinvent the natural gas industry, but poses some environmental risks

A new drilling method has given U.S. natural gas companies access to the vast underground gas reserves for the first time, an advancement that industry executives predict will "revolutionize the industry all over the world." We've reported on controversy surrounding the environmental impacts of "fracking" before (Earlier this month and in February), but Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio has the best explanation of the process we've seen yet.

Fracking projects drill more than more than a mile below the surface before gradually steering the bit to one side until it is heading sideways across the shale layer. Companies then fracture the rock by forcing a mixture of sand and water through the well at high pressure, opening more cracks in the rock for the gas to escape. Shale gas "is the most important energy development since the discovery of oil," Fred Julander, founder and chief executive of Denver-based gas company, Julander Energy, tells Gjelten. (NPR graphic)

Proponents of the process argue "big boost in the use of natural gas would dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil," Gjelten writes. Despite the rosy predictions of environmental improvement, some residents near fracking sites have already complained of water contamination. A hydrologist found benzene contamination in a water well in Wyoming near a fracking site and residents of Dimock, Pa., near the Marcellus shale formation have voiced similar complaints. The "FRAC Act," before Congress, would also require natural gas producers to disclose the chemicals they are using, Gjeltin reports.

You can read the entire NPR series on fracking here:
UPDATE, Oct. 24: NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard responded to suspicion that the series soft-pedaled the environmental impact of expanded gas drilling because the network had just received a sponsorship from America's Natural Gas Alliance, a lobbying group. Shepard acknowledged, "The reports did not thoroughly address environmental and public health concerns." She said the network should have used some of its local affiliates in New York or Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale formation is being fracked, to more fully address environmental concerns. For Shepard's comprehensive report, click here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rural Ohio foreclosures rise faster than statewide

Rising unemployment is pushing more rural Ohio homeowners toward foreclosure, and support for them is more difficult to find their urban counterparts, Nick Carey reports for Reuters. Foreclosure rates in Ohio rose by 1.2 percent in 2008, but by 4.9 percent in counties with fewer than 50,000 people.

"The biggest foreclosure growth Ohio has seen in recent years has been in rural areas," David Rothstein, a researcher at Policy Matters Ohio, told Carey. "In some ways rural areas are just beginning to catch up with the cities." Representatives of Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People, a non-profit designed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, tell Carey that "in politically conservative rural areas, one challenge is persuading people to ask for help because they attach stigma and shame with doing so."

"In urban areas the housing crisis was caused more by poor lending practices," Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray tells Carey. "But in rural areas the crisis is related to the economy." Helping struggling homeowners in rural areas is imperative to organizations like ESOP, member Shane Lightle tells Carey: "In some parts of the state there is simply no one around to help." (Read more)

Now you can follow The Rural Blog on Twitter

We've jumped on the Twitter bandwagon, now you can follow us at The twitter account is set up to send out blog updates as new items are posted. Blogger is currently experiencing some technical difficulties with its Twitter gadget, but as soon as those are resolved you will also be able to see our tweets on the right sidebar of the blog. You can also follow the blog on Facebook, subscribe to the RSS feed and you can email us to sign up for the e-mail updates.

Kentucky schools buying hybrid school buses

Kentucky school districts will have the chance to purchase hybrid-fueled electric school buses starting in October through funding from economic stimulus funds. The state plans to replace 200 diesel-powered buses; it has 9,800 diesel-fueled buses and the project will replace the oldest.

“Clean fuel technology is not just the wave of the future – it’s here now, and our schools are an excellent venue to showcase the benefits,” Gov. Steve Beshear said in a news release. The governor anticipates the project saving 122,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year and extending the 14-year life cycle of buses by 18-20 years. Hybrid buses cost between $126,000 to $133,000, compared to $85,000 for a diesel-fueled bus. (Read more)

The Todd County Board of Education unanimously voted to purchase one of the hybrid buses for $71,263, Ryan Craig of the Todd County Standard reports. "Board members did question if the bus would be cost effective for the school system," Craig writes. Transportation Director Carrol P. Moseley said the bus will be 70 percent more fuel efficient and garage technicians have already received training on hybrid bus maintenance.

Ideas for fixing 'brain drain' of rural young people

Rural problems tend to take a back seat to urban problems that have higher visibility, but addressing rural needs could help much more than just rural America, Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas report for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The two researchers found that in just over two decades, 700 rural counties lost over 10 percent of their population, much of it educated young people. The brain drain isn't new, Carr and Kefalas write after nearly two years in rural Iowa, but "the 21st century the shortage of young people has reached a tipping point." (Photo by Steve Schapiro)

"The health of the heartland is vital to the country as a whole," Carr and Kefalas write. "This is the place where most of our food comes from; it can be ground zero for the green economy and sustainable agriculture; it is the place that helps elect our presidents, and it sends more than its fair share of young men and women to fight for this country." The two sociologists, funded by the MacArthur Foundation's Network on Transitions to Adulthood, found adults in the community were facilitating the town's decline by pushing the best and brightest young people to leave, and by underinvesting in those who chose to stay.

Schools should push those not headed to four-year institutions toward vocational training and associate-degree programs, Carr and Kefalas suggest, adding schools must build better links to higher education and nurture learning in areas of regional economic growth, like wind energy and biotechnology. The pair also advocates small towns embracing immigration to fuel a dwindling work force, and offering student-loan forgiveness for college students willing to return to the area. Rural states must also invest in the "green economy," and reinvent the food industry to save rural America, the researches argue.

"The residents of rural America must embrace the fact that to survive, the world they knew and cherished must change," Carr and Kefalas write. "And, on a national level, rural development must be more closely linked to national economic growth priorities, and policies must be created to help these communities prepare for a future that is already here." (Read more)

Kentucky pupil objects to teacher's anti-Islam film

A Pulaski County High School student has objected to being shown a video that depicted images of dead bodies, beheadings and bombings to illustrate its creator's opinion that the "Islamic incursion" must be stopped. Amber Cruey says she first felt hatred toward Muslims after watching the film, Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, but decided the film was wrong in its hatred of Islam after a discussion with her parents.

Sonya Wilds, an assistant superintendent in the school system, told Estep the teacher showed the film on Sept. 11 "in order to commemorate the anniversary of the terror attacks in New York and Washington and generate discussion on the dangers of extremism." The teacher was not named by the school system, but Cruey identified him as Michael Foncannon, a teacher in the Junior ROTC program. The school system says that the teacher's intentions were pure, but that the film was not proper for a class of juniors and seniors.

The fifteen minute film, Fitna, was made by Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whom a Dutch court prosecuted in January for allegedly inciting hatred against Islam. "Islam is not a religion. Islam is an ideology." Wilders said in an interview with the Boston Globe in March. "You keep comparing it to Christianity, Judaism. It's not. It's an ideology that wants to dominate every aspect of society. I know billions of people believe it's a religion. I don't." Jenny Sutton-Amr, executive director of the Kentucky Islamic Resource Group in Lexington, told Estep: "Islam is definitely against violence. The notion of killing innocent people ... does not have a place in Islam." (Read more)

Appalachian Trail's cheap, transient lifestyle attracts hundreds of jobless Americans

In a struggling job market, more Americans are turning to the Appalachian Trail for its transient lifestyle. In a typical year 1,000 hikers leave Georgia to hike the 2,000-mile trail to Maine, Joel Millman of The Wall Street Journal reports. This year 1,400 hikers left in the first wave, with hundreds more lagging behind. "I wouldn't do this if I was employed," hiker Dan Kearns told Millman. "I couldn't find any work, so I just decided to take a walk."

Millman writes, "An economist might have another name for Snipe [Kearns' trail name] and his fellow travelers: trailing indicators. [Ha, ha.] Depending on one's level of optimism, an Appalachian Trail through-hiker is either a symbol of a jobless recovery or of a still-deepening recession."

Hikers budget $1 a mile for food, but often earn lodging on a work-for-stay bartering system. "If you do this on the trail, you're a hiker," The Druid, a 48-year-old south-bounder (SoBo) from Tennessee, tells Millman. "If you do this off the trail, you're a bum." So-called "Trail Angels" provide lodging and free meals to hikers short of cash. "NoBos and SoBos are reminiscent of the hobos of the Great Depression," Milliman writes, "though there aren't so many of them this time." (Read more) For a Journal video, click below.

Hiking the trail, through or not, earned a boost in popular lore when South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford claimed he was hiking it in June while he was actually culminating an affair in Argentina. includes the phrase "hiking the Appalachian" as a slang term for having an affair and includes possible uses for the term, such as: "Why is Bob's wife angry with him? He got caught hiking the Appalachian, if you know what I mean." (Read more)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Farm Safety and Health Week runs through Sat.

We don't do much with press releases, but we do care about farm safety, because farming is, by one measure, the fifth most dangerous occupation and usually involves most of not all members of a family, putting them all at risk. So here's a release on National Farm Safety and Health Week, which began Sunday and runs through Saturday. Ever wonder why it's this time of year? Harvesters on the highways.

Civil War battlefield, state line at issue in renewed debate over wind farm on Allegheny Mountain

A Civil War battlefield is the center of the latest effort to stop a wind-energy project. Two weeks ago we reported about a California community's esthetic objections to a substation needed to handle new wind power; now, residents near the Camp Allegheny Battlefield on the Virginia-West Virginia border are voicing similar complaints. "If wilderness is sacred, and if American history is sacred, then there's no doubt this place is doubly sacred," Richard Laska, a local opponent of a proposed wind energy project, told Laurence Hammack of The Roanoke Times. (Times photo by Sam Dean)

Ground was broken for a row of 19 wind turbines, 400 feet tall, on a ridge overlooking the battlefield last month. The project is the first of its kind in Virginia and would create enough electricity to power 15,000 homes, Hammack reports. Developers behind the project, Highland New Wind Energy, have called themselves "trailblazers" in the quest to bring alternative energy to Virginia. "Opponents say the trail being blazed will destroy the county's natural beauty," Hammack writes. Camp Allegheny, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was the highest military encampment above sea level during the Civil War, and the battle saw 300 soldiers die, including many who are buried near the battlefield.

"In a complaint filed with the State Corporation Commission, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources is arguing that the wind-farm project will be detrimental to Camp Allegheny," Hammack reports. While no turbines will actually be constructed on the battlefield, opponents say having them within eyesight "will likely have a negative impact." (Read more)

The Pocahontas Times of Marlinton, W.Va., ran this photo illustration by Laska, showing the height of the turbine towers on the ridgeline as viewed from the battlefield, which lies in West Virginia. Official maps show one of the turbines would be in West Virginia, but a survey for the developers put it 40 feet into Virginia, limting regulation to one state. Pam Pritt of the Times reports that opponent Dawn Baldwin Barrett told the Pocahontas County Commission, “So far, Highland New Wind has skillfully avoided federal oversight of their project. Loopholes in the Virginia state regulatory process have allowed a project to go forward which is, quite simply, located in the wrong place.” (Read more)

A commisison has been named to verify the border, reports Anne Adams of The Recorder in Monterey, Va., which has covered the project most extensively because it lies in its home Highland County, but the weekly paper doesn't post full versions of its stories for non-subscribers until three weeks have passed. Its free archive is here. Its home page is here.

Cause of huge fish kill in W.Va. and Pa. unknown; gas-drilling chemicals, coal mine are suspected

UPDATE, Sept. 28: Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette has a comprehensive look at the sitiation. UPDATE, Sept. 24: West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman blames the fish kill on an algae bloom, set up by temperature, sunlight and drainage from the mine mentioned below. Also, "One possible culprit is a new borehole on the Pennsylvania side that’s injecting polluted water into the mine void," Erica Peterson and Scott Finn report for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Dunkard Creek, a 38-mile stream that forms in Monongalia County, West Virginia and flows into the Monongahela River in Greene County, Pennsylvania, may be home to the largest fish kill in West Virginia more than two decades, and no one seems to know what caused it. The creek has seen "161 species of fish, mussels, salamanders, crayfish and aquatic insects killed by mysterious pollutants coming from sources state and federal agencies have yet to pinpoint despite aggressive field work," Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

"We've just been decimated down here. Everything is being killed almost from the headwaters of the creek to where it flows into the Monongahela River," Betty Wiley, president of the Dunkard Creek Watershed Association, told Hopey. Environmental agencies are treating the creek as a crime scene. Initial speculation as to the cause of the pollution centered on Consol Energy's Blacksville No. 2 mine, but dead fish have been found recently upstream from the mine and chemical analysis of the water reveals chemicals used in drilling deep natural-gas wells into the Marcellus Shale. State agencies are investigating the possibility that someone is illegally dumping drilling water into the creek, Hopey reports, adding the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection doesn't allow water- or sewage-treatment facilities in the state to accept or discharge Marcellus wastewater.

Regardless of the cause, the devastation along the creek in undeniable. Hopey quotes Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy's Water Research Institute at West Virginia University: "This is the worst fish kill I've experienced in 21 years in West Virginia." (Read more)

Miss. reporter earns prestigious McArthur grant, will keep trying to solve crimes of civil-rights era

Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, has been awarded a prestigious McArthur Fellowship. Mitchell, who has spent two decades solving crimes of the civil-rights era in Mississippi, will receive a five-year, $500,000 grant funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

"The purpose of the program is to promote creativity across a great range of fields in the interest of improving the human condition," foundation president Bob Gallucci told Chris Joyner of The Clarion-Ledger. Mitchell, 50, plans to use the grant to continue his pursuit of crimes that remain unsolved and to finish a book. He may take temporary breaks from The Clarion-Ledger to work on the project, but will continue to publish his findings in the Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper.

"I speak for the entire Clarion-Ledger family when I say that Jerry's latest honor solidifies his position as one of the nation's top journalists," Larry K. Whitaker, The Clarion-Ledger's president and publisher, told Joyner. According to the foundation's Web site, the three criteria for the fellowship are exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. (Read more) For the foundation's bio of Mitchell, click here.

UPDATE, Sept. 29: Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times has a short but nice profile.

Wyo. coal plant would be first at commercial scale to capture and sequester carbon dioxide

Three energy companies have filed an application for funding from the Department of Energy for the country's first commercial-scale coal-fired power plant that would capture and sequester carbon dioxide, preventing its escape to the atmosphere, where it is the main greenhouse gas.

The plant in Campbell County, Wyoming, proposed by Black Hills Corp., Babock & Wilcox, and Air Liquide Engineering, would use oxy-coal combustion, which burns coal in a regulated oxygen environment instead of normal air, Dustin Bleizeffer of the Casper Star-Tribune reports. The process results in near-zero sulfur dioxide emissions and a more pure stream of carbon dioxide.

"It will be capable of capturing and storing approximately 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is greater than 90 percent of the proposed plant's total carbon dioxide emissions," B&W says on its Web site. Rob Hurless, telecommunications and energy adviser to Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, told the Wyoming legislature's Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee that the process could be used to retrofit existing coal plants.

The project is among dozens seeking funding from DOE programs like the Clean Coal Power Initiative, which received $800 million from the stimulus act, Bleizeffer reports. Energy Secretary Steven Chu "has been serious about moving money," Hurless told Bleizeffer. "The Department of Energy had a reputation of sitting on money. Recently, these things have been moving fairly quickly." (Read more)

The debate over whether the state or federal government should assume long-term liability for any carbon-sequestration projects is delaying progress on the plant, Bleizeffer reported Monday. "There's a total lack of any kind of integrated plan among all the states in the West" on the long-term liability question, Joint Minerals Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Grant Larson told Bleizeffer. Wyoming officials want to claim sovereign immunity from liability in the event of a carbon leak or earthquake and say that the federal government should assume that responsibility. (Read more)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Southwest Pennsylvania township hopes third time is the charm for anti-mining efforts

A federal judge has ruled that two Blaine Township, Pa., ordinances prohibiting mining are invalid, after two mining companies, Penn Ridge Coal LLC and Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. sued the municipality west of Pittsburgh. Chief U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose said the ordinances were "the very definition of arbitrary and unreasonable." One prohibited a company from mining if it had more than three violations in 20 years; another prohibited mining altogether. (Read more)

The township's citizens will vote on a third mining ordinance in November. It would give residents the right to "prohibit environmentally unsustainable mining," Barbara S. Miller of the Washington County Observer-Reporter reports. The policy would include "the right to establish policies on corporate disclosure, toxic trespass, sustainable agriculture, sustainable water, sustainable energy and enforcing the rights of nature."

Fred Cramer, chairman of the Blaine Home Rule Study Commission, told Miller, "I think it's about the rights of people and the residents of the community and who chooses their quality of life." George Ellis, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coal Association, countered, "They've already enacted two ordinances that ban mining, and there are three companies challenging them in federal district court. I didn't know about this being on the home-rule charter. We feel their ordinances are clearly unconstitutional." (Read more)

Farm-to-school movement gaining momentum in rural communities, despite regulatory obstacles

The effort of farmers to sell crops to local schools is complicated by government school-lunch regulations, Christen Gowan of the Albany Times-Union reports, but is steadily increasing in popularity in New York state. Peter Ten Eyck of Indian Ladder Farms tells Gowan that business to local schools has remained steady since the local-food movement gained momentum, but lunch regulations, transportation and coordinating deliveries remain obstacles to getting his apples to schools.

The Hudson Mohawk Resource Conservation and Development Program has released a 30-page guide for farmers looking to sell their produce to local schools called "From Farm to School." The guide informs farmers of the regulations they need to comply with and what schools are looking to begin local foods programs. School lunch directors see the move as a positive, but costly one. "We have such wonderful farm land around us," Margaret Lamb, school lunch program director for Saratoga Springs City School District, tells Gowan. "It seems like such a simple choice to make." (Read more)

Last week schools in Maryland participated in the "Homegrown School Lunch Week" program for the second consecutive year. Cafeterias in all 24 Maryland school districts served fruit, vegetables, breads, meats and cheeses from local farms. We reported earlier this month that the Ridgeway Area Schools in Pennsylvania were hosting a "farmer's market day."

Rural educators wary of school stimulus options

The U.S. Department of Education is preparing to spend $3 billion from the stimulus plan to improve perennial underperforming schools through the Title I School Improvement Fund, but some rural school districts fear that new regulations may be tough to implement due to the lack of access to organizations and individuals with expertise in turning around floundering schools, Alyson Klein of Education Week reports.

The investment ranks as the largest infusion of government funding to improve schools that don't meet the achievement targets of the No Child Left Behind Act. Models call for underperforming schools to be closed and reopened as charter schools, for a school to replace its principal and half its staff, or to use student-progress data to reward and dismiss teachers. Rural educators fear these regulations are not practical for small, isolated schools and districts.

When Gail Taylor, director of standards and assessments for the Vermont education department, launched a nationwide search for a school-improvement specialist, she had trouble finding qualified applicants. She told Klein: “It wasn’t like we had a lot of people jumping to come to the northeast corner of Vermont.” Federal education officials say the different options offer enough flexibility for rural districts and schools. (Read more)

Sixteen years and what do you get? No Wal-Mart, and no resolution to Vermont town's debate of it

Debates over commercial development are not uncommon to rural America, but the debate over construction of a Wal-Mart in St. Albans, Vt., is believed to be the longest-running one in the country. The proposal to build the store in a corn field was first suggested in 1993 and defeated after a four-year battle, Sarah Schweitzer of The Boston Globe reports. A second attempt began in 2003 and has been the subject of debate in St. Albans since.

Jeff Davis, the Vermont developer leading the project, wrote in a June letter to the editor of the St. Albans Messenger that the last of the necessary permits was received in spring 2008, but six of the permits remain under appeal before the Vermont Environmental Court. Project opponents, including Vermont Natural Resources Council and Preservation Trust of Vermont, say that "satisfying a yen for cheap goods will yield negative long-term effects."

Vermont has only four Wal-Marts, the fewest in the nation, Schweitzer reports. Adjoining Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine have 46, 27 and 22, respectively. A recent hearing on the project included pleadings from both sides totally over 1,000 pages, and an October rally for the construction turned out 1,500 people. Stephen Holmes of the Natural Resources Council told Schweitzer that the group would welcome the store if it were in a downtown location. Opponents say the store could cause the closure of 12 businesses and the loss of 40 jobs, while supporters say the town needs the store to bring new jobs to the area -- and a place to buy underwear, among other things.

The chief point of opposition remains the worry that a Wal-Mart would "erode Vermont's unique ethos," Schweitzer reports. She quotes Marie Frey, who moved to St. Albans from Cleveland: "All the development there has made it so unrecognizable. And now it’s chasing me. The development is going on here, little by little." (Read more)

Kentucky's poet laureate takes his inspirational messages about writing to towns large and small

Kentucky's poet laureate and celebrated Appalachian author Gurney Norman, right, is spreading his message about writing across the state. Norman spoke to 20 public school teachers in Louisville last week, teaching them how to inspire their students to write, Elizabeth Kramer of WPFL Radio reports. He already led workshops at the Spring Writers Conference in Hazard in May, and will visit the rural towns of Cynthiana, Greenville, Pineville and Glasgow in coming weeks.

Norman worked as a reporter at his hometown Hazard Herald in the 1960s before publishing his first novel, Divine Right's Trip, in 1971. His work has been classified as regional and nostalgic, Kramer reports, but Norman has a different view: "“I do view the world through the prism of local awareness,” he says. “To know one place well is a starting place to know the whole world.” Norman has been an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky since 1979.

Norman was inspiring young authors long before being given his new title in April. “Gurney has had so much influence doing writing workshops across Kentucky,” Lost Mountain author Eric Reece told Kramer. “You can’t swing a dead cat in Eastern Kentucky without hitting somebody who’s been inspired by Gurney.” (Read more)

National security issues snag U.S. shield-law bill

Questions about dealing with leaks of national-security information are holding up passage of a federal shield law for journalists, Walter Pincus reports for The Washington Post. The Justice Department wants to do away with the proposed "balancing test" in which judges would weigh the need to compel reporters to disclose sources against the public interest of revealing the information, in favor of a plan that would allow the department to subpoena reporters after convincing a judge that release of information could harm national security. (Read more)

Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Pincus that despite President Obama's support for a federal shield law, his administration has taken a hard line in prosecuting criminal leak investigations, making a balancing test unlikely. (Read more) After the Senate Judiciary Committee didn't act on the bill Thursday, the Society of Professional Journalists urged its members to contact committee members. SPJ President Kevin Smith said in an editorial that the bill "isn’t meant to uniquely benefit journalists, but rather guarantees that the American public has the valued information needed to ensure its interests are protected."

In a Thursday editorial The New York Times wrote, "Without the ability of reporters and news organizations to protect confidential sources, many important reports about illegal, incompetent or embarrassing behavior that the government is determined to conceal would never see the light of day." The editorial points to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and warrantless wiretapping as recent stories uncovered through confidential sources. "Many believe that the First Amendment and the right to free speech are all that are necessary to ensure a robust press and the free exchange of ideas. But the right to collect important information, and to protect the sources who provide it, is also vital." (Read more)

U.S. to probe dairy farmers' anti-trust allegations

U.S. Assistant Attorney Gen. Christine Varney has launched an investigation to determine if giant milk processors are violating antitrust law. Varney, testifying at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in St. Albans, Vt., Saturday, said she wanted to know "why our cooperatives are the captive of one distributor," The Associated Press reports. (Read more)

The milk price paid to dairy farmers can get has dropped 36 percent in the last year to the lowest level in three decades, Scott Kliman and Lauren Etter reported for The Wall Street Journal Thursday. Dallas-based Dean Foods Co. and Kansas City-based Dairy Farmers of America Inc., dominate the dairy industry after the Bush administration Justice Department cleared the way for the 2001 merger of the two largest dairy producers, they noted. (Read more)

The threat of a dairy monopoly isn't new, Dan McLean of Vermont's Burlington Free Press reports, noting that former state Rep. Tom Pelham wrote in 2003, "If we don't seek a different course, the road we now head down inevitably leads to huge corporate farms, supplying huge corporate dairy processors, supplying huge corporate food retailers." Vermont has lost more than 250 dairy farms in five years, McLean reports, leading Vermont Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders to push for an antitrust investigation of Dean Foods. Pelham told McLean: "I grew up in a dairy valley as a kid. I love these people. The culture that is wrapped around dairy farming is falling by the wayside in Vermont." (Read more)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

JBS of Brazil, big and getting bigger, would buy 64% of bankrupt Pilgrim's Pride if judge says OK

Pilgrim's Pride Corp., whose bankruptcy has left many chicken farmers in financial peril, would sell 64 percent of its stock to beef giant JBS, which meanwhile has "reached an all-stock deal with a Brazilian beef-industry rival -- setting the stage for a shake-up in the global meat business," The Wall Street Journal reports.

If a bankruptcy judge approved, the deal would "create a new rival to Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest meat company with beef, chicken and pork operations," report Mike Spector, Lauren Etter and Alastair Stewart. "JBS is among the world's largest meat producers and has been on a global acquisition binge designed to make it the biggest. . . . Ranchers and chicken farmers fret that greater industry concentration could undermine their clout and depress prices for their animals." (Read more)

R.I.P.: Bernie Brenner, a leading farm journalist of the 20th Century, is dead at 87

Longtime agricultural journalist Bernard Brenner, who made a career of explaining the relationship between the field and dinner table to farmers and urban dwellers alike, died Sept. 17 of lung cancer. He was 87. Much of his coverage detailed post-war changes in American agriculture, rural life, international trade, global food supply and the politics of environmental issues and food safety.

Brenner was the longtime farm editor for United Press International, when it was a major wire service, and was president of the Newspaper Farm Editors of America, now the North American Agricultural Journalists, in 1975. The group gave him its J.S. Russell Memorial Award in 1966 and its Distinguished Service Award in 1978, when he retired after 34 years with UPI. He became press secretary for the House Agriculture Committee, first under Rep. Tom Foley of Washington, who later became speaker of the House. He left the job in 1987 and freelanced until the mid-1990s. He lived in Gainesville, Va. and was a 1943 agricultural-journalism graduate of the University of Missouri.

"Bernie Brenner was a giant in the agricultural journalism profession, deeply respected for insightful reporting of how the Congress and the executive branch influenced and dealt with a revolution in farming and food," said the late Sonja Hillgren, editor of Farm Journal and one of the early women presidents of the National Press Club. "Then he became the best and most fair press secretary I ever encountered." For the obituary in The Washington Post, click here. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Pierce's Funeral Home in Manassas, with burial at 1 p.m. Thursday in the Ewing, N.J., Cemetery. Contributions in lieu of flowers go to Capital Hospice in Falls Church.