Saturday, October 03, 2009

National Newspaper Week runs through Saturday

National Newspaper Week, an annual celebration and recognition of the important role of newspapers, runs through Saturday, Oct. 10. This year’s theme is “Newspapers: Carrying the Torch of Freedom.” Logos, cartoons, editorials, articles and newspaper promotion ads will be available on

Friday, October 02, 2009

Lack of broadband an obstacle to democracy, especially in rural areas, Knight Commission finds

The lack of broadband adoption and access among rural and older Americans is a major problem for our republic, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy says in a report today.

With one-third of the nation lacking broadband, "That's a hell of a lot of Americans who don't have access to the way we're communicating," Alberto Ibargüen, right, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, told news-media reporter Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post. The foundation, created by brothers who owned newspapers, commissioned the study with the Aspen Institute. For Kurtz's story, click here. (Post photo by Linda Davidson)

In addition to a "broadband gap," the study also identifies a "literacy gap" and a "participation gap" among younger, poorer and more rural Americans. "These threaten to create a two-tiered society with limited democratic possibilities for too many individuals and communities," it says. For the commission's press release, click here. Here is a PDF of the 148-page study. Here is a one-page summary.

The report offers 15 policies to help Americans meet their needs for information about their communities, but those do not include a formula to help newspapers. "The challenge is not to preserve any particular medium or any individual business," it says, calling for emphasis on preserving "the traditional public-service functions of journalism."

Moonshine growing in national popularity as one Appalachian community cuts its 'revenuers'

Moonshining is experiencing a resurgence, but not where you might expect. A new generation of moonshiners, some who prefer to be called craft distillers, are popping up from California to New York, Catherine Price of reports, and the next-generation stills are in suburban backyards instead of secluded mountains. Make no mistake, distilling homemade spirits without a license is a felony, but that hasn't stopped the new next-gen moonshiners.

Moonshing is often associated with prohibition and Appalachia, but today that definition is becoming less accurate, Price writes: "Since states' own priorities rarely involve busting people for 3-gallon stills of whiskey, most small-time moonshiners don't get caught." Distillers aren't likely to be poisoned or go blind either, since the make-it-quick haste of the prohibition era is gone. "It's more about culinary experimentation than it is about cheap hooch," Camper English, author of the cocktail and spirit blog Alcademics, tells Price. "They're trying to make something you can't find on store shelves." Laws against moonshining are unlikely to change anytime soon, Price writes, "If they want legalization, they have to show their faces." (Read more)

The emergence of national moonshining comes as one Appalachian community has cut the once vibrant Illegal Whiskey Unit of its police force. The unit, based in Franklin County, Va., has seen its staff of five full-time agents to one part-timer, Rex Bowman of The Roanoke Times reports. The cuts leave "southwest Virginia's elusive moonshiners without a full-time, dedicated foe for the first time in decades." Retirements and budget cuts have left the unit with no rebound in sight, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control feels it can control moonshining by charging all agents to pursue their own cases.

"I think the whiskey business is something in the past," former Franklin County Sheriff W.Q. "Quint" Overton told Bowman. "The drugs pretty much took over." Chris Goodman, the ABC agent in charge of the Roanoke office, says that may not be the case: "We're starting to see and get more information about some stills. It appears there's an uptick, and we're trying to address it." (Read more)

Drilling companies might disclose fracking chemicals, perhaps to avoid mandatory disclosure

Following recent chemical spills in Pennsylvania and New York, several natural-gas drilling companies have indicated a willingness to reveal the chemicals they use in their underground fracturing process, a move that current federal legislation would make mandatory, Katie Howell of Environment and Energy Daily reports. Industry executives have previously resisted detailing the mixtures contents because they considered them a trade secret. 'Fracking' uses a pressurized mixture of sand, water and chemicals to break up rock formations and release gas.

"If you buy a can of Coke, you don't know the secret formula -- that's locked away in a vault somewhere -- but you know the ingredients on the can," Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Howell. "That's how we look at this issue. The ingredients are not proprietary. How much of what's used is proprietary." Aubrey McClendon, CEO and chairman of gas-production giant Chesapeake Energy Corp., told an energy conference last week: "We as an industry need to demystify. We need to disclose the chemicals that we are using and search for alternatives to the chemicals we are using." Executives from Range Resources Corp. and Schlumberger Ltd. have also voiced the need for more disclosure.

Steve Rhoads, president of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, says drillers in his state have begun testing for contaminants in the mixtures that flow back out of a well after fracking, Howell reports. About 30 Pennsylvania drilling companies are disclosing such flowback water data to the state Department of Environmental Protection to determine what, if any, dangerous chemicals are in it. (Read more, subscription required)

For more information about fracking you can read our post about a National Public Radio series on the process and report about the spills mentioned above.

Local officials may ask state, coal firm for aid to replace school that is a flash point in mine debate

UPDATE 10/8: West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd has responded the the Register-Herald's report of Massey's refusal to help fund a new Marsh Fork Elementary, and he's not very happy with the coal giant. "Such arrogance suggests a blatant disregard for the impact of their mining practices on our communities, residents and particularly our children. These are children’s lives we are talking about,” Byrd said in a statement released to Ken Ward Jr., of The Charleston Gazette. “Let me be clear about one thing – this is not about the coal industry or their hard-working coal miners. This is about companies that blatantly disregard human life and safety because of greed. That is never acceptable.” (Read more)

UPDATE 10/6: Massey Energy spokesman Jeff Gillenwater told the Associated Press Tuesday that the company had no interest in donating money for a new Marsh Fork Elementary, adding the company already pays millions of dollars in taxes that go toward education. No official request for funding has been made by the Raleigh County School Board to Massey.(Read more)

School officials in Raleigh County, West Virginia, said this week they are considering asking the state and maybe Massey Energy Co. for money to build a new elementary school in Marsh Fork, to replace the one that "sits in the shadows of Massey’s Goals Coal Co. operations," Jackie Ayres of the Beckley Register-Herald reports.

The school has long been one of the flash points in the debate over mountaintop-removal strip mining. Environmental groups have argued the coal silo and huge slurry impoundment pose health risks to students. (Photo by Vivan Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)

School board president Rick Snuffer told Ayres building a new, $5 million school “would correct a lot of political problems in the county." Local officials may approach Massey for financial assistance, Ayers reports. “I think we could meet with them [Massey] and get something,” board member Gordie Roop said. “Say, ‘Why don’t you build a new school here?’ See if they’d help. They might build the whole school.” (Read more)

Actually, “They” would likely be one person, Massey Chairman Don Blankenship. "Everyone would like to know if Don Blankenship is willing to spend at least as much to help the Marsh Fork kids as he was to put on his big, self-proclaimed Friends of America, pro-coal rally on Labor Day," writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "Maybe other coal companies would join in, and donate just a percentage of the money they’re spending fighting tougher strip-mining regulations and opposing action on global warming to this project." (Read more)

German firm's Texas wind farm now world's largest

A small Texas town of just over 1,000 is now the center of U.S. wind energy after the latest phase of the Roscoe Wind Complex went online Thursday, making it the world's largest operating wind farm. The complex features 627 turbines that can generate more than 780 megawatts of power, enough to power 230,000 homes, Brian McCormick reports for the Abeline News-Reporter. The plant, owned by German-owned E.ON, replaces the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center, just over 30 miles south of Roscoe, as the largest wind farm. (Encarta map)

“It has a big impact locally,” Patrick Woodson, E.ON's chief development officer for the project, told McCormick. “We have enjoyed working with the different counties in the area, and we feel that this project is the first of many for our company. We look forward to being a part of the growth of this community and others throughout Texas.” E.ON says the wind farm created 70 full-time positions, and many Roscoe residents are now moving to the industry. Judy Suggs, a Roscoe resident now working for E.ON, told McCormick: "It’s given the community more life. In the area, we have always relied on farming and ranching, and the oil business. Now landowners can make a profit by having turbines on their land." (Read more)

Texas became the country's leading state in wind production in 2006 with about 2,400 megawatts, Eileen O'Grady reports for Reuters, and now the state grid operators says its capacity has expanded to 8,335 megawatts. The Roscoe wind farm spans through parts of four counties and over 100,000 acres, several times the size of Manhattan. (Read more)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Obama administration objects to shield-law bill

The Obama administration has told senators that it opposes the current version of the proposed news-media shield law, and does not want to require prosecutors to exhaust all available methods before subpoenaing reporters in instances the president says could cause significant harm to national security, Charlie Savage of The New York Times reports. The White House also wants judges to "be deferential to executive branch assertions about whether a leak caused or was likely to cause such harm."

“The White House’s opposition to the fundamental essence of this bill is an unexpected and significant setback. It will make it hard to pass this legislation,” said a sponsor of the bill, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

The Obama administration has taken no official, public stance on the bill, but the White House voiced its opinion to lawmakers after Obama, who co-sponsored a shield bill as a senator, met with several of his top national security advisers, Savage reports. “If the president wants to veto it, let him veto it,” co-sponsor Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., told Savage. “I think it is different for the president to veto a bill than simply to pass the word from his subordinates to my subordinates that he doesn’t like the bill.” (Read more)

UPDATE, Oct. 2: The Society of Professional Journalists voiced "outrage" at the adminstration in a press release, saying the Obama version would "offer little to no protection for reporters who refuse to disclose confidential sources. SPJ strongly encourages the administration to reconsider its position and focus on the importance of a federal shield law and how vital it is to the existence of a free press and an informed citizenry. SPJ also encourages all journalists to support the legislation by continuing to contact lawmakers and voice their support for a strong and meaningful federal shield law."

Biofuel boom reducing wildlife habitat, study finds

Increased investment in crop-based biofuels may be leading to the loss of wildlife habitat, researchers from Michigan Technological University and The Nature Conservancy report. They say one potential solution is using diverse, native, prairie plants to produce bioenergy.

“There are ways to grow biofuel that are more benign,” said David Flaspohler, a Michigan Tech associate professor and author of the study. “Our advice would be to think broadly and holistically about the approach you use to solve a problem and to carefully consider its potential long-term impacts.” A government mandate to produce 136 billion liters of biofuel by 2022 is causing land-use change "on a scale not seen since virgin prairies were plowed and enormous swaths of the country’s forests were first cut down to grow food crops," Michigan Tech reports. the study suggests using biomass like agricultural residues that don't require added crop land or growing native perennials such as switchgrass and big bluestem to create biofuel.

The researchers acknowledge their proposed plans return smaller yields than corn, but Flaspohler says that trade off is necessary: "It was by ignoring unintended consequences that we’ve now found ourselves highly dependent on a non-renewable fuel source that is contributing to climate change. With some foresight and with information on key trade-offs, I think we can make wiser decisions in the future."

While most crop expansion to grow the corn needed for the biofuel revolution is taking place on land that was already farmed, researchers say there is growing evidence that land from Conservation Reserve Program, which pays rent to landowners who convert their agricultural land to natural grasslands or tree cover, is being converted to crop production. (Read more)

EPA says it will regulate greenhouse gases, no matter what Congress does with climate bills

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday it would move forward on its own to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, despite introduction of a Senate version of cap-and-trade legislation. President Obama's authorization for new emissions regulations was seen by some as a move to goad Congress into passing legislation to mitigate climate change, John M. Broder of The New York Times reports. “We are not going to continue with business as usual,” EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson told reporters. “We have the tools and the technology to move forward today, and we are using them.”

The regulations, which could take effect as early as 2011, would require 400 power plants to prove they are using the best available technology to reduce emissions, Broder reports. Jackson says the regulations would apply only to the plants that account for 70 percent of U.S. emissions by releasing over 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, and would not, as critics have suggested, apply to “every cow and Dunkin’ Donuts."

“This proposal incorrectly assumes that one industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are worse than another’s,” Charles T. Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, told Broder. “E.P.A. lacks the legal authority to categorically exempt sources that exceed the Clean Air Act’s major-source threshold from permitting requirements, and this creates a troubling precedent for any agency actions in the future.” Emily Figdor, federal global warming project director for Environment America, called the decision "a common-sense step toward a cleaner, better world." (Read more)

EPA says all 79 pending applications for strip-mine permits in Central Appalachia violate the law

Environmental Protection Agency officials have issued their latest ruling on the 79 Central Appalachian surface-mining permit applications EPA flagged as potentially dangerous in September, and the new ruling looks a lot like the first one: All violate the Clean Water Act and need to be revised. Peter S. Silva, EPA assistant administrator, writes the permits "have not yet adequately demonstrated that anticipated adverse environmental and water quality impacts have been fully avoided and minimized as required," Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette reports. (UPDATE, Oct. 2: Here is Ward's detailed analysis of the permits.)

All the proposed operations have been characterized as "mountaintop removal," because they would use excavated rock and dirt to create fills that would would bury or otherwise affect 170 miles of streams. The permit applications in question cover more than 60 square miles in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio, and would mine more than 300 million tons of coal.

Applications now subject to a 60-day review by EPA after the Army Corps of Engineers informs EPA that a particular permit has been revised. After the 60 days, the Corps can issue the permit without EPA's approval, forcing EPA to remove its objection or officially block the plan. Mary Anne Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, told Ward: "An enhanced review of each of these pending permits will surely prove that this most destructive form of coal mining is incompatible with clean water."

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, tells Ward: "EPA's answer of more delay and study is at cross-purposes with our nation's need for affordable energy, investments and secure jobs." EPA emphasized in its statement that it hasn't rejected any of the permits, Ward reports, and Silva writes: "EPA is eager to work with the corps and companies to assess modifications to mining plans, include additional water quality and biological monitoring provisions, and take other appropriate steps to address anticipated water quality concerns associated with these projects." (Read more)

You can read our first report on the 79 permits from September for more information on the process, and you can see the list of permits here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Popular N.C. motorcycle route losing cross-county emergency medical service

Some rural communities have turned to adventure tourism to boost their economies, but one downside is caring for the visitors when something goes wrong. Latest example: Officials in Graham County, North Carolina, announced last week that they will end their long-standing agreement with adjoining Swain County to send ambulances to wrecks on US 129, the famous "Trail of the Dragon" motorcycle route, Jon Ostendorff of the Asheville Citizen-Times reports.

It can take an ambulance as long as 50 minutes to get to the trail from the Swain County seat of Bryson City, but only 22 minutes from Robbinsville in Graham, Ostendorff reports. The trail begins in Blount County, Tennessee, and leads motorcyclists through 318 curves in 11 miles. At least two people a year die on the North Carolina section, Ostendorff writes, but troopers responded to only four wrecks in Swain last year compared to 20 in Graham.

Graham officials say the calls to the area cost them about $100,000 a year, and want Swain to contribute more money to fund the service. Swain offered to house Graham inmates at a discounted rate in exchange for continuing the ambulance service, but Graham refused. “If you don't have a whole lot of inmates, you are really not getting much out of it,” Graham County manager Lynn Cody told Ostendorff. One proposal would redraw county lines to put the area in Graham, but Swain County Manager Kevin King has said the county would be better buying another ambulance to serve the area than givingup the 19,000 acres, which contribute $195,000 a year in property taxes. (Read more)

Report targets Medicaid prescription-drug abuse

President Obama's argument that health-care reform can elimiante millions of dollars in government waste received a boost with a report from the Government Accountability Office that found widespread Medicaid prescription-drug abuse in five large states, costing an estimated $65 million in 2006 and 2007. The report found thousands of prescriptions written for dead patients and by people posing as doctors, Kathy Kiely of USA Today reports. The audit was sone in California, Illinois, New York, North Carolina and Texas. Prescription-drug abuse is also prevalent in some rural regions outside those states.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who scheduled a hearing for Wednesday on the findings, called the report "an enormous opportunity to save money." Carper told Kiely that after you add bills for doctors' visits and Medicaid fraud in the states not included in the report "We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars."

All the news wasn't good for Obama's press for a government role in health insurance, as the report also found numerous shortcomings in how the government runs Medicaid. The audit focused on 10 types of frequently abused prescription drugs, mostly painkillers and mood-altering medications. It found 65,000 cases where Medicaid users visited six or more doctors and up to 46 different pharmacies to acquire prescriptions, Kiely reports. It also found 65 doctors or pharmacists writing prescriptions after being banned from Medicaid, and about 1,800 prescriptions written to dead patients and 1,200 "written" by dead doctors. (Read more)

Child poverty rates are highest in the South, but are increasing in the Midwest and Northeast

Almost one-third of children in the rural South lived below the poverty level in 2008 and the share of children in the rural Midwest and Northeast who are poor has increased significantly since 2007, Marybeth J. Mattingly reports for The Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. A Carsey study suggests nearly one in five children under 6 in America lived below the poverty level in 2008, and in no region did the overall number of children in poverty decline from 2007 to 2008. (Carsey table; figures in last column are percentage points and should not have percent signs)

"Women in poverty are more likely to have babies of low birth weight, a correlate of later health problems, infant mortality, and more cognitive and emotional problems," Mattingly writes. While the study reflects changes from 2007 to 2008, Mattingly notes that the data cannot fully reflect the current recession, and when data from 2009 becomes available it will likely show an even bleaker picture for poverty among children.

Among rural children, 26 percent under the age of 6 lived in poverty last year, 31 percent in the South. The study also includes a state-by-state breakdown of children below the poverty level. Mississippi led all states with a 35 percent child poverty rate, followed by Kentucky at 28.9 and Louisiana at 28.8 percent. Connecticut had the lowest rate at 10.6 percent. (Read more)

Noted physician says rural people need more health care, not more health insurance

Building community health centers for all Americans is the key to reforming the health care system, Michael Fine, the top-ranked family physician in Rhode Island and a former doctor in rural Tennessee, writes for the Daily Yonder. He says the proposed health reform seeks to insure more people instead of treat them; he says neither the public plan nor co-op plans being suggested have ever been tried in the U.S. and many people doubt either will actually work.

"On the one hand, people in rural America don’t have enough access to health insurance, high-tech hospitals, specialists, primary care doctors, emergency rooms, dentists, drug stores and other health services," Fine writes. "On the other hand, access to health insurance, hospitals, and so forth aren’t what make people healthy." Fine says the rich community life is the most important factor in keeping rural Americans well, adding the health care reform's impact on Rural America is a joke and "there is a huge contradiction between what we are considering, what we are likely to achieve, and what our legislation is actually likely to do."

Health insurance reform is likely to raise insurance prices for average Americans, Fine writes, and even subsidies for the poor will come in the form of tax breaks that return money only after families have spent it all year despite their limited budgets. Fine notes that more money is allocated in the reform bills to go to community health centers "Assuming that money stays on the table," he writes, "there is a chance people in rural America will get more of what they need, which is not more insurance, but more doctors, more dentists, and more of the health care that matters." (Rural Assistance Center map shows where more doctors are needed; click to see full-size version)

When Fine worked in upper East Tennessee, he heard a saying that "Nobody with congestive heart failure lives in Hancock County," because anyone with congestive heart failure didn't have the proper medical care to keep them alive in the county. If health reform is to work in America, Fine says, we should skip the insurance step and build community health centers for all Americans. He writes: "But like the person with congestive heart failure who couldn't live in Hancock County, people who think about what we actually need don’t seem to live in Washington D.C." (Read more)

Solar power's little secret: It sucks lots of water

Solar and other renewable energy sources across the Southwest are facing an intense battle over the availability of water. One project, funded by German firm Solar Millennium in Amargosa Valley, Nev., plans to consume 1.3 billion gallons of water a year to cool its plants, almost 20 percent of the valley's available water, Todd Woody of The New York Times reports.

"Here is an inconvenient truth about renewable energy: It can sometimes demand a huge amount of water," Woody writes. "Many of the proposed solutions to the nation’s energy problems, from certain types of solar farms to biofuel refineries to cleaner coal plants, could consume billions of gallons of water every year." Most water-efficient renewable energy technologies are not the most economical, Woody reports. The county commission of Nye County, Nev., which includes Amargosa Valley, says its been inundated with renewable energy requests that far exceed the amount of available water.

The conventional method for cooling solar plants, wet cooling, pumps hot water through the cooling tower where excess heat evaporates with some water, which must be replenished constantly, Woody reports. The alternative, dry cooling, uses fans and heat exchangers but is much less efficient and more costly. A bill has been introduce in the California legislature that would allow renewable energy power plants to tap drinking water supplies for their cooling needs. Terry O’Brien, a California Energy Commission deputy director, tells Woody: “By allowing projects to use fresh water, the bill would remove any incentives that developers have to use technologies that minimize water use."

Farmers who sell their water rights, which many residents see as their retirement funds, to renewable energy companies will be growing less of their crop in exchange for the profit, Woody reports. “We’ll be growing megawatts instead of alfalfa,” Ed Goedhart, a Nevada farmer and former state legislator, told Woody. Shortages are not just going to be a Southwestern problem; some fear that water problems will spread to the rest of the country as renewable energy becomes more common and population increases. (Read more)

Struggling ethanol plants may be bought and converted to biobutanol, an alternate fuel

A Denver-based startup company is looking to retrofit at least five U.S. ethanol plants to make biobutanol, a versatile fuel that can be a gasoline additive and plastic feedstock. Gevo Inc., backed by renewable-energy investors such as Khosla Ventures and French firm Total SA, hopes to acquire financially distressed ethanol plants to make 200 million gallons of biobutanol a year, Russell Gold of The Wall Street Journal reports.

Unlike ethanol, which can't be moved by pipeline, biobutanol, which is made from corn, wheat and a variety of inedible crops, can be mixed into the existing petrochemical infrastructure, Gold writes. "Think of it as a smart biorefinery," Hans Blaschek, director of the Center for Advanced Bioenergy Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tells Gold. "You are able to utilize more feedstocks and make different products. It's like having a portfolio of stocks versus having a single stock."

Biobutanol is expected to qualify as a biofuel under federal mandates, but isn't without its problems. A bushel of corn yields less biobutanol than ethanol. Proponents maintain that as long as oil prices remain higher than $45 a barrel, biobutanol will be competitive with oil as a plastics ingredient. Todd Alexander, a partner with law firm Chadbourne & Parke LLP, who has handled biofuels financing, told Gold: "Biobutanol holds significant promise as a next-generation fuel, but at this point there isn't commercial-scale production and it remains to be seen which feedstock and which process will be economically viable." (Read more)

Network television sitcoms return to the heartland

Primetime television is making a return to rural America, marked by addition of situation comedies set in the Midwest to the ABC and NBC lineups, Meg James reports for the Los Angeles Times. ABC plans to unveil the latest Midwestern show tonight when "The Middle," above, starring Patricia Heaton, at left, makes its debut.

In recent years sitcoms shifted from small-town settings like those in "Roseanne" and "The Andy Griffith Show" to the skylines of New York and Los Angeles. The success of shows like "Friends" and "Sex and the City" led Hollywood producers to ignore rural locales in favor of affluent 20- and 30-somethings living lives of luxury in America's largest cities, James writes. As with most Hollywood decisions, the trend was driven by advertising. "People used to think that people who lived in these [rural] counties didn't have the money to buy much, or they didn't have access to the stores where people in urban areas shopped," Angelo Pizzo, a former Warner Bros. executive, told James.

As much as anything, the recession may have helped the re-emergence of rural America on television. "It's tough times right now -- the guy who is losing his job at the factory, he deserves a show," one of the show;s creators told James. "We care about those people, we love those people and we want to honor them. They are funny too, and should be the stars of their own show." Heaton told James, "There is this whole world between New York and L.A. that would like to see some shows about themselves."

"The Middle," set in fictional Orson, Ind., seeks to create television's first working-class female hero since Roseanne. The show's creators developed their idea while working on "Lipstick Jungle," another show about rich New York singles. "We missed writing about real people with real problems," one told James. "We both were fortunate to have happy childhoods, not wealthy childhoods, but a normal Midwest upbringing. We missed that." (Read more)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Domestic-violence protective orders in rural Ky. are less effective than in urban areas, study finds

A new study at the University of Kentucky concluded that protective orders sought by domestic-violence victims are less effective in rural areas, at least in Kentucky.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, found no significant difference in the levels of partner violence in rural and urban areas, but did determine that such violence was a lower priority for the justice system in rural counties. It cited increased emphasis on drug-related crimes as one possible factor, but study participants indicated the "good ol' boys" attitude is at play, and they noted that negative attitudes directed at women seeking protective orders were more prevalent in rural districts. Also, rural women were more likely to say they feared future harm, and to report a greater history of violence and threats from partners who were subjected to protective orders.

The authors determined that the orders appear to work better for victims in urban areas, and cited as one reason higher victim-blaming attitudes in rural areas. "Some officials in the justice system and some victim-service representatives do not seem to acknowledge or appreciate the danger associated with stalking or the toll it takes on victims," behavioral science professor TK Logan, one of the study's lead authors, told the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Read the study here)

The study is timely for Kentucky, in the wake of a sensational murder and state Attorney General Greg Stumbo's proposal of a bill to allow judges to use electronic monitoring devices to track domestic-violence offenders. "Amanda's Bill" is named for Amanda Ross, who was allegedly murdered by former state Rep. Steve Nunn, only son of the late Gov. Louie B. Nunn. Stumbo said it is designed to give victims a "fighting chance," reported the Herald-Leader's Beth Musgrave and Valarie Honeycutt Spears. Nunn has pleaded not guilty. (Read more)

As discrimination suit enters new phase, Indian farmers hope for a settlement from administration

Native American farmers filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1999, but the discovery process for the suit is only now wrapping up. The suit alleges that USDA exhibited "widespread racial discrimination in loan programs meant to be a resource of last resort for those turned down by banks," Kari Lydersen of The Washington Post reports. A similar lawsuit, known as the Pigford suit, filed by African American farmers, was settled in 1999, but President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $1.25 billion more for Pigford claimants who missed the 2000 filing deadline.

Native Americans hope Obama's support for Pigford claimants may signal an eventual settlement for their case, Lyndersen reports. The suit seeks compensation for Native American farmers who alleged discrimination by the USDA's loan programs between 1981 and 1999. Lead attorney Joseph M. Sellers thinks tens of thousands of people were denied up to $3 billion of credit, and uses USDA formulas to estimate plaintiffs are owed $1 billion in lost income, Lydersen reports. The plaintiffs are not seeking punitive damages.

USDA spokesman Justin DeJong told Lydersen that discussion of a settlement is premature, but the department has acknowledged past problems, and Secretary Tom Vilsack has pledged to improve diversity and equal opportunity in the agency. "I intend to lead the department in correcting its past errors, learning from its mistakes, and moving forward to a new era of equitable service and access for all," he said in an April memo. (Read more)

Kentucky orchard thriving as agri-tourism grows

Kevan Evans began growing produce in Georgetown, Ky., as a necessity when the tobacco market started turning south in 1994, and now it has turned into a full-scale orchard and agri-tourism destination. "It began with a small vegetable garden and going to the local farmers markets," Evans told columnist Byron Brewer of the Georgetown News-Graphic.

Word of the orchard spread, attracting thousands of visitors a year. An old tobacco barn is now a retail sales area, and what was a shed is now a kitchen that serves lunch to visitors, Brewer reports. The orchard also hosts tours, birthday parties and festivals, and offers live music on the weekends. Evans was one of the first farmers to make use of former Scott County extension agent Mark Reese's agri-tourism plan.

Evans helped found the Central Kentucky Growers Association vegetable cooperative in Georgetown, and progressive farming techniques have contributed to his success. "Sustainable agriculture is a priority in our farming operation, which includes our 12 acres in apples, peaches and pears, two acres in small fruit, plus 30 acres of vegetables," Evans tells Brewer. "And we support our fellow growers as well as the local farmers markets. We go to the local markets five days a week with all of our fruits and vegetables." (Read more)

Female dairy calves, wanted 3 years ago to meet milk demand, mature at a bad time for farmers

We reported Monday that dairy farmers across the country were participating in a herd-retirement program to reduce the milk surplus caused by the recession, but now we learn from William Neuman of The New York Times that that a new breeding process will flood the industry with 63,000 more cows in 2009 and 161,000 in 2010.

Three years ago, dairy farmers received what they saw as a needed technological breakthrough, while milk prices were soaring. It allowed them to breed for female calves, with a 90 percent success rate. Now the first groups of female calves bred with the new technology is set to enter milking herds across the country as the industry weathers its worst downturn in years. Farmers fear the process, known as sexed semen, could introduce as many as 300,000 cows in 2011. While those numbers are still just a fraction of the 9.2 million cows nationwide, Neuman writes, they essentially cancel out herd-retirement initiatives.

“Just as the industry starts to recover from these difficult times, we’re going to see these heifers enter the marketplace,” Ray Souza, president of Western United Dairymen, which represents farmers who produce about 60 percent of the milk in California, tells Neuman. “At the very worst it could certainly stop the recovery altogether and send us into another price recession.” (Read more)

Ethanol giant receives grant to help it acquire corncobs for cellulosic plant

Leading ethanol company Poet has received a $6.85 million grant from the Department of Energy to secure feedstock for the company's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility. The company is to get $13.5 million in 2010 to meet its goal of 700 tons of cellulosic biomass per day of operation, reports the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, S.D., the firm's hometown. The proposed plant, known as Project Liberty, is scheduled to open in Emmetsburg, Iowa, in late 2011. (Read more)

Most of the cellulosic biomass will be corncobs, and the grant will help farmers add cob collectors to their combines. "We're asking farmers to change a longstanding practice of going to their fields, harvesting the corn and shooting everything else out the back end of a combine," Mike Roth, director of Poet's biomass program, told Michael Burnham of Environment & Energy Daily. "Cellulosic ethanol is not yet produced and sold in United States, but scientists say the 'second generation' biofuel has a big environmental upside because it can be made from the hearty, non-food portions of sugarcane and many other plants," Burnham writes. (Read more; subscription required)

We previously reported in January that Poet had opened its first pilot plant to develop ethanol from corn cobs in South Dakota, and we reported in August about Poet's announcement of the Project Liberty facility in Emmetsburg.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Vilsack continues sales pitch for cap-and-trade as administration's 'Rural Tour' nears an end

UPDATE, Sept. 29: Another Rural Tour stop has been scheduled for Bath, S.D., on Monday, Oct. 5.

At the next-to-last scheduled forum on the Obama administration's Rural Tour, no one mentioned the cap-and-trade bill aimed at limiting climate change -- until Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is making all the tour's stops, brought it up in a briefing with reporters after a community forum at the Scottsbluff National Monument in Gering, Neb.

"Vilsack said while he understands there are things that need to negotiated, Congress needs to address the issue," reports KRVN 880 Rural Radio. "Vilsack said 'the climate is in fact changing' and in the administration's view will have a greater impact on forest and farms and be more costly to mitigate if something is not done now. Vilsack said he was surprised the issue did not come up during the town hall meeting." (Read more) It may have been mentioned at an invitation-only meeting that Vilsack had with area business leaders before the forum.

Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, was accompanied by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former senator from Colorado. The stop was "Salazar's first visit to a small unit of the National Park Service since he took office earlier this year," reports David Hendee of the Omaha World-Herald. The tour's last scheduled stop is Wednesday in Las Cruces, N.M.

Blight-resistant chestnut trees thriving after first growing season in natural forest environments

The first saplings of chestnut trees bred to resist the blight that killed almost all their forebears, and grown in natural forest environments, "are thriving after their first growing season in three national forests," Greenwire's Phil Taylor reports. "While scientists are confident the trees will survive exposure to the fungus, they won't know for sure until at least five or 10 years," according to American Chestnut Foundation CEO Bryan Burhans.

Why should we care about restoring the chestnut? It was a magnificent tree and "an integral part of the Appalachian culture, providing food for wildlife and contributing to the diversity of the forest ecosystem," Roger Williams, director of forest management for the U.S. Forest Service's Southern region, told Taylor. The service has a Web site that explains a lot more. (USFS photo: Chestnut sapling about four feet tall)

Also, "A recent study also suggests that the tree's rapid growth rate makes it one of the best sponges for greenhouse gases," Taylor notes. "Purdue University professor Douglass Jacobs' work suggests that the tree's superior carbon capacity makes it an ideal candidate for forest restoration projects and carbon-offset schemes, particularly on marginal farmland in the Midwest." (Read more) The University of Tennessee is working with the forest service and the foundation on the restoration project, which has planted trees at undisclosed locations in national forests in Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.

Herd retirement program seeks to increase milk prices by decreasing the number of cows

A three-phase herd retirement program moved 225,783 cows and 4.5 billion pounds of milk from the market this year in an effort to improve chronically low milk prices paid to farmers. About 70 percent of dairy farmers nationwide participated in the Cooperatives Working Together retirement this year, Monte Whaley of The Denver Post reports. For some participants the program offered a financially viable chance to get out of the business for good. (Post photo by Hyoung Chang)

"Sure, it's a good way to get out of the business, but the ones who want to stay in, they get the overall benefit," CWT spokesman Christopher Galen told Whaley. "They will get slightly higher milk prices than they would have if the program wasn't here." Farmers submit a bid on the number of cows they want to retire and are paid based on the previous year's production of the cows and market value for slaughter. The program says dairy prices should increase by 66 percent per 100 pounds of milk, Dr. Scott Brown of the University of Missouri's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources told Whaley.

Others say that the program, even combined with other price supports, still can't sustain the dairy industry long term. Bill Wales, head of the department of animal sciences at Colorado State University tells Whaley that the program will only work if all dairy farmers participate. Farmers like the Bernhardt family, who have been farming in northern Colorado since 1920, saw the program as an opportunity to recoup some losses and wait for the market to stabilize. The Barnhardts, who have a year to decide if they're leaving the business for good, tell Whaley that their cows brought double what they would have sold for at market. (Read more)

Indian Health Service underfunded and overtaxed

The Indian Health Service is vastly underfunded and overlooked in the current health care debate, Mark Trahant writes for the Daily Yonder. Several members of Congress were critical of the "historic under-funding of IHS" at the National Indian Health Board Consumer Conference last month, Trahant reports. He writes they all conveyed the same message: "The United States made a health care promise to Native Americans and it’s wrong to fund a system with substantially less money than what is spent per person on health care for federal prisoners."

Funding of the IHS is so low that many patients are counted as part of the uninsured population in government data, Trahant reports. The Obama administration has added 13 percent to the IHS funding request, but Trahant writes neither the administration or Congress has made funding parity a priority. In response to the under-funding, many tribes have contributed their own money to pay extraordinary medical bills of members or provide members health insurance. The Internal Revenue Service has told tribes they must demonstrate these policies are need based or it will consider them taxable benefits.

Congress could clarify the law, allowing tribal members to receive the same benefits as tribal employees, or the IRS could issue a "revenue ruling" to treat tribal health insurance like the Veterans Administration or Medicare to fix the taxation problem. Trahant, a member of Idaho's Shoshone-Bannock tribes and a Kaiser Media fellow on assignment covering the IHS for a year, writes: "For once, it seems, there ought to be enough consensus in Washington to force the easy route. This is common sense. The IRS ought to get a call from the White House and the treasury secretary and be told to resolve this issue quickly." (Read more)

Pennsylvania orders shutdown of natural-gas 'fracking' projects after three spills

Three spills of gel-like lubricant in a week have led the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to suspend Cabot Oil & Gas Co.'s natural-gas drilling projects in Susquehanna County. The spills at the Heitsman well site in Dimock Township polluted a wetland and caused a fish kill in Stevens Creek, George Basler of The Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin in New York reports. Cabot uses chemicals under pressure to fracture deep, tight shale beds to produce gas, a process called "fracking."

"We don't think the action is necessary because we felt we were responding appropriately," Cabot spokesman Ken Komoroski told Basler. Cabot shut down the Heitsman operation voluntarily after the third spill. The DEP order required Cabot to develop an updated and accurate pollution prevention and contingency plan in 14 days and conduct and engineering work study of all their operations in 21 days. (Read more) For background on fracking, click here.

The Press & Sun-Bulletin has been reporting on the fracking controversy in the region along the states' border for a while now. In a Sept. 19 story about the disparities between Pennsylvania and New York in development of the Marcellus Shale gas play, Tom Wilbur wrote of Dimock: "Royalties tend to be uneven and inconsistent, depending on which wells happen to be producing at a given time and the price of natural gas." Water contamination problems have also become commonplace in Dimock, Wilbur reports, adding the DEP has installed purification systems in some homes affected by the drilling, but Cabot has denied responsibility in others.

Residents of Sanford, N.Y, have had a different experience with Marcellus drilling. They formed a landowner coalition that negotiated a $2,400 an acre and 15 percent royalties price for drilling rights, Wilbur reports. In Dimock many residents sold their rights for $25 an acre or less and state-minimum 12.5 percent royalties. New York has suspended permitting for Marcellus wells while its Department of Environmental Conservation reviews the environmental impact of fracking. Meanwhile, many Sanford residents say bring on the drilling. Local D'Layne Chamberlin, owner of a thriving farm helped largely by gas money, told Wilbur: "I'll help them drill the first six feet." (Read more)