Friday, October 16, 2009

EPA starts process to revoke Corps permit for largest mountaintop-removal mine in Appalachia

"Environmental Protection Agency officials today announced the gigantic news that they have formally moved to veto the Clean Water Act permit for the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia history," the proposed Spruce Mine in Logan County, which would bury seven miles of streams, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette writes. It would mark the first time that EPA has revoked a mining permit already issued. (Encarta map gives approximate location)

"EPA has been warning since early September that it would do this if the federal Army Corps of Engineers and Arch Coal Inc. officials did not do more to reduce the environmental impacts" of the mine, Ward reports. The Corps issues Clean Water Act permits for mines but EPA can override them. EPA Regional Administrator Bill Early told the Corps in a letter, "The Spruce No. 1 Mine represents the largest authorized mountaintop-removal operation in Appalachia and occurs in a watershed where many streams have been impacted by previous mining activities." The controversial mine has a long and complex legal history, as Ward explains in his Coal Tattoo blog post.

While the decision is huge, and perhaps historic, it does not appear to mean that EPA is out to stop mountaintop-removal mining. Early said in his letter that the case "represents an unusual set of circumstances we do not expect to be repeated again," and Ward notes that the day before, "EPA revealed that it had reached a deal with Patriot Mining that should allow that company to move forward with a huge permit to expand its Hobet 21 complex along the Boone-Lincoln County line."

RealtyTrac, a popular monitor of foreclosures, ignores many rural counties

U.S. efforts to reverse the housing crisis may not be correctly considering rural foreclosures. "A company called RealtyTrac provides some of the most widely followed statistics on home foreclosures, but it fails to report on more than 900 rural counties," Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports for National Public Radio. Critics say failing to include these counties promotes the myth that there is no foreclosure crisis in rural America.

Lawmakers in West Virginia abandoned a predatory-lending bill after seeing RealtyTrac's low foreclosure figures for the state. In 2008, RealtyTrac counted fewer than 500 foreclosures in the state. New federal statistics note 12,000 foreclosure notices in the state since the start of 2007. RealtyTrac's reports are also used widely by both the government and journalists to get a picture of the nation's housing market.

"We know we're underreporting in West Virginia. We know we're not covering the whole state as thoroughly as we'd like to," Rick Sharga of RealtyTrac tells Finn. But he notes they are still more focused on urban areas: "If I miss a county in California, I miss more in a month than I'd miss in West Virginia for the whole year."

Eight of the 10 most rural states in the country are on RealtyTrac's top 10 list of states with the lowest foreclosure rates. "It's ridiculous, it's embarrassing, it's stupid," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., tells Finn . "I'm going to fight to make sure everybody gets accurate information, and they get counted."

The Foreclosure Prevention Act, passed by Congress in July, required the Department of Housing and Urban Development to measure state foreclosure rates. HUD's measurements showed significantly higher foreclosure rates in rural states, Finn reports. Mississippi, one of RealtyTrac's top 10 lowest foreclosure states, ranked near the bottom of HUD's list. The law only required HUD to compile the list one time, but Rockefeller wants the department to continue tracking foreclosures to avoid relying on incomplete data from companies like RealtyTrac. (Read more)

Stimulus reporting paperwork burdens schools

As the first reporting deadlines for how stimulus money is being spent approach, schools around the country are struggling to calculate how much money they spent and how many jobs they've saved. The first public reports of how the $100 billion of stimulus funding for education is being spent are slated for release Oct. 30, Michele McNeil of Education Week reports.

The Obama administration is "trying to do this delicate balance: Are they getting enough information so the public can know exactly where the money is going, and are they doing it in such a way that is not overburdening?" Michael Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission of the States, told McNeil. “I think the answer depends on where you sit.” As of Sept. 30, the date the first reporting period ended, states had only spent 30 percent of the education funding.

School officials across the country have been provided with hundreds of pages of guidance and regulations about reporting, some of it highly technical, making the process more difficult. These guidelines may place additional strain on rural schools with fewer resources.

The 3,000-student McComb School District in Mississippi decided not to accept stimulus construction funding, in part because of the reporting requirements. John Musso, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, tells McNeil: "The people I worry about are those in the rural districts, where the school business official may be the superintendent and the high school principal." (Read more)

Feds to cut ailing aspen to revitalize the species

Aspen trees across the West have been fading away over the past decade, a phenomenon scientists have termed "sudden aspen decline." After several years of investigation scientists believe drought is the primary factor in SAD, Eryn Gable of Greenwire reports for The New York Times, though a secondary pathogen or insect eventually kills the tree. Unlike other declines in aspen populations, affected trees don't show normal levels of rebound.

In an attempt to revitalize aspen populations, the Forest Service recently approved plans for scheduled burns and clear-cuts on federal land. Aspen stands in southwestern Colorado, northern Arizona, southern Utah, southern Wyoming and southeastern Idaho have been hit particularly hard by SAD, Gable reports. An aerial survey in Colorado showed 17 percent of the state's aspens had been affected.

SAD has led foresters to reconfigure their annual timber programs. "We've changed our focus from green trees to dead and dying trees,"Mark Krabath, a supervisory forester for the Dolores Public Lands Office in Colorado, told Gable. Some foresters fear that any aspen stands are already too far gone to help. "The part we don't know is, what's the threshold? How bad can SAD be and can we still stimulate adequate regeneration through treatment?" forest pathologist Jim Worrall told Gable. (Read more)

Pro-coal crowds keep dominating Corps hearings

The second round of the Army Corps of Engineers' hearings on Nationwide Permit 21 were met Thursday with similar reactions to Tuesday's meetings. In Big Stone Gap, Va., the crowd at Mountain Empire Community College was again heavily pro-coal, but Jeff Lester of The Coalfield Progress hits on the key dynamic of the ongoing debate in his lede describing the two groups: "They all professed to speak for the future of the central Appalachian mountains."

Many of the coal supporters in the audience wore shirts provided by Friends of Coal that read "COAL = JOBS = ENERGY, NWP 21 YES," Lester reports. Pro-coal participants cited the number of jobs coal creates not directly related to mining, the need to use coal to achieve energy independence in the U.S. and the common thought that most anti-mining groups are not from the region. "We miners don't try to tell them how to stop their urban sprawl," A&G Coal Corp. engineer Mark Wooten told Lester. "Surely we don't need them to tell us how to raise our families in our region."

As in Charleston, W. Va., anti-mining participants in Big Stone Gap had to shout over boos to be heard at times. Members of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards argued that even if land owners had property rights to mine coal, they didn't have the right to poison their neighbors downstream. Opponents of NWP 21 also said that since underground mining creates more jobs, supporters of the streamlined permit are only interesting maximizing their profits. (Read more, subscription required)

"The maneuvers targeting the coal mining industry in the Appalachian region have riled local officials and, as evidenced Thursday evening at MECC, many whose livelihoods depend on the industry," Steve Igo of the Kingsport Times News writes. One man at the meeting accused the Obama administration of mounting a war against Appalachians and targeting them to be "killed by friendly fire." (Read more)

A crowd of more than 300 in Pittsburgh was also heavily pro-coal. NWP 21 has only been used 44 times in Pennsylvania since 2000, Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, but that didn't stop the Pennsylvania Coal Association from speaking out against discontinuing the permit.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Doctor's Rx for health reform: primary care for all

Rhode Island physician Michael Fine, who worked in rural Tennessee, boils down the recent events in health reform nicely in the Daily Yonder. On the Senate Finance Committee's big reduction in penalties for not buying health insurance, he writes:

"There was talk about giving some people incentives to help cushion the financial blow, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out any Senator or Congressperson who voted for such a scheme would probably never get elected to anything ever again. ... Now there is a $750 penalty (instead of $4,000) for families of four earning $160,000 a year who don’t buy health insurance. That is to say, the Senate Finance Committee made the mandate go away. But they left the new rules for health insurance companies in place. Insurance companies don’t get 50 million new customers, but they do have to think about paying the health care costs of people who are actually sick."

Fine says rural America needs health care, not expensive health insurance, and concludes, "The country needs a health care system, not just health insurance reform. We need to provide primary care to all Americans, because primary care costs next to nothing ($300-500 per person per year, compared to health insurance, which is $5,000 to $6,000 per person per year) and if we provide primary care to all Americans, we’ll have a system that is fair, a system that is affordable, and a system that is about health for everyone, not profit for corporations." (Read more)

Florida-Appalachia 'pill pipeline' documented well

Mariana van Zeller of Current has done the best television report we've seen on the outrageous "pill pipeline" that runs from Florida, where 85 percent of the nation's pain-killers are prescribed, to Appalachia, where prescription-drug abuse is rampant. Her report, which aired Wednesday night and is online, is titled "The OxyContin Express," for the scheduled flights between Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the Tri-State Airport at Huntington, W.Va., which also serves Ohio and Kentucky.

Van Zeller notes that people from all over the nation come to Florida for pills, for use and resale, but the major middle of her 47-minute report focuses on Greenup County, Ky., not far from Huntington. It's not really "the heart of Appalachia," as she calls it, and some of the usual stereotypes appear. "They call us pillbillies," says one inmate at the county jail, where Sheriff Keith Cooper says 90 percent of incarcerations are related to prescription drug abuse.

Cooper says that when he called state and federal officials in Florida to complain, they told him, "You're a hick sheriff from the hills of Kentucky. Don't be trying to tell us how to do our job." Cooper added, "I'm incensed because all of the profit is down there; all of the pain is up here. ... Literally every family in this county has been affected in one way or another."

Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, an Eastern Kentucky physician, goes farther: "Throughout the state of Kentucky there's no family that has not been impacted one way or another by this. If we see somebody in the obituary columns of the newspaper and they're in their 30s or 40s, most likely it's because of a drug overdose. ... It's so pervasive we don't have the money to test everyone."

After lobbying by Mongiardo and others, the Florida legislature passed a law to track prescriptions. It won't take effect until the end of 2010, van Zeller reports. "After so many years of inaction," she says, "the damage has already been done."

AT&T vs. Google Voice becomes a big rural story

We reported earlier this week that the Federal Communications Commission is investigating the Google Voice telephone service for blocking calls to rural areas where local telephone companies charge high fees to connect the calls. Now the controversy has turned into the biggest rural story of the week, as mainstream and tech media report on the big telephone company's latest gambit. "It is officially getting nasty now," Seth Weintraub of ComputerWorld declares.

"AT&T Inc. accused Google Inc. of blocking calls to Benedictine nuns, a congressman's campaign office and a myriad of small businesses in rural areas, in the latest escalation of the battle," Amy Schatz of The Wall Street Journal reports. She writes that AT&T employees "used Google's search engine to identify specific businesses, churches and others, including a convent of Benedictine nuns in Minnesota and the campaign office of Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), which could be getting blocked." (Read more)

Stephen Wildstrom writes on The Tech Beat blog for Business Week, "The squabble between AT&T and Google over Google Voice and call blocking is descending into a familiar Old Economy pattern: Competitors trying to game the regulatory system for their own advantage." Analyzing At&T's latest letter, Wildstrom writes, "the nub of the argument is that the network neutrality demanded by Google means that Internet players such as Google should be bound by the same regulatory regime as the old-line telcos."

Wildstrom looks ahead: "The FCC cannot unilaterally end or even reduce termination charges by rural carriers, or any of hundreds of other absurdities embedded in telecom regulation. The structure was created by Congress and federal courts have kept the commission on a short leash when it has tried to expand its authority beyond the letter of the law." (Read more)

Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post writes on Tech Post, "Sources at the FCC who spoke on the condititon of anonymity said the FCC inquiry focuses on the question of potential violations of telecommunications law. The agency does not plan to look into potential violations of net neutrality -- or open-Internet guidelines -- because officials didn't appear to agree with such claims." (Read more)

Charleston journalist object of pro-coal protester

We've already reported about the atmosphere at the Army Corps of Engineers hearing in Charleston, W.Va., on Tuesday, but not all the pro-coal energy was directed at environmentalists. At least one participant chose to direct his anger at The Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. Ward, who work is frequently excerpted here, was shown on a sign, right, with the word "liar" printed under his picture.

The sign is getting some play around pro-coal blogs, and Ward has invited its creator to post a guest blog about his or her feelings on his blog, Coal Tattoo. Comments on Ward's blog post inviting the creator's contribution ranged from support for Ward to comparisons of his work with President Obama's controversial Nobel Peace Prize. UPDATE, Oct. 16: Someone started a blog called Gazette Tattoo Oct. 14, apparently in response to Ward's offer.

Since we often use Ward's work, it should go without saying that we feel he consistently produces some of the best work of any reporting on coal anywhere, from its environmental impacts to mine safety. While attacks against the news media are not uncommon, we commend Ward for his handling of the situation. Journalists around the country should take note. (Read more)

Hispanic farmers face uphill battle for damages in discrimination claims against USDA

We recently reported about the 10-year-old class-action lawsuit brought by Native American farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture; now Wade Goodwyn of National Public Radio reports that Hispanic farmers have been fighting a similar battle for almost a decade with little or no results. The federal government reached a $1 billion settlement with black farmers in the 1990s, but like Native Americans, Hispanics have had no such luck. Like black farmers, Hispanics allege the department's Farm Service Agency denied or delayed loans and failed to respond to allegations of wrong-doing, but a court ruling has prevented Hispanic farmers from suing the government as a class. They are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Unlike in the Pigford [black farmers] case, the court has rejected the plaintiff's request for class certification, which means their claims will all be litigated on an individual basis," Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller told Goodwyn." Because of that, because of the judge's ruling, we will not be able to negotiate a class-wide settlement." The government says it is open to discussing settlements on a case-by-case basis, but Hispanic farmers were further angered by President Obama's recent statements that the $1 billion settlement with black farmers was not sufficient.

"It makes no sense legally, morally or even politically, to treat these farmers the way they have thus far been treated," Stephen Hill, lead counsel for the Hispanic farmers, tells Goodwyn. "The claims are exactly the same as the claims as the black farmers, and they're entitled to the same recompense for their injuries." In 1997, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman testified to Congress about a long history of discrimination in the loan program. Current Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he hopes to reverse the discriminatory reputation of the USDA. Despite the USDA's admission of discrimination, Goodywn reports, no employee has ever been fired, demoted or reprimanded for discrimination. The Hispanic farmers' lawyers say some of the worst offenders have even been promoted. (Read more)

Community electric power growing; utility exec says it will be small but meaningful part of mix

Much of the focus of the renewable-energy movement has been on large energy companies, but an emerging movement called community power is also contributing to renewable energy. Community power, in which consumers and electric distributors install their own renewable power generators and rely less on electricity generated by utilities, is in its infancy but becoming more popular, Peter Slevin of The Washington Post reports.

Willmar Municipal Utilities in Minnesota invested nearly $10 million in a pair of 256-foot wind turbines, Slevin reports. The electric cooperative hopes that the wind power will cost less than the equivalent amount generated at a coal-fired power plant, and after the turbines pay themselves off in about 12 years, the energy they produce will be virtually free. WMU estimates the turbines will provide 3 to 5 percent of the town's power, and hopes to build more in the future.

"This is the biggest investment Willmar Municipal Utilities has ever made," engineer Wes Hompe tells Slevin. "What makes it worthwhile? This is the future." Most analysts agree community power will never completely replace outside sources of energy, but the wind turbines in Rock Port, Minn., have done just that. Sunny states like California and Florida are focused on solar energy to create community power, often from solar panels on homes. Power that isn't used in the home can be sold to the grid.

Dan W. Mohler, a Duke Energy strategist who already has solar panels and a storage battery at his North Carolina home, predicts community power will one day account for a small but meaningful, part of the nation's energy portfolio. "It's really tough to think about thousands and thousands of megawatts," he told Slevin. "It's like thinking about using AAA batteries for your car." Still, the benefits of community power are becoming more attractive to rural electric co-ops. Bruce Gromm of WMU tells Plevin: "The more local we are, the more confident we feel." (Read more)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Colorado involving local communities in federal education-reform process; how about your state?

In July, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the Race to the Top competition for competitive grants to support education reform. The program uses a variety of measures to judge what schools are best overhauling their systems, including the level of community support for their plans. Colorado has taken this particular part of the competition very seriously, inviting the public to participate in the education reform conversation, Alyson Klein of Education Week reports.

So far at least 650 people have participated in some form, by attending a meeting or joining a working group, Klein reports. K-12 students are even participating in the meetings in addition to teachers, parents and non-profit organizations. Next month, Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien plans to visit some of the more remote districts in the state to sell them on Colorado's proposals and get their input. As with most political issues, the degree of reform in these plans may end up resting with Gov. Bill Ritter's re-election bid, Klein writes. (Read more)

To what extent are other states, or even individual school districts, involving communities in their Race to the Top initiatives? That sounds like a vital issue for community journalists to tackle anywhere outside Colorado.

Newspaper's reporting costs lax restaurant inspector his job with local health department

We reported on the open-records battle between the Kentucky New Era of Hopkinsville and the Pennyrile District Health Department exactly one month ago; now Sara Hogsed's reporting has led to personnel changes at the Todd County Health Department. Todd County Public Health Director Leslie Daniels announced Friday that after four years of insufficient performance, environmentalist Malcom Rust's employment with the department was over. Hogsed's initial report in the independently owned daily revealed that Rust was chronically behind on restaurant inspections. (Encarta map)

In an interview with the New Era for the first story, Rust said that there was "too much work for one person," a comment that didn't go unnoticed by his superiors. In an e-mail from Daniels to Rust announcing the termination, Daniels said: "I have given you many warnings concerning speaking with the media." The e-mail was obtained by the New Era through another open-records request. The newspaper also requested Todd County inspections for September, but Daniels told the New Era she wasn't sure Rust had conducted any. (Read more)

The weekly Todd County Standard, which has also been reporting on restaurant inspections in the county, reports that Rust was also fired for “abusive behavior” and “theft,” according to the letter he received. The Standard notes that Rust and Daniels had clashed over how or whether to inspect Amish and Mennonite schools in the county. (Read more)

Corps meetings on mountaintop-removal mining bring out coal supporters who shout down foes

The Army Corps of Engineers held the first three of its six planned public hearings on Nationwide Permit 21 for surface coal mines Tuesday, and pro-coal supporters were able to drown out most anti-mining sentiment at two of the meetings. The Corps has proposed discontinuing the use of NWP 21 to streamline processing of Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop-removal coal mining, a move that coal supporters lashed out against. The meetings in Pikeville, Ky., and Charleston, W.Va., were marked by heavy pro-coal audiences that booed and jeered anti-mining advocates, while the Knoxville, Tenn., meeting was about evenly split between pro- and anti-coal.

"Coal Keeps the Lights On" and "Friends of Coal" banners were draped across City Park in Pikeville, just outside the convention center where the meeting took place, Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. (Herald-Leader photo) Some miners in attendance said their companies paid for buses to bring them to Pikeville, and the green shirts of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an anti-mountaintop removal group, only "dotted the crowd" of coal advocates. The industry group FACES of Coal had run television commercials urging coalfield residents to "take a stand for your future." (Read more)

In Charleston, most of the overflow crowd in the 740-seat auditorium loudly opposed the plan throughout the meeting and silenced anti-mining speakers with boos and jeers, and Col. Robert Peterson, the Corps district engineer, refused several requests from mining opponents to have security remove coal advocates who refused to let them speak. Daniel Chiotos, an activist with the West Virginia Environmental Council, told Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette: "Those cheers are the cheers of a mob, and a mob is not the way democracy works." (Read more)

UPDATE 10/15: The Corps says the Charleston hearing was handled in an orderly fashion, despite Ry Rivard's report in the Charleston Daily Mail of some environmentalists being threatened and excluded from the proceedings. "My belief is that we were able to maintain order and receive comments from all of the speakers," Meg Gaffney-Smith, chief of the Corps' permitting program told Ward. "I don't believe anyone was intimidated from speaking." Gaffney-Smith did admit that some participants probably could have "been more respectful." (Read more)

A crowd of more than 450 seemed to be more evenly split among both groups in Knoxville, J. J. Stambaugh of the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports. The more orderly crowd voiced concerns that ending NWP 21 would signal the first step in an all-out war against coal, resulting in the mass loss of jobs in the region, while others said air quality issues were plaguing the residents of East Tennessee due to coal mining. (Read more) (News-Sentinel photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess)

Utah town shows community support can make a big difference in the level of rural health

We've often reported on the shortage of rural doctors and other inadequacies in rural health care, but Kirk Johnson of The New York Times has a story about one rural community providing hope and lessons. Garfield General Hospital in Panguitch, Utah, is a rarity, Johnson reports, in that its three doctors have all been there since completing their residencies and have no plans of leaving. Local ownership and support has helped the hospital survive, which Johnson describes as "sentiments that can sound very old-fashioned, if not jarring, at a time when health care has become polarized."

"The rule of thumb in small-town America is that doctors go away. End of story. Rural spots like Panguitch — population 1,500, 90 minutes to the nearest city of any size — are increasingly pressed to have doctors at all," Johnson writes. "Rarer still are physicians like Dr. Miller, 32, who grew up here, went away to study and hone his craft, then came back to practice." Miller speaks of his stay at Garfield General in terms like "forever," a sentiment common among the hospital's staff, two other doctors have been there for 10 and 15 years each.

When nonprofit Intermountain Healthcare announced it could no longer operate the hospital due to financial loses, Panguitch and Intermountain reached an agreement where the town would own the hospital, but Intermountain would continue to operate it. To finance the purchase, residents approved a sales-tax increase and formed a foundation for a hospital subsidy. Under Intermountain management, medical malpractice rates stayed low, allowing doctors to continue to provide key services like delivering babies. Three national parks within 100 miles of Panguitch also help keep the hospital stocked in the high tourist season with visitors, who are more likely to carry insurance than the general population. (Read more)

New book, other research examine rural gay life

The myth of the gay population only living in large urban areas is being disproven by an increasing amount of literature detailing the rural gay population, and it's an issue with which rural journalists should familiarize themselves. In her new book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, Indiana University communications professor Mary Gray uses 19 months of fieldwork in rural Kentucky to "understand the processes by which queer rural youth negotiate their identities, lay claim to public space, and organize for social change," Marcel LaFlamme reports for the Daily Yonder. LaFlamme's book review notes that Gray acknowledges the many real challenges gay youths face in conservative rural communities, but refuses to paint them as victims or martyrs, "focusing instead on the strategies that they use to create a sense of belonging and visibility in the rural places they call home."

"Gray argues that the politics of visibility that has come to drive gay and lesbian social movements in the United States may be organized around a class-bound set of urban values that simply don’t have much traction in rural communities," LaFlamme writes. "In rural communities, bringing private experiences of injustice into the public sphere is sometimes just seen as stirring up trouble." LaFlamme points out that while the book does illuminate a new group of rural gay youth, Gray fails to provide a solution that moves past gay rights movements that focus on visibility in urban areas. (Read more)

A 2007 survey of 626 gay, bisexual and transgender middle-school students from across the country by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network showed 81 percent reported being regularly harassed on campus because of their sexual orientation, Benoit Denizet-Lewis reported for The New York Times Magazine in September. Middle school educators admitted to Denizet-Lewis that they were totally unprepared for openly gay students, and the use of "gay" as a derogatory term in adolescents was so prevalent they didn't know how to stop it. Still, at least 120 middle schools across the country have formed gay-straight alliance groups. Denizet-Lewis's reporting took him to rural communities like Yulee, Fla., and Sand Springs, Okla. Ritch Savin-Williams, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University, told him: "This is the first generation of gay kids who have the great joy of being able to argue with their parents about dating, just like their straight peers do." (Read more)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Local food movement not just a U.S. phenomenon

The local food movement is gaining momentum not only in the U.S., but overseas. Locally sourced retail food stores in the United Kingdom are projected to total 6.2 billion euros by 2013, up from 4.7 billion in 2008, a 31 percent growth, Sarah McFarlane of The Wall Street Journal reports. Tesco, the U.K.'s largest supermarket chain, hopes to sell 1 billion euros of local food by 2011 and is on track to sell 800 million in 2009.

Asda Group Ltd., which supplies Walmart in the U.K., has seen a 50 percent growth in local food sales in 2009 and expects the same in 2010. A low base for local food sales has contributed to the increased sales, industry analysts say. "You could see 1 percent growing to 2 percent, but it's never going to be 10 percent," analyst Nick Bubb told McFarlane.

Efforts in Asia to spur local food sales are also underway "to support sustainable regional agriculture with Japan, in particular, launching a number of new products," Mintel wrote in a report. Pick-your-own farms have also grown in popularity in the U.K. and U.S. during the recession, McFarlane reports. Peter Thompson, owner of the U.K.'s largest pick-your-own farm, tells her: "It's partly because of the credit crunch -- we're a bit cheaper than the high street if you come to our farm and pick it, and partly because of this trend of wanting stuff fresh and in season and locally grown." (Read more)

Many stimulus-funded aviation projects didn't meet FAA's priority formula; most seem to be rural

The Federal Aviation Administration uses a priority system to determine what airport projects should be funded, but Christopher Conkey of The Wall Street Journal reports the FAA has awarded more than $270 million in stimulus funds to projects that didn't meet the agency's threshold. SubsidyScope, an initiative of the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, released the data Wednesday. You can search the database here.

The $252 million directed at projects below the 62 percent threshold made up almost 25 percent of the $1.1 billion in stimulus funds given to the agency. The FAA usually requires project only meet a 41 percent threshold on its scale, but raised the level to 62 percent for stimulus money, Conkey reports. FAA spokeswoman Lisa Brown told her the priority scale is the first criterion for judging projects, but not the only one. A quick browse of the Subsidyscope database shows most of the funded projects under the 62 percent threshold are located in predominantly rural areas.

Virginia's $2.5 million grant for firefighter training equipment and Idaho's $1.85 million terminal expansion at Pocatello Regional Airport, bothat 31 percent, were the two lowest-ranked projects to be funded. The FAA had discretion in picking eligible projects, Conkey reports, but all eligible projects had to be ready to go immediately. (Read more)

Cutting coal plants' air pollution endangers water

We've reported numerous times about the air pollution problems associated with coal-fired power plants, but now Charles Duhigg of The New York Times has compiled the most thorough report we've seen on their water pollution. "Even as a growing number of coal-burning power plants around the nation have moved to reduce their air emissions, many of them are creating another problem: water pollution," he writes. The Times' analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data reveals "power plants are the nation’s biggest producer of toxic waste, surpassing industries like plastic and paint manufacturing and chemical plants."

EPA projects that by next year 50 percent of U.S. coal-generated electricity will come from plants that use scrubbers, a technology that uses water and chemicals to remove pollutants, creating large new sources of waste water, Duhigg reports. No specific federal regulations exist to control the disposal of power plant wastewater in waterways or landfills, and some regulators say laws like the Clean Water Act are inadequate because they don't mandate limits on dangerous chemicals like arsenic and lead in power-plant waste.

The Times' analysis of EPA data showed 21 plants in 10 states had dumped arsenic into waterways that exceeded the federal drinking water standards by as much as 18 times the recommended concentration. Ninety percent of the 313 U.S. plants that violated the Clean Water Act since 2004 were not fined or sanctioned, Duhigg reports, and other plants have been fined, but paid only modest penalties. Allegheny Energy officials, who operate the Hatfield's Ferry plant in Pennsylvania, said in a statement to the Times that "limits on arsenic, aluminum, barium, boron, cadmium, chromium, manganese and nickel were not appropriate because the plant’s wastewater is not likely to cause the Monongahela River to exceed safety levels for those contaminants." See the Times' database of power-plant water violations here.

EPA said in a September statement that it would update regulations on coal-fired power plants like Hatfield's Ferry because studies concluded “current regulations, which were issued in 1982, have not kept pace with changes that have occurred in the electric power industry.” EPA has said it will determine what power-plant byproducts should be treated as hazardous waste by the end of the year. One nearby resident to Hatfield's Ferry told Dhigg: “Americans want cheap electricity, but those of us who live around power plants are the ones who have to pay for it. It’s like being in the Third World.” (Read more)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Laid-off big-city reporter turns small rural weekly into a living, and even inspires his competitor

Two months ago today we passed along the tale of M.E. Sprengelmeyer, who bought a small weekly newspaper in New Mexico when the Rocky Mountain News closed, ending his job as the paper's Washington correspondent. Today Richard Pérez-Peña of The New York Times gave us an encouraging update on Sprengelmeyer and the Guadalupe County Communicator, circulation maybe 2,000, maybe less. (Times photo by Rick Scibelli Jr.: Sprengelmeyer and draft page layouts on paper plates)

"Of the thousands of paths taken by journalists who have been cast off by shrinking metropolitan newspapers, Mr. Sprengelmeyer’s is one of the more unusual, and one of the more hopeful," Pérez-Peña reports. "While bringing some big-city professionalism to a distinctly small-time operation, he says he is making enough money to support himself, and he has been able to assign some freelance work to a few underemployed former colleagues."

Sprengelmeyer has improved the paper, ended its alliance with a City Hall faction, boosted circulation and gained the public respect and admiration of his competitior, Santa Rosa News Editor Roberto Martin Marquez, who wrote in his weekly, “M. E. is making me a better newspaper man.” Sprengelmeyer has thus confounded the usual scenario for competing weeklies in small towns, in which competition may make them keener to find news but often leaves them short of the resources needed to finance and capable reporting. We liked that part of the story a lot, but liked this part even more:

The experience has made him an evangelist for small-town papers, which he says offer a hidden opportunity for unemployed journalists, but he acknowledges it isn’t for everybody. He works to the brink of exhaustion, fueling late-night production sessions with nicotine and caffeinated energy drinks. After a few hours’ sleep, he makes a three-hour, round-trip drive to pick up his press run in Clovis, where the paper is printed. “I couldn’t do this if I had a family,” he said. “But it feels like it matters, and I’m having fun.”

If you're a laid-off journalist, one who fears being laid off or just wants to share Sprengelmeyer's "fantasy" of owning your own newspaper, drop us a line. UPDATE: CNN profiles Sprengelmeyer.

Indian journalist says national media failed to do their jobs on Navajo-Hopi coal story

We reported on USA Today's story last week about the messages from the Navajo Nation president and Hopi Nation Tribal Council message to environmental groups to stay off their reservations in the battle over a proposed coal-fired power plant. Now one local Indian journalist says that the national media didn't properly investigate the story, Mary Annette Pembler of the Daily Yonder reports.

“Can you imagine journalists simply reporting verbatim a press release from President Obama without doing some sort of background on the information presented in the document?” Marley Shebala, Navajo and Zuni reporter for the Navajo Times, told Pembler. “There is a big difference between elected leadership and traditional leadership in Indian Country; reporters need to know this and dig deeper into the community when reporting on political issues.”

Shebala, who was named community journalist of the year by the Arizona Press Club, added, "Journalists would never assume that the mayor of a city or governor of a state speaks for the entire population. Journalists should use that same level of skepticism when covering tribes." Shebala, who maintains there is no such thing as "clean coal," explains that the Hopi and Navajo have a long history of environmental activism.

Vernon Masayesva, executive director of the Black Mesa Trust and former Hopi chairman, says the real story in Indian Country is “take-over of the Hopi government by pro-mining legislators.” He reports that 40 individual Hopis have filed challenges to the U. S. Office of Surface Mining’s decision to issue the "life of mine lease" that would extend the lease of Peabody Energy's Western Coal Black Mesa Project indefinitely. Former Hopi tribal chairman Ben Nuvasma adds, “the opposition to the environmental groups is not an issue of compromising sovereignty. It is an issue of corporate and financial greed.” (Read more)

You can also read the original USA Today story, and Shebala's report that the Environmental Protection Agency's decision the Desert Rock Power Plant, subject of the USA Today story, needs further review.

Google Voice blocks calls to some rural areas, citing high telecom fees; FCC investigating

Amid a "net neutrality" debate between large telecommunications firms and Internet companies, which we reported here, one telecom has turned the tables on a net-neutrality supporter. Acting on a request by AT&T, the Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to Google Inc. Friday demanding information about its Google Voice service. AT&T alleged Google was using the service to unlawfully block calls to rural areas.

Web-based Google Voice allows users to sign up for a telephone number that routes incoming calls to cell phones or land lines and place calls at low rates. In a blog post, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, admitted that Voice does block calls to some rural areas that charge exorbitant termination fees and "partner with adult sex chat lines and `free' conference calling centers to drive high volumes of traffic."

Google maintains that regulations designed to keep phone services from blocking calls to rural areas that charge higher termination fees do not apply to Voice and other Web-based applications like Skype, because they aren't meant to replace traditional phone services, just augment them.

Some industry insiders saw AT&T's complaint as an attempt to turn negative publicity against Google in wake of the impending Oct. 22 FCC vote on net neutrality, Joelle Tessler of Business Week reports. Whitt writes: "Despite AT&T's lobbying efforts, this issue has nothing to do with network neutrality or rural America." (Read more)

"Both sides seem to have pretty legitimate gripes," Seth Weintraub of Computer World writes for PC World. "The overreaching problem in the situation is the high cost of termination charges levied by rural operators." (Read more)

The North Dakota Public Service Commission has decided to look into Google Voice after hearing Minnesota was doing the same, Tracy Frank of The Forum in Fargo reports. “It’s incumbent upon us to figure out how this is going to affect North Dakota,” Commissioner Brian Kalk told Frank. “Rural areas are the most underserved right now and if there is a place where we need more opportunities for telecommunication, it is rural areas.” (Read more)

But who is at fault, and what's the deal with do rural telephone companies? Business Week columnist Stephen Wildstrom places the blame at the foot of out-of-date FCC regulations. "In a sense, AT&T and Google are both victims of a ridiculous anachronism, as is the FCC, which must enforce it," Wildstrom writes. All local phone companies charge termination fees for calls sent to their customers, fees that phone services like AT&T are required to pay, but rural companies charge much higher rates.

Wildstrom says these traditional regulations lost effectiveness after some business-saving entrepreneurs decided there was money to be made in the rural phone business. "They set up free or low-cost conferencing services and sex lines, routed the calls through their rural phone companies, and made money by collecting termination fees instead of charging their customers," he writes, adding Google is almost certainly correct in its legal stance that Voice is not subject to the same FCC regulations as phone services. To fix the problem, he advocates Google, AT&T and the FCC working together to "bring telecom regulation into the 21st century." (Read more)