Saturday, January 02, 2010

Mine deaths hit record low, but miner's memoir is a reminder of the dangers still underground

We didn't plan it that way, but we should have remembered: In today's Courier-Journal, the undersigned reviews Face Boss: the Memoir of A Western Kentucky Coal Miner, and at the top of the Louisville newspaper's section page (and at the top of the Lexington Herald-Leader's front) is the annual Associated Press story about mining fatalties -- which declined for the second year in a row in 2009, to a record low of 34. (AP photo by George Frey: Face boss Carrey VanBuren watches a continuous mining machine cut coal at the Horizon mine near Helper, Utah.)

"That was down from the previous low of 52 in 2008," writes Roger Alford, now AP's sole correspondent in the state capital of Frankfort and former correspondent in the coalfield town of Pikeville. Coal mines accounted for only 18 of the deaths, "down from 29 in 2008; and 16 were in gold, copper and other types of mines, down from 22 in 2008. Most involved aboveground truck accidents on mine property," which shows the increasing role of surface mining.

"Most news of coal these days is above the ground: strip mining, including mountaintop removal, and coal-fired power plants that contribute to global warming. But in Kentucky and most Eastern coal states, most coal is still produced by underground miners, who work in what Michael Guillerman calls “a dark and remarkable world” that few Americans know."

That's the start of the book review, which is complimentary. I wish it could have been longer, to repeat Guillerman's point that mine operators prepare for federal inspections and usually run considerably less coal when inspectors are underground. That point was made in the AP story by Kentucky's Steve Earle, United Mine Workers of America international vice president for the Midwest: "I can say without reservation that the safest day coal miners have is when inspectors are in the mines."

Thursday, December 31, 2009

New laws show a historic turn on Tobacco Road

The annual story about new laws taking effect on New Year's Day has a rural angle: The new statewide smoking bans in North Carolina and Virginia, still two of the leading tobacco-growing states.

North Carolina's ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, which actually takes effect Jan. 2, is "among the most surprising new laws," The Associated Press says. "There are exceptions for country clubs, Elks lodges and the like, but the change is a dramatic one for North Carolina, whose tax coffers long depended on Big Tobacco.

"Virginia approved a similar law that took effect Dec. 1, but it's more accommodating to smokers because it allows establishments to offer areas in which to light up as long as they have separate ventilating systems. Not including Virginia and its partial ban, smoking will be banned in restaurants in 29 states and in bars in 25, according to the American Lung Association." (Read more)

Pilgrim's Pride to pay $4.5M in immigration case; Pilgrim family members demoted, ousted by JBS

Fresh out of a bankruptcy that left some of its contract farmers holding mortgages for chickenhouses that no longer had plants to supply, Pilgrim's Pride Corp. has agreed to pay the federal government $4.5 million "to settle a two-year investigation into identity theft and hiring people not authorized to work in the United States," Rita Jane Gabbett of MeatingPlace reports. "As part of the settlement, Pilgrim's Pride recognized that its voluntary compliance programs can be enhanced to more accurately identify unauthorized persons who seek or gain employment through identity fraud or other unlawful means."

The agreement was with the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. ICE raided five Pilgrim's Pride locations in 2007 and 2008, finding 338 unauthorized workers, but no civil or criminal charges were filed. "The news comes days after Pilgrim's Pride announced it had emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy after completing a 13-month restructuring that included selling a 64 percent share in the company to JBS USA," Gabbett notes.

Meanwhile, the chief operating officer of JBS, Wesley Mendonca Batista, has replaced Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim as chairman of Pilgrim's Pride, and Lonnie Ken Pilgrim, the company's vice president, and Richard Cogdill, its chief financial officer, have been removed, Ann Bagel Storck of MeatingPlace reports, citing a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

States struggle to keep up with natural-gas drilling; EPA tells New York state to be careful

"State oil and gas regulators are spread too thin to do their jobs," ProPublica reports, in the nonprofit journalism outlet's latest look at natural-gas drilling. The country has "nearly one million active oil and gas wells, a number that's likely to climb as the feverish growth in natural-gas exploration continues," Abram Lustgarten writes.

Lustgarten examined the states where drilling has expanded rapidly. "While the number of new oil and gas wells being drilled in the 22 states each year has jumped 45 percent since 2004, most of the states have added only a few regulators," who are usually also responsible for overseeing oil drilling. "Those with the widest gaps are Texas, which is already grappling with the most drilling, and New York, which is expected to soon have the fastest rate of growth. As regulators' workloads have grown, enforcement actions -- the number of times violations were recorded and acted on -- have dropped in many states, often by more than half. That could mean companies are complying with the law -- or that inspectors aren't checking the wells." In our experience, both are true, but better compliance usually follows better enforcement.

There were exceptions; in Kentucky since 2006, drilling has declined but enforcement actions have increased. In Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the state that provided the example that Lustgarten used to start his story, drilling declined greatly this year but staffing and enforcement actions have gone up. ProPublica has a state-by-state database here; its latest wrapup story is here. UPDATE, Jan. 5: The database has been updated with information from Montana, where enforcement is up.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency, responding to New York state's proposed drilling regulations, told the state "that it had major concerns about how proposed hydraulic drilling for natural gas would affect public health and the environment, and urged it to undertake a broader study of the potential impact," Mireya Navarro of The New York Times reports. "It recommended that “essential environmental protection measures” be taken before the state begins to review permit applications for the drilling." (Read more)

How religious is your state? By what measurement?

Mississippi is far and away the most religious state, ranking first in "absolutely certain" belief in God, daily prayer, weekly worship attendance, and the percentage of residents who say religion is very important in their lives, according to polling data compiled by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The next 10 most religious states, based on the importance respondents attach to religion, are all in the South. In other categories, Utah and Kansas are in the top 10. The least religious states are those in New England, followed by Alaska, though Arizona and Colorado rank among them on church attendance. For an interactive table of the categories and the states, click here.

EPA lays out possible penalties for states if they fail to clean up Chesapeake Bay

We reported in September that the Environmental Protection Agency was going to get tough with states and localities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (right) in a redoubled effort to clean up the estuary and rid it of "dead zones" where fish and shellfish can't live. Yesterday, EPA laid out the possible penalities for compliance. David Farenthold of The Washington Post reports, "EPA officials said they might:
-- Object to state-issued permits for new sources of pollution, such as factories, sewage-treatment plants or suburban storm sewers.
-- Require states to offset pollution in one area by cutting it in another. If a state can't find ways to curb pollution from farms, for instance, the EPA could require stricter cuts from sewage-treatment plants.
-- Take tighter control of federal money that goes to states for antipollution programs, to make sure it is used to solve outstanding problems."

However, Farenthold notes, "Clean-water laws make it easy to crack down on pollution that comes out of a pipe, such as treated sewage and factory discharges. But they give states less power to crack down on pollution that doesn't come from pipes, such as the fertilizer and animal manure that wash off suburban lawns and farm fields." (Read more)

Rural school group has news, data and analysis on education issues and trends

The Rural School and Community Trust is an excellent watchdog in Washington for rural education, and often a good source of information for reporters who cover rural schools. Its latest Rural Policy Matters newsletter has several stories of interest:

Race to Top revisions slightly better for rural schools, plus a detailed analysis

Large, very-low-poverty districts benefit in Title I formula at expense of high-poverty districts large and small

Rural districts with low graduation rates are high-poverty, high-minority

Helping Students Prepare for College, with rural adaptations (registration required)

Kansas City Fed economists see little risk of sharp drop in farmland values in the near term

The value of farmland is an important underlying factor in the rural economy. The recession has "cut farm incomes and also cooled residential and recreational demand for farmland," reducing farmland values slightly, and while they have "held relatively steady" this year, increased volatility in agriculture markets and the prospect of higher interest rates makes some wonder, "Are today’s farmland values another bubble getting ready to burst?"

So write Jason Henderson, a vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and Assistant Economist Maria Akers in the latest edition of the bank's Main Street Economist. But after going through a detailed analysis of the data, as well as current and historical trends, they sees "little risk of a sharp collapse in farmland values in the near term" because "near-term projections suggest that returns to crop production may be strong enough to support recent cropland value gains." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Repoened rural refinery in Kentucky accuses Marathon Oil of unfair competition

A small oil refinery Southern Kentucky, recently bought in bankruptcy and reopened, is accusing Marathon Oil Corp. of unfair competition that is about to run it out of business. Marathon says a deal the refinery proposed would violate federal and state laws.

Lawrence Barker of Somerset Energy Refining wrote in an open letter to Marathon, dated Dec. 15 and published in the Dec. 26 Somerset Commonwealth Journal, that trucker-brokers who once delivered to Somerset are going 172 miles northeast, to the Marathon refinery on the Big Sandy River at Catlettsburg, because Marathon is paying them "additional incentives that SER simply cannot match." Barker said Barrett Oil of Albany has "threatened to divert to Marathon" Jan. 1, and "This refinery will close without the Barrett deliveries."

"Barker asked Marathon to refuse future purchase of regional crude reserves, and to cease the trucker’s incentives, instead giving local producers a higher price for their crude," Commonwealth Journal Editor Ken Shmidheiser wrote, calling Barker's letter "a David-versus-Goliath challenge." In return, Barker offered to provide Marathon a rare type of crude and co-sponsor advertising that would give Marathon credit for saving Somerset's 100 jobs.

Marathon spokespersons said they had not been asked to comment on the letter until contacted today by The Rural Blog. "We deny that those allegations are appropriate or correct," spokeswoman Angelia Graves said in an interview. She said Marathon told Somerset that its proposal "violates anti-trust laws," and her company is "not going to engage in any discussion with them or anyone else in the industry that is anti-competitive." Marathon's Dec. 18 letter is posted here.

In the interview today, Graves first said "Our company pays the market price," and she was asked if that included the trucker incentives Barker mentioned. "I'm not sure what he's referencing there," she said. "I'm not familiar with the individual arrangements, but we deny there's any intent to engage in any practice that is in violation of the law."

'Whoppers of 2009' and other FactCheck reports can help thwart inaccurate, misleading assertions

The folks at FactCheck, who do a good job of separating truth from fiction in politics, have published "Whoppers of 2009," their most outrageous examples of inaccurate and/or misleading assertions. The list, and future reports at, can help local news media avoid passing along bad information from interviewees, letter writers and so on.

"The list of howlers includes the false claim that the stimulus bill would dictate to doctors what procedures they can and can’t perform, and assertions that health care legislation would require seniors to get advice on how to commit suicide," Lori Robertson, Brooks Jackson and Jess Henig write. "Democrats exaggerated the problems their legislation aims to fix — at one point Obama falsely accused an insurance company of being responsible for the death of an Illinois cancer patient."

FactCheck is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. For its report, click here.

More concern about livestock antibiotics' effect on people creates more pressure for regulation

"More and more Americans — many of them living far from barns and pastures — are at risk from the widespread practice of feeding livestock antibiotics," The Associated Press reports. "These animals grow faster, but they can also develop drug-resistant infections that are passed on to people. The issue is now gaining attention because of interest from a new White House administration and a flurry of new research tying antibiotic use in animals to drug resistance in people."

Reporters Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza write that they looked at the issue for six months. They start their story with a compelling dateline (Frankenstein, Mo.) and anecdote, about a farmer who nearly lost his leg after being gored by a boar with a strep infection that was resistant to antibiotics. After finding that he and his pigs all has the same resistances, he "tossed his hypodermic needles, sacked his buckets of antibiotic-laced feed, slaughtered his herd and started anew," Mason and Mendoza report. They also write about an Iowa farmer who feeds his pigs an antibiotic that is not absorbed by their digestive systems.

"Farm groups and pharmaceutical companies argue that drugs keep animals healthy and meat costs low, and have defeated a series of proposed limits on their use," the reportyers write. "Thirteen percent of the antibiotics administered on farms last year were fed to healthy animals to make them grow faster. Antibiotics also save as much as 30 percent in feed costs among young swine, although the savings fade as pigs get older, according to a new USDA study." Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., is fighting for a law that would ban giving antibiotics to animals unless they are sick. (Read more)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stimulus funds allocated to rural areas go to some places in metro areas; definition of 'rural' at issue

"Nearly a quarter" of the $12 billion in economic-stimulus funds that has been paid out after being designated for rural areas, most of it in loan guarantees for home buyers, has gone to localities in "the nation's biggest metropolitan areas," Brad Heath reports for USA Today. "The spending reignites a longstanding debate over what 'rural' really means in an increasingly urban nation." Congress wrote definitions into the bill that allowed the aid to "small, far-flung suburbs" in metropolitan areas, Heath writes. Because metro areas are deifned by county lines and commuting patterns, much rural territory can be included. For a detailed explanation of how the federal government can define "rural," click here.

UPDATE, Dec. 30: Dawn House of The Salt Lake Tribune reports that few Utahns have taken advantage of the loan guarantees and none have applied for stimulus-funded business loans, both administered by the Department of Agriculture. "The loan programs aren't well known because the agency has no money for advertising -- and few think of the USDA as a bank," House writes. "Rural residents often find out about programs through word of mouth or when a state or federal agency refers them to the USDA Rural Development office." (Read more)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Drilling in Marcellus Shale leaves more chemicals than expected, as Congress reconsiders exemption

Gas drilling companies leave a lot more water and chemicals in the Marcellus Shale formation, right, than they did in similar formations elsewhere when they won an exemption from federal regulation four years ago partly with arguments that relatively little drilling fluid remained, Abram Lustgarten of ProPublica reports. The news could affect debate on a bill in Congress that would eliminate the exemption. (ProPublica map)

"When lawmakers approved that exemption, it was generally accepted that only about 30 percent of the fluids stayed in the ground. At the time, fracturing was also used in far fewer wells than it is today and required far less fluid," Lustgarten writes. "Three company spokesmen and a regulatory officials said in separate interviews with ProPublica that as much as 85 percent of the fluids used during hydraulic fracturing is being left underground after wells are drilled in the Marcellus Shale." (Read more)

Meanwhile, Mike Lee and Elizabeth Campbell of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram report on problems caused by a disposal well for chemicals used to extract gas from the Barnett Shale, a formation similar to the Marcellus. "There have also been reports of problems in small-town water wells and private water wells across the Barnett Shale," they write.