Friday, December 31, 2010

Drug smugglers misuse horses, worsening crisis

Drug smuggling from Mexico is exacerbating the problem of abandoned horses, Marc Lacey reports for The New York Times from Arizona: "Mexican traffickers strap heavy bales of marijuana or other illegal drugs to the horses’ backs and march them north through mountain passes and across rough desert terrain. With little food and water, some collapse under their heavy loads. Others are turned loose when the contraband gets far enough into Arizona to be loaded into vehicles." Mistreatment is common; some rescued horses have to wear hoof cushions (Times photo by Joshua Lott).

Some of the horses are sold and end up in Mexican slaughterhouses, but others "find their way to equine rescue operations, which help place them with homes," Lacey writes. Others are used by police agencies to chase smugglers. "State officials say the economic crisis has led to many more animals being let loose by owners no longer able to care for them. But the horses that are found with Mexican brands are presumed to be smuggling horses." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rural mom says 'The Dr. Phil Show' tricked, ambushed, manipulated and misrepresented her

A rural Kentucky family that was featured on "The Dr. Phil Show" told their local newspaper that they felt tricked, ambushed, manipulated and misrepresented by the producers. After the show appeared Dec. 2, Willie and Laura Essex (in photo with host Phil McGraw) told their experience to The Lebanon Enterprise, which published a story about it this week.

Laura Essex said the episode, titled "Brat-proof your child," made it appear that she often yells at her triplets when she does not. She said the producers made the yelling appear worse by increasing the audio volume on home video she made for the show; told her husband to sit in the audience after telling them that they would be on the set together; and told them to say that they asked to be on the show, though they were recruited online by a show staff member. She had other complaints, including that McGraw revised some of his comments after the Aug. 23 taping and made it appear that they were made during the taping. "I think that was unfair," Essex told the Enterprise. "We couldn't change what we said."

The story has no comment from the show's producers, or any mention of an attempt to contact them. Writer Jeff Moreland, editor of The Springfield Sun, another Landmark Community Newspapers weekly, told us in an e-mail that he "tried but got no response." The story ends with this quote from Essex: "I have nothing to hide, but I think they really made me out to be a monstrous mom. My kids are well taken care of and loved, and I don't think they portrayed any of that on the show." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Census data forecast less rural representation, but Farm Bill is due for renewal first

"The latest census numbers indicate that, while urban areas continue to grow nationwide and will add new Congressional seats, rural areas will have less representation in Congress," Ken Anderson reports for Brownfield Network. "That scenario could make it even tougher to build support for federal farm programs." (Read more) Yes, but the current cast of characters gets one more big chance; the story fails to note that reapportionment and redistricting won't take effect until the elections in 2012, the year the Farm Bill is up for its regular five-year renewal.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Poverty still high, getting higher in rural counties

"Poverty rates in rural America are higher than in urban or exurban counties, and these rates have gone up in the recession," the Daily Yonder reports after analyzing the latest census data. "But there are large regional differences between rural regions."

Bill Bishop writes, "Nearly one in six people living in rural America fell below the poverty line in 2009. . . . The poverty rate in rural America was 17.26 percent, according to the Yonder’s analysis of Census Bureau data. The rate in exurban counties was 13.3 per cent; and in urban counties, the rate was 13.9 percent. The national poverty rate in 2009 was 14.4 percent." (Read more; Yonder map)

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Rural Blog and its publisher seek your help

The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which needs your help.

Over the last 20 years, “Few academically based individuals or institutions have made a truly lasting impact upon our nation’s rural policy framework. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is in this very small cadre,” says Charles W. Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute. He calls the blog “one of the most critical institutional developments in our field over the last decade,” because of its impact “on the national rural policy and journalism communities.”

The Institute has been able to conduct a wide range of activities and have a national and even international impact (for details click here) because of support from individuals, foundations and the University of Kentucky, which embraced the idea from the start. The university helped raise key operating grants, created a faculty line for the Institute director, picked up other costs when grant money ran out, and set aside $1.5 million in a state matching fund for an endowment.

That match will expire in April, all too soon because of poor economic conditions in the nation and even worse conditions in the news business, from which we had hoped to gain most of our support. Perhaps ironically, the financial squeeze on metropolitan newspapers and other changes in the news media have made all the more important the Institute’s vision of helping rural America through journalism, because most major papers and broadcast outlets have abandoned coverage of rural areas. That has left a vacuum that rural news media must fill, covering issues and setting the public agenda in their communities. The Institute helps them do that with the blog, its website and its network of academic partners at 28 universities in 18 states, from Maine to Texas to Alaska. For recent details on that work, click here.

The Institute has raised $600,000 for its endowment. Not only has that money been matched by the state, we have been allowed to use earnings from the unmatched state funds, thanks to a pledge by supporters to raise the remaining $900,000 allocated for the Institute. However, any unmatched money will revert to the state this summer, so we face the prospect of a serious budget cut next year unless the endowment gets a substantial boost.

Please consider making an end-of-the-year gift to the Institute. Your gift will allow us to continue the important work of supporting rural journalists and citizen involvement in public policy. You may send a check to 122 Grehan Bldg., Lexington KY 40506-0042, or donate online at Go to the gift-designation box and select Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Thanks for your support and your readership of The Rural Blog. We wish you happy holidays and a great new year. --Al Cross, director, IRJCI, and assistant extension professor, School of Journalism and Telecommunications, University of Kentucky

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Horse vets call for reopening of abattoirs, as taxpayers pay to care for mistreated, forsaken

The keynote speaker at the 56th Annual American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Dec. 4-8 in Baltimore, was verterianian Tom Lenz. His address was titled "Horse Welfare Wars: When Emotion and Fact Collide," reports Erica Larson, News Editor for The Horse. Citing the closing of American equine processing plants as a central issue that led to the proliferation of unwanted horses and equine welfare situations, Lenz said it is "complicated by a worldwide love affair with the horse. Uninformed people with few to no ties to the equine industry care for horses and want to have a voice in how they are treated."

The equine practitioners' group "is not pro-slaughter," Lenz said, noting that AAEP supports the Horse Transportation Safety Act of 2009 but opposes HR 503, "which would outlaw the processing of horses for human consumption, because there are no provisions in the bill to provide for the care of unwanted horses, to designate an agency to enforce the law or funding to support them." He said reopening the plants might not be the ideal option, but would aid greatly in controlling the number of unwanted horses until the industry can take other steps to reduce the problem. He said one of the simplest solutions to abandonment and neglect is responsible ownership. But mass behavior modification is never simple. (Read more)

Snohomish County, Washington, is trying to decide how much to spend caring for abandoned horses, reports Noah Haglund for Horse cases are more expensive compared with puppy mills or cat-hoarding, said county animal-control manager Vicki Lubrin. Beyond food and shelter, horses often require pricey veterinary care and foot trimming that Lubrin said costs about $18 a day.

The county had to deal with three recent incidents for which it was not prepared. Last year, 19 horses were seized in one location, costing $60,000 for upkeep until they were adopted. In 2008, the county seized five horses from one owner and it cost the county $55,000. In a third case, 45 horses were reported to authorities as neglected, but animal-control officers worked with the owner to disperse the horses to better care.

Councilman Dave Somers, who owns two horses, worries that the county will become hesitant to step in because of the costs. Somers suggests the county consider forming partnerships with nonprofit horse-rescue groups. Governments "have the authority to do something, the rescuers have the knowledge," said Katie Merwick, founder of Second Chance Ranch, where up to 100 unwanted horses are housed. (Read more)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Midwest states wrestle with rules for raw milk

States continue to look at regulation of raw dairy products. Kathryn Tormey, writing for the Midwestern Legislative Conference, reports that in most of the Midwest, raw milk must be sold directly to consumers by farmers; in South Dakota, home delivery is permitted. Minnesota is home to a recent outbreak of E. coli that was attributed to consuming raw milk. It is one of the six Midwestern states that allow farmers to sell raw, unpasteurized milk to the public. The others are Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Minnesota has struggled with a lack of resources to properly inspect facilities and ensure public health, reports Tormey. Wisconsin has regulations similar to Minnesota's, but the legislature is hoping to rework the 50-year-old law that bans most raw-milk sales. Some lawmakers hope to change the law to allow farmers, under certain guidelines, to regularly sell raw milk on the farm where it was produced in hopes to boost small farm incomes. An earlier version of the legislation passed this spring, but Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed it, citing health concerns.

In Iowa, not much legislative sentiment exists to allow raw-milk sales. State Sen. David Johnson says it could boost farm income, "but not at taking the risk of being sued, and certainly not at the cost of having health risks to the consumer." That rings bells in Iowa, which was was the source of this year's huge egg recall, so Johnson says policymakers are unlikely to consider opening up raw milk sales. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

L.A. Chapter of SPJ names editor of small Calif. daily one of year's five distinguished journalists

The editor of a small daily newspaper in the northern, rural section of Los Angeles County has been named one of five distinguished journalists to be honored by the Los Angeles Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in March.

Dennis Anderson, right, became editor of the Antelope Valley Press , the only family-owned independent daily newspaper in Los Angeles County, in 1999. Since then, the newspaper has earned six general excellence rankings from the National Newspaper Association, one from Suburban Newspapers of America and a first place Freedom of Information award from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Anderson came to the paper after 18 years with wire services in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. In 2004, SNA and the American Press Institute named Anderson Journalist of the Year for his articles, written while embedded with the California National Guard in Iraq, about local citizen soldiers. Anderson and his son, Garrett, a Marine who was in the second battle of Fallujah, are writing a book about Marine Corps casualties from World War I to Iraq. (Read more)

FCC enacts Internet rules that fall short of 'net neutrality' and draw fire from left and right

"The Federal Communications Commission approved a set of net neutrality rules today, and nobody is happy," Dan Lyons reports for The Daily Beast. "While liberals claim the FCC has caved to pressure from carriers, right-wingers are calling the new rules a government takeover of the Internet." The Beast's headline says the 3-2, party-line vote "boils down to one fact: There will soon be a fast Internet for the rich and a slow Internet for the poor." (Read more)

Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota said the rules fell short of protecting rural consumers by limiting regulation of wireless providers. "Wireless technology is the future of the Internet, and for many rural Minnesotans, it’s often the only choice for broadband," Franken said. Wireless providers say they need more freedom to regulate traffic because they have less bandwidth than wireline companies. For the FCC's order, click here.

Milo Yiannopoulos writes for The Telegraph that he no longer thinks pure net neutrality is a great idea. "Net neutrality is simply not practical given the level of consumer demand for high-quality video and music," he writes. "The net-neutrality debate is as much political -- based, like so many laments from the Left, on vague 'what-if's -- as it is technical." (Read more)

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, whose position on the issue is closer to the middle than the other two Democratic appointees, "has argued that Internet access rules would protect companies just starting out on the Web, as well as consumers who are increasingly relying on the Internet for news, entertainment and communications," Cecilia Kang writes for The Washington Post.

The rules "are designed to ensure that the Internet is not dominated by major telecommunications and cable companies," David Hatch reports for National Journal. Hatch reported earlier today, citing several sources, that Verizon Communications Inc., the nation's No. 2 telecommunications company, might try to overturn the rules in court. Telecoms might also try to get that done in Congress, but that is unlikely to happen without a Republican president.

Amy Schatz of The Wall Street Journal gives examples, saying the rules "would prevent a broadband provider, such as Comcast Corp., AT&T Inc. or Verizon ... from hobbling access to an online video service, such as Netflix, that competes with its own video services" and "prohibit Internet providers from 'unreasonably discriminating' against rivals' Internet traffic or services on wired or wireless networks. The rules would allow phone and cable companies to offer faster, priority delivery services to Internet companies willing to pay extra. But the FCC proposal contains language suggesting the agency would try to discourage creation of such high-speed toll lanes." (Read more)

Arik Hessledahl writes on New Enterprise for All Things Digital that critics on the right are wildly exaggerating the FCC's move. He calls it "a dramatic step back from a far more ominous one," noting that when Comcast mounted a successful court challenge to the agency's Internet authority, "Genachowski considered reclassifying the Internet under the FCC’s Title II authority, which governs regulation of the phone system. This was an extreme response, thankfully abandoned, that would have certainly warranted the nickname. The current proposal is by no stretch of argument so extreme that it amounts to a seizure. But rules they are, and no one likes new rules where none existed before, least of all multibillion dollar corporations like Comcast and Verizon. Having established in the courts that they have the right to control the use of certain applications that impact the performance of their network–or, more precisely, the fact that the FCC has no legal authority to tell them not to exercise such control–they’re now going to be required to disclose how and why they exercise such controls. . . . Another court challenge is probably likely." (Read more)

Wild pigs are now an invasive species in Michigan

Michigan Natural Resources and Environment Director Rebecca Humphries classified feral swine as an invasive species in the state, saying they "pose a significant risk to Michigan’s wildlife, ecosystems and agricultural resources and they are a serious disease threat to humans, wildlife and domesticated pigs."  (Steve Davenport with the estimated 400-pound wild hog he shot in a neighbor's cornfield between Lansing and Flint. He first thought it was a bear.)

Agricultural and environmental groups blame the proliferation of pigs on game ranches, which are allowed to breed and hunt the animals, reports Dawson Bell of the Detroit Free Press. The Michigan legislature has until July to come up with regulations for game ranches to continue breeding the animals. (Read more)

How can the White House have a Council on Community Solutions without a rural member?

Our friend Bill Bishop, co-editor of the Daily Yonder, seems pretty fed up with what he calls "the Obama Administration’s single-minded allegiance to urban, credentialed experts," the latest example being the lack of any rural person on the 25-member White House Council for Community Solutions, which the president appointed last week.

"It's all a big bunch of nothing ... except that, once again, the Obama Administration has forgotten all about rural America," Bishop writes. He says it reminded a friend what then-House Speaker Sam Rayburn reportedly said about the whiz kids of the Kennedy administration: “I’d feel a lot better if just one of them had ever run for sheriff.”

The legendary Rayburn was born in Roane County, Tennessee, in our part of the country, and grew up in culturally similar northeast Texas, which he represented in Congress. But just about anyone who has run for local office in a rural area knows what he meant. Bishop cites former University of Oregon president David Frohnmayer, who was a state House member: "He said running for sheriff teaches you things you can’t learn in school or in a Washington, D.C., think tank. You find out that there are a lot of people sitting around democracy’s table and that they all have a voice." For Frohnmayer's remarks, click here.

Composting becomes more common solution to increasing problem of dead-animal disposal

Disposal of dead animals has become a bigger issue since the horse crisis started and regulations to fight mad-cow disease chased many companies out of the carcass-pickup-and-processing business. In Kentucky, more people are composting carcasses, with the help of advice from the University of Kentucky and repeal of a law that required large carcasses to be quartered before composting.

Steve Higgins, environmental-compliance director for the university's College of Agriculture, told Andrea Uhde Shepherd of The Courier-Journal that more than 600 farmers or groups started composting livestock before $25 state permits for the process became available in 2008. Shepherd reports that a permit "is required to ensure that it's done correctly, officials said." (C-J photo by James Crisp: Higgins with an animal compost pile)

Doing it correctly means putting the carcass on a layer of wooden material on an impervious surface that keeps liquids from soaking into the ground, then covering the carcass with "wooden material similar to chips, which has micro-organisms that eat the carcass and generate heat," Shepherd writes. "That both sterilizes and speeds up decomposition. Complex chains of smelly gases break down so no smell is emitted — only water in the form of steam. There also is some carbon dioxide emitted and a hint of ammonia. Within six months, the animal carcass turns into a dark mulch-type material; all that's left are a few brittle bones. It can be used as mulch or used on future composting piles." (Read more)

UPDATE, 1/15/11: After Higgins promoted composting to officials in Nelson County (Wikipedia map), which has a free service that takes carcasss to the county landfill, Erin McCoy of The Kentucky Standard in Bardstown reported that only one county in the state, adjoining Washington County, has adopted composting for large animals. She began her story by writing about a local dairy and hog farmer who has been composting his dead animals for more than seven years, despite the county's free service. The county's solid-waste director is skeptical of the idea. "He said he isn’t convinced no odor would be produced by such a facility," and fears that composting wouldn't eliminate disease oraganisms. Sounds like Higgins is having a hard time educating people who ought to know more about the process. (Read more)

Monday, December 20, 2010

More ad money will be on Web this year than in printed newspapers, digital-marketing firm says

eMarketer, a digital marketing research firm, estimates U.S. advertisers will spend more on Internet ads this year than on print newspaper ads -- $25.8 billion to $22.8 billion, respectively. The data appear to exclude figures for weekly papers, many of which are rural.

"The eclipse has been on the horizon for years as consumers have migrated en masse to the Internet, where there are many more options for news, and where newspaper publishers can't charge nearly as much for ads as they can in print. So even while the total audience for many newspapers has grown, they have been unable to stem revenue declines," reports Russell Adams of The Wall Street Journal. (WSJ chart)

Meanwhile, Forrester Research reports that "U.S. consumers, on average, now spend as much time online as they do watching television," Adams writes. "But they aren't spending less time in front of their TVs. What they are doing less of is listening to the radio and reading newspapers and magazines offline, Forrester says." (Read more; subscription may be required)

The trend is expected to continue: "While total ad spending in the U.S. is expected to bounce back for the full year, growing 3 percent in 2010 to $168.5 billion, newspaper spending is expected to continue its decline next year. eMarketer estimates that print newspaper ad spending will slide to $21.4 billion in 2011, down 6 percent from 2010. On the other hand, online ad spending is expected to grow 10.5 percent in 2011 to reach $28.5 billion." The estimates and forecasts are based partly on data from the Newspaper Association of America, which typically does not gather data on weekly papers. (Read more) The National Newspaper Association, comprising mainly weeklies, says community newspapers are doing better than most publications. Here's a column about it, from Ken Blum.

Study develops hard data on reasons for increasing problem of unwanted horses

A new study published in the Journal of Animal Science takes a close look at the problem of unwanted horses and the nonprofit equine rescue groups and sanctuaries that care for them. Using a database of registered equine-rescue organizations, researchers K. E. Holcomb, C. L. Stull and P. H. Kass collected responses to a survey by 144 of 326 eligible groups in 37 states. Some of their findings:
  • 84 percent of respondents reported an increase in the number of requests received by rescue groups to accept horses since January 2008.
  • Most horses at the facilities (61 percent of 279) were voluntarily relinquished or donated. Horses seized by law enforcement agencies and impounded at the facility accounted for 15 percent.
  • Owner-related issues were more likely to contribute to the relinquishment of a horse to a nonprofit organization than horse-related characteristics or unknown factors.
  • The most oft-cited reasons for giving up a horse were financial hardship and the physical condition of the owner to care for the horse, including the death of the owner (in five cases). Within the horse-related factors, health problems accounted for almost half, followed by horses that were unsuited for the purpose of the owner, then those relinquished for behavioral issues.
  • At the time of the survey, 69 percent of horses still resided at the facility of the organization, while 26 percent had been placed in new homes, and 5 percent had been euthanized.
  • Just over half of the horses in the survey were considered unhealthy, which strengthened anecdotal claims that horses become unwanted in many cases due to medical problems. However, 47 percent of the horses were reported to be healthy, supporting statements by the nonprofit organizations that many unwanted horses are healthy or can be rehabilitated and are simply in need of good homes.
The practice of rescuing horses goes back to Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866, who established farms where old horses could be retired. The survey found that nonprofit equine rescue and sanctuary facilities in the U.S. appeared to be struggling with insufficient resources to meet increasing demand for accepting, caring, and providing sanctuary or finding new homes for unwanted horses. Most owners who gave up their horses were financially or physically unable to continue caring for them. The nonprofit organizations invested money and time rehabilitating horses to health, and provided training to increase their marketability to potential adopters. But for every four horses that entered a nonprofit facility, only three were adopted or sold. The researchers concluded that without additional resources, the nonprofit equine organizations cannot predictably expand to provide quality care and rehabilitation for more than 13,700 horses, only a fraction of the estimated 100,000 unwanted horses in the United States. (Read more)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tuesday is deadline to apply for expense-paid trip to crime and justice conference in NYC

Tuesday, Dec. 21 is the deadline to apply for an expenses-paid fellowship to the sixth annual H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, to be held Jan. 31 and Feb 1 in New York City. The overall theme of the symposia are "Law & Disorder: Facing the Legal and Economic Challenges to American Criminal Justice."

The symposium is presented by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. Fifteen fellows will be an awarded an all- expense-paid, three-day trip to attend, and those chosen will be required to attend both days of the conference in its entirety. Meals and local travel will be provided for all fellows.

The center seeks applications from journalists in a variety of beats (education, politics, health, crime, courts, etc.) to submit project or research ideas based on the major theme of the upcoming conference: "Criminal Justice Reform: What Works? What Doesn't? What Don't We Know?" The topics could include: crime and punishment (sentencing; prisons); science and crime (forensic issues, etc.), issues linking crime with environment, the economy, urban affairs or education trends; race and criminal justice; juvenile justice; homeland security and civil liberties; courts; new crime prevention and policing strategies, etc.

Applications should focus on the intersection of reporters' assigned beats with criminal justice, and be related to work in progress or proposed work slated for publication. The project should be supported by a senior editor, with a letter attesting to the commitment. Freelancers are encouraged to apply. The project pitch should be 300 words and the application should also include a 150-word biography. Apply online at by 11:59 p.m. Dec. 21.

Journalists can access applications, contest rules and contact information at Fellowships will be announced Jan. 6. The fellows' work will be published on, a criminal-justice news service published by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice and Criminal Justice Journalists. For more information, contact Deputy Director Cara Tabachnick at 212-484-1175 or

Friday, December 17, 2010

Reid files omnibus bill for national monuments, wilderness, wildlife, waterways, oceans

UPDATE, Dec. 21: "Efforts to salvage pieces of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's public lands, water and wildlife omnibus legislation are failing as senators place holds on bills offered for fast-track consideration," E & E reports. "Sponsors of some key proposals declared defeat today, while Republican leaders said there was too little time in the home stretch of the lame-duck session to work out outstanding concerns about the costs and economic and regulatory implications of the individual measures."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today filed a catch-all bill "aimed at improving and protecting public lands, waterways, ocean resources and wildlife -- which Republican leaders have already threatened to block," reports Paul Quinlan of Environment & Energy News. Prospects for passage in the final days of the lame-duck Congress are unclear.

The measure, called America's Great Outdoors Act, incorporates 100 separate bills passed by Senate committees; about half the bills have passed the House with broad support, Reid said. It would "designate new wilderness areas in three states; add 4,600 miles to the national trail system; preserve battlefield sites; protect marine turtles, sharks and great cats; and restore water bodies like Lake Tahoe, the Columbia River and the Long Island Sound, according to a news release," Quinlan writes. "The bill would also slow the decline in the world's shark populations and permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund." (Read more, subscription required)

The bill would add to the national park system the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico and create the Waco-Mammoth National Monument in Texas and the Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado. It would create national heritage areas in the Alabama Black Belt and the Susquehanna River Gateway, and the Devils' Staircase Wilderness Area in Oregon. For a copy of the bill, click here; subscription may be required.

New Fla. agriculture chief wants to collaborate with school board on lunch improvements

Florida's recently elected agriculture commissioner says he wants to play a key role in the state Board of Education's plans to include school nutrition. "The board was supposed to discuss cutting back on sugary drinks, including chocolate milk, in schools next week — a proposal that has spurred complaints from the dairy industry and school districts," Denise-Marie Balona of The Orlando Sentinel reports on the Sentinel School Zone blog. But Ag commissioner-elect Adam Putnam "sent a letter recently asking board members to put off that debate until he takes office and the state Department of Agriculture can help the state Department of Education take a closer look at the overall issue of foods offered on campus," Balona writes.

The Agriculture department's job is usually to assist farmers in making sure food is safe, not determining what foods are served in school cafeterias, Balona writes. Putnam says he wants in on the conversation because he wants to make sure children eat healthier meals. "He said it has nothing to do with protecting the dairy industry, which contributed thousands of dollars to his election campaign and stands to lose a lot of money if the state ditches flavored milk," Balona writes. Putnam explained, "The letter was designed to be a let’s-hit-the-pause button and let’s begin a new type of conversation and an unprecedented collaboration between the source of our food [farmers] and one of the biggest providers of children’s food – that being the school system." (Read more)

USDA considers policy change on genetically engineered alfalfa by adding geographic limits

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering a shift in its policy by imposing geographic limits on where genetically engineered alfalfa can be grown. "Farmers who grow conventional or organic alfalfa went to court to block sales of Monsanto Co.’s biotech alfalfa because of concerns that it would contaminate seed supplies," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog. "Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has been criticized by anti-biotech activists who claim he’s too close to Monsanto and other biotech companies, says his department needs to start taking into consideration the impact that genetically engineered crops can have on non-biotech farmers."

"We see a key role for each of the sectors in meeting our global and domestic food needs, in increasing sustainability and in enhancing farm profitability and in economic development," Vilsack told Brasher, adding that biotech and non-biotech sectors need to "thrive together." USDA's alfalfa environmental impact statement lays out two options for the genetically engineered crop: "deregulate it completely so that it can be grown anywhere or impose geographic restrictions and isolation requirements for the crop," Brasher writes. "Restrictions would be tighter in the western states that are the biggest seed producers. Growers of the biotech seed would be required to keep fields five miles away from conventional alfalfa."

Organic farmers have voiced similar cross-pollination fears about genetically engineered corn, but Vilsack said any decision on alfalfa would not affect crops that have already been deregulated. The Organic Trade Association said the biotech policy shift was an "important first step," and the group looks forward to policy development discussions aimed at protecting "all producers from market losses" due to biotech crops. The Biotechnology Industry Organization countered that "the restrictions being considered for alfalfa weren’t needed and would set a bad precedent," Brasher writes. (Read more)

In bid for precedential ruling, Massey challenges feds' authority to seize mine it is closing

UPDATE, Dec. 23:  U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar ruled in favor of the Department of Labor, Berkes reports.

Even after announcing it would permanently close its Freedom Mine No. 1 in Pike County, Kentucky, Massey Energy is moving ahead with a legal attempt to block the Mine Safety and Health Administration's move to close the mine for repeated safety violations. "A landmark federal court hearing Friday ... could determine whether the toughest mine safety tool ever used is as tough as it appears," Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports. (NPR photo by Berkes)

"Massey has already announced it will close the mine, but it does not argue in its motion that its voluntary shutdown makes the case moot. It doesn't even mention its intent to close Freedom for good. That may be an indication that Massey wants to make a strong statement with a court decision that could effectively kill the option of going to federal court again to force mine operators to comply with safety regulations," Berkes reports. The "injunctive relief" option that allows MSHA to close a mine for repeated safety violations has been on the books for 33 years but has never been used. The agency's action "is part of the Obama administration's purported get-tough response to the deadly explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April," Berkes notes.

"MSHA needs to have the authority to go to federal court, and get the court to require mine operators to address continuing hazards or face contempt of court," said Ed Clair, who spent two decades as the chief lawyer for MSHA until his retirement last year. Massey argues in its motion that the Labor Department's case is based on "vague and conclusory assertions that fail to inform the court of any plausible basis for shutting down the Freedom No. 1 Mine." Massey argues many of the citations, violations and fines are common in the industry and are not final until an administrative law court considers them. (Read more)

Berkes' reporting on Massey in the wake of the April disaster that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners was recognized by The Hillman Foundation, which honors the memory of labor leader Sidney Hillman, with its monthly Sidney Award. "The fine detail of Berkes’ work and his determination in staying on this story was critical in keeping the issues fresh in the minds of all those involved in the process of mine safety reform," award judge Charles Kaiser said. In addition to recognizing his NPR colleagues, Berkes "acknowledged his journalistic debt to Ken Ward Jr., the dean of American mining reporters, who runs Coal Tattoo, the definitive mining Web site of The Charleston Gazette," The Hillman Foundation says. (Read more)

Feds pick land available for solar-power projects

The Bureau of Land Management has designated 22 million acres of federal land that could be used for large solar-power installations and a draft environmental impact statement, avaialble here. For state-by-state maps of the designated lands, click here.

"The bureau excluded land that was already off-limits to energy development, lands set aside by law or presidential proclamation, sharply-sloping lands and areas with sensitive habitats that make them unsuitable for solar power development," John M. Broder reports for The New York Times. "The bureau said that it anticipated considering only about 214,000 acres of the 22 million acres for solar zones, or less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the public land in the six states." (Read more)

As states seek disclosure, drilling companies try more environmentally friendly fracking fluids

Much of the controversy around hydraulic fracturing has centered on whether chemicals used in the process can contaminate drinking water supplies, "but despite an increase in the number of such reports nationally, environmentalists’ claims have been undermined by the fact that no scientific links have been established between fracturing —  which involves blasting a solution of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to free natural gas — and reports of contaminated water," John Gramlich of Stateline writes in a good overview of the issue. (Getty Images photo by Joel Sartore)

"One crucial question about fracturing, however, has always gone unanswered: Which chemicals, exactly, are drillers injecting into the earth as they search for natural gas? Government regulators themselves often don’t know the answer because the chemical formulas are protected as trade secrets by the companies doing the drilling," Gramlich writes. "Environmentalists say it is unfathomable that regulators don’t know the chemicals that are being fired into the earth, often near aquifers and private water supplies," so a few states are starting to require disclosure of the chemicals. (Read more)

Meanwhile, some companies are touting "environmentally friendly formulas" to help alleviate those fears, Ryan Dezember of The Wall Street Journal reports. "Houston-based Halliburton—the No. 1 shale driller in the U.S.—is rolling out a fracking-fluid product called CleanStim that it says consists exclusively of compounds used in processed foods," Jim Brown, Halliburton's Western Hemisphere president, recently told a group of investors "The same components to make this stuff are used to make ice cream and brew beer."

"Baker Hughes last week launched a line of products called BJ SmartCare that lets well owners customize their fluids based on factors such as toxicity and flammability," Dezember writes. "It declined to specify what most of the ingredients are, but they include fatty acids, essential oils and guar gum, which is found in toothpaste and ketchup." Flotek Industries Inc. says it has completed successful trials of biodegradable fracking chemicals, and oil and gas producer Devon Energy Corp. has already begun using some of the new formulas in its wells.

"The industry as a whole is going that way," Chip Minty, a spokesman for Devon, which has substantial shale-gas operations in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, told Dezember. Halliburton noted CleanStim would add about 5 to 10 percent to its drilling costs, while Baker Hughes said its environmentally friendly formula would have a "minimal impact" on cost. "So far, Halliburton has tested CleanStim on 13 wells and has begun to offer it to customers," Dezember writes, noting an executive said "the cost of CleanStim will fall once it catches on and Halliburton can buy larger volumes of ingredients, such as maltodextrin, a sweetener and shower-gel component, and organic ester, which is found in liquid egg products and hairspray." (Read more) That sounds encouraging, but it should be noted that the effectiveness of chemicals might vary depending on the depth and nature of shale formations.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kansas OKs permit for long-debated coal plant

UPDATE, July 6: "The company has only a year left to begin construction of its controversial coal-fired plant in western Kansas, but a legal challenge to the plant’s air-quality permit is blocking progress," the Kansas City Star reports. "Sunflower’s solution is an unusual one: Ask for a rare type of deadline extension." UPDATE, July 22: The extension was granted.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment today announced approval of a permit for a coal-fired power plant that has stirred years of debate among coal, environmental and electricity interests, including rural electric cooperatives.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp., comprising six rural electrics in western Kansas (co-op map; click for larger version), plans to sell much of the plant's power to Colorado utilities serving the metropolitan area of the Front Range. "Although the final permit is expected to face challenges from environmental groups and will be reviewed by U.S. EPA, today's decision clears the biggest procedural hurdle that had been standing in front of the 895-megawatt power plant," reports Gabriel Nelson of Environment and Energy News. "The permit is a defeat for groups that have made the Sunflower proposal a symbol of a national campaign against new coal-fired power plants."

Sunflower originally proposed three units with 2,100 megawatts, but then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius opposed it on grounds of air pollution and global warming. When fellow Democrat Mark Parkinson succeeded her last year, he "struck a deal with Sunflower to allow the current proposal," Nelson notes. "EPA decided the change was significant enough that the whole permit needed to go back to the drawing board. It was the first time that a U.S. agency had delayed a new coal plant based on concerns that it could worsen the effects of climate change." Last month, Parkinson ousted the secretary of the department, a Sebelius appointee. The acting secretary said today that the plant's emissions would be about 40 percent less than Sunflower had proposed. (Read more, subscription required)

"Receiving an air-quality permit was a huge victory for Sunflower . . . because it comes just days before federal regulations take effect requiring more expensive technology to control greenhouse gases," Karen Dillon of the Kansas City Star reports.

Looking for your earmark? Here's the request list

Does the big, catch-all spending bill hanging fire in Congress have an earmark for your community or region? You can get an idea by downloading a database of the nearly 40,000 requested earmarks, totaling $130 billion, here. It's a zipped, 12 MB Excel spreadsheet.

"It is impossible to know ahead of time which earmarks will appear in the Continuing Resolution finally enacted," the Society of Environmental Journalists notes. The database was produced by Taxpayers for Common Sense,, and Taxpayers Against Earmarks. While most Republcians in the Senate recently joined those in the House in opposing earmarks, they have not applied that policy to earmarks they requested earlier this year.

Federal regulators unable to keep cattle dealer from defaults, bad checks of up to $130 million

Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder writes about the collapse of Eastern Livestock, a company based in New Albany, Ind. "The losses are still coming in, but already it appears that Eastern Livestock has done for rural America what Bernie Madoff did for Manhattan," writes Bishop.

At last count, Eastern may owe 740 ranchers in 30 states as much as $130 million for cattle sold but never paid for. The firm issued $81 million in bad checks Nov. 3-9, and trucking firms say they are owed hundreds of thousands. Superior Livestock, an online and satellite auction service, says Eastern owes it more than $19 million, and Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank says Eastern has defaulted on a $32 million loan and has overdrawn its account by $13 million, according to DTN’s Katie Micik. The bank says Eastern is "engaged in a massive check-kiting scheme."

Inadequate regulation of the livestock market may be to blame. The company was required to have a dollar-for-dollar bond, but only for up to the first $75,000 in sales. Any amount above that was 10 cents for each dollar in sales. The federal Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration asked Eastern to increase its bond to $1.15 million, but the company never complied, and GIPSA never took any action against it. GIPSA has recently proposed rules that would give it greater oversight of the livestock business — regulations that meatpackers and some farm groups say are too intrusive, according to Bishop. (Read more)

Cattle producers who have done business with Eastern Livestock and have not received payment should contact the GIPSA regional office at 515-323-2579 for information on available financial protections and for forms necessary for filing a bond claim on payments due from Eastern. Bond claims must be filed within 60 days from the date of the transaction on which the claim is based. Kentucky producers are asked to file a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General by calling 502-696-5300. Even if you have already filed documents with GIPSA, according to The Farmer's Pride. (Read more)

The Courier-Journal of Louisville has also reported on the collapse of Eastern Livestock. (Read more)

Los Angeles County may protect dark night skies

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is considering new regulations that would preserve the dark night skies of rural areas of the vast California county. "The new zoning rules would establish standards for outdoor lighting for those unincorporated neighborhoods," the Pasadena Star-News reports. The issue is not limited to Southern California; most of America's rural residents live in counties that border metropolitan areas. "Dark night skies are one of the many qualities that set rural areas apart from urban and suburban communities," says the proposal from supervisors Michael Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky. (MapQuest image; county line in light gray)

"Many jurisdictions across the nation have adopted zoning standards for outdoor lighting to preserve and enhance valuable dark night skies, to lessen the impact of development on native wildlife, and to reduce energy consumption," the proposal notes. Among the complaints from rural residents was a horse farm owner who installed lights that "impacted the entire valley," the Star-News reports. "Light travels," Tony Bell, spokesman for Antonovich, said. "It can be bothersome. This is aimed at improving the quality of life for anyone who appreciates sunsets and star-gazing." (Read more)

USDA, DOJ conclude agriculture anti-trust workshop series

The workshop series about competition in the agriculture industry has resulted in better communication between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice, say department leaders. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack "noted that the Agriculture and Justice departments have already established a new process to handle complaints for unfair and deceptive practices in the poultry industry, and that USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration last summer published a proposed rule designed to increase fairness in the marketing of livestock and poultry," Jerry Hagstrom of the Capital Press reports.

"This not is a hand-holding exercise designed to generate favorable publicity," Holder said in a news conference. "We have done concrete things. There is a promise that comes out of what we have done." The final workshop was completed Dec. 8 in Washington, D.C. At the hearing "Vilsack repeated his previous statements that he fears consolidation in all agricultural sectors has led to population loss in rural America and said the Obama administration is determined 'to ask questions and shed light on issues that frankly have not seen light in many years,'" Hagstrom writes. (Read more)

Rural Massachusetts communities tangle over consolidating school districts

School officials in a rural Massachusetts county have called a special meeting to respond to an editorial in The Boston Globe, which said they are too numerous and "serve at the pleasure of small town officials unwilling to sacrifice even a modicum of control over their schools, even if doing so would benefit their children." The editorial notes the New England School Development Council said placing all the schools in Franklin County in western Massachusetts under one district would save $2.8 million in administrative costs. The Globe contended, "No place in Massachusetts is in greater need of regionalization than the 26 communities of Franklin County — and nowhere is the upside of combining forces more evident."

Franklin County (Wikipedia map) is no longer a governmental entity but provides a regional identity for 26 communities with nine school superintendents, "30 school principals and 20 school committees spread across a county with only 9,750 students, according to the editorial," reports Mackenzie Issler of the Greenfield Recorder. The county's School Committee Caucus, which was formed to present a unified voice for the county's schools,  has not taken a position on regional school systems, but member Marcia Day told Issler, "It has historically been opposed to the concept of top-down decisions by the state education department about whether and how districts should collaborate or consolidate."

Lawmakers recently convened in Boston for the first meeting of a legislative commission tasked with "finding ways to bring about more collaboration and regionalization of small, rural school districts like those in Franklin County," Issler writes. Leverett School Committee Chairman Farshid Hajir, the only representative from Western Massachusetts on the commission, brought up the Globe editorial at the meeting, noting "the insensitive, derogatory and untrue characterization of its school districts and school committees." The chair of that commission warned that regionalization is still on the agenda for state legislators, and if "local schools don't move toward more collaboration and regionalization themselves, the state will likely step in," Issler writes.

Some locals argue that money won't be saved by school district consolidation and funds would be better saved by increased collaboration among the small schools. "But, with many fearing forced regionalization and the loss of local control, a caucus of school committee members was formed to look at these options and, seemingly, collaboration has been more widely accepted than regionalizing," Issler writes. "A study group led by local lawmakers wrapped up its work in 2009 with a report that outlined how regionalizing could save money by spending less on administrators." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dean Foods settles lawsuit with Vermont dairy farmers, faces another involving 14 states

Dean Foods has agreed to pay $30 million to settle a class-action, anti-trust lawsuit filed by a group of dairy farmers in Vermont. Karen Robinson-Jacobs reports for The Dallas Morning News that the farmers had accused Dean and three other dairy-industry defendants of price-fixing and conspiracy to control the milk market in the Northeast, writes Robinson-Jacobs. (Read more)

The Burlington Free Press reports that the case was also against the Dairy Farmers of America, who the farmers say forced dairy farmers to join the organization. Doug Lantagne, extension dean at the University of Vermont, said the state's dairy farmers have been forced to sell milk for $2 to $3 per hundredweight below the cost of production. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who convened a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009 to discuss competition and sustainability in the dairy industry, said "Vermont dairy farmers, like dairy farmers across the country, are struggling, and we cannot allow collusion among larger dairy conglomerates to continue at the expense of our locally owned and operated dairy farms." The settlement needs court approval. (Read more)

Dean Foods is facing a similar class action, this one filed in Tennessee by 7,500 dairy producers in 14 states. The suit alleges that the low prices dairies were paid for their milk since 2001 are the results of a combination of price-fixing, "flooding" the milk market, restricting milk producers’ access to bottling plants and other illegal activities. The suit further alleged that Dean entered into an agreement that it would purchase milk only through Dairy Farmers of America, preventing individual dairies from selling directly to Dean or through other marketing services, writes Erin L. McCoy for the Kentucky Standard, a weekly newspaper in Nelson County, where all dairy farmers are part of the suit. (Read more)

NRA campaign dough begets loose gun laws; will it keep open U.S. gun pipeline to Mexico?

The Washington Post has produced a multimedia, multi-part investigation, "The Hidden Life of Guns." The series began in October and continues today. The most recent installment, by Sari Horwitz and James V. Grimaldi, tracks the influence that the National Rifle Association has had on political elections and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "With annual revenue of about $250 million, the group has for four decades been the strongest force shaping the nation's gun laws. ... The gun lobby has consistently outmaneuvered and hemmed in ATF, using political muscle to intimidate lawmakers and erect barriers to tougher gun laws. ... The source of the NRA's power is its focus on one issue and its ability to get pro-gun candidates elected."

In the past two decades, the NRA has spent more than $100 million on lobbying and campaign support, while the ATF has been without a permanent director since 2006. The Obama administration nominated a gun-control advocate for the job, but the nomination has little hope of passing. The NRA "is clearly the most powerful lobby in the United States," said William Vizzard, a former ATF agent who is now a criminal-justice professor in California. "The NRA has shaped gun policy and shaped the ATF."

"Despite the worst recession in a generation, we have thrived," National Shooting Sports Foundation President Steven Sanetti said at the event's state-of-the-industry dinner. The NRA does not trust the Obama administration and gun control advocates are disappointed with Obama's lack of action. "President Obama's first-year record on gun violence prevention has been an abject failure," said the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Interactive maps showing where and how the NRA spent its money and video interviews with are online. One map shows how and where the spent $6.7 million on the most recent election. (Read more)

David S. Fallis reports on how gun dealers acquire licenses to sell guns after the ATF has closed them down. The dealers often re-open through through relatives, employees, or associates who are willing to get a license for the dealer or they just incorporate as a new business. Both methods are legal. "This is the way Congress wrote the law," said James Zammillo, who was with ATF for four decades and served as deputy assistant director of industry operations before retiring this year. "The spirit of the law is that unless the applicant is prohibited, you have to issue a license. There is no discretion." ATF has 600 inspectors to inspect 60,000 gun dealers, an average of once every eight years. the agency revokes about 110 licenses a year, but the retailer is allowed to stay in business while the revocation plays out, writes Fallis. (Read more)

Today's installment names the top 12 U.S. dealers of guns traced to Mexican crime in the past two years. Eight of the top 12 dealers are in Texas, three are in Arizona, and one is in California. Mexican drug dealers come into the U.S. to buy guns because the Mexican government restricts gun ownership. Grimaldi and Fallis report that high-powered assault weapons purchased in the U.S. are contributing to the savage violence in Mexico. Guns from the U.S. "have been feeding the violence and overwhelming firepower being unleashed by drug traffickers," said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador in Washington. "We need to defang drug trafficking organizations of these high-caliber and semiautomatic and automatic weapons, and we need to do it now." (Read more)
(Complete list of series)

Administration wants to begin N.Y. shale-gas drilling while awaiting results of impact study

The Obama administration supports a study of the effects of natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale in upstate New York but doesn't want to wait for the results of the investigation to begin drilling in the area. "Gen. Peter 'Duke' DeLuca of the Army Corps of Engineers outlined the position in a letter written to Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and released today," Mike Soraghan of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. "The letter offers the first indication of the administration's position on gas drilling in the Northeast since the day after the Nov. 2 midterm election when President Obama highlighted gas drilling as a potential area of common ground with Republicans."

The drilling would take place in the watershed that supplies drinking water to New York City and Philadelphia. "DeLuca, the Army Corps' North Atlantic division engineer, is the federal representative on the Delaware River Basin Commission, which is developing regulations for gas drilling in eastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York," Soraghan writes. Hinchey and local environmentalists want the commission to maintain a drilling moratorium until results of the study are available, a process that could take years.

"The administration's position is to continue fully supporting the need for a cumulative impact study," DeLuca wrote. "Simultaneously, all these agencies support the DRBC's decision to develop and release draft natural gas regulations." DRBC last week issued "its proposed regulations, which would allow drilling to resume once they are finalized," Soraghan writes. "The commission is planning to hold several hearings during a 90-day comment period. DRBC, which we previously reported on here, is controlled by governors of Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and New Jersey along with DeLuca. (Read more)

Rural jobs up, jobless rate not down so much

Two-thirds of rural counties saw an increase in jobs between October 2009 and October 2010, but unemployment rate dropped just one tenth of a percent from September 2010 in rural, urban and exurban counties. The national rural unemployment rate stood at 8.8 percent in October, slightly less than the national rate of 9 percent, Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo report for the Daily Yonder. "Generally, the rural communities that were hit the hardest by the recession initially show the greatest decline in unemployment rates over the last year," Bishop and Gallardo write, pointing to the Carolinas, Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan as examples.

"The trend reverses as you head west of the Mississippi, where rates are often higher than a year ago," Bishop and Gallardo write, pointing to Colorado, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, California, western Montana and parts of Oregon. Farming counties have seen unemployment rates remain remarkably low at 5.1 percent, Dante Chinni of PBS recently reported. Bishop and Gallardo caution that lower unemployment rates don't necessarily mean more jobs, as the decrease can also reflect a fewer number of people looking for work. (Read more) (Yonder map)

New data on small, rural counties show they continued to lose people over the last decade

The majority of the country's most rural counties lost even more population over the last decade, says new data from the Census Bureau. Some of roughly 1,400 counties with fewer than 20,000 people, "particularly those in the Mountain West — saw population gains that may be the result of retirees striking out for areas that are both scenic and affordable," Dough Smith and Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times report. The data, which also showed a growing Latino presence in those counties, offer the first detailed portrait of heartland America in a decade, Smith and Fausset write.

"Such data had been hard to come by previously," the reporters write. "Concentrated from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountain region, the counties constitute half of the United States by area, but were too sparsely populated to provide meaningful statistics as the Census Bureau rolled out a new yearly national survey in the mid-2000s." The new data, from the American Community Survey, compensates for low number by averaging results over five years. "That makes some of the data difficult to interpret, particularly income figures, because the five-year period spans the pre-recession boom, the recession and the beginning of the recovery," Smith and Fausset write.

Population drops in rural America have been the trend for much of the 20th century, said Ken Johnson, a demographer with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Population growth in rural America was the exception over the last decade, but Spencer County, Kentucky, which is just 45 minutes from downtown Louisville and home to a Corps of Engineers lake impounded 25 years ago, led the way with a 42 percent population growth. The Great Plains appear to be particularly hard hit by the rural population drop as fewer young people are sticking around to have children. "The only thing that might break them [Midwest rural counties] out of it," Johnson told the reporters, "is an influx of young Hispanics." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A 60,000-circulation newspaper without its own copy desk? It's happening in Winston-Salem

Financially squeezed newspaper chains are consolidating their operations, especially in smaller towns. Sometimes it's the press and the pressroom employees, and/or the copy desk, with one or both functions being transferred to larger papers. Folks at the Winston-Salem Journal, circulation 60,000 in a city of 215,000, never thought they would lose their copy desk. But they are, as Media General Inc. moves its copyediting to its big papers in Richmond and Tampa.

More than one of the 18 people on the desk, interviewed for a YouTube video, called the move "inconceivable." One voiced the concern that has arisen in many smaller towns, that copy editors in distant places won't catch mistakes and even make correct copy erroneous. "If you can't know that Robinhood Road is one word, and you keep putting it in the newspaper as two words, that's your credibility," Karen Parker said, citing a significant local road. "Why should anybody believe that you're right about anything else? And a newspaper runs on its credibility. Its success is its credbility, not its bottom line."

Copy editor Tom Radulovic disputed Media General's assertion that the move would help it improve local newsgathering. "We are a source of local knowledge," he said. "I don't think they really appreciate what it means to have 15 additional people in the community as a set of ears." Here's the video:

Families of the miners killed at Upper Big Branch 'continue to live in grief'

The brother of a miner killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion is speaking out about his family's grief so that the victims are not forgotten. "Eight months after the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the families of the 29 coal miners who lost their lives continue to live in grief, yet few have described their pain publicly," Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports. Gene Jones, whose twin brother Dean died in the explosion, says keeping the tragedy in the public eye is important. (Photo by F. Brian Ferguson for NPR. Gene Jones holds a mid-1960's photo of himself, right in photo, and his brother, Dean Jones.)

"We're just going to be forgotten," Jones told Berkes, while mine disasters are "going to continue and continue and continue to go on. We need it fixed." He pointed out that in the national outpouring of support following the disaster, "They mourn for you, and it's unbelievable how this nation came together. But if [we] don't speak out and continue to speak out, it's just forgotten." Gene's mourning turns from grief to anger when he considers Dean's complaints he made about safety at Upper Big Branch. "Alice Peters, Dean's mother-in-law, testified in a congressional hearing in Beckley in May that Dean had been threatened with dismissal seven times because he resisted putting his crew in danger," Berkes writes.

Because Dean's insurance provided for his 14-year-old son with cystic fibrosis, "Dean needed his job to make sure his son could get the medical care he needed," Peters testified. Gene noted that in the eight months since the explosion that killed 29 miners, Congress has rejected mine safety reform, the investigations of the explosion drag on, and Massey Energy retiring CEO Don Blankenship will receive at least $12 million, four times the amount of the settlement that Massey offered his family.

"It's so sad to hear these crazy things," he told Berkes. The miners "were there every day risking their lives for that black coal, for us, surviving in this country. And because of that, I lost my brother." (Read more)

Committee to study efficacy of electronic health records on patient safety

The Obama administration pledged $19 billion of stimulus package funding to convert the nation's hospitals to electronic health records, but the conversion has been slow. "Only about one in four doctors, mostly in large group practices, is using the electronic record system," Milt Freudenheim of The New York Times reports. "A vast majority of physicians in small offices, the doctors who serve most Americans, still track patients’ illnesses and other problems with pen and paper." A recent report on North Carolina hospitals in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals deadly medical errors are still all too common.

The Food and Drug Administration notes "parts of a patient’s electronic medical records have disappeared or been saved in the wrong patient’s file," Freudenheim writes. "Incorrect entries have sometimes been posted for drug allergies and blood pressure readings, the agency said." To tackle those concerns, the Institute of Medicine created the Committee on Patient Safety and Health Information Technology to run a yearlong study and issue recommendations. "We said we value innovation, but we don’t value it more than safety," said Kenneth W. Goodman, a University of Miami bioethicist who headed an association advisory group on patient safety.

"In an indication of interest from Congress, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote to the health information industry and to Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, to ask what was being done to make sure the systems were being reviewed and monitored for patient safety concerns and what role the FDA. played in regulating health information technology," Freudenheim writes. Dr. David Blumenthal, the Obama administration’s national coordinator for health information technology, explained, "All options for assuring safety are on the table." (Read more)

N.Y. governor vetoes fracking moratorium in favor of his own plan

In November we reported that the New York Assembly had approved a six-month moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. On Saturday, Gov. David A. Patterson vetoed that legislation in favor of an executive order that more narrowly defines the types of drilling to be restricted. Patterson's executive order includes a fracking moratorium until July 1, 2011, a period longer than the one specified by the bill, Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times reports. "This legislation, which was well intentioned, would have a serious impact on our state if signed into law," Paterson said in a prepared statement. "Enacting this legislation would put people out of work – work that is permitted by the Department of Environmental Conservation and causes no demonstrated environmental harm, in order to effectuate a moratorium that is principally symbolic."

Fracking, a controversial drilling technique, "uses the high-pressure injection of water, sand and a variety of chemicals to crack and prop open shale seams and more economically release gas deposits," Zeller writes. "Industry groups have argued that the process is safe, but opponents fear that those chemicals, or displaced natural gas, could be leading to the contamination of drinking water in places where fracking is already well under way, including large portions of Pennsylvania." The vetoed legislation would have implemented a fracking moratorium until May 15, 2011.

"Industry representatives complained that such a sweeping moratorium would outlaw virtually all drilling in New York, including its portion of the Marcellus shale, a vast and deep deposit of natural gas stretching under several states," Zeller writes. Patterson's order distinguishes between vertical wells and "horizontal drilling" techniques. "The governor’s order restricts permits for 'high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing,'" Zeller writes.

The announcement was met with support from the natural gas industry. "We are very pleased that the governor saw the bill for what it was – a flawed piece of legislation replete with unintended and dire consequences for the people and businesses in our industry, " said Brad Gill, the executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, in a statement. Craig Michaels, the watershed program director for the environmental group Riverkeeper, worried the order provides a potential loophole for companies. (Read more)

Rural students revive Oregon university

Three years ago Eastern Oregon University was on the brink of collapse. This fall enrollment hit a record 4,137 students. School administrators say the key to the turnaround  focusing on recruiting rural students, Bill Graves of The Oregonian reports. "We are a rural university," President Bob Davies, who arrived on campus in July of 2009, told Graves. "We serve a group that is unique to us." Eastern Oregon draws more than half its campus from east of the Cascades, an area that "is bigger than Florida and nearly the size of all of Washington, yet it contains only 529,100, or 14 percent, of Oregon's people," Graves writes.

Three years ago, "Eastern's reserves were drained, its enrollment had dropped, its relations with the community had soured, faculty and staff morale was in the tank, the president had just resigned, and some members of the State Board of Higher Education were asking whether they should just close the university," Graves writes. Today, after focusing on helping rural students succeed at Eastern by making the university more accessible, affordable and personally engaging, foundation leaders are launching a campaign to triple the school's endowment, Graves reports. "It is about connections," Davies said. "When we have that strong connection, we thrive." (EOU Photo of first year students)

"To stay affordable, Eastern continues to charge the lowest tuition and fees -- $6,639 a year for a full-time undergraduate student -- in the state system, and it charges no more for out-of-state students," Graves writes. "Its foundation has launched the first phase of a campaign to raise about $12 million, which would triple its $6 million endowment, primarily to provide students more financial aid." Eastern Oregon has also had success with off-campus learning. "Only about half of Eastern's students attend college on campus," Graves writes. "Another 2,200 mostly rural students take classes and earn degrees online through 16 centers scattered across Oregon." (Read more)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Feds plan anew to take gray wolf off endangered species list in Western Great Lakes states

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to make another attempt to remove the gray wolf from the endangered-species list in Wisconsin and Michigan and from the threatened list in Minnesota, at the request of the three states and sportsmen's groups, Bob Meyer reports for Brownfield Network. "The wolf was removed from the federal lists in 2007 and management was turned over to the individual states," Meyer notes. "They were placed back on the list in 2008 as part of a lawsuit settlement." (USFWS photo)

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Matt Frank said his state has more than 700 wolves, “nearly twice the level prescribed by the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan,” and “Problems with wolves killing valuable livestock and hunting dogs have grown to intolerable levels.” For the service's Web page on the gray wolf in the region, go here.

Online classroom could replace 'snow days'

In Kentucky and Ohio, the states' education departments are working on creating an online school program for use during snow days, reports Cindy Kranz for the Cincinnati Enquirer. In Ohio, the state has already launched a pilot project to provide online assignments to snowbound students as a way to satisfy the requirements of a school day. In Kentucky, the education department is planning its own pilot program, as early as next year, asking the districts in eastern and central Kentucky that often miss up to three weeks of school due to inclement weather, to participate.
For rural students, treacherous or impassable roads often close schools for extended periods of time. Online classwork could help reduce the number of snow days, but not before a number of hurdles have been cleared, including lack of home Internet access for many children. Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said superintendents with high numbers of snow days would prefer that students not have the big gap in learning that snow days create. But they have to be able to reach all of the kids. "It's not impossible, but we don't have in many of those counties the Web-based infrastructure to pull it off right now," said Hughes.
Teachers must have five days of lesson plans prepared ahead of time that are appropriate to the course of study. "We want these lessons to be directly related to what is being emphasized instructionally at the time of the calamity day and aligning these in the short time frame we have when the weather is bad is problematic,'' said Greg Power, director of curriculum and instruction for the Little Miami School District in Ohio. (Read more)

Alaska parents may pay big fines for truant kids

Courts in Western Alaska are now fining parents if their children are truant. Kyle Hopkins writes for the Anchorage Daily News that parents can be fined hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars if their kid misses too many days of class, according to court records and rural school district officials in Alaska. The laws regarding truancy are not new, but whether parents get a ticket depends partly on where they live, reports Hopkins. The Anchorage school system has not pursued a truancy violation in the past 10 years. In some rural districts are increasingly turning to the mandatory-attendance laws in hopes of boosting test scores and slashing dropout rates, writes Hopkins.

Sgt. Duane Stone, a supervisor for the trooper post in Kotzebue, said,"[Fines are] not to get people into court. It's to get kids in school." A series of warnings and meetings with parents generally come first, and courts allow the families to reduce or avoid the fees simply by improving attendance. In northwest Alaska, one attendance counselor said she's found that working with the regional nonprofit agency to withhold public assistance payments to families is the single best way to improve attendance. (Read more)

Mississippi, North Dakota and Hawaii among states that benefit most from earmarks

Republican victories in November could mean the end of budget earmarks. Limiting pork will affect some states more than others, and rural states may be among the bigger losers. "Hawaii and North Dakota had more earmarks per capita than any other state in 2010, including Alaska and West Virginia, according to separate rankings from Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste, two watchdog organizations," Pam Prah of Stateline reports. (Stateline illustration:

The biggest loser if earmarks are limited may be Mississippi, which "pulls in 11 times as much in earmarked funds as it sends back to Washington in taxes, according to an analysis from Brandon Arnold, director of government relations at the Cato Institute, a libertarian group," Prah writes. The University of Southern Mississippi recently received a half million dollars worth of earmarks for its cannabis eradication program, which is designed to help law enforcement officials detect indoor marijuana growing operations. That money was "tucked away in the federal Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill for fiscal year 2010," Prah writes.

"These states will still get federal funds" if an earmark ban goes through, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, "but no doubt about it, they will get dinged." Earmark supporters say a ban would "would rob lawmakers of their authority to set the spending and taxing policies of the nation, relinquishing it to the executive branch," Prah writes. Both sides of the argument agree a ban on earmarks is symbolic; they account for only about 1 percent of federal spending.

"Critics questioned the GOP's resolve to curb earmarks after House Republicans selected U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky to head the House Appropriations Committee in the next Congress," Prah writes. "Some in Congress call Rogers, who is credited with winning some 135 earmarks for his district, at a cost of $246 million over the past two year the 'Prince of Pork.'" Rogers, however, has spoken out in favor of the earmark ban. he represents the nation's most rural district, covering most of Appalachian Kentucky. (Read more)