Saturday, January 30, 2010

Kentucky looking for places to put nuclear plants

A major coal state that is also one of the 11 that effectively ban new nuclear generating plants (those in orange on the map) may drop the ban and is looking for places to put N-plants, with the favored sites in rural areas.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's energy plan would put nuclear power "roughly on par with coal as an electricity source by 2025," writes Jim Bruggers of The Courier-Journal. "Coal supplies more than 90 percent of the state's electricity," and Kentucky ranks third among the states in coal production. A bill to drop the ban has passed the state Senate but faces uncertain prospects in the House.

A consulting firm "looked at 42 potential sites for a variety of forms of power generation, and identified at least three — all in Western Kentucky — that are worth more consideration for a nuclear power plant," Bruggers writes. Those scored at least 79 percent on a suitability scale; the next four were also in Western Kentucky, followed by two reclaimed strip-mine sites in Eastern Kentucky, each with a 68 percent rating. (C-J map)

The study's Alternative Energy Facilities Site Bank also ranked sites for wind, solar, biomass and coal conversion to gas or liquid fuel. "It concluded wind and solar power at the locations would have little chance of being economically worthwhile with current technology," Bruggers reports.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Government support for newspapers, magazines has dropped by more than half in last 40 years

Amid debate about possible government subsidies to keep newspapers afloat, comes a study noting that governments have long supported newspapers, but less so in recent years. In the last four decades, the postal discount for papers has dropped from 75 percent to 11 percent, and that's just the biggest example, according to Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

The researchers found that "government support for newspapers and magazines has fallen from more than $4 billion in 1970, to less than $2 billion," Richard Pérez-Peña of The New York Times writes on the paper's Media Decoder blog. The decline in the postal discount amounts to a difference of about $1.7 billion in today’s dollars, the researchers concluded. And they say another $1 billion will eventually go by the boards when state legislatures allow local governments to post legal notices on their own Web sites and stop paying newspapers for advertising space. “It’s almost inevitable that this will happen,” Westphal said. The Times paraphrases him as saying that legal ads "are especially important to the smallest papers."

Westphal, executive in residence at the school and former Washington editor for McClatchy Newspapers, "noted that the study did not even take into account the notices that the government requires private entities to buy in newspapers and magazines, like bank foreclosure notices and drug-company disclaimers about their new products. The third major category of government support takes the form of special tax treatment for publications, like reduced sales tax rates on paper and ink. The study’s authors cited state and federal tax breaks worth at least $900 million." (Read more)

Missouri, seeing a big jump in meth labs, might require prescription for main feedstock

Missouri lawmakers spent four hours Wednesday hearing arguments for and against a law requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, the decongestant that is the main feedstock for making methamphetamine. Missouri leads the nation in meth-lab busts, and once its 2009 total is tallied next month, it is expected to pass the 2008 total of 1,470 labs by more than 300, Christine Byers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

The state House Crime Prevention Committee heard from lobbying interests on both sides, including the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents over-the-counter drug manufacturers. It argued that a prescription law would be unfair to the uninsured, "who might have to pay out of pocket to see a doctor when they needed a decongestant," Byers writes. The CHPA has offered to pay nearly $1 million for a computer database, similar to one in Kentucky, that would track when buyers reach the legal limit of about three boxes of pseudoephedrine in a 30-day period. (Read more)

Four small towns and one county in Missouri already require a prescription for cold medications containing pseudoephedrine. Those rural communities and others are some of the most vocal advocates of a state prescription law, Maria Altman of St. Louis Public Radio reports.

Natural-gas-and-helium plant in Wyoming would be world's largest carbon sequestration facility

Federal officials have released their draft environmental study for what could be the largest carbon-sequestration facility in the world. Denver-based Cimarex Energy Co. is "proposing to construct the large-scale carbon sequestration project as part of its Rand Butte Project along the Wyoming Range in southwest Wyoming," Jeff Gearino of the Casper Star-Tribune reports. Officials say the facility could eventually supply 30 percent of the world's helium production.

The Bureau of Land Management's environmental study, which examines the federal components of the project, including drilling of gas wells and construction of pipelines, electric transmission lines and monitoring stations, is available for public review. While carbon-sequestration has often been associated with coal, the Wyoming plant would be used in a natural gas and helium project in the Madison geologic formation.

Development of the reservoir has been hampered "by the presence of high concentrations of CO2 gas and toxic hydrogen sulfide," Gearino writes. "The project aims to test new technologies for capturing and then re-injecting all the byproduct gases — primarily CO2 and H2S — back into their source-producing formation." Wyoming was the first state to pass comprehensive carbon sequestration legislation. (Read more)

Latest climate talk: a bill without cap-and-trade

Wednesday we reported the dimming chances of a 2010 climate bill may hinge on its ability to create jobs. Now after President Obama's call for climate legislation in the State of the Union address, lawmakers are discussing proposals that would reduce carbon emissions, but not include a cap-and-trade system for emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases, Richard Cowan and Timothy Gradner of Reuters report. "It's open to how you price carbon," Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry told the reporters. "People need to relax and look at all the ways you might price carbon. We're not pinned down to one approach."

Kerry is working with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) to include "incentives for nuclear, offshore oil drilling and clean technology jobs," the reporters write. Kerry told them he wants to outline a comprehensive bill that could be considered this spring but doesn't want to be tied down to a firm deadline. Graham added that Obama's opening the door for nuclear power and offshore oil drilling in his speech helped efforts for a "hybrid system" for reducing U. S. carbon emissions. (Read more)

Federal nutrition program participation rates high in rural areas, but many eligibles still not reached

One-third of federal expenditures go to four nutrition programs designed to help feed poor children, but as Congress prepares to renew the programs' funding rural demographics may factor in their decision. "The largest numbers of low-income families eligible for the programs live in urban areas; however, the proportion of families who are income-eligible is higher in rural areas," says a new report from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.
An estimated 29 percent of rural families with children participate in one of the four programs, the National School Lunch Program; the School Breakfast Program; the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program; and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. An estimated 20 percent of rural families with children participate in two or more of the programs, Carsey reports. "When suburban and central city rates are combined into a metro area average, participation in the School Breakfast Program and WIC is almost 50 percent higher in rural than in metro areas," the report says.

Even with the high participation rates in rural America, a large portion of the eligible population doesn't participate. Of of the estimated 2.8 million income-eligible rural households with children, about 43 percent do not participate in any of the four child nutrition programs, Carsey reports. "Nonparticipation ranges from approximately 1.5 million for the National School Lunch Program (55 percent of those eligible) to 2.6 million (92 percent) for the Child and Adult Care Food Program," Carsey writes. The report suggests poor transportation, schools not meeting eligibility requirements and high operating costs for small rural schools are factors in the low participation rates. (Read more)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Only Kentucky county with a lower jobless rate than a year ago is the site of a big new coal mine

Unemployment in 119 of the 120 counties in Kentucky was higher in December than it was in December 2008, says a news release from the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. The only county where unemployment didn't rise was Union County, the site of a new Alliance Coal mine. The release didn't note that, simply saying, "Union County, the only county rate to decrease compared to last year, fell from 10.5 percent in December 2008 to 10.1 percent in December 2009. This is the first time since January 2009 that all 120 counties' rates have not risen over the same month the previous year." (Read more)

In September, the River View Coal underground mine near Waverly officially began operations, Carrie Dillard of the Union County Advocate reported. The mine is expected to bring 600 new jobs by July. Gov. Steve Beshear, other state officials and University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari (right, with a local official) were among those attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Alliance President Joe Craft is a major supporter of the UK basketball program. (Advocate photo by Dillard) (Read more)

UPDATE, Jan. 30: The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that the decline "came primarily because some of the people in the county got discouraged and stopped looking for work. Unemployment statistics don't count people who have not looked for employment in the last four weeks. Office of Employment and Training spokeswoman Kim Saylor Brannock said the county had about 300 fewer people looking for work, skewing its rate." (Read more)

Homeland Security tells cops to ditch radio codes

In response to communications breakdowns during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is asking law enforcement agencies to stop using number codes such as "10-4" for common messages and replace them with "plain talk." What are your police agencies doing? It could be a story.

The agency "cites the January 1982 crash of an Air Florida plane into the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River near downtown Washington as one of the first major multijurisdictional events where communications were a problem," Gary Taylor of the Orlando Sentinel reports.

One example of confusing codes: In Seminole County, Fla., a Code 35 signals a shooting, while in Lake County it means a car break-in and in neighboring Orange County it means only a request for public assistance. Homeland Security first started pressing the new policy three years ago, Taylor reports, but change has been slow in Florida where only the Volusia County Sheriff's office has adopted the policy.

Chattanooga police Assistant Chief Mike Williams, whose department was among the first in the country to adopt the plan, told Taylor, "Concerns about prisoners or suspects hearing information are solved by having a dispatcher ask whether the radio is secure before transmitting information, or by use of in-car computers." He adds most codes aren't secret anyway, and many departments even post them on their Web sites. (Read more)

High school paper in rural Nevada publishing story about teacher despite teachers' union grievance

The Churchill County School District in Nevada will not censor the publication of a student newspaper story about an investigation of one teacher at the local high school despite a grievance from the local teachers' union. The story, by Churchill County High School student Lauren MacLean in the school newspaper The Flash, examines "parent advocates demanding the district investigate Honor Choir audition practices after parents discovered evidence that CCHS music teacher Kathy Archey failed to submit an unknown number of student audition" to the Nevada Music Educators Association Honor/All State Choir program, Stephanie Carroll of the Lahontan Valley News reports.

"I don't control speech, and I don't control press," Superintendent Carolyn Ross told Carroll. "I'm not stopping it." NMEA regional head Susan Benefield told the parents that Archey had the right to remove tapes from submission, but was required to inform the students involved. Ross told Carroll the district had taken "appropriate disciplinary actions by contract, but she could not comment on specific details." MacLean explained her motives for the report: "I knew what could come from this. I wrote the article in a way that it wasn't attacking Kathy Archey ... It was really hard. There was so much on the line, people's jobs, people's reputations." (Read more)

The Churchill County Education Association asked that the story not be printed because it could "harm the teacher's employment and could deprive her 'of any professional advantage without just cause', Kristi Jourdan of the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. High schools can censor student publications as long as they tie the justification to a "legitimate educational purpose," Jourdan reports. (Read more)

Obama administration follows through on promise of open government, but some data of little value

In December President Obama issued an order requiring each government agency to publish at least three high-value data sets online. Now 40 agencies have followed through on the directive by publishing hundreds of new datasets via the open-government clearinghouse, the Society of Environmental Journalists reports. However, SEJ reports that the definition of "high value" is "rather nebulous."

"High-value information is information that can be used to increase agency accountability and responsiveness; improve public knowledge of the agency and its operations; further the core mission of the agency; create economic opportunity; or respond to need and demand as identified through public consultation," SEJ explains. But SEJ member Robert Weinhold characterized the recent data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as "pretty low value — and most, if not all, were already available." The "WatchDog TipSheet" story includes a breakdown of each database released on Jan. 20. (Read more)

EPA moves to require public disclosure of 'inert' pesticide ingredients

A large portion of the ingredients in most pesticides are categorized as "inert," and manufacturers aren't required to make them public. That exemption may be gone soon, as the Environmental Protection Agency announced on Dec. 22 it was proposing a rule requiring public disclosure of all pesticide ingredients, Marla Cone of Environmental Health News reports. An inert ingredient is any that does not kill or control a pest, but it may still be toxic. Environmental groups first petitioned EPA for full disclosure 11 years ago.

Current law requires companies disclose all ingredients to EPA, but now the agency wants to make that disclosure public. "We believe these products already have been regulated to protect public health," Jay Vroom, chief executive officer of CropLife America, which represents pesticide manufacturers, told Cone. "What is confusing is why the agency has been out talking about these products as hazardous inert ingredients. To me, that’s an oxymoron." EPA has said it will seek "a significant amount of input" from stakeholders, the pesticide industry, environmentalists and other experts, as they craft the new rule "because of the magnitude of the change and the difficult issues facing the agency." (Read more) You can also read EPA's background information about the rule.

Post calls mountaintop mining the most bitter environmental fight in U.S.; EPA on the hot seat

David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post has a good situation piece today on the increasingly contentious issue of mountaintop coal mining in Central Appalachia. His focus is the new major player, the Environmental Protection Agency, which he reports has "signed off on only 48" of the 175 permit applications in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. He sums up the issue in a way we haven't seen before: "EPA officials ... say they're just following the law. That, they say, means keeping poisonous things from the inside of a mountain out of streams on the surface."

But those on both sides of the issue say EPA has "appeared contradictory and mysterious, signing off on some mines and blocking others. Environmentalists are unhappy because they fear federal officials are losing their nerve to take on the powerful coal industry. The coal industry is unhappy because it thinks the administration is on the brink of giving in to the green crowd. To each side, it looks like the EPA hasn't made up its mind. Which would make now the time to yell as loudly as possible."

Fahrenthold recounts recent protests and calls for calm, and adds important national perspective: "The EPA finds itself in the middle of the most bitter in-your-face environmental fight in America today, facing an early test of its resolve and political skills. The agency appears certain to bear much of the weight of carrying out Obama's historic environmental agenda." There's much more in the 1,372-word story, including a telling quote from Peter Silva, assistant EPA administrator for water, repsonding to calls for "clarity" from EPA: "The notion of ‘clarity’ invoked by some West Virginia officials and industry representatives has too often meant letting coal companies do as they please, with little or no consideration for the harmful impacts on Americans living in coal country."

"That’s an unusually straight-forward response from a federal agency, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, writes in this post on his Coal Tattoo blog. Ward still leads the reporting on the issue. Prompted by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's remark to Rolling Stone magazine that redefining "fill material" mainly because of toxins released by Alaskan hard-rock mining could also "curtail" mountaintop mining, Ward got from EPA a statement saying the agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues fill permits (subject to EPA veto, threatened but never used) are working not only on the definition but on its interpreptation and implementation. Ward calls that"potentially huge news" but cautions, "We’re a long way from knowing if this is a big deal." (Read more)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rural agenda in State of the Union: Farm exports, education; what about a spending freeze?

President Obama made a very early reference to rural America in tonight's State of the Union address, saying "Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard" in the recession. That was a nice tee-up, but the ball never reached the green. Rural references afterward were scant. (Associated Press photo: Obama arrives in House chamber)

Obama's main proposal with a rural face was declaration of a new goal of doubling U.S. exports over the next five years, which he said would "support two million jobs." To achieve the goal, he said he is "launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security."

However, some rural interests are probably talking more about Obama's call for a three-year freeze in discretionary spending. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) told Chuck Haga of the Grand Forks Herald that would not include agriculture commodity programs because they are not discretionary but "mandatory spending, driven by a formula, not by appropriation," but he said a freeze would probably affect conservation programs and, Haga writes, "possibly nutrition, rural development and other areas." (Read more)

Obama's other specific rural reference came when he called for education "reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner cities." For the prepared text, which Obama occasionally tempered, click here. UPDATE, Jan. 28: For a analysis of the speech and the Republican response, click here.

Minn. researcher finds signs of a rural 'brain gain'

For years the out migration of young people from rural America has been described as the "brain drain." Now a Minnesota researcher has found evidence there may be an equal "brain gain," mainly among middle-aged people in the state. Ben Winchester, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota, found evidence of a population loss among the 20-34 age group, as expected, but found growth in the 10-19 and 35-49 groups. Nearly every county in Minnesota experienced a growth in the 30-44 age cohort between 1990 and 2000, Winchester reports.

To reach his findings Winchester compared the population of an age cohort with the cohort those members would be in 10 years later. He found school enrollment rose among the 10-14 age cohort, suggesting adults coming to the region brought children with them.

"Given this refreshed view of changing demographics, rural America needs to rethink its
description of gains and losses," Winchester writes. "If rural America is losing high-school educated youth (the brain drain) and replacing them with those that at least have a bachelors, isn’t this a Brain Gain?" Winchester offers no educational data about the added population but cites a Nebraska study reflecting a similar trend in that state where 40 percent of newcomers had at least a bachelors and 48 percent had a household income of greater than $50,000. (Read more)

Mike Knuston of has additional breakdown of the report.

Creating jobs may be key to slim chances of passing a climate-change bill in 2010

While President Obama is expected to promote alternative energy as a way to tackle global warming and job loss in tonight's State of the Union address, prospects for a 2010 climate bill are looking slimmer. Many politicians in Congress don't want to vote for a bill that would raise energy prices on the heels of a recession, especially with November elections just on the horizon, Reuters reports, echoing similar reports in recent days.

A new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reveals only 28 percent of those surveyed considered global warming a top priority this year, down from 38 percent in 2009. Forty-nine percent surveyed said dealing with domestic energy problems was a top priority, down from 60 percent last year. With the recent Republican Senate victory in Massachusetts, the Senate Democrats lost the ability to unilaterally pass a climate bill, and could choose to take up studying election results, Reuters notes.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is working with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on a compromise bill that could pass the Senate this year. If such a bill isn't reached, Democrats could shelve cap-and-trade in favor of a bill only requiring more use of alternative energy sources, Reuters reports. (Read more)

Democrats' chances of passing a broad climate bill this year may hinge on their ability to convince moderates in both parties that it could create jobs, Darren Goode and Amy Harder of National Journal report. "The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold another in a series of hearings this week to try to further that argument," the reporters write. "Thursday's hearing stars Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and focuses on jobs that could be created through expanding the use of solar energy." (Read more)

Bee colony collapse reports down, but still high enough to remain worrisome

The number of beekeepers reporting colony collapse symptoms decreased last winter, but colony death rates still remain high enough for worry. "A survey of beekeepers for the January issue of the Journal of Apicultural Research found that the percentage of operations reporting having lost colonies but without dead bees in the hives -- a symptom of colony collapse disorder, or CCD -- decreased to 26 percent last winter, compared to 38 percent the previous season and 36 percent the season before that," The Associated Press reports. (Photo: A bee pollinates an almond tree, performing one of the species' vital functions)

The percentage of total dead colonies that displayed CCD was 36 percent last winter, down from 60 percent the previous winter. Reports of the disorder date back to 2004, AP reports, but scientists are still looking for a cause. ''The story is really complicated. We thought we'd have a simple explanation,'' Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Pennsylvania's acting state apiarist, told AP. ''CCD drew our attention, but there are lot of things'' affecting the bees.

Even with the apparent decline in CCD reports, an estimated 29 percent of all U.S. colonies died last winter, about 11 percentage points higher than what beekeepers consider normal losses, AP writes. ''Losses are shifting. There are fewer operations with CCD, though they still lost a lot of colonies,'' vanEngelsdorp, the lead author on the study, told AP. ''But other factors are killing bees.'' He points to starvation, poor-quality queen bees and weather as leading factors. (Read more)

Coal-state lawmakers form House Coal Caucus

Six U.S. representatives from coal states have joined to form a bipartisan Coal Caucus. Republicans Shelly Moore Capito (W.Va.), Denny Rehberg (Mont.), and John Shimkus (Ill.), are joined by Democrats Jason Altmire (Pa.), Tim Holden (Pa.), and John Salazar (Colo.), in the group, says a news release from Capito's office. Salazar is the brother of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department regulates surface coal mining. The six members are inviting other members of Congress to join them.

"Coal is a critical component to our nation's energy future," Capito said in the release. "Whether it's on a cap-and-trade bill or on clean coal technology, this caucus will give coal-states a forum to highlight their priorities and present a unified voice. I'm proud to join my colleagues in forming this caucus and I look forward to our work together." Altmire added, "As a Congress, it is vitally important that we continue to support the development of clean coal technologies. I am proud to help launch this caucus, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to help enact policies that will maximize America's coal resources." (Read more)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Feb. 2 Farm Foundation Forum in D.C. on how to feed a world population doubling in 30 years

Much attention has been given to building awareness of the challenges facing agriculture as it works to provide food, feed, fuel and fiber to a global population that is expected to double in the next 30 years. The most recent was a paper by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, "Agricultural Productivity Strategies for the Future: Addressing U.S. and Global Challenges."

How to begin addressing those challenges will be the focus of the Feb. 2 Farm Foundation Forum. Presenters, yet to be named, will make brief comments, after which the floor will be opened for discussion. The frum will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. at the National Press Club, 529 14th Street NW, Washington D.C. Coffee will be available at 8:30 a.m. If you plan to attend, please RSVP by noon Friday, Jan. 29. There is no charge to participate.

Switchgrass converted to pellets for coal plants

A University of Kentucky College of Agriculture research project recently pelletized switchgrass for the first time as part of their attempt to create biofuel from the crop. Previously, ground switchgrass was mixed with coal to produce energy, but officials with East Kentucky Power Cooperative, a partner in the study, suggested UK try a pelleted form of the grass to better integrate the crop into their coal-fired systems, Katie Pratt of UK Ag News reports.

"Putting it in this form allows them to use current operational procedures to incorporate this biomass into their system without any significant changes or major financial output," Tom Keene, UK hay marketing specialist, told Pratt. Jeff Lowe, president of Midwestern Biofuels, which is pelletizing the switchgrass, explained, "Currently, we've tested up to an 8-percent blend with coal, and it's gone to another utility with no problems. It's handled well. It went through their mills and crushed down and went right to the furnace to make power."

Last year was the third-year of the four-year research project which has UK working with northeastern Kentucky farmers and their extension agents to learn more about future prospects for the crop. A dry 2007 and 2008, followed by an unusually wet 2009, have helped the researchers learn more about the crop's ability to stand up to weather variations, Pratt reports. "If we have a drought, that's not the end of the world," Keene said. "We still get production in a dry year so that's very good to know." (Read more)

Horse crisis update: Prices down at select sale

The latest example of trouble in the horse industry may have come at this year's National Western Stock Show in Colorado, where well-pedigreed horses failed to fetch decent prices at the Mile High Select Sale. "The bad economy, the closure of the last U.S. horse slaughterhouse in 2007, overbreeding, an abundance of mid- and low-grade horses, and the high cost of caring for horses have all conspired to cause horse prices to plummet across the country," Ann Schrader of The Denver Post reports.

"There's no bottom to the horse market any more," Scot Dutcher, chief of the Colorado Department of Agriculture's bureau of animal protection, told Schrader. In 2008, quarter horses and paint horses sold for an average $4,800, with the top-seller going for $30,000. This year, the average price was $3,521 and the top-seller brought $12,500, Schrader reports, adding the "prestigious sale is limited to 100 horses screened for pedigree and training."

Dutcher told Schrader reports of neglect and abuse have doubled in the past four years in Colorado, and reports of stray horses also have risen. The number of horses abandoned at stables and dumped on the plains and mountains is also on the rise and rescue facilities are faced with six times the number of horses they can accept, Schrader reports. In November state officials discovered a horse that had been shot in the head and left to die along Interstate 70. The horse survived and is currently recovering. (Read more)

Nebraska program to offer full scholarships to get high-school seniors to study to be rural doctors

A new program from the University of Nebraska at Kearney will award a full-tuition scholarship to five high school seniors who commit to practicing medicine in the rural parts of the state. Participants who complete the pre-medicine requirements at UNK will be admitted to the university's Medical Center College of Medicine, Sara Giboney of the Kearney Hub reports.

"Two campuses today have come together in an effort to educate more physicians for service in rural Nebraska." UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen said at a news conference. "The Kearney Health Opportunities Program is based on the Rural Health Opportunities Program, which was started in 1990 to encourage rural residents to pursue careers in health care and practice in small communities throughout Nebraska," Giboney reports.

Jeff Hill, associate dean of admissions at the College of Medicine, told Giboney the immediate start date for the program was important because a competent and comprehensive primary care physician takes on average 11 years for training, and a third of rural physicians in the state are older than age 55. (Read more)

Wind power grew at a record rate last year

The American wind-power industry added 39 percent more capacity in 2009 and now accounts for almost 2 percent of the nation's electricity. The American Wind Energy Association says in its annual report that the 9,900 megawatts of capacity added last year was the largest year-to-year gain on record and up 18 percent from 2008, Jad Mouawad of The New York Times reports. (Times chart)

The group said some of the boost can be attributed to the heavy investment from the federal economic-stimulus package, but warned growth could slow. Denise Bode, the trade association’s chief executive, told Mouawad, "The second half of the year was extraordinary. But manufacturers didn’t see much growth because they had built up so much inventory."

Bode told Mouawad as much new wind capacity was added as new natural-gas power, and the two energy sources accounted for 80 percent of the total new generating capacity added in 2009. The group also reports about half the components used in wind farms are manufactured in the U.S., compared to 25 percent in 2004. "The wind manufacturing sector has the potential to employ many more Americans in green jobs," the group said in the report, "but without a renewable electricity standard to provide a long-term market, the sector will be slow to grow." (Read more)

Counties in rural southeast Georgia have higher property tax rates than more urbanized counties

Property taxes vary widely from state to state and county to county, but rural counties in Southeast Georgia have higher rates than their more highly populated counterparts. The rates in the region are as much as 50 percent higher than the more populated counties, reports Gordon Jackson of the Florida Times Union in Jacksonville (just off lower right of map).

The reason for the difference in tax rates is "driven by population, commercial development and the value of residences," Jackson reports. McIntosh County Manager Luther Smart, whose county has a rate of 26.5 mills (cents per $1,000 worth of property), told Jackson it's an "injustice" to compare millage rates because smaller counties must provide the same services as larger ones, but have smaller populations and commercial infrastructures. The small populations are further magnified by Georgia's 159 counties, second most in the country behind Texas. (Kentucky is next, with 120.)

"Residents want taxes lower but want more services," Smart told Jackson. "We're at the bottom of the totem pole." Rural residents also carry a heavier burden to support those services, and they "don't get as much for their contribution in taxes," Jackson writes. "They wait longer for emergency services, drive on more unpaved roads, travel farther to shop and drive more miles to work." (Read more)

Monday, January 25, 2010

USDA issues biggest batch of broadband money

The Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture today issued the largest batch yet of economic-stimulus grants and loans for rural broadband, totaling $310 million. The largest allocation was $88.1 million in a loan and grant "to an Alaskan telecommunications company that will build 'middle mile' networks to connect 65 towns and villages in southwestern Alaska to the Internet," Joelle Tessler of The Associated Press reports. Today's projects are also in Alabama, California, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Oregon, Virginia and Tennessee (a project that will serve a few customers in Kentucky). For the full list and a USDA news release, click here.

So far RUS, the successor to the old Rural Electrification Administration, has issued $363.7 million for 22 broadband projects. It is scheduled to award $2.5 billion in stimulus money for broadband. "The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, is handing out the remaining $4.7 billion in stimulus funding for broadband. As of last week, NTIA had awarded roughly $200 million in grants for 15 projects," Tessler notes. "Applications for the next and final round of broadband funding are due by March 15. In the second round, the Agriculture Department will focus on projects that provide 'last-mile' connections that link homes, businesses and other end users to the Internet. The Commerce Department will focus on 'middle-mile' projects that connect anchor institutions such as libraries, colleges and public safety agencies."

Tessler concluded, "Demand for the broadband money has been intense, far outstripping the amount available. The Commerce and Agriculture departments already have received nearly 2,200 applications requesting a total of $28 billion." (Read more)

Rural broadband network in Vermont is ambitious, but some question its financial viability

A $75 million proposal to bring broadband to rural central Vermont is moving forward, but some are questioning its viability. Managers of the proposed East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network, which serves 46,500 people in 22 towns in four counties, say it will pay off its debt with its subscription revenue, but some industry analysts worry "the project is too costly and the market too competitive," John Briggs of the Burlington Free Press reports.

The network is also in the running for a $69 million federal stimulus loan from the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. Tim Nulty works for Valley Net, the non-profit managing the project, and will serve as ECF project manager. Nulty worked from 2001 until November 2007 with Burlington Telecom, which promised to be profitable by 2008, but failed to expand its subscriber base and is being audited by the state Public Service Department after violating its state license by "surreptitiously used $17 million of city money to sustain its operations," Briggs reports.

"We’re not experts enough to say if a financial model works," a spokesman for Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy told Briggs. "We just don’t know. We can’t endorse ECF, (although) we’re supportive of the goal and supportive of them getting consideration for RUS funding." Terry McGarty, a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Briggs fiber-to-the-home systems must hold start-up costs to $2,500 to $3,000 for each customer to break even, but Nulty anticipates ECF’s total “acquisition” cost for each subscriber to be about $6,000. (Read more)

The Vermont network is an example of a larger question as to whether "community-owned broadband systems work — and pay for themselves — in rural parts of the country," says the Daily Yonder writes. It terms Briggs' story as a "very good dissection of a community-owned project, and the problems these system face in very rural places." (Read more)

Delta doctor using Iranian idea for rural health aid

A Mississippi Delta doctor is looking to an unusual place for a solution to the rural health care crisis: Iran. Dr. Aaron Shirley, right, who has spent his career serving the Delta's rural poor, visited Iran in May to study "a low-cost rural healthcare delivery system that, according to the World Health Organization, has helped cut infant deaths by 70 percent over the last three decades," Bob Drogin reports for the Los Angeles Times. (Times photo by Carolyn Cole)

The Delta has the nation's highest infant mortality rate. While Iran and health care rank as two of the most controversial political topics, Shirley and a colleague are in Washington today to ask for funding to open an Iranian-style "health house" in in 15 Delta communities. Both the U.S. and Iranian government have given quiet support to the little-known initiative, Drogin reports. Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom of most major health care indexes. "The system is broken," Shirley told Drogin. "It's time to try something new."

Iran's 7,000 health houses serve essentially as rural medical outposts staffed by community health workers, Drogin reports. The Mississippi plan calls for "training nurses' aides in each community, and then sending them door to door to help with basic needs," Drogin writes. Health workers would refer patients to clinics or hospitals for more advanced care and follow up with home visits.

The ongoing political struggle between the two countries remains an obstacle. "People will be skeptical at first because of Iran," said Paula Lang, chief nursing officer at Patients' Choice Medical Center of Humphreys County, told Drogin. "But I think they will embrace the concept when they see how it works." Erleen Smith, an 80-year-old retired Delta cotton worker, told Drogin: "I ain't never heard of Iran. But we could sure use somebody's help." (Read more)

New E. Ky. pharmacy school latest in Appalachian trend of health-driven economic development

Midway College, in the heart of Kentucky's Bluegrass region, recently announced it will open a pharmacy school in Paintsville, Ky., in the heart of the state's eastern coalfield. Now local investors are hoping the school gives the community something "other rural Appalachian communities have used as a serious economic driver," Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. Similar professional schools in Grundy, Va.; Johnson City, Tenn.; and Harrogate, Tenn., were founded with the hope of added economic development they would bring to the region.

Sixteen years ago Paintsville officials had the opportunity to start an independent osteopathic medical school, but instead merged with the Pikeville College medical school that opened in 1997. Some Paintsville officials feared that plan would "lose money or that the school's goal of training doctors who would stay in Eastern Kentucky wouldn't pan out," Hjalmarson writes, but "as of last May, about 125 licensed doctors in Kentucky were Pikeville medical school graduates, and about 70 of those were in small Eastern Kentucky towns."

Midway College officials say the school is not just an economic-development strategem. "This school was not started to be an economic driver. It was started to serve a pressing social need," Midway President William Drake told Hjalmarson. Midway expects the school to have a $30 million annual impact on the local economy when it opens in 2011. Paintsville was chosen, in part, for its strong school systems. (Read more) You can read an Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues story about one of the school systems here).

Idaho Power's efficiency effort gets good writeup

Energy efficiency programs are generally associated with coastal states like Massachusetts and California, but now some heartland states with the country's lowest electricity rates are also focusing on using less. Idaho Power, a utility that once paid customers for using more electricity , has become a leader in efficiency programs by giving customers credits for switching power off during peak periods, Kate Galbraith reports for The New York Times.

The utility says that by paying customers to cut power at times of highest demand, it has reduced peak demand by as much as 5.6 percent, Galbraith reports. Idaho Power has a program that pays homeowners to cut their air conditioners briefly during peak periods, and one that promotes attic insulation. "It’s clearly iconic in terms of a utility that’s turned the corner," Tom Eckman, the manager of conservation resources with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a planning group created by Congress, told Galbraith. "They have gone from pretty much ground zero to a fairly aggressive program level."

The company isn't without its critics. Some have noted that despite heavy wind-energy potential, Idaho lags in development of renewable energy while neighboring states like Oregon, Washington and Wyoming amp up their wind development, Galbraith writes. Farmers, who make up a large segment of the utility's customers, say some of what they make up in electricity cost is lost in crops hurt by powering down. Ray Stark, senior vice president of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, told Galbraith some economic-development opportunities may have been lost because of insufficient energy capacity. (Read more)

New FEMA floodplain maps may be inaccurate

A multi-year government initiative to update and digitize the nation's floodplain maps has left many affected residents complaining that the new maps are inaccurate. The Federal Emergency Management Agency started the program, at a cost of $200 million per year, in 2004 and says some of the new maps have won final approval while others are still in the preliminary stages of development, The Associated Press reports.

FEMA says the program will allow for better zoning and help prevent future catastrophes, but some affected people say "the new maps are riddled with inaccuracies, seem arbitrarily drawn, and will stifle growth and hurt property values," AP reports. Garden City, Kan., has sued to prevent FEMA's new map of the city from taking effect because the area around drainage ditches dug 20 years ago would now be designated as flood-prone even though they've never had a problem.

A FEMA spokesperson told AP that most of the changes are due to advances in mapping technology that allow for better analysis, but the agency is open to changes suggested during the public comment period of the process. AP's story cites examples of map complaints in rural areas in Iowa, Kansas and Vermont. Rural journalists around the country would be well-served to see if their communities have new floodplain maps and check their accuracy. (Read more)
UPDATE, Jan. 26: Here's a local story from Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mississippi papers, AP and FOI center team up again to fight government secrecy in the state

The Associated Press, the Mississippi Press Association and the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information have renewed their joint effort for open government in Mississippi, starting a week-long series of articles "on the pervasiveness of secrecy in our state and local governments," as MPA Executive Director Layne Bruce put it in a message to members.

"Secrecy in Mississippi" began today with an overview by AP writer Emily Wagster Pettus, who writes, "Mississippians pay for all levels of government, but that doesn't mean they can always count on public employees to promptly answer their requests for information, or that they'll get to see elected officials conduct all their business out in the open. Despite open meetings and public records laws that are decades old, this is still a state with a culture of secrecy, from the top down."

Pettus gives examples, from Gov. Haley Barbour's largely secret schedule to the refusal of "lower-level employees of sheriff's departments and police departments" to give out information over the telephone." And then there's the bugaboo of public agencies everywhere, closed sessions of boards that delve into topics that aren't supposed to be discussed in secret. (Read more)

AP, MPA and MCFI did a series in 2007 that resulted in improvements in open-government laws, but this package appears to focus on the difference in law and reality. Today's sidebar is by Tim Kalich, editor and publisher of the Grenwood Commonwealth, about secrecy at Mississippi Valley State University. For the story budget for the rest of the series, click here.