Friday, February 12, 2010

USDA: Farm income to rise more than 12% in '10

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released its farm 2010 Farm Sector Income Forecast and it projects net farm income will increase this year. USDA projects income to be $63 billion for 2010, up $6.7 billion from 2009. The 2010 forecast is $1.4 billion below the 10-year average net farm income.

"Macroeconomic forces undergird our optimism in projecting a boost in 2010 farm income," USDA's Economic Research Service reports. "Fertilizer prices have fallen by about 50 percent in the past year. The dollar’s decline against other currencies should make agricultural exports of both crops and livestock/meat more competitive. Continued population growth, particularly in developing countries, will increase global demand if accompanied by rising incomes." Ethanol and biodeseil plants operating at greater potential in 2010 should help farm profits, ERS expects.

Of the various agricultural industries, ERS forecasts: "Economic conditions for livestock producers are expected to improve, while the economic conditions for crop producers are expected to deteriorate slightly or stabilize. Protein foods produced from animals and animal products are higher-cost items, and subject to budgeting considerations. Amid a recession, consumers can reduce consumption of meat, milk, and eggs, or buy lower priced products." (Read more from Keith Good of

Veterinarian shortage spreads, and rural areas bear burden; farmers sometimes play vet

A shortage of veterinarians, especially those who treat large animals, is spreading across the country but particularly in rural areas. "As a result, more people are depending on their rudimentary knowledge of veterinary procedures to get the jobs done," Michelle Rupe Eubanks of the Times Daily in Florence, Ala., reports. Large amounts of debt also push recent vet-school graduates to metropolitan areas, where pay is better.

Dr. Donna Anagarano, associate dean for academic affairs at the Auburn University School of Veterinary Medicine, told Eubanks the shortages in rural areas will worsen. An area of specialization is up to each graduate, but most of Auburn's 97 graduates last year plan to focus on small animals. "That's the largest [number of graduates] we've had, but there is still a shortage, and we do plan to grow the numbers," Anagarano told Eubanks. Nationally, 80 to 85 percent of vet-school applicants are women, who are less likely to want to work with large animals.

Rural areas bear more of the burden. "In a really small area, it's difficult to make a practice work," she told Eubanks. "Vets want to have outside interests, and many of them are married to other professionals. You want your spouse to be able to find a job, too. Small communities also often don't offer enough support to pay down that debt and make the practice feasible." (Read more)

CBS report raises public health concerns about routine antibiotic use in livestock

Last week we reported many in the agriculture industry were bracing for an unflattering report about antibiotic use in livestock from the CBS Evening News. Now after several delays the report has aired. Katie Couric reported that a 2009 University of Iowa study found a new strain of MRSA in 70 percent of hogs and 64 percent of the workers on several farms that used antibiotics in Iowa and western Illinois. On antibiotic-free farms, no MRSA was found.

"Health officials are concerned if workers who handle animals are getting sick - what about the rest of us?," Couric wrote. "Drug resistant infections have sky-rocketed over the past two decades, killing an estimated 70,000 Americans last year alone." Now scientists fear Americans may be acquiring drug-resistant MRSA from handling tainted meat from animals fed antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease, Couric reports. Liz Wagstrom, a veterinarian with the National Pork Board, told CBS most farmers use antibiotics appropriately. (Read more)

A bill in Congress would restrict use of antibiotics in animals raised for human consumption. In Part 2 of the report Couric visited Denmark to report on the country's attempts at producing antibiotic-free livestock. As of Friday the two online stories had more than 130 reader comments combined.

New mining policies don't stop annual Kentucky rally for 'stream saver' bill in legislature

The "I Love Mountains" rally in Frankfort, Ky., in support of a state "stream saver" bill was held for the fifth straight year yesterday, though some legislators say the bill is no longer needed after the state adopted new regulations governing strip mining and valley fills. Those at the rally maintained that further scrutiny is needed, James Bruggers reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. The rally was highlighted by an appearance from Grammy-winning musician and West Virginia native Kathy Mattea.

Democratic state Rep. Don Pasley, who sponsored an unsuccessful stream-saver bill more than once, withdrew his support in January after he decided the bill was no longer needed, Bruggers reports. K.A. Owens, chair of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said the agreement among regulators, environmentalists and the industry would "greatly reduce the size and number of valley fills," but he told Bruggers that it is "up to us to see that it is enforced." Dave Moss, vice president for the Kentucky Coal Association, told Bruggers he didn't understand why any legislators would back a stream-saver bill now.

Rally participants again called for the end of mountaintop-removal mining, and a return to civil discourse about the issues. The solution "starts with realization, the remembrance, that we are not enemies – that we are brothers and sisters in conflict," Mattea told the crowd. Democratic Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington, the sponsor of the current bill and a native of Wise County, Virginia, told the crowd, "You have got to make your voices heard. We need your help."(Read more)

Advocate says Obama has broken promise to stop subsidy payments to passive 'farmers'

President Obama has done some things to help rural America, but he has failed to follow through on a central promise of his campaign's rural agenda, writes Chuck Hassebrook for the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. In Iowa in October 2007, Obama outlined his rural platform, including "pledging immediate action to close loopholes by limiting payments to active farmers who work the land and their landlords," Hassebrook writes. "Last month the Obama administration joined its predecessors in failing to act by releasing regulations that continue this gaping loophole," by allowing otherwise passive investors to count as active farmers if they participate in conference calls about the operation.

Hassebrook, who was apparently considered for a post in the Department of Agriculture, characterizes the decision as not just a forgotten campaign promise, but a dismissal of the "centerpiece of Obama’s rural policy and his central message to rural America about the kind of change he offered." He gives Obama credit for preventing "payment limitation rules from hurting smaller farmers who receive payment far below the limit," but says the president would be well served to return to his other rural commitments. "Our communities have real opportunities to advance," Hassebrook writes. "But one key to our future is a federal government that works with us to capitalize on those opportunities, rather than against us by subsidizing agricultural concentration." (Read more)

Coal industry exaggerations unnecessarily pit coalfield residents against each other, writer says

Increased environmental regulation and agreed-to changes in strip mining will help taxpayers in the long run, but coal-company scare tactics are hurting Kentucky's chances for a more energy independent future, a Kentucky environmentalist writes in an op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "We need approaches that shed light — not heat — on our problems and solutions," Kentuckians for the Commonwealth member and Southeast Community and Technical College professor Roy Silver writes. "Unfortunately, all too frequently many coal executives seem more prone to stoking fear."

"Coal executives grossly exaggerate the immediate threat to our region from legislation to reverse global warming," Silver writes. "The impact of proposed legislation will not be felt here for decades. We have a wonderful opportunity to diversify our local economy, reinvest some of the wealth extracted from our mountains and convert existing factories to making parts for windmills, solar panels, etc." Silver cites recent data showing significant declines in coal demand even as stockpiles grow and the loss of coal mining jobs as mines become more mechanized as justification for his claim. He argues better enforcement of water quality standards will save taxpayers money by reducing the cost of cleaning drinking water.

When the chair of Coal Operators & Associates in Pikeville recently referred to those with legitimate concerns about coal mining as "environmental jihadists," he was just the latest industry executive to use hyperbole to scare off detractors, Silver writes. "Pitting neighbor against neighbor is not healthy," he concludes. "We should follow a path that appeals to our better nature." (Read more)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ky. county trying to set example for sustainable development in rural America

A small, rural county in Central Kentucky is hoping to strengthen its reputation as the greenest, most sustainable county in the state and set an example for other rural areas. The government of Washington County (Wikipedia map) cleaned up 27 illegal dumps in 2001, which led the state to declare it the state's first Certified Clean County, Carol Spence of the University of Kentucky reports. Now the county has a master plan that focuses on farmland preservation but still encourages growth.

In the county seat of Springfield, "Residents take advantage of a free curbside-pickup recycling program; farmers participate in study groups about sustainability; children bring home free energy-efficient light bulbs from school; and leaders of a local non-profit organization are focusing their current efforts on local food and making homes more energy efficient," Spence reports. "They have worked on this a small part at a time. They've done little steps," Lori Garkovich, UK professor of community and leadership development, told Spence.

Achieving sustainablility in a rural county was eased by a shared vision of what could be and the ability to break up the big picture into smaller pieces, Spence reports. "We're doing our little bit," said Sister Claire McGowan, a Dominican nun and leader of the grassroots organization New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future. "And we're hoping that we can provide some light to other rural communities in Kentucky. Yes, it is hard work, but you can have fun while you're doing it, and it really will end up making a big difference, not just for us, but also for the future generations who will live in and love this place." (Read more)

Careful planning important to sort out competing goals in public-private broadband partnerships

Public-private partnerships for rural broadband development will be favored in the second round of stimulus broadband funding, but they may not be right for all communities, Craig Settles writes for the Daily Yonder. "Communities that are responding with plans for public-private technology partnerships should not take such efforts lightly or pursue them in haste," Settles writes. "This promising approach is also fraught with challenges great enough to knock you off track."

Understanding the forecasts for return on investment under both best and worst case scenarios is key to financial sustainability of the projects, Settles writes. He says the "business of broadband is as much about managing growth as curtailing losses." Michael Johnston, vice president of Internet technology and broadband at Jackson Energy Authority, a public utility in Tennessee, encountered some of the public-private challenges with a telephone company during the rocky start of what eventually became a 16,000-subscriber fiber-optic network in Jackson.

"Partnering with a telco does help because you have to be ready for the different world of telecom operations," Johnston told Settles. "You can have completely different goals that are at cross purposes. The town or county wants to deliver services in places where it’s currently not offered. The partner needs to make money." Settles advocates that community leaders and private investors spend a lot of early time in "frank conversation so that both parties thoroughly understand how the other’s business works." These discussions can identify trouble spots as well as potential irreconcilable differences, and can help "construct and evaluate a business model with clear knowledge of how it affects all partners," Settles writes. (Read more)

Backyard Bird Count this weekend can be a snapshot of environmental trends

Bird watchers across the country can unite this weekend as the Great Backyard Bird Count commences its 13th annual event. The GBBC "aims to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent and in Hawaii" and is sponsored by the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and, for the first time, Bird Studies Canada, Kelly Burgess of the Los Angeles Times reports. Participants count birds for as little as 15 minutes on at least one day of the event and report their sightings online. (Hummingbird photo by Pete Thomas)

"Even if you can identify a few species you can provide important information that enables scientists to learn more about how the environment is changing and how that affects our conservation priorities," Judy Braus, the Audubon Society's vice president for education, told Burgess. Last year's count included 94,165 checklists which identified 620 species and counted 11,558,638 individual birds, Burgess reports. (Read more)

The GBBC's Web site includes more information about the count including including printable regional tally sheets, frequently asked questions and information on entering the annual photo contest.

States will be able to count inmates separately from localities, often rural, affecting redistricting

The Census Bureau will give states the option of not counting prison inmates where they are incarcerated, which is disproportionately in rural areas. Inmates are usually counted with the rest of the locality that contains the prison, but in May 2011 the bureau will "identify exactly where group quarters like prisons are and how many people occupy them," Sam Roberts of The New York Times reports. The decision could reduce state legislative representation of predominantly rural districts.

"This removes a technical problem," Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group that favors alternatives to prison sentences and urges that inmates be counted in their hometowns, told Roberts. "The census is going to say where the prisons are and how many people are in them, which will enable states the practical choice of counting them in the wrong place or not counting them at all." He added, "About 100 rural governments currently remove the prison populations manually, but this difficult and error-prone process was impossible to do on a state level. For the first time, state and local governments will have access to prison population counts in time for redistricting."

Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Wisconsin and perhaps other states are "weighing legislation requiring that prisoners be counted at their last known address . . . a change that would likely favor larger and mostly Democratic cities," Roberts reports. One extreme example of prison populations skewing legislative districts is in Anamosa, Iowa, where the three council districts have the same population, but one has all but 58 of its 1,400 residents living in a prison. (Read more)

EPA sets up program for public to play watchdog on natural-gas drilling in Marcellus Shale

The Environmental Protection Agency has launched a citizens' watchdog program to track water pollution and waste disposal related to natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale (which underlies the area shown on map). The program, Eyes on Drilling, "encourages people to report suspicious activity related to federal officials through a toll-free hotline," Tom Wilber of the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin reports.

EPA wants information including location, time and date of problems; materials, equipment and vehicles involved; and observable environmental impacts. The agency lacks direct oversight of drilling, which is handled by states, but does have authority over waste disposal and water pollution, of increased concern because of the hydraulic and chemical fracturing used to break up the deeply buried shale and release its gas.

"EPA wants to get a better understanding of what people are experiencing and observing as a result of these drilling activities. The information collected may also be useful in investigating industry practices," David Sternberg, a spokesman for EPA Region 3, which will run the program, told Wilber. The hotline will also take complaints from residents and forward them to appropriate officials for follow-up. More information about the program is available from its Web site or the toll-free hotline at 877-919-4372. (Read more)

Dodge City reporter ignores subpoena to testify, loses support of newspaper

A Kansas reporter, subpoenaed to testify about a confidential source, has been held in contempt for not appearing in court Wednesday. Clair O'Brien of the Dodge City Daily Globe will be fined $1,000 per day until she appears in court, James Carlson of The Topeka Capital-Journal reports. O'Brien told Carlson that attorneys for GateHouse Media, which owns the Globe, wouldn't pay for her legal representation unless she answered the prosecutor's questions under oath, and have disrupted her attempts to seek help from a national journalism group. The newspaper and O'Brien had tried and failed to get the subpoena quashed.

GateHouse told Carlson it hadn't decided whether to provide legal counsel for O'Brien to continue fighting the subpoena and denies it has blocked her from seeking outside counsel. The company did have an attorney in court Wednesday, but told Carlson that O'Brien has "taken steps to separate herself from the company, including firing her personal attorney paid for by GateHouse." (Read our previous reports on the subject here and here)

"What she did was really stick a thumb in the judge's eye today," Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who has been speaking with O'Brien for more than a week, told Carlson. "Even if you're not going to answer questions, you still have to go to court." An editor with the Globe and the Kansas Press Association also expressed disapproval. "I feel like I'm being battered by forces more powerful than I," O'Brien told Carlson. "I don't feel that I have the right to make my own choices." (Read more)

Chair of rural school board wins sexual harassment case against road construction firm

Sandra Crouch has spent the last 22 years as a member of the Board of Education in Bath County, Kentucky (Wikipedia map). In January she was re-elected chairman. It is part of her official duties to make sure no one under the board's jurisdiction is harassed, sexually or in any other manner, and that no one is made to work or study in a hostile environment, reports Appalachian author Betty Dotson-Lewis.

"Never in a million years did Sandy imagine she would be the one on the receiving end of those actions -- subjected to sexual harassment while attempting to perform her duties on the job in a hostile environment," Lewis writes. But Crouch filed a lawsuit, and won it a few weeks ago. "Not only is it unusual for a woman to win a unanimous jury verdict of this size, there is something else remarkable about this case: It’s even more unusual for a female chairman of a county school board to win a sexual harassment case while pursuing her day job in a nontraditional field, road construction." Lewis's story is here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Urban schools could learn from rural counterparts

While rural schools are often shortchanged by current federal education policies, they "routinely use practices that could be useful to boosting student performance in their urban and suburban counterparts," says a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education. One third of the nation’s high schools are rural, and one in five children attends a rural school, the report says. That finding was part of the report's examination of "Current Challenges and Opportunities in Preparing Rural High School Students for Success in College and Careers: What Federal Policymakers Need to Know."(Fact Sheet)

The alliance describes itself as "national policy and advocacy organization that works to make every child a high school graduate - to prepare them for college, work, and to be contributing members of society." The report explains at-risk students in rural schools are less likely to be overlooked and "successful rural high schools have utilized online courses and other distance learning to expand advanced learning opportunities for their students."

"America’s rural high schools offer solutions, but they also face challenges," Bob Wise, president of the alliance and former governor of West Virginia, said in a news release. "Most of the recent debate on high school reform at the federal level has not involved rural schools, but when one out of every four rural students fails to graduate from high school, it’s not just a ‘local’ issue, it’s a national crisis. No longer can our nation write off large numbers of children, whether by race or by geography, and still meet the steadily growing skill demands of the 21st century." (Read more, from Maureen Downey's blog post for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

Case against tomato company is harbinger of feds' new focus on illegal practices in agriculture, food

A possible tomato monopoly is the latest target in the federal government's increased scrutiny of the food sector. Federal prosecutors in Sacramento allege that SK Foods of Monterey, Calif., used more than $330,000 in bribes from 1998 to 2008 to subvert competition and nail down deals to sell the company's tomato paste, peppers and other products, P.J. Huffstutter of the Los Angeles Times reports. The investigation comes on the heels of federal looks into dairy distributors, egg producers, citrus firms and seed developers.

"Behind the push are growing concerns that, as the industry becomes increasingly consolidated, the public's grocery bills are getting bigger in part from corrupt or monopolistic practices among food processors, distributors or farmers," Huffstutter writes. Next month the Justice Department and the Department of Agriculture will hold meetings about lack of competition in the dairy, grain, livestock and poultry sectors. Christine Varney, who leads the administration's antitrust team, promised during her confirmation hearings that agriculture would be a focus.

"Nearly 95 percent of all tomatoes grown in the U.S. are processed by four companies in California," Huffstutter reports. Justice Department investigators say what they uncovered at SK Foods during a 20007 investigation of the California tomato industry was "a scheme designed to trick food makers into buying a lesser-quality tomato paste (which had been mislabeled to appear of a higher grade) and then shut out rivals on deals with big processors and supermarket chains," Huffsutter writes. (Read more)

Pa. to increase natural-gas drilling inspection staff

In December we cited a ProPublica report detailing how states were lagging in regulation of increased natural gas drilling. Now one of the states at the center of the boom is moving to catch up. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell has "announced that the Department of Environmental Protection will nearly double its enforcement staff, open a new office closer to the drilling action and release new drilling regulations of its own," reports Sabrina Shankman of ProPublica, which has been bird-dogging the issue of hydraulic and chemical fracturing of gas reserves.

In 2008 Pennsylvania had just 35 people to oversee 74,774 wells, Shankman reports, but that number increased to 76 in 2009 as the industry grew. Rendell plans to add 68 more people to the Bureau of Oil and Gas Management, Shankman reports, and will pay for the expansion with revenue from drilling permit fees, which it raised last year for the first time since 1984. Rendell also proposed a severance tax on gas in his 2010-11 budget.

Forty-five of the new hires will be on the oil and gas enforcement staff, bringing the state's total to 121. Conversely, Texas, the nation's largest drilling state, "had an enforcement staff of 106 to oversee 263,704 wells, of which 16,569 were new and required the most oversight," Shankman writes. (Read more)

Virginia county says no to wind farm on mountain

A southwest Virginia county has become the latest example of local governments regulating against wind power. The Tazewell County Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 to approve "approved an ordinance that prevents wind farm construction on specified locations," Jessica Lilly of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports. Wind industry supporters told Lilly the decision was the latest example of the "anti-wind agenda" gaining steam.

The conflict centers on a proposed wind farm on East River Mountain, southwest of Bluefield, Va. and W. Va. Dominion Resources and BP Wind Energy announced the $200 million project in January 2009, but several locals spoke out against the project, including friends of a nearby airport, Lilly writes. A representative of the Mercer County Airport, just north of Bluefield, W.Va., said planes using the southwest approach would have to fly higher before dropping sharply to land at the airport. The southwest approach to the airport is used only 10 percent of the time, Lilly reports.

Wind-industry spokesman Frank Maisano told Lilly the decision would be bad for the future of the region: "It’s kind of disturbing to have the very active political anti-wind folks gathering steam and promoting their approach undercutting a message that is good for rural communities." (Read more)

Here's a Google map of the area, with the airport marked. East River Mountain is the largest ridge, in the bottom third of the satellite photo.

Cap-and-trade is all but dead for 2010, but some climate legislation could be part of an energy bill

Cap-and-trade legislation to limit climate change is all but dead for the year, but some climate measures could still pass as part of an energy bill, says the editorial board of The Washington Post. "It fell victim to Senate gridlock, yawning gaps between lawmakers over how and even whether to tackle the issue and President Obama's decision last year to place it third on his list of priorities, after the stimulus and health care," the Post writes. Even the president seemed to admit temporary defeat last week by citing speculation that the Senate might pass a modest bill without cap-and-trade.

"A version of such a scaled-down energy bill passed the Senate Energy Committee last year, and it contains some worthwhile provisions, such as updating building codes and the electricity grid," the Post writes. "It is also incomplete, lacking both much in the way of revenue to pay for its programs and any economy-wide emissions limit." The Waxman-Markey climate bill, which includes cap-and-trade and passed the House in the fall, is "marred by giving away far too many valuable pollution permits to politically favored groups, a scheme of which many senators are rightly skeptical," the Post says.

Despite the dim future of cap-and-trade, the Post explains there are options for legislation that meets somewhere in the middle. The editorial board points to a proposal from Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine called the CLEAR Act that would "cap the amount of carbon the United States produces and sell pollution permits to those who produce or import dirty fuels" as one option. The senators say 80 percent of Americans would break even under their plan which would raise costs, but would reroute 75 percent of the permit auction revenue back to the public. (Read more)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Next wave of 'clean coal' ads to focus on jobs; how much have the ads influenced public policy?

The next wave of the advertising campaign designed to push "clean coal" technologies is scheduled to start this week, as some evidence suggests the success of previous installments, Anne C. Mulkern of Greenwire reports for The New York Times: "Top policymakers, including President Obama, are echoing a key message from the ads, that technology in the future could reduce coal's carbon pollution and keep coal a part of the energy mix." The new ads focus on the job opportunities from coal and mention previous environmental arguments.

Last week Obama "created a task force charged with advancing five to 10 commercial demonstrations of carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology by 2016," Mulkern writes. Some credit for clean-coal technology's improved prospects could be attributed to promising early reports from a pilot project at an American Electric Power plant in West Virginia. Nevertheless, "There's a reason companies do these campaigns," Kenneth Green, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, told Mulkern. "It's because they tend to work."

However, Josh Dorner, spokesman for the Sierra Club, voiced skepticism about the ads' effect. "The coal industry has a stranglehold over the U.S. Congress more than anything that would be reasonable. Whether that's because of a $120 million in advertising spending," in addition to spending on lobbying, he added, "remains to be seen." (Read more)

The campaign "dates back to the summer of 2007, when Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, a precursor of the coal trade group that later became American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, told its members it needed to commit to a lengthy and expensive effort to protect coal," Mulkern reports. ACCCE has the new ads in addition to previous one on its Web site.

Toyota's Ky. town follows local paper's advice in weathering storm of bad press about recalls

Toyota hasn't received much good publicity in recent week in the midst of a massive recall across several models for sticking brakes, but one small town to which the company brought thousands of jobs is staying positive. Workers at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky., and other U.S. towns with similar facilities are returning to a more normal schedule this week as the company resumes full production, and they maintain the company will thrive again, Mickey Meece of The New York Times reports.

An editorial in the local newspaper, the Georgetown News Graphic, may have helped quell some local fears, Meece reports. Its headline read, "Rest easy, Toyota is on the job," in the editorial's headline. "In many parts of the country, Toyota is a brand,” said the editorial by Publisher Mike Scogin. "But to those of us here in Georgetown and in Kentucky, we know Toyota because we are Toyota. Our friends, neighbors and family members manufacture the cars in question." (Read more)
Meece writes, "For more than a week, Mr. Scogin said, Toyota news has dominated the front page of the newspaper, which is published three times a week. By Saturday, coverage of the murder of a former school bus driver was the top story." Georgetown, about 15 miles north of Lexington, held a population around 10,000 before Toyota opened its plant 20 years ago and has since ballooned to 25,000, Meece reports. (Read more)

Meanwhile, Toyota dealers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas pulled their ads from ABC-TV affiliates, protesting "excessive" coverage of the company's problems. Here is ABC's report. UPDATE, Feb. 10: Led by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, the Republican governors of Indiana, Mississippi and Alabama, all with Toyota plants, have sent a letter to Congress asking for "responsible and fair" treatment for the company, praising its "exemplary citizenship," decrying "aggressive and questionable news coverage," and asserting that "the real story is how quickly Toyota identified the problems, found solutions and delivered those solutions to its dealers." Beware when politicians start telling you what the real story is, but here's the letter.

Broadband funding moves more slowly than hoped

Interest in the economic stimulus package's $7.2 billion for broadband was expected to be high, but the demand has turned out to be so overwhelming that government officials are struggling to meet the program's deadlines. The high demand, coupled with questions from large cable and phone companies such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T, has "swamped the agencies in charge and created a bottleneck that might threaten disbursement," David Lieberman of USA Today reports.

After almost a year, only 7 percent of the funds has been assigned to specific projects. "There's significant doubt as to whether the monies can be awarded before the end of September," when the funding authorization expires, Dan Hays, who directs the communications practice at consulting firm PRTM, told Lieberman. Officials abandoned their original plan to assign $4 billion by the end of 2009, and now say "they're poised to hit as much as $2 billion when the first round ends this month, as they begin to consider applications to the second — and last — round up to March 15," Lieberman writes.

The two agencies with the money, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and USDA's Rural Utilities Service, maintain they will meet the Sept. 30 deadline for allocating it. Finding which places need broadband investment most has also proved difficult. "Because the United States has not taken [broadband needs] seriously until the Obama administration arrived, we don't know exactly how many people are unserved" or precisely where they are, RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein told Lieberman. (Read more)

Many of the grants are being made to map where broadband service exists. One example is a $2.1 million NTIA grant accounced today for mapping Kentucky, which was one of the first states to develop a comprehensive broadband map. "While the project fulfilled the requirements at the time, updates are necessary due to the ever-changing technology, growth of households and expansion of broadband providers," said a state press release. Meanwhile, people in the shadow of Pine Mountain in southeastern Kentucky complain about lack of broadband on Dial-Up Rocks, a blog hosted by Democracy in Action.

Genetic engineering may come to Southern U.S. forests in form of non-invasive (?) eucalyptus

Genetic engineering has long been a mainstay in the agricultural sector, but now it may be coming to silviculture, the growing of trees. Forestry giants International Paper Co. and MeadWestvaco Corp. are "planning to transform plantation forests of the southeastern United States by replacing native pine with genetically engineered eucalyptus, a rapidly growing Australian tree that in its conventional strains now dominates the tropical timber industry," Paul Voosen of Greenwire reports for Scientific American.

The companies' joint biotech venture AborGen LLC is hoping to use a controversial gene splice that restricts the eucalyptus trees' ability to reproduce to alleviate fears of the species turning invasive and overtaking native forests. "If such a fertility-control technology -- which has come under fire in farming for fear seed firms will exploit it -- is proven effective, it could open the door to many varieties of wild plants, including weedy grasses, to be genetically engineered for use in energy applications like biomass and next-generation biofuels without fear of invasiveness," Voosen writes.

Already countries like Brazil have used eucalyptus to transform their wood industry. The eucalyptus tree offers a significant upgrade over native southern pines in growth rate, the company told Voosen. Timber consultant Curtis Seltzer, who has studied ArborGen, describes its trees as a "game changer." Currently, only two of ArborGen's experimental eucalyptus stations have been allowed to flower. The company reports little in the way of pollen production, and earlier this month the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued a draft approval, subject to public comment, of expansion to 28 sites totaling 330 acres across seven states. (Read more)

3 governors and an aggressive fish: Michigan's chief unhappy with U.S. plan to control carp

A White House meeting about a fish? It happened yesterday, as Govs. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Jim Doyle of Wisconsin huddled and talked on the phone with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn about the threat that Asian carp from the Mississippi River system pose to the fisheries and ecosystems of the Great Lakes. (Associated Press photo by M. Spencer Green: Big carp and smaller white bass in Chicago's Shedd Aquarium)

"Granholm came away from the summit less than satisfied with the results" and the plan for operating the locks in the canal that connects Lake Michigan with the Mississippi watershed, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The Army Corps of Engineers "will open and close [the locks] less frequently, and the water will be treated each time the locks are open to prevent the fish from swimming through to the Lake Michigan side," Mark Guarino writes. Michigan wants the locks permanently closed, but its lawsuit to do that was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. It wants the court to take another look, noting that on the day the court ruled, the Corps "discovered two DNA samples ... showing that Asian carp had breached Lake Michigan."

The Obama administration's role yesterday was to announce "a $78.5 million commitment to deal with the issue," Guarino reports, with "new water sampling, the construction of a concrete and chain-link fence between the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Des Plaines River, and the construction of a third electric barrier on the canal." Grahholm said the plan's "objectives are not sustainable and that this is a plan to limit damages, not solve the problem." (Read more) (Illustration by Phil Moy, University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, from Environmental Protection Agency Web page on Asian carp)

Monday, February 08, 2010

Appalachian Ohio prescription drug trade worsens

Prescription drug abuse in Ohio is escalating, with most of the problem centered on the southeastern region of the state. In 2008, Ohio pharmacists filled 2.7 million prescriptions for narcotics that contain oxycodone and 4.8 million prescriptions for hydrocodone medications, Holly Zachariah of The Columbus Dispatch reports. The oxycodone prescriptions amounted to almost one for every four Ohio residents, while the hydrocodone prescriptions were enough for almost one of every two and one-half Ohioans.

The state's drug abuse is particularly bad in its Appalachian region for a number of reasons, including poverty, location and apathy, state officialsm say. US 23 "provides a pipeline to and from Columbus," Zachariah reports. "Bordering states of Kentucky and West Virginia have significant amounts of prescription-drug abuse." William Winsley, director of the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy, told Zachariah the area also has a track record of limited resources and uncooperative elected officials who have refused to help with drug investigations.

Scioto County in Southern Ohio was named to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's watch list of the 10 most significant places in the country for trafficking in medications. While government officials brainstorm ways to tackle the problem, a grass-roots movement in Southern Ohio has risen up against the abuse, Zachariah reports. Activists in the region are considering pickets at the pain clinics and want to photograph the cars that come and go. (Read more)

Group has guide to help rural places with census

As the 2010 U.S. Census gets under way, rural communities are in particular need of accurate counts. "Each person represents around $1,200 in federal funding for their community for services such as schools, hospitals and transportation," the Main Street Project, the nonpartisan arm of the League of Rural Voters, reports. "That’s more than $10,000 per person and more than $40,000 for a family of four over ten years."

The Main Street Project "works to document the strengths and challenges facing people in increasingly diverse rural communities, give voice to their hopes and aspirations, and provide creative and practical tools to turn possibilities into realities," their Web site reports. In preparation for the 2010 Census the group has released a guide for helping your community receive an accurate representation. "Communities lose around $1,200 every year in federal funds for each person who goes uncounted," Steven Renderos, organizer with the project, told the Daily Yonder. "Many of the people in these communities will be unlikely to participate unless they get information from organizations and leaders they know and trust." (Read more)

Forum on Friday at the Newseum to discuss meeting the food needs of the next generation

Agricultural experts and stakeholders are joining in a "Town Hall 2.0" forum Friday to discuss the unique challenges associated with meeting the food needs of the next generation as Earth's population grows. The event, "Now Serving 9 Billion: Global Dialogue on Meeting Food Needs for the Next Generation," is hosted by CropLife International, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and CAST at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

A panel of experts will discuss the challenges facing agriculture the next century, including how to feed 2.5 billion more people by 2050 and how to grow more food on less land. The event will Webcast live with an accompanying Twittercast, under #AgCast. Interested readers can register for the online discussion or in-person forum at the event's Web site.

USPS closing rural post offices across the country under rules meant for suspension of service

Has a rural post office closed near you recently? It's not the only one, and the U.S. Postal Service may be using a loophole to avoid the usual closing procedure. A three-page handwritten letter from an 87-year-old Hacker Valley, W.Va., woman whose post office recently closed has spurred the federal Postal Regulatory Commission to "investigate whether the Postal Service violated procedures or the will of Congress when it shut down Hacker Valley and 96 other post offices in 34 states over the past five years," P.J. Dickerschield of The Associated Press reports.

The cutbacks "have fallen most heavily on poor, rural communities, where the post office is not just a place to buy stamps, but a gathering spot where townspeople trade news and gossip," Dickerschield writes. USPS cited soon-to-be expiring leases as emergency justification for suspending nearly 100 post offices. "Ultimately, 25 were officially closed, five are facing closure, and Hacker Valley and 64 others are in limbo," Dickerschield reports.

Post office closures normally require 60 days notice, opportunities for public comment, an accounting of the reasons for the decision and an opportunity for residents to appeal, Dickerschield reports. A suspension, supposedly reserved for natural disasters, health or safety hazards or unanticipated lease problems, doesn't carry the same requirements. Under suspensions, the office is not technically closed, "but as far as customers are concerned it's not open," Norm Scherstrom told Dickerschield. (Read more)

Residents of some affected communities, including Midland, Ohio; Coralville, Iowa; Crescent Lake, Ore.; Prairie City, S.D.; Laketon, Ind.; and Howell, Utah, are hoping Congress intervenes and rescues their post offices, Dickerschield reports. At least one rural post office has already been saved, reportedly by congressional intervention. USPS officials rescinded the emergency suspension order for the closure of the Clifty post office in Todd County, Kentucky, after urging from Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, the News-Democrat and Leader in adjoining Logan County reports. The Todd County Standard also reported the decision; here is its blog item.

EPA releases its assessments of 40 more coal-ash impoundments; index available online

The Environmental Protection Agency Thursday released information on 40 more coal ash impoundments with "high" or "significant" potential to cause loss of human life, environmental damage, or damage to infrastructure. Twenty-two of the facilities "have written action plans to make them safer," Environmental News Service reports.

Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, told ENS, "The information we are releasing today shows that we continue to make progress in our efforts to prevent future coal ash spills." EPA has provided an index of the new information about the 40 impoundments, spread across 16 different facilities, in addition to the 22 company action plans on its Web site.

"The assessment reports were written by firms under contract to EPA, who are experts in the field of dam integrity, and who EPA says reflect the best professional judgment of those engineering firms," ENS reports. EPA says if companies fail to take sufficient action to protect the dams, the agency will "take further action and provide additional information to the public on the impoundments and facilities as it becomes available."

Even as the new information was released, one group was launching new complaints against EPA's relations with the electric power industry and coal-ash recyclers. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility maintains "the coal ash industry has been working in concert with EPA behind closed doors to counter state proposals for stricter regulation of coal ash waste and help the industry market this waste as an additive to construction materials and to spread on agricultural land or use in land reclamation," ENS reports. PEER based its accusation on e-mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. (Read more)

USDA abandons plan for national animal ID system

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is abandoning plans to implement a nationwide animal tracking system. The plan would have developed a system to track livestock from "birth to the butcher shop," Tom Lutey of the Billings Gazette notes. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement Friday, and by noon most of the references to the failed program had been removed from the agency's Web site.

The announcement was praised by ranchers wary of big government, Lutey reports. "It certainly means we have a USDA that is genuinely listening to the concerns of independent producers and is striking off in a new direction to achieve disease trace-back and prevention of communicable diseases," Bill Bullard, CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, told Lutey.

Small producers said the system would threaten their businesses. A Kentucky group said at a USDA "listening session" in that state that the plan "would do nothing to improve animal health or food safety, but would annihilate family-scale farms, which are the majority of farms in Kentucky," said a news release from the Community Farm Alliance, which says it is "grassroots membership organization with over 2,000 members in 75 Kentucky counties." Groups like the American Veterinary Medical Association backed the plan because they felt "extensive identification would protect consumers and minimize livestock loss," Lutey writes.

"Vilsack said he will turn to state and tribal veterinarians for a uniform way to track animals shipped across the country," Lutey reports. "Tracking animals moving intrastate will be left up to each state government." USDA had spent over $142 million developing the program, which was criticized for possibly requiring so much cattle information to be reported to meatpackers that ranchers would have difficulty negotiating fair cattle prices and for the plan’s mandatory government inspection requirements. (Read more)