Saturday, April 24, 2010

Poet paddles pols after they fail to pass budget

April is National Poetry Month. It's also the month in which many state legislatures are supposed to complete their business. In Kentucky, for the third time in five biennial-budget sessions, the legislature adjourned without passing a state budget, forcing a special legislative session and a possible shutdown of non-essential services when the new biennium begins July 1.

The debacle moved Constance Alexander, a poet-playwright who writes a column for the Murray Ledger and Times, to put the situtation in rhyme, using as a template Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat." Here are some excerpts:

The outlook isn't brilliant for the Bluegrass State today.
Tomorrow's not much better and the landscape's gloomy gray.
No budget passed in Frankfort after sixty days in session.
The void in leadership is vast enough to cause depression. . . .

Slots at Churchill Downs were nixed but sexting's still okay.
The legislative logic makes no sense, it's déclassé. . . .

Kentucky cannot move ahead by mortgaging tomorrow,
Yet sleight of hand in budgets past have led to current sorrows.

For the full poem, click here.

New home styles are designed for rural Alaska

Two prototype homes are being developed in Alaska that are supposed to cut energy bills in half and cost half as much to build, reports Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News. In one Alaska village, the prototype is octagonal with no hallways; it's easier to heat, using as little as 150 gallons of oil a year. Existing homes can use up to five times that, according to the Cold Climate Housing Research Center. The shape also exposes less of the exterior walls to the wind and allows foam insulation to be sprayed from the inside for easier construction in wet weather.

The other test home is a rectangular design that includes an 18-inch buffer of soy foam insulation that should allow the prototype home to sit directly on the ground without melting permafrost. Two of the walls are sloped inward at a 60-degree angle, mimicking the form of traditional sod homes and reducing snowdrifts against the house.
Some rural Alaska homes built in the 1970s have been designated unfit for human occupancy due to rotting and rain-soaked walls. The Cold Climate Housing Research Center's goal is to create affordable, energy-efficient home designs that village residents can build themselves, Hopkins reports. (Read more)

Volcanic ash poses threat to Iceland's livestock

It's not just the airlines that are feeling the fallout from the erupting volcano in Iceland. The toxic ash is also affecting livestock on the island.  Fifteen percent of Iceland's cattle, 6 percent of its sheep and 17 percent of horses are in the vicinity of the volcano, reports The Land. The lambing season has begun on some farms, and sheep cannot be let out due to volcanic ash in the atmosphere and on the ground. A few poultry and pig farms are in the area, but ash fall can create major problems for those farms because they rely on air conditioning. The greatest emphasis has been placed on guaranteeing livestock access to clean water and sufficient food. Iceland's Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture has established a special task force to respond to the impact of the eruption on agriculture and to organize efforts in case livestock cannot be let out in the coming spring. (Read more)

Friday, April 23, 2010

AP says it's now 'website' but still 'Web page'

The Associated Press, the chief arbiter of style in American journalism, announced last week that it was adopting the usage of the digital and tech world and would start saying "website" instead of "Web site." We pass this along because most weekly newspapers are not AP members.

Despite the adoption of "website," "webcam," "webcast," "webmaster" and similar words, the short form of Web is still capitalized, and also in terms using separate words, such as Web page and Web feed. Internet remains capitalized, as a proper name.

Kellogg Foundation gives $7 million to Center for Rural Strategies and partners for policy work

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is giving nearly $7 million to a national partnership of nonprofits to build support for policies that help rural children and families. "The partnership, led by the Rural Supporting Organization of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky., will assist networks of citizen groups and public-sector organizations working to expand opportunities for people living in America’s rural communities," a news release says.

The project will include more than 500 organizations in 47 states. "Too often rural America is out of sight, out of mind in the national conversation," center President Dee Davis said. "This work provides a way for groups to create a powerful rural voice." Other primary partners are North Carolina State University's Institute for Emerging Issues, MDC Inc. of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Innovation Network for Communities of Beaver Island, Mich.

The three-year grant will support, among other things, training for rural practitioners in policy development and advocacy, online tools to help rural groups communicate and organize, and meetings of the National Rural Assembly, a gathering for rural youth April 22-25 in New Mexico. For the Kellogg announcement, click here.

Forest acreage in Eastern U.S. is declining again

Earlier this month we noted a story from The Washington Post suggesting that forests in the Eastern United States are expanding, but a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey found otherwise. The study reveals the eastern forest did enjoy a period of regrowth from about 1920 onward, but over the last three decades forested area in the region has declined 4.1 percent, April Reese of Environment & Energy Daily reports.

"Considering the substantial historical shift from deforestation to reforestation in the East, which occurred mostly over a time span of less than 200 years, it is significant that forest cover may again be declining," the study says, adding that the loss of forest cover in the region has "important implications for sustainability, future carbon sequestration and biodiversity." The study points to timber harvesting and urban development as the most significant factors in the decline; mountaintop-removal coal mining was also a major factor, accounting for almost 1 million acres of forest loss, Reese reports. (Read more, subscription required)

ExxonMobil says to disclose fracking fluids; N.Y. gets strict on NYC watershed, speeding review

The largest oil company has joined the list of those who think it's a good idea to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. ExxonMobil said in a statement filed last week with the Securities and Exchange Commission that disclosing the chemicals "would ease concerns about potential contamination" from fracking, which involves pumping water, chemicals and sand under high pressure into formations to break up the rock and release natural gas, Katie Burford of The Durango Herald in Colorado reports. Some companies are resisting the push for disclosure because they say it would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

"ExxonMobil supports the disclosure of the identity of the ingredients being used in fracturing fluids at each site," the company said in the statement. "While we understand the intellectual property concerns of service companies when it comes to disclosing the proprietary formulations in their exact amounts, we believe the concerns of community members can be alleviated by the disclosure of all ingredients used in these fluids."

Bruce Baizel, staff attorney for the Durango-based Oil & Gas Accountability Project, told Burford that ExxonMobil's decision was a significant step, and predicted that once chemicals were disclosed, companies would start using greener alternatives. ExxonMobil announced its deal to acquire Texas natural gas company XTO Energy for $31 million in December. The merger reportedly includes an escape clause that would invalidate the deal if fracking is banned or becomes no longer commercially viable, Burford writes. (Read more)

Meanwhile, New York state officials have taken New York City's water-supply zone out of the review process for fracking the Marcellus Shale in that state. "Energy companies will be required to undergo a separate and exhaustive review for each well they propose to drill and hydraulically fracture inside the area, a hurdle that may amount to a de facto ban," Abrahm Lustgarten writes for ProPublica. "But it also removes a significant political and scientific obstacle to completing the two-year statewide review process, paving the way for drilling to proceed across much of the rest of the state as soon as next spring." (Read more)

USDA survey to locate farm-produced energy

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to gain a better understanding of farm-produced energy, so it will conduct the first annual On-Farm Energy Production Survey in May, Bob Meyer of Brownfield reports. USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service will mail a survey to farmers and ranchers who told the 2007 Census of Agriculture they were engaged in on-farm energy production.

The survey will focus on "use of wind turbines, solar panels, anaerobic digesters and other methods of energy production," Meyer writes. Bob Battaglia, Wisconsin director for NASS, told Meyer the results will "provide producers, policymakers and the public with factual data about the economic and environmental implications of on-farm energy production and demonstrate the steps farmers are taking to reduce their carbon footprint." (Read more)

Animal feed top cause of San Joaquin ozone

While discussion of livestock's environmental impact has focused on methane emissions, researchers are now linking animal feed to excessive ozone, a greenhouse gas. While automobiles are the key generator of ozone in urban areas, rural ozone production has been linked to farming, Janet Raloff of ScienceNews reports. University of California-Davis researchers discovered "corn silage generated about 125 parts per billion ozone, alfalfa silage a little less, and mixed oat-wheat silage a whopping 210 ppb," Raloff writes. Silage grain has a particularly harmful role in producing ozone because it is deliberately fermented, meaning it has lots of alcohol, a "reactive organic gas that can drive the atmospheric chemistry responsible for making ozone," Raloff writes.

The study was conducted in the San Joaquin Valley in California, which produces almost a tenth of the nation’s total agricultural output and is "home to three of the nation’s six most ozone-ravaged counties," Raloff reports. Cody Howard, UC-Davis environmental engineer and researcher on the study, told Raloff the region's geography and agricultural intensity make it unique. "It’s completely surrounded by mountains," he said. "Anything emitted in the Valley typically stays there for a long time — which presents a problem when you’re talking about ozone formation." (Read more)

Upper Big Branch miners worried about methane from old, haphazardly sealed shaft

An improperly sealed shaft passing through several old mines to the active mine may have contributed to the buildup of methane believed to have caused the explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia earlier this month, The New York Times reports. "According to a longtime foreman at the mine, who provided previously undisclosed details of its operation, the shaft was never properly sealed to prevent the methane above from being sucked into Upper Big Branch," Dan Barry, Ian Urbina and Clifford Kraus report. In lieu of the proper seal "rags and garbage were used to create a poor man’s sealant," the foreman, who asked to remain nameless, told the Times.

"Every single day, the [methane] levels were double or triple what they were supposed to be," the foreman told the paper. The problem came to be a daily worry. "I have had guys come to me and cry," the foreman told the reporters. "Grown men cried — because they are scared." Still, the miners "did not dare question the company’s safety practices," the reporters write, because as Andrew Tyler, an electrician and former subcontractor at the mine, told them, "It was all about production." A young, fit contractor passed out, apparently from the high methane levels, while climbing a ladder near the improperly sealed shaft a few months ago. The foreman told the reporters the incident was never reported to federal regulators.

The Times visited an underground TECO Coal Corp. mine in Hazard, Ky., to offer a contrasting picture of what a properly regulated mine looks like. While some of their comparisons may not be apt, since the TECO operation mines bituminous coal with the room-and-pillar method, while the Massey mine takes metallurgical coal via the longwall method, TECO's handling of methane seems particularly relevant. "The mine has to be ventilated," Robert J. Zik, TECO's vice president for operations, told the reporters. "Otherwise, it will destroy the company. I don’t think TECO Coal could have an accident like Massey’s and survive." The mine's ventilation system is stronger than federal regulations require, and miners are trained four times a year under smoky conditions to use their portable breathing devices, well over the once-a-year requirement. (Read more)

Federal inspectors who visited Upper Big Branch early this year "said senior managers showed 'reckless disregard' for worker safety by telling a foreman to ignore a citation the mine had received for faulty ventilation," Steven Mufson of The Washington Post reports. Hand-written notes from one inspector provided to the Post by the Mine Safety and Health Administration show the president and vice president of Massey subsidiary Performance Coal told a foreman "not to worry about it" when he asked about a ventilation problem cited by inspectors three weeks earlier. (Read more)

UPDATE, April 24: Massey responded to the Times article.

Obamas coming to Appalachia for recreation, memorial service for Upper Big Branch miners

President Obama, who has had political difficulties in most of Appalachia, particularly its rural precincts, will spend more than two full days in the region this weekend. He is expected to land in Asheville, N.C., at 1:20 p.m. EDT for a private getaway with his wife Michelle at the Grove Park Inn, right, which has hosted 10 presidents. On Sunday he and Vice President Biden will speak in Beckley, W.Va., at a memorial service for the 29 coal miners killed April 5 at the nearby Upper Big Branch Mine.

In Asheville, "The couple have planned a totally private weekend, with no public events scheduled," and their two daughters are not coming, reports Barbara Barrett of McClatchy Newspapers."Still, no presidential action is totally apolitical. This is Obama's fourth visit to North Carolina as president, and he visited nearly 20 times as a candidate. He took lefty Asheville heartily in the 2008 election but fared worse in the surrounding rural, conservative counties." Obama's margin in the Tar Heel State was thin; in West Virginia, he got drubbed.

The Asheville Citizen-Times website is blanketed with Obama coverage. A story by Joel Burgess says local Republicans are planning a protest but Tea Party activists are not. In Beckley, Mannix Porterfield of the Register-Herald reports that those wanting to attend the 3 p.m. service must pick up a free ticket at the Tamarack arts-and-crafts center on Interstate 77 just north of Beckley, or "the information desk of the West Virginia Culture Center at the Capitol complex" in Charleston, starting at 9 a.m. Saturday. (Read more)

UPDATE, April 24: The Christian Science Monitor asks, "Is progressive Asheville Obama’s vision for America?" over a story by Patrik Jonsson. "Hip, environmentally aware, self-reliant and undeniably quaint, Asheville, N.C is a progressive’s vision of what America could be. But mountain liberalism comes at a price." Accompanying the story is this official White House photo by Pete Souza, showing the Obamas meeting another hiking couple on a trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway outside Asheville. “He is the first sitting president to ever visit the Blue Ridge Parkway,” Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis told Karen Chavez of the Citizen-Times. (Read more)

'Deep Down,' a story of mountaintop removal, told mainly in human terms, premieres

Most films about mountaintop-removal coal mining have emphasized its environmental destruction and been told overwhelmingly from the opponents' point of view. The latest cinematic treatment of the subject takes a different tack, looking at the controversy through the lives of two friends in Eastern Kentucky: one who opposes surface mining, the other who agonizes over leasing his land for it.

"Deep Down: a story from the heart of coal country" also shows a relatively successful organizing effort against a mountaintop-removal mine proposed for Wilson Creek, just off KY 80 in Floyd County (at center of MapQuest image below; reclaimed mine at upper left; star locates Maytown Fire Deaprtment; though labeled Langley, the place is known locally as Maytown). "Maytown has become an example for small communities throughout Appalachia," the hour-long film says near its conclusion. It premiered last night on Kentucky Educational Television. (Click on map for larger image)
The film's protagonists are anti-stripping activist Beverly May and her friend Terry Ratliff, a self-employed woodworker who has no retirement fund, needs money and is offered $75,000 to lease 6 acres for part of the proposed mine. They and others illustrate the internal conflicts over coal, from the mining engineer who belongs to the Sierra Club to the miner at a public hearing who tells May and others, "You look at me any way you want to. Deep down in the back of your heart, you know you're wrong." May replies, "We're all the victims of the same coal companies; it's just that you're on top of the mountain and I'm down at the bottom." Later, she says, "In our culture it is difficult to compare human values to economic values."

Ratliff, whose father was a miner, tells a filmmaker that he's "straddling the fence" on the lease. "Peace and quiet, that's worth a lot to me." But then he is shown driving an all-terrain vehicle ona  reclaimed mine site and saying, "No matter how bad we screw it up it'll come back." He says of May, "She looks at this as a personal violation." His daughter Carly is also conflicted: "Mining IS our economy . . . I'm trying to be positive about it, but how positive is it if the foundation of my house gets busted?"

In the end, Ratliff doesn't lease, saying the land agent vastly exaggerated the money he would get, and May and her neighbors block the proposed mine's plans to use their road as a haul road, with the help of County Judge-Executive Robert Marshall, who tells them, "This has always been our lifeline ... then along came the mountaintop removal and the trucks got bigger and bigger and bigger. ... I'm with you ... to try to make this coal company own up to what they should." More importantly, the coal company fails to get a waiver of the requirement that mined land be returned to its approximate original contour, and files for bankruptcy protection. "The price of mining on Wilson Creek has really gone up," May says. "We made a difference. Floyd County's a little more democratic than it was two days ago."

KETKY will show the documentary at 11 a.m. Friday, midnight Saturday and June 17 at 2 p.m. The KETKY channel is available for free to all cable systems in the state. PBS is expected to air the film later.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Less tobacco demand = more alternative crops

Burley tobacco, the most common crop on Kentucky farms for a century or more, is becoming less common. Production dropped with the 2004 repeal of federal price supports and quotas, and buyout payments to quota holders. Now cigarette companies are cutting back their purchases, and more farmers are looking for alternative crops.

"With a decreased demand for tobacco products, the large companies that purchase Kentucky burley have either eliminated or drastically reduced many of their contracts," Mallory Bilger of The Spencer Magnet, a small weekly newspaper in Taylorsville, writes in the second half of a two-part series. She reports that growers who couldn't get contracts "have turned to alternative crops in hopes they will be able to keep their farm operations alive."

Bilger's example is the Deutsch family, which has farmed in the county for more than 100 years and has now given up on tobacco. (Bilger photo: Sandi Deutsch planted tomatoes in a "high tunnel" or "hoop house" to give them a more consistent temperature and protect them from frost.) "Sandi admitted that preparing a farm to raise alternative crops can take years," Bilger writes. "She and George have refocused their efforts on fruit and vegetable production and are also looking to turn their 200-acre farm into an agritourism attraction, or, more simply, a teaching farm."

The county's extension agent for agriculture, Bryce Roberts, told Bilger that the number of tobacco farms in Spencer County has dropped 75 percent in the last decade, driving many farmers to expand or diversify, but “There are no crops that produce the financial returns than an acre of tobacco can produce. Other farms are increasing their number of cattle and increasing the amount of other crops that they raise, including hay, corn and soybeans.” (Read more)

At hearing on next Farm Bill, Republican questions Vilsack's focus on rural development

A Congressional hearing called to discuss issues with the 2012 Farm Bill focused mainly on local questions from House Agriculture Committee members for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, including an accusation he was sacrificing traditional agriculture to focus on rural economic development. Rep. Frank Lucas, the senior Republican on the committee, chided Vilsack for "giving conventional farm programs short shrift" in favor of a focus on rural economic development and local food, Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register reports.

"Are you talking about turning rural America into a bedroom community?" Lucas asked. Vilsack countered that "funding for broadband expansion, small-scale food production and other programs were needed to increase rural business opportunities and stabilize communities," Brasher writes. Some conventional growers have voiced disapproval of Vilsack's emphasis on assistance to small-scale farms and processors, but the secretary argues "promoting local food production will not only keep people on the land but also build public for farm programs in general," Brasher writes. (Read more)

Forest Service says its law-enforcement officers can't talk to local media without D.C. permission

A memo obtained by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility reveals that the U.S. Forest Service has prohibited its law-enforcement and investigations (LEI) employees from speaking with local media without approval from the Washington office. PEER said the policy "stifles timely access to crime, fire and accident reports and flouts the Obama administration's promise of greater government transparency," Phil Taylor of Environment & Energy Daily reports. One correspondence obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request showed that a request from an unamed small weekly newspaper in Tucson, for an interview about smuggling activities in the Coronado National Forest, went unanswered for over a week.

"Until further notice all LEI employees are on stand-down from communicating with local and or national media contacts without clearance from the Director, LEI and Press Office, Media desk in the Washington Office," David Ferrell, the agency's LEI director, wrote in the memo, dated Sept. 1, 2009. The memo also "barred employees from offering presentations, media conferences, briefings or press releases regarding law-enforcement matters without prior approval from the director," Taylor writes.

Ferrell's memo followed one in August from Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell clarifying the agency's position on permission before granting interviews with national media. "The trigger word is national -- be it a national news outlet or national issue," Tidwell wrote. "The national media is extremely important, thus we must exercise an extra level of care to ensure that accurate information is provided." Forest Service spokesman Joseph Walsh said he wasn't able to comment on the agency's policy on contact between LEI personnel and media, but Tidwell's memo about "communications with national news media was not a departure from the normal Forest Service policy," Taylor writes. (Read more)

Fight for drought-resistant seed-corn market shaping up among corporate heavyweights

Much of the recent focus on genetically modified crops has been on Monsanto's Roundup Ready genes, but a bigger battle may be on the horizon. "After battling for a decade to corner the $11 billion market for insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant technologies, the world’s biggest seed companies are vying to develop crops that can survive drought," report Jack Kaskey and Antonio Ligi of Bloomberg News. "At stake is a new global market that may top $2.7 billion for the corn version alone." Monsanto says its drought-resistant corn will increase yields by 6 to 10 percent and be available as early as 2012.

Agricultural economists told the reporters that the technology could help farmers use irrigation in rain-short states, and reduce insurance premiums and boost land values in drought-prone regions. The increased corn production could also come at the cost of Midwest wheat and sorghum crops and significantly alter the market for biofuels. "Farmers around the world are going to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to technology providers in order to have this feature," Michael Mack, CEO of Switzerland-based Syngenta, told Bloomberg. Dupont Co. will test its drought-resisted corn with some farmers in dry western Kansas this summer (Read more)

While the seeds likely won't hit the market until 2012, some believe the race is already influencing the current legal battle over genetically modified crops. Some seed industry officials suspect the dueling lawsuits between Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto aren't actually concerned with Roundup Ready seeds, but are "over the rules that would cover licensing – and profits – for drought-tolerant corn," Dan Piller of The Des Moines Register reports on his Green Fields blog. While Monsanto hopes to perfect the trait in the lab, Pioneer is trying to be first on the market by using a "basic germplasm product developed through traditional breeding that wouldn’t require approval of the federal government," Piller reports. (Read more)

Deadly bat disease moves into Great Smokies

Despite the Great Smoky Mountains National Park's decision to close all caves to public entry a year ago to prevent the spread of deadly white-nose syndrome among bats, the disease has reached the park. The National Park Service announced Monday that "One little brown bat taken from hibernation at White Oaks Blowhole Cave tested positive for white-nose syndrome," The Associated Press reports.  The disease has killed over one million northeast bats since 2006.

"We closed all of the park’s 17 caves and two mine complexes to any public entry a year ago to prevent the possible importation of the WNS pathogen on visitor’s clothing or gear, but scientists have confirmed that bat-to-bat transmission of the fungus occurs," Bill Stiver, a wildlife biologist at the park, told AP. "We take this very seriously because national parks are often the primary refuge that endangered species can count on for protection." We reported in February that the disease had been found in Tennessee, but this week's news is a significant blow to the hope that its spread could be contained, since the White Oaks Blowhole Cave is home to the state's largest known hibernating colony of endangered Indiana bats, AP reports. (Read more)

7 states picked for stimulus-funded meth battle

The U.S. Department of Justice has selected seven adjoining states to participate in the stimulus-funded Rural Law Enforcement Methamphetamine Initiative. Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada and New Mexico will each receive funding to pay the salary of a state methamphetamine coordinator, Johnny Johnson of The Oklahoman reports. The position will be funded for two years, and in addition to overseeing efforts to reduce meth use in his or her respective state each coordinator will work with the others to tackle the problem on a national level. (Read more)

The states were chosen in a competitive application and selection process, says a news release from Strategic Applications International, a consulting firm that will help administer the program. Stimulus funds for the program will also be used to host a National Rural Law Enforcement Methamphetamine Summit June 22-24 in Denver. The project's website,, also contains numerous resources about meth use and law enforcement in each state.

Audit says big E. Ky. rural electric cooperative risks its viability by emphasizing low rates

The rural electric cooperative that generates much of the power for Eastern Kentucky "should make substantial improvements in its governance and financial condition," which has been made tenuous by an over-emphasis on low rates, says an independent audit for the state Public Service Commission.

"East Kentucky Power Cooperative already has the highest electrical rates in Kentucky, but a scathing management review says it may not be able to raise rates high enough to meet its long-term debt obligations," Ronnie Ellis reports for Community Newspaper Holdings. (Read more) In EKPC's headquarters town, Mike Wynn of The Winchester Sun sums up the audit this way: "Exploding debt and crumbling financial state have resulted from years of top-level mismanagement that sought low rates at the peril of organizational health." (Read more)

Changes will probably depend on the 16 distribution cooperatives whose elected boards choose directors for the EKPC board, says the audit by Liberty Consulting Group of Pennnsylvania. "The distribution cooperatives, in their role as stewards for their customer-owners, should take the initiative now to change direction," because the board members who represent them seem unwilling, the audit says. (Courier-Journal map)

It says all options should be on the table, "up to and including disposition of some or all of EKPC’s assets. . . . To the extent that continued operation in some form is appropriate, the next step would be to create (from a bottoms-up approach and giving no preference to incumbency) a revised governance structure and a new board."

The consultants were critical of the board and its response to a draft of the audit presented privately to them in November. "The board has moved away from the minimum standards for acceptable governance and it presently does not meet those standards," and "is generally unaware of the strategies currently in place at EKPC" and "is not sufficiently engaged in the business of EKPC," the audit says.

It says the board, focused on reducing its rate disadvantage with investor-owned Kentucky Utilities Co., places too much emphasis on building and operating its own generating plants, including a billion-dollar facility now in the works, and not enough attention to buying power from other suppliers. It says there should be minimum qualifications for board members. "EKPC’s board needs fundamental change in its composition, membership requirements, and functioning," the audit says, and calls for "changes in certain key personnel," without naming names.

The audit says there is a "dangerous" conflict between interests of the distribution co-ops and the main co-op: "While the consumer’s voice must be heard, a role of consumer advocate is not acceptable for directors" of EKPC. Distribution co-ops, whose directors are elected customer-members, are naturally more sensitive to rate issues, particularly in a region that is one of the nation's poorest.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

2/3 of rural counties lost jobs in February, but gains in the other 1/3 resulted in a net gain

Rural America followed the national trend by adding thousands of jobs in February, but the rural unemployment rate remains above the rate in exurban and urban counties. The rural rate in February was 11.1 percent, down slightly from 11.2 percent in January but still far above the 4.5 percent rate recorded in October 2007, Roberto Gallardo and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder.

States differed, and "Nearly two-thirds of all rural counties lost jobs between January and February," Gallardo and Bishop write. "Oklahoma appeared to be leaking jobs in early 2010, as did rural Texas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Washington." Conversely, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas and Louisiana appear to have gained rural jobs.

The Yonder has a chart of employment figures for every U.S. county in January and February, and its Yonder map below shows job gains and losses from January to February in rural counties. (Read more)

Obama administration casts net for sportfishers as it eyes protection of saltwater fish stocks

In March, we reported the Obama administration's efforts to debunk rumors of a possible ban on recreational fishing. Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is reaching out to sportfishers. NOAA has "created a new post for a high-level national policy adviser for recreational fishing, reorganized regional offices to put greater emphasis on sportfishing and created a new advisory panel on the issue," Allison Winter of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. The administration will also host hundreds of fishers this weekend for a national summit on recreational saltwater fishing.

The efforts are an attempt to reach out to the more than 15 million saltwater recreational fishers. They have a significant economic impact, but could pose significant challenges as NOAA attempts to rebuild depleted fish stocks, Winter reports. Observers say the possibility of NOAA imposing strict catch limits has led to a "fairly strained" dialogue between the industry and administration."We want to create a more trusting atmosphere between us and the recreational community, so they can see that we are responsive," Russell Dunn, NOAA's new national policy adviser for recreational fisheries, told Winter. "And so they can understand that while we are responsive to their concerns, we also have stewardship responsibilities to the resource."

NOAA's most recent assessment of the industry found "saltwater recreational fishermen spent more than $31 billion on gross expenditures in 2006 and contributed to more than $82 billion in total sales," Winter writes. While fishers say the administration has undervalued their economic contribution, some scientists claim  that NOAA "underestimates the sportfishing community's impact on fish stocks," Winter writes. Fishers estimate they account for three or four percent of the overall catch, but a 2004 study placed that number closer to 10 percent and at almost 25 percent of the catch of overfished populations. (Read more)

Forum to focus on new options for inmate count

Anyone interested in how the Census Bureau is counting prison populations according to state directives will have a chance to learn more at a Washington, D.C., forum next week. The April 27 event, "Prisons, Redistricting, and the Census: New Options for States and Localities," will be hosted by public-policy research and advocacy organization Demos, the Prison Policy Initiative and the Brennan Center for Justice. "Members of Congress, Census Bureau representatives, and state and local officials will discuss how prison counts affect fair representation, and how state and local governments can address these problems in the 2010 round of redistricting," says a news release. For the first time, states can decide whether prison inmates will be counted as residents of the locality with the prison or as residents of the last place they resided. (Read more)

Peter Wagner, the executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative and a participant in the forum, explained the need for more information about the issue in a comment on our most recent item about the debate: "The real victims of prison-based gerrymandering are everyone who doesn't have a massive prison in their district," he wrote. "Rural residents who don't live near prisons lose about as much from prison-based gerrymandering as urban residents in communities with high rates of incarceration."

Ohio middle class overwhelmingly gets most rebates for energy-efficient appliances

In Ohio, federal rebates to consumers purchasing energy efficient appliances have been most successful in middle class neighborhoods. "More than half of the rebates went to households in areas across the state where the annual median incomes are in the $40,000 to $60,000 range," Spencer Hunt of The Columbus Dispatch reports. In Central Ohio, almost half the rebates went to households in areas with median incomes between $50,000 to $70,000. As of April 5, more than 53,400 rebates had been redeemed statewide.

The Dispatch analysis "linked a database of people who redeemed their rebates to a separate database that uses U.S. Census Bureau numbers to estimate median household incomes within Ohio ZIP codes," Hunt writes. The poorest areas of the state, where median income was $30,000 or below, redeemed just 2 percent of the rebates. The richest areas, where median income was $90,000 or above, accounted for just 3 percent.

Lucia Dunn, an economics professor at Ohio State, hypothesized that the rebates, which range from $100 to $250 each, still don't make new appliances affordable for the poorest families. Among those with incomes of $90,000 and higher, "Saving $100 doesn't mean that much," Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor, told Hunt. "The larger explanation is that rich people don't want to be bothered with nickel-and-dime things." (Read more) (Dispatch map by Hunt and Tom Baker)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Colorado orchards say they try to hire locals, but find them difficult to attract to hard work

Some Americans complain that foreign workers take American jobs, but when Colorado orchards try to hire local workers they have a hard time finding enough local applicants. Over 300 local job-seekers inquired at Talbott Farms' orchard and vineyard this year, but the vast majority of the employed workers are in Colorado on H-2A guest-worker visas from Mexico. "It is not that Talbott and other growers don't want to hire fellow Americans hurting from extended unemployment," Nancy Lofholm of The Denver Post reports. "But many of those job-seekers aren't willing to tackle the tough, low-wage, long-hour farm labor." (Post photo by RJ Sangosti: Brandon Lock of Grand Junction prunes fruit trees at Talbott Orchards in Palisade.)

Local workers "miss a lot of work. They come when they want to come. They get bored," Mario Moreno, a crew leader for Talbott, told Lofholm. Before employers can hire H-2A workers they are required to "exhaust all attempts to hire Americans," Lofholm reports. John Harold of Tuxedo Corn in Olathe told Lofholm he got few local applicants this year after word circulated that his work days begin at 6 a.m. Colorado farmers say the guest workers are willing to work the long hours and will stay until after the harvest, a requirement of the visa. Many guest workers return to the same farms year after year.

"During boom times, locals often don't bother to look to the orchards and farm fields for jobs," Lofholm writes. "But when construction and energy-drilling jobs went away, the unemployed began to consider unskilled farm work that generally pays about $8 an hour." A requirement that employers anticipate the shortage of local workers and apply for H-2A workers at least 45 days before the workers are needed is just one of the complications of the guest-worker program. 

While the bulk of work is still done by guest workers, the combination of more available domestic workers and H-2A rules has resulted in a decline in requests for the guest workers in Colorado. In 2008, growers put in 153 applications for nearly 2,000 guest workers. This year, 96 growers have asked for 1,036 guest workers Lofholm reports. (Read more)

Researchers hope to make reputation of carp -- er, Kentucky tuna -- a little tastier

In January, we reported on a Louisiana effort to market invasive Asian carp as "silverfin"  and to sell the fish as food. Now a group of Kentucky researchers are attempting a similar project. A group of Kentucky State University researchers think the fish haven't caught on as food because of the reputation associated with bottom-feeding carp, so they are calling them "Kentucky tuna," reports Katheran Wasson of The State Journal in Frankfort.

"The whole point is to allow commercial fishermen to make enough money catching and selling carp so it becomes a viable industry," Sid Dasgupta, associate professor and principal investigator in the KSU Division of Aquaculture and Environmental Sciences, told Wasson. New Orleans chefs working on possible recipes describe the fish as tasting like a cross between scallops and crabmeat. The researchers are still looking for funding, but if they get their way, a grant could "pay for supplies, surveys, marketing analyses and collaboration with fishermen, restaurants, grocery stores and fish markets," Wasson writes. (Read more)

Ky. man builds a covered bridge to call his own

A disappearing emblem of Kentucky's past has made a comeback in Nelson County, in the central part of the state. David Mattingly first thought of building his own covered bridge eight years ago, and now after years of planning and work he has accomplished his dream: A 60-foot long, 20-foot high bridge spans a creek at the front of his property. “I just always wanted a covered bridge,” Mattingly told Lydelle Abbott of The Kentucky Standard in Bardstown (Abbott photo). Kentucky once had more than 400 covered bridges, but only 13 remain today,

After obtaining the necessary permits, Mattingly says construction took a couple of months, working on the weekends, Abbot reports. He said he has "always liked history and 'old timey stuff,' and looking at the things that others have preserved," Abbott writes. The bridge has received much praise from neighbors and one couple has even made plans to take some of their wedding photographs there this weekend. Abbott plans to paint the bridge red. (Read more)

Rural reporter sticking to story that won Pulitzer

Pulitzer Prize-winning rural journalist Daniel Gilbert says he will remain with the Bristol Herald Courier to continue reporting on the natural-gas royalties scandal he uncovered in southwest Virginia. The Media General paper was recently honored with the most-coveted Pulitzer, the Gold Medal for Public Service, for his enterprise on the story. Despite the honor, Gilbert hasn't received any job offers from big newspaper recruiters, Ian Shapira of The Washington Post reports. (Post photo by Michael S. Williamson: Gilbert, right, talks with Publisher Carl Esposito)

"There's a lot of buzz at the moment, but none of that means I'm a better journalist," Gilbert told Shapira. "I wouldn't say this catapults me to stardom." Gilbert expressed doubt to Shapira about his future as a journalist during tough economic times for the industry, but he has reassured Managing Editor J. Todd Foster that he plans to stay with the 30,000-circulation paper, Editor & Publisher reports. Foster told E&P after receiving the award last week that Gilbert "committed to me that he wanted to see this story through," and he had restated that commitment after the Post published its article Monday. (Read more)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Layoffs keep Ohio from using federal money to control runoff from farms

In November the U.S. Department of Agriculture made $320 million available to 12 states to help curb agriculture runoff near 41 priority watersheds, but one of those states, Ohio, will forgo the funding this year because it doesn't have the staff tackle the problem. Layoffs among area soil and water conservation staffers who would recruit farmers to adopt practices that "prevent, control and trap" nutrient runoff will keep the state from pursuing the funding to help clean the Upper Great Miami River watershed, Tom Beyerlein of the Dayton Daily News reports. The watersheds were chosen for their pollution's risk to the Gulf of Mexico.

Ohio Enivronmental Protection Agency officials tested water in 26 sub-watersheds in 2008 and 2009 and found "almost two-thirds of the sub-watersheds failed to meet state and federal standards for recreational use because of fecal bacterial contamination, while 16 percent didn’t meet standards to support aquatic life," Beyerlein writes. Ohio EPA enviornmental specialist Greg Buthker told Beyerlein the state faces stiff resistance from local farmers in addressing the runoff problem. "We’ve got our work cut out for us to get some better practices to keep the sediment on the farm," he said. "If the farmers don’t want to cooperate, there’s nothing we can do. It’s a free country."

Larry Antosch of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation told Beyerlin said his group’s 235,000 members support measures to keep fertilizer out of the water, but they favor "flexible" programs tailored to their operations instead of "one-size-fits-all" regulatory solutions. "If you had one number (of allowable nutrient runoff) for the state, you may be setting a standard that’s unrealistic for the more productive parts," he told Beyerlein. (Read more)

Hearings on 2012 Farm Bill begin Wednesday

While this fall's elections could change the political leadership of the House and Senate agriculture committees, House Chairman Collin Peterson will launch the first in a series of hearings this week to discuss the 2012 Farm Bill. "What I've told people is that they should put everything on the table and we'll look at it," Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, told reporters Friday. "I think it's a useful exercise to take a look at how we're doing, and does it make sense for the future?" The first hearing is set for Wednesday with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Allison Winter of Environment & Energy Daily reports.

Peterson pointed to crop insurance and cotton subsidies as key issues but said he has no "rigid agenda" for the bill. He added he wants to be open to a wide-range of ideas, including "possibly even changing the long-held, controversial direct payments program, which pays farmers regardless of crop or sales price," Winters reports. Last month the Senate Agriculture Committee approved legislation that would cut funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, one of the farm bill's biggest conservation programs, but Peterson warned the bill would face stiff competition in the house. (Read more, subscription required)

Another subscription-only service, DTN, reports in its Washington Insider section, “There is a growing conviction in Washington that the next Farm Bill must be fundamentally different than the one passed in 2008 — mainly because the sector continues to change, and now is fundamentally different than it was only a few years ago. In general, farm policy reforms occur when producers come to believe programs don’t work and either vote them out, or become so critical of their operations that they fall of their own weight. Observers suggest that such a time may be nearing for the current program structure. For one thing, the commodity programs now are providing little countercyclical support for a large share of the agricultural producers, and not much at all when it is needed.” Other factors include pressure to reduce the federal deficit, trade disputes over cotton and other programs, and “emergence of the renewable fuel markets" and their effect on feed costs for livestock producers.

Union data shows union mines have fewer deaths

Last week we excerpted a column from Truthout about the underplayed role of union-busting in the West Virginia mine disaster narrative. But are union mines actually safer than non-union ones? The data compiled by the United Mine Workers indicates they are, Daniel Malloy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. Of the 265 coal mining fatalities recorded since 2002, just over 11 percent occurred in union mines, but 27 percent of miners were represented by the union during that time. In 2009 just one of the 18 (5.6 percent) coal-mining deaths was at a union mine, while just three of 29 (10.3 percent) occurred in union facilities in 2008.

"In a nonunion mine, a miner is between a rock and a hard place," said Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky mine safety lawyer, told Malloy. "If you [raise a safety concern] in a nonunion mine, you're probably going to be fired or at least suspended. You can bring a federal action -- a safety discrimination case. But that's time-consuming and could take a couple of years." Union officials say the increased emphasis on safety and working conditions unions bring could have helped prevent the tragedy that killed 29 miners last week at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine. The Mine Safety and Health Administration and mining industry groups told Malloy they do not track safety statistics to reflect work force unionization, and some industry leaders criticized the UMW data for its small sample sizes.

"The union mines have safety committees, so they do have an extra set of eyes. So if there's something going on at the mine there might be one additional avenue that we may be aware of," Joseph Sbaffoni, Pennsylvania's director of the state Department of Mine Safety, told Malloy. "But from our perspective, we don't see much of a difference between them." Unionization doesn't appear to be a major focus of the congressional investigation into the West Virginia explosion, but one representative told Malloy she hoped the incident would serve as a rallying point for union membership. The UMW says it's making a renewed push to organize in mines, but was hesitant to refer to the Upper Big Branch disaster as a rallying point out of respect to the dead. (Read more)

Harlan editor welcomes coal expansion but finds ‘baffling’ lack of effort to diversify

Dire statements about the coal industry being under attack from the news media have become more common in recent months, but one Eastern Kentucky newspaper editor writes that blame may be misplaced. "We certainly recognize the importance of the coal industry to Harlan County and have hundreds of stories in our files about mining and growing up in mining camps," John Henson, editor of the Harlan Daily Enterprise, writes. "We aren’t, however, shills for the coal industry and recognize and report on the dangers of working in coal mines."

Hnson continues, "You can’t be too concerned about being criticized in the newspaper business. If you can dish it out, as the saying goes, you have to be able to take it, and we make mistakes like everyone else. But as far as coal is concerned, I have no doubt the Enterprise has given both sides numerous opportunities to speak out about the mining industry, from coal lobbyists to environmentalists and everyone in between."

Henson goes on to agree with many local leaders that Massey Energy's recent purchase and plans to expand of coal mines in Harlan County is great news for locals. However, he says that's no reason for the government to stop looking for ways to diversify the local economy. "When the coal business is good, business is good for Harlan County, which is good for the Harlan Daily Enterprise and any other media outlets in the area, and we can all use all the good news we can get these days," Henson concludes. (Read more)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Arkansas papers get grants to hire reporters

The Arkansas Presss Association has chosen five newspapers in the state for grants to hire an extra reporter for two years, at a salary of $35,000 a year, with the hope of improving news coverage.

The money will come from a $252,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and matching money of about $140,000 to be raised by the Arkansas Community Foundation, which thought up the idea. The "Write for Arkansas" program is designed "to provide more in-depth coverage of local issues," including economic development, Knight said in its January announcement. "The reporters will write articles for print and blog about their communities and experiences on a new Write for Arkansas Web site. The additional reporting staff will help Arkansas residents and leaders have a greater understanding of the state’s challenges and needs. Meanwhile, the project’s online component will chronicle local issues from across the state and open a new channel of communication allowing residents to participate in the news."

After a slow start, 26 papers applied. The grants were scattered regionally. The winners were the Madison County Record, Huntsville (northwest); Areawide Media, Salem (northeast); the Stuttgart Daily Leader (southeast); the Texarkana Gazette (southwest) and The Courier of Russellville (central). They are supposedm to have the reporters on the payroll by Aug. 1. (Read more)

Blankenship and Massey getting more scrutiny

When six coal miners and three rescuers died in the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah in 2007, mine operator Robert Murray took a high profile and landed on a national hot seat for his bombastic, control-freak performances and his company's record of cutting corners on safety and contributing to political causes. Now a much hotter seat has been warmed up for Don Blankenship, above, chairman of Massey Energy, whose Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia was the killing ground for 29 miners this month. (Photo by Haraz N. Ghanbari, The Associated Press)

Blankenship has been lower-key than Murray, but journalists have much to chew on. Not only does Massey have a relatively poor record on mine safety, Blankenship is a major political player and his company is a leading practitioner of the most controversial form of coal mining, mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia. This weekend saw a spate of stories about Blankenship and Massey; here's a summary:

"Federal inspectors have found more than 60 serious safety violations at Massey Energy operations since the explosion that killed 29 miners, adding to fallout from the disaster that includes a wrongful-death lawsuit by one of the men's widows," Tim Huber and Lawrence Messina report for The Associated Press. There were 442 citations from April 5 through Thursday; "222 were issued to one Massey property in Kentucky, Freedom Energy Mining Co. in Pike County," Linda J. Johnson and Bill Estep reported for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

In a lawsuit over Massey's last multiple fatality, at the Aracoma mkine in West Virginia in 2006, a local judge recently allowed a group of miners to use as evidence a memo to Blankenship that outlined problems that could have led to the deaths of two miners a week later. The plaintiffs hope to "do something other investigations have not: hold the Massey Energy parent company directly responsible for the fatal fire," Ken Ward Jr. reports for The Charleston Gazette. Logan Circuit Judge Roger L. Perry wrote, "It could be argued that Mr. Blankenship was personally overseeing operations at Aracoma."

Blankenship has been the subject of cartoons, like this one by John Cole of The Times-Tribune in Scranton, and verbal caricatures: "Don Blankenship is the Snidely Whiplash of coal," Michael Shnayerson writes for Vanity Fair magazine. Blankenship's pay has nearly doubled since 2007 "even as some of the coal mines he supervised accumulated safety violations and injuries at rates that greatly exceed national rates," Howard Berkes reports for National Public Radio.

This one isn't journalism, but it reflects the deep distaste some have for Blankenship: Filmmaker Anne Lewis, who did a documentary on his anti-union activities in Kentucky in 1986, publishes a screed about him and lists what she calls the "Massey crime spree" on The Rag Blog, "news and views from the progressive front."

Meanwhile, takes a look at Massey's political contributions and David A. Fahrenthold, Frank Ahrens and Steven Mufson of The Washington Post report how West Virginia's two Democratic senators and its senior Democratic congressman are walking fine political lines in the wake of the disaster. As you might expect, Blankenship is mentioned.

Davis, Petaluma and Los Banos papers top rural winners in California contest

The Davis Enterprise and the weekly Petaluma Argus-Courier and Los Banos Enterprise were the general-excellence winners among small newspapers in the California Newspaper Publishers Association contest, which handed out awards last week.

The Davis paper easily won the award in the classification for dailies with 10,000 circulation or less, which is most likely to include rural papers, and the Auburn Journal placed second. The two papers likewise finished 1-2 among editorial pages. Davis won for writing, but Auburn won for breaking news; Davis placed second in local news coverage, behind the Lompoc Record.  The Daily Triplicate of Crescent City, on the far north coast, won for investigative or enterprise reporting and placed second in breaking news. Davis won first and second for environmental and/or agricultural resource reporting, perhaps no surprise because its town is home to the University of California's leading agriculture progams.

Among weeklies with circulations of 4,301 to 11,000, the Petaluma paper, in Sonoma County, won for editorial pages, local news coverage and layout and design. Its second-place awards included Web site and editorial cartoon, above, by Steve Rustad. The Half Moon Bay Review in San Mateo County placed second in general excellence.

The Los Banos paper, which won the general-excellence award among weeklies with circulations of 4,300 or less, is published in Merced County, which is also home to the Merced Sun-Star, which won several awards in the 10,000-25,000 daily classification, including second for general excellence, behind the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

For a complete list of winners, and many examples of their work, download the special section from the CNPA Web site.