Saturday, May 01, 2010

Brown newspapers going bankrupt, selling out

A leading community newspaper publisher has gone into bankruptcy and is selling out. "Brown Media Holdings Co. and Brown Publishing Co. have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief and plan to sell their assets in 10 states to a bidder the companies have chosen," The Associated Press reports. "The Cincinnati-based, family-owned businesses . . . said they have strong cash balances, positive operating cash flows and financing in place to finance the bankruptcy process."

The companies publish 15 daily newspapers, 32 weeklies, 11 business publications and 41 free newspapers, shoppers or niche publications, mainly in Ohio. Others are in New York, Texas, South Carolina, Illinois, Iowa, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Wyoming. President and Chief Executive Roy Brown cited "an unprecedented economic and financial crisis." (Read more)
Meanwhile, Mark Fitzgerald of Editor & Publisher reports that Freedom Communications has emerged from its "pre-packaged" Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company owns the Orange County Register, 31 other dailies and 29 community weeklies, mostly in California.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Deaths of two coal miners get more than usual attention from pols, media after big disaster

If there was any doubt that coal-mine safety has a firm place on the public agenda, the reaction to this week's two-fatality roof fall at a mine in Western Kentucky shows it. Gov. Steve Beshear, who is up for re-election in 2011, went to the area, and President Obama issued a short statement about it today. We doubt that any president has ever issued a statement about the deaths of two coal miners, but perhaps when 29 die in one explosion, the president spends three sad hours at a memorial service and USA Today puts a mine-safety takeout on Page One, the White House attention span gets lengthened. (Photo of mine bathhouse by Jim Pearson, The Messenger, Madisonville, Ky.)

Rural news media are paying attention, too. The Times Leader, a twice-weekly newspaper in Princeton, Ky., outside the coalfield but in an adjoining county, ran The Associated Press's story about the mine being cited six times this year for not using enough roof bolts. A roof fall killed the miners. Here is background from Chuck Stinnett of The Gleaner in Henderson, Ky., on Alliance Resources, CEO Joe Craft and the Dotiki Mine. It has produced coal since 1966, which must be something of a record.

Florida educators say rural schools challenged by new mandates for math and science courses

A a new Florida law requires the state's high school students to take geometry, algebra II, biology, chemistry and physics to graduate. Some state educators say while the law makes it harder to graduate, it also makes it harder for rural schools to meet the standard, Lanetra Bennett of WCTV in Tallahassee reports. Educators say rural schools will have trouble finding teachers certified to teach the more advanced classes.

"That [certification] test is, needless to say, not the easiest test to pass. Most people who major in physics or major in chemistry with a physics background, they're not going to a small district to get hired because they can make money some place else," Taylor County High School Principal Michael Thompson, told WCTV. "It's going to be hard." Thompson said before his school's current certified physics teach passed the exam last year it had gone five years without a teacher on staff certified to teach the course. (Read more)

Meat industry stokes fight against ethanol subsidy

Several representatives of the livestock industry called for Congress to end its support of ethanol, in a letter to the House Ways and Mean Committee. "Although we support the need to advance renewable and alternative sources of energy, we strongly believe that it is time that the mature corn-based ethanol industry operates on a level playing field with other commodities that rely on corn as their major input," the letter says. The letter was signed by American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation and the National Chicken Council, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the paper's Green Fields blog.

"Favoring one segment of agriculture at the expense of another does not benefit agriculture as a whole or the consumers that ultimately purchase our products," the meat interests wrote. Matt Hartwig of the Renewable Fuels Association  responded in an email to Brasher: "Once again, corporate livestock interests are seeking … a return to the days they bought corn under the price of production for the American farmer. Such practices resulted in farmers getting more income from the government than they could from the marketplace, while corporate livestock industries prospered." (Read more)

In the face of opposition, Montana lawmaker predicts horse slaughterhouses will return

A Montana state representative says he is confident investors he's working with will soon open several horse slaughtering plants in the U.S. and possibly one in his home state. Republican Rep. Ed Butcher, who wrote a 2009 state law promoting construction of a horse-slaughter plant in Montana, says his plan remains on track though a potential site in Hardin has fallen through because of official opposition, Ed Kemmick of The Billings Gazette reports.

"In March the Hardin City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting facilities that would slaughter more than 25 animals within any seven-day period from opening in Hardin," Kemmick writes. Mayor Kim Hammond said the law was in response to the strain such a facility would put on the city's water system, not a "do-gooder" law. Butcher declined to list his other promising Montana sites, saying, "We’d get all the nutcases out there harassing the community." (Read more)

Meanwhile the Florida legislature has unanimously approved a measure that would make horse slaughter a felony, Robert Samuel reports for the St. Petersburg Times. The bill must still be signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist. A Tennessee bill that would pave the way for horse slaughter facilities appears destined for summer review instead of a vote before the legislative session is adjourned, WKRN of Nashville reports.

In wake of disaster, local school in shadow of Massey facilities gets gift to help relocate

At least one beacon of hope may be emerging from the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. After visiting the area of the mine, where 29 miners were killed in an explosion, Charles Annenberg Weingarten, director of the Annenberg Foundation, has decided to donate $2.5 million toward the relocation of Marsh Fork Elementary, Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal reports. In October local officials announced they planned to move the school, which sits in the shadows of a huge Massey Energy slurry impoundment and tipple. The school's cafeteria served as host to national and local media during the aftermath of the mine explosion.

Last month we reported Massey had reversed its previous position and decided to provide $1 million to assist in the relocation. "The total cost of relocating the school has been estimated at roughly $8.5 million," Maher writes. The West Virginia State School Building Authority has pledged $2.6 million, Raleigh County school officials have pledged $1 million and a local environmental group said it would give $10,000 to assist in the move. On its website, the Annenberg Foundation describes says its goal is to "to advance the public well-being through improved communication." (Read more)

MSHA, Massey target of criminal negligence and bribery probe after 29-fatality explosion

The Mine Safety and Health Administration and Massey Energy are targets of a federal criminal investigation into the explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 West Virginia Miners, National Public Radio reports. Sources close to the investigation told NPR the FBI is looking into possible bribery of MSHA officials and is exploring potential criminal negligence charges against Massey, report Howard Berkes and Dina Temple-Raston. The FBI declined to comment but would neither confirm nor deny that an investigation is ongoing. Massey told NPR it was not aware of the allegations and is fully cooperating with investigators, while MSHA has not yet responded to a request for comment. (Read more)

UPDATE, May 2: William H. Turner, the National Endowment for the Humanities chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College in Kentucky, represented Gov. Steve Beshear at the memorial service and wrote a reflection: "It reminded me of what America was, is, and can be. . . . How much more are we willing to pay a month on our light bill to make sure coal mining is safe? . . . What a fellowship, what a divine joy, to be in the company of fine people saying words about setting right the lives of coal mining families and singing songs of praise and possibility." For a PDF of the full article, click here.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kellogg Foundation and Walmart Foundation provide funding for rural schools to get grants

Since rural schools don't have the same access to private funding as their urban counterparts, the Kellogg and Walmart foundations have committed $9 million to help provide required matching money for rural schools' Investing in Innovation (i3) applications to the U.S. Department of Education. Private donors have provided $500 million for a fund for all schools, to be paired with $650 million the department has allocated for the competitive grant program, it says in a news release.

The $500 million of private donations will be allocated in three broad categories: innovation in classroom funds, innovation in school model funds and sustainability of these innovations funds. In addition to the $9 million for rural application's private matching funds, the Rural School and Community Trust will providing technical assistance to rural communities to help them apply for i3 funding through a grant from the Kellogg Foundation. You can see our previous report on that program here.

Rural counties receive more census-based funding, per person, than urban areas

News reports frequently cite the fact that the census is used in part to allocate billions of dollars worth of government grants and loans as proof of the importance of returning your census questionnaire, but exactly how important is that funding to rural America? Data from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., non-profit non-partisan research group, shows "rural counties received more funding per capita than either urban or exurban counties," and "rural counties in the South received the highest per capita payments," William O'Hare reports for the Daily Yonder.

Nearly $450 billion in federal grants is allocated in part by census data, making the overall amount per person $1,469. Rural counties received $1,719 per person, urban counties received $1,414, and exurban counties received $1,108 per person, O'Hare reports. "In the most urban counties, federal funds averaged $1,357 per person," he writes. "In the most rural counties [places that aren’t adjacent to any urban area and are without a town of more than 2,500 people], the payments averaged $2,407 per person." The Yonder chart below shows per capita funding in every rural county. Those in green received more than the national average, while those in red received below the national average.

The variance between rural and urban areas can be partially attributed to the importance of child poverty rates on funding formulas, O'Hare writes. The child poverty rate in the most urban counties is 16 percent; in the most rural, it's 27 percent. But per-capita funding for rural counties varies widely among regions. Southern rural counties received $1,938 per person while Midwestern rural counties received $1,449 per person, O'Hare reports. (Read more)

Vilsack points to rural economic development as key component of farm policy

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined the three B's for rural economic development Monday: broadband, biotech and biofuels. Vilsack said those elements would be particularly important to a broad approach to farm policy, Charles Abbott of Reuters reports. His comments came while speaking to the North American Agricultural Journalists.

Bob Stallman, head of the 6-million-member American Farm Bureau Federation, told reporters farm policy shouldn't be an "either-or conversation" between rural economic development and crop supports, Abbot writes. "We have to have the whole conversation," he said. Hearings for the 2012 Farm Bill are underway; the first field hearing is in Iowa tomorrow. (Read more)

Time missed due to mining injuries increases even as number of injuries decreases

The number of work days missed due to injury among U.S. miners is up sharply this decade. "From 2001 to 2008, the average injury cost a miner 48 days of missed work or restricted duty as he recovered from such trauma as an amputated limb, a broken bone, or a lost eye, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration records," Thomas Frank of USA Today reports. "That figure is up 45 percent from the years 1983 to 2000, when the average injury resulted in 33 days of missed regular duty."

USA Today's analysis looked at 550,000 injuries since 1983 that forced a miner to miss work. MSHA has recently touted increased mine safety as the overall number of injuries has decreased, Frank writes, but the agency's analysis fails to examine the severity of the injuries by looking at time missed. "It may be because people are less fit, or because medical care for these accidents is harder to get to," Patrick Coleman, a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health expert who studied mining accidents, told Frank.

In 2008 "MSHA recorded 1,200 instances of fallen overhead supports, 40 explosions from flammable gases or dust, and eight mine fires," Frank writes. During that same time, "more than 1,800 miners broke or chipped bones, 176 were crushed under rocks or machinery and 92 lost a body part such as a limb, finger or eye." (Read more)

Rapid City news anchor is suspended for making speech to tea-party rally

A Rapid City, S.D., news anchor has been temporarily suspended for giving a speech at a local tea-party rally. Shad Olson, a news anchor at KOTA-TV, was suspended after his supervisors learned of the speech in a Rapid City Journal story. "Shad’s speech to the tax day rally was a lapse in ethics, so we took appropriate action,” KOTA news director John Petersen told Kevin Wooster of the Journal. Peterson declined to say how long the suspension would last or what other penalties Olson faced.

Olson was a featured speaker at the April 15 rally, where he "spoke of misconceptions about the makeup of tea party participants," Wooster wrote. "Did you all forget your militias?" Olson told the crowd, referring to allegations of militia influence. He also pointed out the absence of insulting, profane signs or misspelled slogans at the rally during his speech and asserted that most Americans agree with the tea party movement. "Most people agree with us," he said. "They just haven't been taught enough history to know they agree with us."

Peterson told Wooster that Olson was entitled to those beliefs but his speech had crossed an ethical line. "A journalist should not participate," Peterson said. "A journalist should report the news, not make the news." News of the suspension was greeted by protests outside the KOTA studio Wednesday, the Journal reports. (Read more)

New study gives much lower estimate for release of carbon dioxide from ethanol production

A new Purdue University study reports that the amount of carbon dioxide released by ethanol production may be less than half as much as previous studies have found. Industry officials are using the new findings to argue that California's low-carbon fuel standards unfairly penalize ethanol, Debra Kahn of Environment & Energy Daily reports. The new study, led by Purdue agricultural economics professor Wallace Tyner, estimates switching forests and cropland to produce corn for ethanol would result in an increase of 13.9 grams of carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced, compared to previous estimates of 37 grams of the greenhouse gas.

The next most recent study, published in BioScience last month, and the new study both use the model produced by Purdue's Global Trade Analysis Project. The difference in the two estimates results from the most recent study's incorporation of "recent changes to GTAP, such as the inclusion of cropland pasture in the United States and Brazil, assumed increases in crop yield, and the assumption that trees felled to clear cropland will not release all of their carbon into the atmosphere, as some will be retained in wood products," Kahn reports. (Read more)

President Obama once again emphasized the need for ethanol production in revitalizing rural economies during his remarks at a Poet Biorefining factory in Macon, Mo., Alex Kaplun of E&E reports. "I may be president these days, but I used to be a senator from Illinois. I didn't just discover the merits of biofuels like ethanol when I first hopped on the campaign bus," Obama said. "I believe in their potential to contribute to our rural economies and our clean energy economy." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

As Derby looms, Thoroughbred industry suffers

As the Thoroughbred industry approaches its crowning event, Saturday's Kentucky Derby, it has a grim outlook. Over the past two years The Jockey Club reports the number of mares bred nationally is down 20 percent and the number of stallions standing stud has dropped 25 percent, racing writer Joe Drape of The New York Times reports. (NYT graphic) The industry's troubles are particularly evident in Kentucky, where 265 farms of over 20 acres in the leading Thoroughbred counties of Bourbon, Fayette, Woodford and Scott are for sale, up from 199 last year.

"Kentucky is also the heart and soul of the nation’s thoroughbred industry, and when it hurts, so do farms across the country," Drape writes. The upcoming Triple Crown events won't be spared from the trouble. Early favorite Eskendereya, who was pulled from the Derby this week because of a swollen leg, is owned by a bankrupt stable. The owners of Pimlico Race Course, host of the Preakness Stakes, are going through bankruptcy, and the New York Racing Association is looking for a loan from the state government after saying it would run out of money around June, the same month as the crown's final leg, the Belmont Stakes.

The problems in the thoroughbred industry aren't that different than those that brought about the housing crisis, Drape writes: "no-money-down lending and a breeding market based on the assumption of ever-rising prices." Arnold Kirkpatrick, a horseman and president of the Lexington real estate firm Kirkpatrick & Co., explained, "We ignored the notion of supply and demand. We bred too many horses, overborrowed to do it, and are now caught trying to sell them to people who don’t want them." (Read more)

Lawmakers urge colleagues, EPA to leave 'fracking' regulation to the states

Democrats from natural-gas states joined Republicans Tuesday in telling Energy and Commerce Committee leaders and the Environmental Protection Agency that regulation of hydraulic fracturing should be left up to the states. The drilling technique blasts a high pressure mixture of water, chemicals and sand to create tiny cracks in shale formations to release previously unreachable gas reserves and is under review by EPA after widespread reports of water contamination near "fracking" sites. The letter urges EPA not to use the study to "usurp state regulation of the technology," Katie Howell of Environment & Energy Daily reports.

The letter, sent to Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Massachusetts Ed Markey (D-Mass.), was authored by Oklahoma Republican Rep. John Sullivan and Arkansas Democratic Rep. Mike Ross and signed by 14 other committee members. The authors wrote that federal regulation would "add burdensome and unnecessary regulatory requirements to the drilling and completion of oil and gas wells, which could result in increasing costs of producing domestic natural gas resources without any additional benefit to public health, safety or the environment."

In a separate letter to EPA, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the ranking member of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said "federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing would hamstring the industry and would cause the nation to continue relying on foreign sources of energy," Howell reports. (Read more)

"There's no reason to think EPA's current study will render results that differ a whole lot from the various other studies that have been done on the subject," Chris Tucker of the Washington, D.C., gas-industry group Energy in Depth, told Dan Vergano of USA Today. In 2004 EPA found the technology "safe and well-regulated." USA Today also has an excellent Flash graphic explaining the fracking process. To see it, go here.

On Main Street tour, Obama ties his Wall Street reforms to economic recovery

President Obama used the first day of his Main Street tour, yesterday in struggling rural areas of Iowa, to tie the chances of economic recovery to his Wall Street reform. "You should not have to wait one more day for some of the strongest consumer protections ever," Obama told more than 2,000 people in the gymnasium of Indian Hills Community College. "And I'm not going to let this effort fall victim to industry lobbyists who want to weaken it. We can't let another crisis like this happen again. And we can't have such a short memory that we let them convince us that we don't need common-sense rules on Wall Street."

Obama said the economy nationally was beginning to turn the corner, but many areas like the ones he visited are still suffering, Thomas Beaumont and Jason Clayworth of the Des Moines Register report. "Without proposing any new policy, Obama walked through his administration's efforts to spur economic growth, arguing that its work is taking root," they report. "We're making some progress" in adding back jobs, Obama said. "Not as fast as I'd like, but the trends are good." (Read more)

In addition to showcasing his administration's efforts to revitalize rural America, the trip is a chance for Obama "to try out a populist message intended to rally his base in time for the fall campaign," Scott Wilson of The Washington Post writes. "I think he knew that he was well supported in Iowa," Donald Bailey, an Iowan who lost his job with a survey company 18 months ago and has not found employment, told Wilson. "Now he's trying to get the financial regulation bill, and maybe he needs a little support from his supporters." (Read more)

This morning, Obama made an unadvertised stop at Peggy Sue's Cafe in Monroe City, Mo., where "a totally unfazed waitress" took his order for a cheeseburger and fries, according to the press pool report. This afternoon, he visited the Poet ethanol plant in Macon, Mo., and a farm in Palmyra, Mo., where he was "greeted by a three-legged dog," the pool report said. Later, in Quincy, Ill., he told a crowd, "It’s towns like this where working men and women built the American Dream with their bare hands. This is where our roots are. ... Now, the truth is, is that sometimes it feels like that dream is slipping away." The speech text is on the White House site, along with others.

OK of offshore wind power along East Coast could have big implications for Midwest

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved the Cape Wind offshore wind farm in Massachusetts Bay today, a move that will have vast implications for the wind power industry, not just in Eastern states, Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times reports. The installation will be the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. "There are at least 11 other U.S. offshore wind projects in development, off Delaware, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and elsewhere in Massachusetts," Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reports.

Further such approvals would allow many Eastern states to produce their own green energy, a move that would have vast implications for Midwestern wind power, Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register writes on the Green Fields blog. "Iowa and other Upper Midwestern states are investing heavily in wind energy not just to power their own homes and businesses, but to generate surplus electricity that can be sold to more populous states east of the Mississippi River," Piller writes. To accomplish that goal the states need a national renewable energy standard and "a 765-kilovolt transmission line that would extend from the Dakotas and Minnesota through Iowa across the Mississippi to Chicago and beyond." A move to offshore wind could reduce or eliminate the need for Midwestern wind power to be sent east. (Read more)

MSHA chief says he will shut scofflaw mines; UMW seeks public hearing on Big Branch disaster

The director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration promised Tuesday that the agency will start using its power to shut down mines for repeated safety violations. Joesph Main, who is also an assistant labor secretary, also "said his agency will also be asking Congress to give it new authority -- such as subpoena power and tougher criminal penalties," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. Main's comments came during Capitol Hill testimony about this month's disaster at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 West Virginia miners. (Read more)

The testimony evolved into a duel between Massey and federal regulators about the company's pattern of safety violations. "The 'catch-me-if-you-can' model of workplace safety and health appears to have been at work at Upper Big Branch," Main said in testimony to the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee. "The company that owns this mine, Massey Energy, has a troubling record when it comes to protecting its workers." Massey countered that it had a safety record "better than the average underground mine, and that it had won three safety awards from MSHA last year," Siobhan Hughes and Mark Peters of The Wall Street Journal report.

Bruce Watzman, the National Mining Association's senior vice president of regulatory affairs, told the committee that the spotlight on Massey may be unfair, when asked why his group put up with the frequent violator. "I'm not sure there's much value gained in ostracizing an individual or an organization," he said. Massey CEO Don Blankenship is on the NMA's board. (Read more)

Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, used part of his testimony to call for regulators to hold a public hearing investigating the disaster. That position was echoed by the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, which hand-delivered a letter to Main calling for a public hearing or that MSHA immediately provide transcripts of investigative interviews to the public and media, Ward reports on his blog Coal Tattoo.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Escalating war between Humane Society and animal agriculture makes small farmers choose

The Humane Society of the United States is on a roll, having "won more than 25 statewide ballot initiatives since 1990, from banning mourning dove hunting in Michigan to the prohibition of veal crates in Arizona," according to its website, as cited by Bill Bishop in the Daily Yonder. HSUS's success, particularly passage of limits on confined animal agriculture in seven states, has sparked a strong reaction by farm lobbies, creating "an all-consuming battle between HSUS and its opponents, most of whom are in rural America," Bishop writes. We first wrote about the war here.

HSUS’s tactics are too divisive, Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, told Kristen Hinman of the Riverfront Times in St. Louis: "They're causing the industry to say, 'You're either for us, or you're for the Humane Society.' And that's not the truth. . . . There is another position out there, and that's having independent family farmers raising livestock ethically on open, competitive markets. It's good for a state, and for farmers, and our national security, and for a whole multitude of reasons it's good for the economy."

Bishop concludes, "This division is forcing small farmers to choose between big agricultural interests and the Humane Society — when neither has the best interest of the small producer at heart." (Read more) The Animal Agriculture Alliance is holding its ninth annual Stakeholders Summit in Washington Wednesday and Thursday.

One Appalachian writer's reflections on the mine disaster and Obama's visit

President Obama "won many West Virginia hearts with his sincerity, understanding and commitment to follow through with improved safety measures, and to get to the bottom of this tragedy by conducting a thorough investigation," during his Sunday speech at the memorial service for miners, freelancer Betty Lewis writes for The Rural Blog.
When I walked out of the Beckley arena following the service, a reporter for USA Today stopped me. He wanted to know if one of the dead miners was a family member. I told him, “No.” He asked, “Why did you come?”

“I am from a coal-mining community in this area. I came to support the miners and their families. We are ONE: One family, One community.” (Read more)

After selling his company to Massey, coal boss 'pays it forward' in big bonuses to employees

Several Central Appalachian communities recently received a sort of economic stimulus, but it wasn't from the government. Richard Gilliam, principal shareholder and co-owner of Black Mountain Resources, passed on roughly $80 million from the $1 billion sale of his coal mining company to Massey Energy to the employees in the form of cash bonuses and retirement-fund investments, report Faith Clark of the Tri City News in Cumberland, Ky. Each employee got a bonus of $4,300 for each year of work at the company and a 401-K contribution proportionate to the employee's 2009 earnings.

"I wasn’t expecting that much money, and sure wasn’t expecting that much in my 401. In fact, I wasn’t expecting anything from the sale of Black Mountain Resources, except hopefully to stay employed by Massey," one employee who asked to remain anonymous told Clark. "I’m just a coal miner with a wife and kids, trying to make a living. You sometimes see bonuses given to the upper echelon of employees, but never to every single person like this. I am just speechless at the company’s generosity. I had never heard of anything like this before, anywhere. It was a pretty amazing gesture by Richard, and my family is thankful. Just very thankful."

The sale affected 1,200 employees in Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia, where the company is known as Cumberland Resources. Local banks were forced to place multiple-day holds on the bonus checks because they were not prepared to handle so much money, Clark reports. "Richard Gilliam’s display of generosity is unprecedented in the business world," Ross Kegan, BMR's vice president of operations, told Clark. "Coal operators are sometimes accused of taking the money and the coal out of the hills and leaving. Richard Gilliam has set a legacy of the opposite by paying it forward." (Read more)

Biofuel of diesel and beef byproduct will power passenger train through cattle country

Amtrak and the Oklahoma and Texas transportation departments hyave announced a year-long test to see if the Heartland Flyer, a passenger train that runs between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, can run on biodiesel and beef byproduct, Jay F. Marks of The Oklahoman reports. The test is funded by a $274,000 grant from the Federal Railroad Administration.

The train will use a blend of 20 percent byproduct and 80 percent biodiesel. Officials say it will requires little to no engine modification, Marks reports. "At the end of the test period, Amtrak will measure the fuel’s effect on the locomotive’s valves and gaskets," Marks writes. "The rail operator also will collect locomotive exhaust emissions for analysis with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency protocols." (Read more)

TVA takes another look, buys more wind power

The South has been slow in adopting renewable energy sources for a variety of reasons, including its geography, but that may be changing. The Tennessee Valley Authority hasn't expanded its investment in wind power since 2004, but recently has "signed contracts to buy 1,380 megawatts of wind-generated power from providers outside the Tennessee Valley," Larissa Brass of the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports. New research suggesting that taller turbines might unlock wind power in regions thought ill-suited for the energy source has led TVA to look again at wind.

TVA chose its out-of-state wind projects over biomass and solar projects because it was the most economic option, Brass reports. Without new technology to tap wind in the South, the region will have to depend on transmission from the Midwest to meet its renewable energy goals. "For the Eastern Interconnection, both in terms of geography as well as population, it doesn't really have a wind resource," said Bob Zavadil, executive vice president of power systems and co-founder of Knoxville-based electric power engineering firm EnerNex Corp. "If we're going to reach the 20 percent target, you've got to have a lot of wind in the Great Plains, no matter what - that's even with offshore wind, which is reasonably speculative at this point."

Transmission from the Midwest to areas with no wind generation is no sure thing. The current transmission infrastructure can only support wind power for 6 percent of the nation's energy demand, Brass reports. Permitting issues for new transmission lines also face local, state and federal approval. "There is an impact," Brandon Blevins, wind program coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told Brass. "If the attitude is, let's bring this all from the outside, then you lose that economic impact in the state." (Read more)

Obama tour focuses on rural economy

Revitalizing the rural economy is the focus of President Obama's latest segment of his "White House to Main Street" tour. The two-day trip began with a stop in Eastern Iowa today and will also bring the president to Missouri and Illinois, Patricia Zangerle of Reuters reports. In advance of the trip, the White House issued a 42-page report on the rural economy, which looks at the administration's efforts to increase lending to rural small businesses, promote biofuels based on agriculture products and support rural recreation and tourism.

The three-state tour marks a visit by Obama to "areas far from the cities and coastal regions where he is most popular," Zangerle writes. Obama will also focus on his administration's efforts to "boost agricultural exports and strengthen rural infrastructure," Zangerle reports. At the final stop on the tour in Quincy, Ill., Obama will speak on Wall Street reform. (Read more)

Obama is visiting Lee, Henry and Wapello Counties in Iowa, each of which has an unemployment rate higher than the state as a whole, Thomas Beaumont of the Des Moines Register reports. The president will focus on what the stimulus act has brought rural areas, but one Iowa State University economist told Beaumont the federal government may not be able to stop the job loss those three counties have experienced. "We've seen decades of persistent population decline in a lot of these areas," Liesl Eathington said. "There's a reason for that. People tend to move to larger and larger urban centers where there are more diverse employment opportunities. It's natural to see what we're seeing in Iowa. To try to fight that can be a losing battle." (Read more)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pulitzer-winning rural editor says investigative reporting will preserve newspapers

Much of the focus on the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded to the Bristol Herald Courier for uncovering a natural-gas royalties scandal has been on the reporter who broke the story, but the newspaper's editor deserves praise for the environment he's helped to create. "A few days before landing a Pulitzer, 28-year-old reporter Daniel Gilbert was interviewing the Easter bunny because he had weekend duty at the Herald Courier," Jane Podesta writes for The Huffington Post. "That's how it works in a hands-on newsroom overseen by a Lou Grant-style editor, J. Todd Foster, who unleashes all his reporters to do investigative work but demands daily reporting on hyperlocal stories."

"It's time to stop crying in our beer and realize no matter how big a newspaper, if it has a commitment it can do investigative reporting," Foster, at right in photo, told Podesta. "If we can no longer cover every school board and city council meeting, we can still do investigative reporting without worrying about spending the money or risking being sued. The investigative reporting niche will save newspapers." Foster, "a burly investigative reporter-turned-editor," convinced publisher Carl Esposito, at left in photo, to fund Gilbert's participation in Investigative Reporters and Editors' week-long computer assisted reporting boot-camp and then oversaw Gilbert's reporting on the scandal.

When the Media General paper lost 3,000 subscribers after pulling out of two Southwestern Virginia counties to save on delivery costs, Foster refused to cut investigative reporting. Most media pundits have called the Herald Courier's win a surprise, but Foster was prepared for the win. He suggested to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in February that he thought the paper had a shot at a Pulitzer. He told Podesta, "I ran to the store and bought two $4.99 bottles of champagne and threw them in the trunk," he told Podesta. "I thought, if we don't win, I'll take them home. If we do win, I'll look clairvoyant." (Read more)

In his Sunday column, Foster took whacks at The Washington Post, which declined to hire him at 38, saying he had reached his potential, and which published a story about his paper that made an assumption about its viability and leaped to a conclusion about Gilbert's future. He says on Facebook that he is "overjoyed at the national response" to the column, "written during a prolonged writing slump, at 35,000 feet, in 27 minutes, in the throes of journalistic passion. There may have been a few beers consumed at the airport during an earlier layover."

Probe finds widespread fraud in carbon offsets

As much as 75 percent of the $700 million market for carbon offsets may involve fraud, The Christian Science Monitor and New England Center for Investigative Reporting report in a joint investigation. "Carbon offsets are the environmental equivalent of financial derivatives: complex, unregulated, unchecked and – in many cases – not worth their price," Doug Struck writes. Not just your average working class individuals have been fooled by the schemes. The Vatican purchased carbon offsets to balance its greenhouse-gas emissions, but none of the "Vatican Forest" planned for an Hungarian village by eco-restoration firm KlimaFa has been planted.

People who purchase the offsets are buying into projects that are never completed or paying for ones that would have been done anyway, the investigation found. Their purchases feed middlemen and promoters seeking profits from green schemes that range from selling protection for existing trees to the promise of planting new ones that never thrive, Struck writes. "In some cases, the offsets have consequences that their purchasers never foresaw, such as erecting windmills that force poor people off their farms." (Read more)

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute has also posted at Q&A with NECIR Director Joe Bergantino about the project.

Illinois casino seeks 2nd tourism grant from city

A small Illinois town with a big name is again planning to use part of its tourism budget to bring big-name musical acts to the local casino. Metropolis, Ill., population under 7,000, will spend less money on the effort this year after hosting six concerts in 2009. The city council is expected to vote on a proposal from Harrah’s Metropolis Casino and Hotel  requesting $30,000 from the city's hotel-motel room tax fund to subsidize three outdoor summer concerts, Steve Vantreese of The Paducah Sun reports. Metropolis, across the Ohio River from the Kentucky city of 30,000, approved a $150,000 request from Harrah's in 2009 for six concerts. Lynyrd Skynyrd and Gary Allan have been booked already.

"$150,000 was a lot of money, although it served its purpose by bringing people to Metropolis," Alderman Charles Barfield, city representative on the Massac County Tourism Commission, told Vantreese. Harrah’s said it cut its grant request because funds were less plentiful this year. City tourism director Angie Shelton told Vantreese the fund is in better shape now after being depleted by the 2009 grant. Metropolis promotes itself as "hometown of Superman," with this statue, and the local paper (owned by the Paxton family that owns The Paducah Sun) is The Metropolis Planet. (Read more, subscription required)

What makes veterinarians go rural, then leave?

Two new reports published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association illustrate why veterinarians work in rural areas and why they leave. The first report reveals that rural vets place a preference for the rural lifestyle at the top of their list, says an AVMA news release. Other top reasons include working in animal care at the herd level, working with individual animals, the location of family and friends and the desire to practice where a community needs for veterinary care.

The second report lists several quality-of-life concerns as top reasons for leaving rural practices. "Emergency duty and time off were the top two reasons cited by veterinarians who left rural practice," says the release. Salary, practice atmosphere and family concerns rounded out the top reasons for leaving rural practices.

In February we most recently reported the growing shortage of veterinarians in rural areas. The journal offers one way to stem it: "To promote retention of personnel in rural veterinary practice, these positions may need to evolve over time to meet the changing needs of veterinarians. As practitioners mature, they may place an increased emphasis on salary to support a growing family and additional time off to pursue other interests." (Read more)

Ethanol profits drop as blending volume tops out

Ethanol producers have been enjoying profits since mid-2009, but as the industry approaches the "blend wall," prices are beginning to drop. The blend wall is the theoretical limit of the total amount of ethanol that can be mixed with gasoline. Most gasoline can contain no more than 10 percent ethanol. Dan Piller of The Des Moines Register reports that ethanol production is running at about 1 billion gallons per month nationally and the industry has almost reached the saturation point for the 130 billion gallons of gasoline that U.S. motorists will buy this year. The saturation point has dropped ethanol prices about 30 to 40 cents per gallon over the last month in Iowa, the country's No. 1 producer.

Ethanol prices usually increase in tandem with crude oil and gasoline, Piller reports. But as the wholesale price for gasoline reached an 18-month high at $2.32 per gallon last week, ethanol prices continued to drop. "You tell me what's happening," said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. "The blenders should be buying more. But demand is off." The return of several ethanol plants to full production after being idled last year and the addition of two more 100 million-gallon plants has pushed production to 98 percent capacity, which is driving down prices.

Industry officials want the government to make the blend wall recede by allowing gasoline to contain 15 percent ethanol. In November the Environmental Protection Agency delayed its decision until mid-2010 for more study of the increase's likely effect on automobiles and small engines. Even with a 15 percent limit, some fear the industry won't see an immediate rebound in demand. "The E15 is simply an allowable limit," Shaw told Piller. "It isn't a mandate." (Read more)