Saturday, May 08, 2010

Grant money available to support lawsuits that advance freedom of information

The National Freedom of Information Coalition has received a $180,000 grant to support freedom of information litigation, NFOIC Executive Director Charles Davis said today at the group's annual meeting in Arlington, Va.

Davis said the NFOIC had already used some of the money, from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, to support lawsuits in several states. He said the grants were for up to $5,000 for "up-front costs" such as depositions, filing fees and witnesses. Davis said the terms of the grant does not allow payment of attorney's fees, but the guarantee that such expenses will be paid had already encouraged law firms to offer free attorney time. "As long as they're sure they won't be dipping into their wallets to pay fees, a lot of firms are more willing to offer attorneys," Davis said, adding that two suits were settled as soon as the defendants found out about the grants.

The funds are intended to help small, local newspapers and citizens' groups that can't afford to file such lawsuits, Davis said. Grant applications must be made through state groups, such as Kentucky Citizens for Open Government, and NFOIC says it will process them within days.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Pulitzer-winning editorialist from small paper in upstate N.Y. shares tips with Alaska journalists

UPDATE, March 2011: Mahoney won the National Headliner Award for editorial writing.

Small-market newspapers can have effective editorial pages by writing strongly, conducting campaigns, using varied approaches and leavening their criticism with praise, the small-daily editorialist who won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing told journalists in Alaska today.

Mark Mahoney of The Post-Star in Glens Falls, N.Y., was among the speakers at the Alaska Press Club’s annual “J-Week,” a conference that brings journalists from all over the nation, and sometimes other nations, to share knowledge with those on The Last Frontier.

“I’m always thinking of different ways to use the language,” Mahoney told those at his session. “A lot of people have one style and that’s it. . . . I try to use five or six different styles” in writing 200 editorials a year. He said one editorial in a campaign against underage drinking consisted almost entirely of a series of ridiculous comments by readers who didn't like an earlier editorial.

Another unusual approach, depicting a government-secrecy issue in bedroom terms, may have helped Mahoney win the Pulitzer for the 30,000-circulation Lee Enterprises paper. He said that got a lot of attention, but he pointed to a very different approach in another of the 10 editorials he submitted. That one profiled two local officials who he thought did a good job of providing public records. That approach fit one of the bullet points on Mahoney’s handout: “When someone does something well, make sure you praise them on your editorial pages."

Other tips: Use editorial pages to educate, with fresh reporting; make editorial pages attractive, with photos and graphics; and recommend outside resources with sidebars and boxes. Here is our item from last year about his Pulitzer victory, which he said the town of Glens Falls took as its own. "They felt like it was an accomplishment we had all achieved," he said, so he put the prize on display at the local library, and when he asked recently if the staff wanted to return it, they said, "Oh, no, people still come in and have their pictures taken with it."

New Wisconsin law allows direct sales of raw milk

A new law in Wisconsin would push the state into the sale of raw milk. Advocates hope the law will encourage other states to legalize raw milk sales, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. "It's the best state this could have happened in for us," Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Washington-based Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates drinking raw milk, told reporter Scott Bauer.

Pete Kennedy, a lawyer with the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which is affiliated with the foundation, told Bauer bills in four of the six states considering expanding raw milk sales died this year. South Dakota joined Wisconsin as states allowing sales after it liberalized its regulations to allow sales at farmers' markets, Bauer reports. If Gov. Jim Doyle signs the bill into law as expected, Wisconsin will become the 20th state to allow direct sales of raw milk from dairy farmers to individuals. Nine other states allow retail sales.

The federal government banned interstate sale of raw milk in response to fears of food-borne illness.  Laurie Fischer, executive director of the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, which has 760 members, including dairy farmers, cheese-makers and others in the dairy business, said the group "opposed the legalization, fearing an outbreak of disease could damage the state's reputation for providing a healthy, good product," Bauer writes. (Read more) Earlier this week we reported the battle between western traditional dairies and raw milk dairies.

Local-food movement has distribution problems

The National Restaurant Association says the local-food movement is gaining in popularity among restaurants, but restaurants are finding supplies hard to come by as distributors are slow to embrace the movement. In addition to many large food distributors not carrying local products, "fragmented networks of local farms don't know how to distribute the food efficiently," Jay Field of National Public Radio reports. Some distributors say food safety concerns prevent them from providing local food.

When Amy Miller, the food service director at Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital near Madison, Wis., asked distributor Reinhart Food Service for some local organic chickens, she was told food-safety regulations made that impossible. "While these federal guidelines are voluntary, big distributors require them to minimize the risk of delivering contaminated food," Miller told Field. Reinhart Food wouldn't comment on the story, but Bob Golden, an industry analyst in Chicago, says the main barrier to more local food is economically based.

"The major distributors are trying to gauge demand, and adjust their orders and offers accordingly," Golden told Field. "It's very complex and complicated, adding a whole realm of locally sourced foods." Kyle Stiegert, a food systems economist at the University of Wisconsin, added that the upfront investment required of distributors to fully embrace local food makes the cost prohibitively high for the foreseeable future. "To me, the key is to make local food available, but also to make it price competitive," he told Field. "Without the price competition, it's going to be harder to get people engaged on this." (Read more)

Honeybee colonies kept losing bees over winter

A survey from Apiary Inspectors of America and the Agricultural Research Service reveals honeybee colony losses remained above 30 percent between October 2009 to April 2010. Respondents reported losses of 33.8 percent of colonies nationwide from all causes, up from 29 percent in winter 2008-2009, ScienceDaily reports. The rate remained below winter 2007-2008, which saw 35.8 percent losses.

Jeffrey Pettis, research leader of ARS' Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., told ScienceDaily the high losses are particularly worrying because they don't include colonies lost during the summer. ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's principal intramural scientific research agency. Twenty-eight percent of beekeeping operations that reported some of their colonies perished without dead bees present, a sign of Colony Collapse Disorder. Those operations reported 44 percent loss of their colonies, up from 32 percent last winter. Beekeepers who didn't report signs of CCD lost 25 percent of their colonies. (Read more)

Advocacy group says Farm Bill did little to change pattern of payments to wealthy farmers

Despite lawmakers' promises that the 2008 Farm Bill would reduce payments to the most wealthy farmers, little seems to have changed, says new data from the Environmental Working Group. The new data released Wednesday shows that "Wealthiest farmers in the country are still receiving the bulk of government cash," Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press reports, and "series of exemptions written into the bill has made it more difficult for the public to find out who is receiving what."

EWG publishes a database every several years based on Freedom of Information Act requests to the Agriculture Department, which collects data on subsidies but doesn't organize it for the public to search, Jalonick writes. The new database shows "just 10 percent of farmers received 62 percent of federal farm payments in 2009, roughly the same amount as in 2007 and 2008, before the farm bill was enacted," Jalonick writes. "They are well dug in," Ken Cook, head of EWG, told Jalonick. "They have a strong interest in defending the status quo."

Randolph Rogers, a Hartsville, S.C., farmer who ranks 56th on the list of top recipients, told Jalonick those who want to change the way payments are made don't understand the high cost of farming. "Everybody just acts like we just put our money in our pockets," he said. "But it takes that money to operate." Rogers said his subsidy payments dropped after the bill was passed, but a loophole allowed him to recoup some of the money by adding his children and his wife to his farm corporation, called Rogers Bros. (Read more)

FCC says it will reclassify broadband to maintain 'net neutrality,' and phone company stocks drop

The Federal Communications Commission announced Thursday it would reclassify broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service. The change will give the FCC the authority it needs to implement its national broadband plan, which will require broadband companies to adhere to "net neutral" policies, "prohibiting phone and cable companies from prioritizing or discriminating against Internet traffic traveling over their lines." The plan will not exempt broadband companies from many other regulations that telecommunications services face, Joelle Tessler of The Associated Press reports.  The decision is expected to be challenged by Republicans and big telephone and cable companies.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the compromise of applying narrow rules to broadband companies would "ensure the agency has adequate authority to govern broadband providers without being too 'heavy-handed,'" Tessler writes. FCC previously classified broadband as a a lightly regulated information service, but a federal appeals court ruled last month the agency didn't have the authority to regulate broadband under that approach. The national broadband plan "aims to give more Americans access to affordable high-speed Internet connections by revamping the federal program that subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural areas and using it to pay for broadband," Tessler writes.

Internet companies such as Google Inc. and Skype Ltd. say net neutrality rules are "needed to prevent broadband providers from becoming online gatekeepers and blocking Internet phone calls, streaming video and other services that compete with their core businesses," Tessler writes. House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio called the plan "a government takeover of the Internet." Shares of phone companies Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. dropped 2 percent after the announcement, and cable stocks "tumbled even more, reflecting the fact that cable companies have a larger share of the broadband market and no wireless operations to fall back on," Tessler reports. (Read more)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Byrd says coal industry should 'never dominate our politics to the detriment of local communities'

The coal industry is important to West Virginia, but that doesn't mean it should not have to answer to several basic principles, the state's senior senator writes in an editorial. Democrat Robert Byrd calls for the industry to respect the miner and miner's family, the land that yields the coal, and the sovereign government of West Virginia. "Coal brings much needed jobs and revenue to our economy," Byrd writes. "But the industry has a larger footprint, including inherent responsibilities that must be acknowledged by the industry."

"West Virginia has some of the highest quality coal in the world, and mining it should be considered a privilege, not a right," he continues. Byrd argues that "any company that establishes a pattern of negligence resulting in injuries and death should be replaced by a company that conducts business more responsibly." Writing of the environmental impact of mining he adds, "If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated."

Byrd acknowledges the vast lobbying power of the industry, but says it "should never dominate our politics to the detriment of local communities." He explains, "For nearly a hundred years they have come to our presidents, our members of Congress, our legislators, our mayors, and our county commissioners to demand their priorities. It is only right that the people of West Virginia speak up and make the coal industry understand what is expected of it in return."

"The old chestnut that 'coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource' deserves revision," Byrd concludes. "I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such." Byrd was apparently too weak to speak at the memorial service for the 29 miners killed last month at a West Virginia mine, but this editorial probably goes farther than any speech at such an event would have. (Read more)

Gore calls ethanol from corn a mistake; biofuels industry uses oil spill as teachable moment

Former Vice President Al Gore said he has hope for second- and third-generation biofuels, but classified support for ethanol from corn or sugar beets as a mistake. Gore was the keynote speaker at the Biotechnology Industry Organization 2010 convention, Gayathri Vaidyanatha of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "I was an enthusiastic supporter of the first generation of biofuels," Gore explained. "I was mistaken."

Gore acknowledge that the mistake has "set the stage for the development of second- and third-generation fuels using feedstocks and algae that do not compete with the food supply," Vaidyanatha writes. Talk at the convention was upbeat for the biofuel industry. Using feedstocks and wastes from agriculture and forestry  for biofuel production could replace the oil industry.

Speaking of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Gore explained, "This horrendous tragedy occurred because easily recoverable reserves are done. We are pushing into frontier regions." (Read more, subscription required)

In a letter to President Obama, the Renewable Fuels Association said the spill is further evidence of the importance of biofuel investment. "This tragedy can provide a teaching moment and once again steel the resolve of the American people to take this country in a new direction," the letter said. RFA went on to call for the government to "raise immediately the limit on the amount of ethanol that can be added to gasoline from 10 percent to 12 percent; raise the blend limit to 15 percent after some pending government research is finished; and ease restrictions for loan guarantees being sought for advanced-biofuel projects," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog. (Read more)

Tennessee legislature passes guns-in-bars bill

In November we reported that a Tennessee judge had overturned a state law allowing guns in bars because it was "fraught with ambiguity." But with a veto-proof majority, the Tennessee legislature has approved a new law allowing guns in any restaurant that serves alcohol. "If it becomes law as expected, it allows more than 270,000 Tennesseans with handgun-carry permits -- plus millions of others from states whose permits are recognized by Tennessee -- to go armed into any business serving alcohol of any kind," Richard Locker of The Commercial Appeal in Mamphis reports. Gov. Phil Bresden vetoed the previous bill before the legislature voted to override the veto.

In January we reported on tourism interests speaking out against the bill, but those protests and one Republican representative's passionate speech asking "What line will we not cross for the NRA?" were not enough to prevent the bill from passing, Locker writes. Individual restaurant owners can still post signs prohibiting guns in their business. Lawmakers declined to add an amendment that would have "banned guns in businesses deriving less than half of their income from food sales and required owners of such places to post gun-ban signs," Locker writes. (Read more)

Rural counties led in income growth, but were still below urban counties in per capita income

The top counties showing an increase in personal income between 2007 and 2008 are decidedly rural. The 108 highest ranked counties and 364 of the top 400 counties in average personal income growth are rural, Bill Bishop writes in the Daily Yonder. "Most of the counties with the fastest growing incomes were in the Midwest and Great Plains, communities that benefited from extraordinary increases in farm revenue in ’08," Bishop writes. Counties in green on the Yonder map below have the highest growth rates, while counties in red have growth rates below the 2.9 percent national average and those in dark red saw decreases in income.

Despite the rural-heavy trend in the fastest growing counties list, the gap in per capita income between rural and urban counties widened in the 2000s. "In 2000, average per capita income in urban counties was $10,281 greater than in rural counties," Bishop writes. "By 2008, the gap had grown to $11,864." Counties with the lowest per capita incomes were concentrated in "Eastern Kentucky, South Texas, the Mississippi Delta and counties with high concentrations of Native Americans," Bishop writes. The Yonder also has data for each county available in spreadsheet form and charts ranking the top 50 and bottom 50 rural counties in per capita income growth. (Read more)

Human rights organization reports on woeful conditions of child farm workers

Watchdog organization Human Rights Watch released its first report on deplorable working conditions for U.S. child farm workers 10 years ago. In a report released Wednesday, the group says little has changed. The report says "conditions for the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 child farmworkers 'remain virtually as they were' and faulted Congress, the Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to take effective action," David Crary of The Associated Press reports. "The Labor Department has done a very bad job up to now," report author Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy director of HRW's Children's Rights Division, told AP. "I've investigated child labor in India, in El Salvador. Child labor in America looks like some of those places. It looks like what people think happens only in other countries."

Children working on farms generally make less than minimum wage, drop out of school at four times the national rate and face high safety risks, HRW reports. At least 48 child farm workers died between 2005 and 2008, Crary writes, and 16- and 17-year-old farm workers are allowed to perform work deemed "particularly hazardous" by the Labor Department. In nonfarm sectors no one under 18 can perform such tasks.

"We simply cannot — and this administration will not — stand by while youngsters working on farms are robbed of their childhood," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis told AP. The agency has added more than 250 new field investigators in the last year and plans to add more, Crary reports. EPA drew the report's ire for failing to adequately consider the special vulnerabilities of child workers in its regulations regarding pesticide use on farms. EPA characterized many of the concerns raised by HRW as "sound" and said the agency is strengthening "its assessment of pesticide health risks, in part to improve conditions for child workers," Crary writes. (Read more)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Ohio State student journalist faces charges for photographing runaway cows; university backs off

UPDATE: Kotran "said he will still retain a lawyer even after an OSU official announced that he will not be charged, and that he has a number of options available to him," Jack Moore of The Lantern reports.

An Ohio State University student journalist is facing legal charges after photographing cows that escaped from OSU's agriculture school, but will likely receive no legal help from the university or newspaper. Alex Kotran, a freshman photographer for the student newspaper The Lantern, was "detained, handcuffed and is facing a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass," after photographing police's attempt to corral two runaway cows on campus, Byron Edgington reports for The Lantern. Kotran repeatedly explained to officers he was allowed to take pictures because he was standing on public property, but police say he was a safety hazard. (Read more)

Now Kotran says it appears that he's on his own in the legal battle. The Lantern has no money budgeted for legal services for student staff members. Representatives from OSU Legal Affairs told Lantern General Manager John Milliken "the university cannot provide Kotran with an attorney or the money for an attorney because it is a conflict of interest," Michelle Sullivan reports for the newspaper. "I find it odd that the university has the resources to pursue prosecution of a student who hasn’t done anything wrong, but it doesn’t have the resources to help defend a student who hasn’t done anything wrong," Tom O’Hara, The Lantern's adviser, the paper.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, told the Lantern "cases in which university police press charges against student journalists are rare," and "it is fairly uncommon for a university to provide a student journalist with criminal defense counsel," Sullivan writes. He added, "My strong prediction would be that someone higher up in the university will recognize that this was a terrible mistake by the police and work to make it right." (Read more)

Libraries face budget cuts as usage increases

Americans have turned to public libraries during the recession in record numbers, but that hasn't stopped library budgets from being slashed. The 2010 State of America’s Libraries Report reveals "24 states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2010," Lynda Waddington of The Iowa Independent reports. Nearly half those cuts were greater than 11 percent. Just three states reported an increase in funding, while seven states and the District of Columbia provide no funding for libraries at all.

"In total, 41 percent of the states that responded in January 2009 reported declining state funding for public libraries," Waddington writes. "Georgia, for instance, has seen state funding reductions of more than 7 percent each year for the past three fiscal years." State cuts were often compounded by local funding cuts. Meanwhile, "two-thirds of public libraries help patrons complete online job applications, provide access to job databases and other online resources (88 percent) and civil service exam materials (75 percent), and offer software or other resources (69 percent) to help patrons create resumes and other employment materials," Waddington writes. A January 2010 Harris Poll survey, revealed 219 million Americans agreed that the public library improves the quality of life in their community. (Read more)

Republicans say Obama, Vilsack shortchange farmers by helping 'hobbyists' raise local food

Three Republican senators say the Obama administration's focus on local food for the benefit of city dwellers is hurting conventional farming and rural areas. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Georgia Sen. Saxy Chambliss and Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts say the administration is diverting money from rural areas that need it in favor of promoting its "locavore niche," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog. Chambliss and Roberts both serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"Unfortunately, this spending doesn’t appear geared toward conventional farmers who produce the vast majority of our nation’s food supply, but is instead aimed at small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets," the senators wrote. Vilsack countered that the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program will benefit rural areas. "I believe cultivating these new markets – not replacing old ones – is critical to revitalizing rural America by preserving wealth, increasing farm income, and reminding us all of the hard work and values that sustain those communities and our nation," he wrote in a response letter.

The senators took particular exception to a recent memo from USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan urging agency chiefs to use funding for projects such as community cooking classes or refrigeration systems in urban areas, Brasher reports. "American families and rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their concerns," the senators wrote. (Read more)

Massey launches internal investigation amid shareholder concerns about mine-safety issues

Amid a shareholder campaign against the re-election of three board members, Massey Energy has hired outside help to conduct its internal investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 West Virginia miners. Bobby R. Inman, Massey's lead independent director and a former CIA director, "said the company's board hired an academic expert to evaluate violations cited by the [Mine Safety and Health Administration] over the past two years, and 'what did we do with each of those,'" Joann S. Lubin and Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal report. The board also asked outside director Richard Gabrys to lead a special committee that will examine Massey's safety record and the April 5 explosion.

Inman declined to reveal the identity of the academic expert hired to evaluate the violations. Bill Patterson, executive director of CtW Investment Group, an arm of labor federation Change to Win, is launching a campaign against the re-election of three Massey board members. Patterson told the Journal the board's use of an academic "sounds like a possible step in the right direction," but he is troubled by the refusal to identify the expert. "The pattern of conflicted expertise is enormous here," he said.

Separate from Massey's announcement Tuesday, "Federal mine-safety investigators disclosed they assembled a new team to respond to anonymous tips" related to the disaster, Lubin and Maher report. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis asked for the new group to gather confidential information from the public, miners and family members of those killed in the accident. The Labor Department also formed an internal review team to evaluate the actions of MSHA personnel before the explosion. (Read more)

Traditional dairies lobby against raw milk in West

In November we reported more states were considering allowing raw milk sales to help struggling dairies. In Colorado, the product is growing in popularity with state help. Colorado is one of 29 states, with Wisconsin to join them, with "cow-share programs that use communal ownership to get around laws forbidding the retail sale of raw milk," Jason Blevins of The Denver Post reports. Sixty Colorado dairies now offer straight-from-the-cow milk, but that hasn't stopped traditional dairy interests from lobbying against its consumption.

"Eating should not be risky behavior, and we know better now," Judy Barbe, a dietician and senior director of nutrition affairs for the Western Dairy Association, comprising farmers in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, told Blevins. "The protection provided by pasteurization is too great to forgo." Raw-milk advocates say pasteurization removes some of the drink's natural health benefits. "I have more faith in Meg, my farmer, than FDA officials who are being lobbied by industrial food lobbyists," Michael O'Brien, whose Fort Collins family gets its milk directly from a Windsor dairy, told Blevins.

"What is happening nationwide as advocates push for raw milk and it becomes more mainstream, you are going to see more outbreaks and more illnesses and you will see more sick or dead kids, and that will create a pushback effect on raw milk," Bill Marler, a food-safety attorney who represents food-poisoning victims and helped form the website "Governors and legislators are going to be facing more difficult choices with raw milk, addressing issues of personal freedom versus science." Mary Blair McMorran, executive director of the Raw Milk Association of Colorado, counters that the concern is misplaced. "The conventional dairy industry produces milk designed for pasteurization. That milk will certainly get you sick if you drink it raw," she said. "We design milk for drinking." (Read more)

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Studies: Rural students less likely to attend top colleges but less hindered by family adversity

Highly qualified students from rural areas are less likely to enroll at the highest ranked U.S. universities and colleges than their urban and suburban counterparts, says a new study from Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. Matthew A. Holsapple and Julie Posselt, doctoral students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and research assistants at the center, will present their findings Sunday at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, Peter Schmidt of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

The study used data from the National Center for Education Statistics' 2002 Educational Longitudinal Survey and examined students' enrollment at U.S. News & World Report's 2004 list of top 50 universities and top 50 liberal-arts colleges. "We find that even holding constant academic achievement and expectations, socioeconomic traits, and financial-aid factors, rural students are as much as 2.5 times less likely to enroll in one of the U.S. News-top-ranked institutions compared to non-ranked four-year institutions," a summary of their findings says. The researchers made no allowance for geographic proximity of the students to the schools.

Two other studies scheduled to be presented at the conference offer better news for rural students, Schmidt reports. Both studies, supported by the National Research Center on Rural Education Support at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, used data from the Educational Longitudinal Survey that tracked eighth graders in 1988 over time. In one study, "Researchers concluded that the relatively low postsecondary-enrollment and degree-attainment rates of rural students are not a result of their geographic location, in itself, but stem from their greater likelihood than students elsewhere of coming from socioeconomic or demographic backgrounds associated with educational disadvantage," Schmidt writes.

The second study revealed "rural students raised in nontraditional families, such as those headed by single parents, were no less likely than their rural counterparts from traditional families to earn a bachelor's degree," Schmidt writes. Conversely, urban and suburban students from nontraditional families were significantly less likely to earn a bachelor's degree than those raised in traditional families. (Read more)

USDA steps up push for rural alternative energy

Last month we reported the Department of Agriculture was planning to conduct the first survey of farm-produced energy. That survey is just part of the Obama administration's larger plan to promote rural alternative energy, Allison Winter of Environment & Energy Daily reports. USDA and Environmental Protection Agency officials "signed an interagency agreement yesterday to expand their efforts to help farmers start energy projects by capturing methane from their livestock operations," Winter writes.

Tomorrow Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley will host a "clean energy economy forum" for rural stakeholders, "intended to highlight opportunities for biofuels and other renewable energy projects in rural areas," Winter writes. The USDA and EPA agreement extends the AgSTAR program, founded in 1993 to support and encourage the development of methane recovery technologies, and will provide nearly $4 million over the next five years for the project.

"EPA estimates there are 8,000 farms across the United States that are good candidates for capturing and using biogas," Winter writes. If each of those farms were to implement a biogas system, EPA estimates methane emissions would be reduced by more than 34 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, which is roughly equivalent to yearly emissions from 6.5 million passenger vehicles. EPA says the systems could could generate more than 1,500 megawatts of renewable energy. (Read more)

Pesticide-resistant 'superweeds' threaten crops

As we first reported last August, widespread use of the pesticide Roundup by U.S. farmers has led to a new strain of superweeds. Now national news media are taking notice.

William Neuman and Andrew Pollack of The New York Times report that as farmers liberally use Roundup on crop fields, weeds have adapted and forced farmers to use more labor-intensive methods. Farmers are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and abandon no-till methods in favor of regular plowing. Farmers also are growing Roundup Ready crops using genetically modified seed to tolerate the chemical, allowing farmers to spray their fields to kill the weeds while leaving the crop unharmed.

"We’re back to where we were 20 years ago," said Eddie Anderson, a no-till advocate who will now plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring to battle the Roundup resistant weeds. "We’re trying to find out what works." Farm experts say the more labor-intensive methods could lead to "higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water," the Times reports.

"It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen," Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, told the Times. Farmers have discovered 10 resistant species in at least 22 states, affecting millions of acres, predominantly soybeans, cotton and corn. Ian Heap, director of the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds, told the Times that just seven to 10 million acres of U.S. fields have been affected by the Roundup resistant weeds so far, but resistant weeds have also been found in Australia, China and Brazil.

Monsanto, the company which created Roundup and the Roundup Ready seeds, downplayed the risk of resistant weeds and warns against overstating the problem. "It’s a serious issue, but it’s manageable," Rick Cole, who manages U.S. weed resistance issues for the company, told the Times. (Read more)

Obama administration finally sets Rural Summit

In March 2009 we reported President's Obama's failure to follow through on a campaign promise to hold a national rural summit within the first 100 days of his presidency. Now the administration has scheduled the summit for June 3. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will host the event, titled "National Summit of Rural America: A Dialogue for Renewing Promise," on the campus of Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Mo., says a USDA news release. Perhaps as a way to address the campaign-proimise issue, the release says the summit will conclude the 22-stop "Rural Tour" that Vilsack and other Cabinet members have made for the past year.

"This Summit will be an opportunity for rural Americans to share their vision for creating a more prosperous and promising future for rural America," Vilsack said in the release. "The Obama Administration is committed to strengthening rural America, and now farmers, ranchers, and foresters from throughout the country can have the opportunity to engage with key policymakers and community leaders to discuss the priorities and policies necessary to keep its future bright." Participants will discuss issues facing Rural America including rebuilding and revitalizing rural America, creating new jobs, improving infrastructure, improving farm competitiveness, and encouraging innovation in renewable energy.

For a blog post and video from Vilsack, click here. Those wishing to attend the summit can register here.

EPA proposes two rules for disposal of coal ash

The Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday proposed two rules to regulate disposal of coal ash. If adopted the rules would mark the first national rules governing the disposal of the power-plant waste, says an EPA news release. The two rules differ in which section of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act they use for enforcement. "One option is drawn from authorities available under Subtitle C, which creates a comprehensive program of federally enforceable requirements for waste management and disposal," the release says. "The other option includes remedies under Subtitle D, which gives EPA authority to set performance standards for waste management facilities and would be enforced primarily through citizen suits." EPA has provided a chart comparing the two approaches. The proposed rules will be available for public comment for 90 days after they are published in the Federal Register.

The announcement marked clear progress on coal-ash regulation but was short of the bold step some had hoped for, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette writes on his blog Coal Tattoo. "After listening to the press conference, and as I read the 563-page document EPA just posted on its website, I have a hard time understanding how this is more than the Obama administration punting on making a decision here," Ward writes. Of the differences between the two proposed approaches, he explains, "RCRA Subtitle D leaves many decisions to the states, while Subtitle C sets up a nationwide regulatory program set up by EPA."

"EPA’s coal ash proposal is certainly a step forward," Lisa Evans of environmental group Earthjustice, which favors use of Subtitle C," told Ward. "While EPA has published two options, the science and law dictate only one path. Coal ash is hazardous and only hazardous-waste regulations can protect communities and safeguard our drinking water. EPA has proposed that option and should be commended for this action." (Read more)

Monday, May 03, 2010

Sigma Delta Chi Awards in journalism include some to journalists in smaller markets

The Society of Professional Journalists today announced the winners of the Sigma Delta Chi Awards in journalism. Many non-daily newspaper categories had no winners, and the winners were based in metropolitan areas. The winners among dailies in rural or small-city markets, with circulations of 50,000 and less, included:

Public Service Journalism: “Meijer's Secret Plan,” Brian McGillivary, Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle, Michigan

Deadline reporting: "Natural gas explosion destroys half a downtown block," staff, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Montana

Non-Deadline Reporting: “Fatal Funnel,” Gabe Semenza, Chris Cobler and staff, Victoria Advocate, Texas
Investigative Reporting: “Luzerne County Corruption Investigation,” Terrie Morgan-Besecker, Jen Learn Andes, Jerry Lynott and Gary Visgaitis, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 
Editorial Writing: “Kids for Cash,” Dave Janoski, The Citizens’ Voice, Wilkes-Barre (same subject as above)

Feature Reporting: “Hospice: Learning How to Live,” Sara Schilling, Tri-City Herald, Washington state 
General Column Writing: “Sunday Reflections,” Tracey O'Shaughnessy, Republican American, Waterbury, Conn. 
Sports Column Writing: Mike Benischek, Poughkeepsie Journal, New York
And we couldn't help but include this one:
Research about Journalism: “Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print, Broadcast and on the Wild Web,” John H. McManus, The Unvarnished Press

The awards will be presented Oct. 2 during the 2010 SPJ Convention and National Journalism Conference in Las Vegas. For more information contact Lauren Rochester at (317) 927-8000 ext. 210 or at

Foreign steel mills demanding more U.S. coal

The recession, mild weather and concerns about impending climate legislation led to a drastic drop in demand for coal last year, but demand is trending upward as foreign demand for steel increases. Coal companies are scrambling to keep pace with demand for metallurgical coal used by steel mills as both U.S. and foreign steel markets rebound, Jeffrey Tomich of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Domestic steel mills are running at 73 percent capacity after slipping below 40 percent in 2008. Asian mills, which never dropped as steeply as U.S. ones, are running at full steam.

"Met coal is literally red hot and in short supply globally," Arch Coal CEO Steven Leer told Tomich. Increasing output of metallurgical coal has been difficult with declining reserves in the Appalachian Mountains and recent closures of several small Chinese mines. "Eventually, recovering demand collides with a decline in production and can create a shortage," Paul Forward, a coal analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co., told Tomich. The shortage has resulted in a sharp increase in metallurgical coal prices.

Demand for U.S. metallurgical coal will increase by almost one-third to 69 million tons this year with most of that production being sold to Europe, Asia and South America. "Arch, Peabody and Patriot have all announced plans to take advantage of rising prices by maximizing output," Tomich writes. Increasing metallurgical coal output was complicated by last month's West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 miners. The Upper Big Branch mine was projected to ship around 2 million tons of coal this year, almost all going to steel production. (Read more)

Oil blowout puts Gulf Coast back in disaster lens

Almost five years ago the national spotlight was pointed firmly at the Gulf Coast after the disaster brought by Hurricane Katrina. Now, just months before the anniversary of that tragedy, national media are once again focused on the region. "For them the oil spill nearing our shores is today’s lead story," Mary Perez of the Biloxi Sun Herald writes. "For us, it is personal." Locals are left to fear the oil spill's impact on both the region's ecosystem and economic livelihood.

"Last weekend the beaches of South Mississippi were crowded with families flying kites and the fleet was blessed in Pass Christian. This weekend families scan the water looking for any traces of oil," Perez writes. "The shrimp and oyster boat captains who paraded Sunday for a blessing now wonder how they’ll survive the oil slick." Tom Becker, president of the Mississippi Charter Boat Captains Association, told Perez it's the unknown that concerns him most. "We don’t know how long we’re talking about," he said. "What’s going to be lost?"

"Coast folks are creative, resilient and always seem to figure out a way to land on their feet," John Hairston, president of Hancock Bank, told Perez. He added, "My wife and I moved back to the Coast to raise our children and live out our days. The image of our beloved coastline and barrier islands marred with sludge is both terrifying and infuriating. We’ll get this mess cleaned up, God willing, but someone eventually needs to explain what happened and how to prevent it from happening again." (Read more)

To read the Sun Herald's ongoing coverage of the oil spill click here.

Ky. worries Asian carp will wreak havoc on other fish in the Ohio River and its tributaries

Fears about the impact Asian carp could have on the Ohio River watershed are leading Kentucky to investigate new markets for the invasive fish. "The fear is that these Asian carp, which can grow to 100 pounds, will crowd out more desirable native fish like sauger, white bass, crappie and catfish that help support a nearly $1 billion a year recreational fishing industry in Kentucky," James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal reports. The invasive fish have already caused problems for the fishing industry along the Mississippi River, and lawmakers and scientists are developing strategies to keep them out of the Great Lakes. (Commercial fishermen catch an Asian carp on Lake Barkley; Kentuckiy state photo by Paul Rister)

"This is a pretty serious situation," Ron Brooks, director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, told Bruggers. "It’s definitely one of the most important problems we are going to have to deal with for a while." The silver and bighead varieties of Asian carp have already reached popular Barkley and Kentucky lakes in the western part of the state. "They’re here to stay," Brooks told Bruggers. "The risk for us is whether they will … out-compete our natives."

Brooks said the state is looking at ways to sell the carp to Maine lobster fishermen as bait, but still need to figure "how to ship the fish across state lines without violating rules or recommendations designed to prevent the spread of fish diseases," Bruggers writes. Brooks also plans to attend a meeting this summer in Chicago with representatives from China to explore possible markets for the fish there. (Read more)

Prison census debate makes its way to Georgia; some Calif. towns disappointed with their prisons

Georgia appears to be the latest state to debate the census count of prisoners held in rural areas. "Rural Georgia’s gain is urban Georgia’s pain: Financially strapped cities want their fair share of $450 billion dispensed annually by Washington, particularly in a recession when budgets are tight," Dan Chapman of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. "The money, based largely on census counts, pays for roads, Medicaid, lunch programs and other federal programs."

"That’s not fair," Democratic state Rep. Bob Bryant, of Garden City, who sits on the House Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Committee, told Chapman. "The money should go back to where people come from. That area should benefit," said Bryant. Richard West, vice chairman of the Calhoun County Commission, disagrees: "The prison does cost our county some money and some wear, tear and stress. There are some pluses and minuses both ways. But it all comes out in the wash." Almost one in four Calhoun County residents is a prisoner.

"We’ve got agriculture and we’ve got the prison. We’ve got no other industrial activities," West told Chapman. Prisons aren't the only institutions with temporary residents. People residing at universities, colleges, nursing homes and military installations also will skew population counts in favor of the communities they temporarily live in, Chapman writes. (Read more)

"Can a new prison save a town?" the Los Angeles Times asks. "Many California towns welcome new correctional facilities — and the jobs that come with them — hoping they'll revive the local economy. But the results can be disappointing." Here is the story by Alana Semuels.

Moonshine catching on as an urban drink?

Moonshine is leaving its mountain roots for bright lights of the big city. "Unaged hooch is no longer confined to Appalachia," Anna Sale of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports for Marketplace. "Hipsters and foodies around the country are starting to acquire a taste for it. And that's given rise to a whole new industry of microdistillers." Since the passing of the Whiskey Act of 1791, making liquor without a license has been illegal, but Kentucky native Colin Spoleman brought moonshine to New York as state distilling laws began to relax to attract tourists to upstate farms.

Spoleman and friend David Haskell opened Kings County Distillery earlier this month on Staten Island, Sale reports. It's the only licensed whiskey distillery in New York City, and the first production on its shelves will be moonshine. The American Distilling Institute report the number of microdistilleries nationwide has increased from 60 seven years ago to over 200 today, but they still make up just under one percent of the U.S. liquor market.

Vaughn Wilson, an Arkansas still maker, has noticed an uptick in moonshine interest. He sells stills on his website but doesn't ask if they are going to legal operations, Sale writes. While Spoleman and Haskell plan to keep the micro in microbrewery, they hope to be stocking Brooklyn bars and liquor stores by June. (Read more)