Friday, July 09, 2010

Stimulus-funded broadband projects are making most happy, some a little worried in rural America

"Government stimulus spending is a contentious issue right now in Washington. But the $7.2 billion in the last stimulus package for extending high-speed Internet access is just beginning to be spent, and the beneficiaries could not be happier," reports Susanna G. Kim of The New York Times.

Examples Kim cites: A horse farmer in western Kansas "will be able to download a photograph of a horse to show a potential buyer in seconds, not the 20 to 30 minutes they now need with dial-up service," and in Alaska's remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, "the program will bring more fundamental changes, expanding the health care options, for example, to allow doctors in Anchorage, 400 miles to the east, to see patients via videoconference."

Kim tells Times readers what Rural Blog readers already know: "The types of Internet activities that most Americans take for granted — watching videos, downloading songs, social networking — are out of reach for millions of homes across the United States. . . . For some of the beneficiaries, the program will literally mean the difference between isolation and being connected to the rest of the world."

But as the total amount of grants and loans passes $3 billion, some beneficiaries worry about unintended consequences: An organic farmer and natural-foods grocer in Kansas worries that his customers will abandon him for online bargains, and small communications utilities getting the grants and loans may soon have to compete with national providers that can offer lower rates.

And some will still not have broadband, so the Federal Communications Commission "is proposing that money from its Universal Service Fund, which currently subsidizes telephone services for high-cost areas, low-income consumers, schools, libraries and rural health care providers, be expanded to broadband services," Kim notes. (Read more)

Feds will try vertical-axis wind turbines to reduce danger to birds and bats in Alaska

One common argument against wind farms is the number of birds and bats killed by spinning turbines, but a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project is hoping to alleviate some of that risk with some economic-stimulus money. "FWS, using a $3.1 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, plans to install 11 vertical-axis wind turbines, each no higher than about 65 feet, at the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof national wildlife refuges on the state's southwest side," Scott Streater of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "Instead of using horizontal blades that birds cannot detect and avoid, the vertical-axis turbines spin on top of the poles and can be seen easily by the birds." (Wikipedia photo)

"The vertical-axis turbines are not as efficient as horizontal turbines," Bill Schaff, manager of the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof national wildlife refuges near King Salmon, Alaska, told Streater. "But we're willing to give up a little bit of efficiency to have the problems with bird strikes virtually eliminated." The turbines will be used to help power boilers that heat administrative offices at the three refuges. "Though the wind turbines could dramatically cut energy costs, FWS has been hesitant to develop wind power at the three refuges out of concern that the spinning blades would endanger a wide array of birds, including Steller's eiders, bald eagles, raptors and sea gulls," Streater writes.

"As more and more wind turbines are built across the country, the issue of protecting birds from deadly collisions with the spinning turbine blades becomes more important," Streater writes. "The FWS testing coincides with calls by conservation groups to better protect birds and bats as more and more wind turbines are installed." The American Bird Conservancy reports tens of thousands of birds are killed each year in collisions with wind turbines, which could increase to as much as 1 million with as many as 300,000 commercial-scale wind turbines expected to be in operation by 2018. "I think that if it works out, [the technology] absolutely could be transported on a broader scale to other places," Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for the Wilderness Society in Anchorage, told Streater. "We wholeheartedly support the project." (Read more, subscription required)

Consumers, not wind developers, are likely to bear cost of building new transmission lines

"The rural Midwest is booming with wind turbines these days -- but guess who's going to pay the $16 billion it will cost to move all that clean electricity to the cities that need it? Probably you," asks and answers Ted Evanoff of The Indianapolis Star. (Star photo by Rob Goebel: Turbines along Interstate 65)

"Officials are trying to figure out how much wind developers should pay to build the transmission lines to get their energy to market," Evanoff writes. "Because other regions have shifted the entire cost to utility rate payers, the Midwest officials likely will feel pressure to do the same. If they don't, industry analysts say, it could hurt the development of green energy in the region. The Midwest -- with its heavy reliance on coal-fired power plants -- can ill-afford that, as federal regulations clamp down on carbon emissions." Much the same is likely to be true in other coal-dependent states. Rural electric cooperatives get 80 percent of their power from burning coal.

Next Thursday, the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, which utilities pay to run the electric grid in the region, is scheduled to present its transmission-cost-allocation plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "Wind-farm operators had feared MISO would stick to its long-held proposal of having power generators pay for 20 percent of the cost for building the transmission lines from the wind farms to the grid. Consumers ... would have paid 80 percent," Evanoff reports. "Last month, however, MISO changed course. It tentatively proposed consumers handle the full 100 percent. This means households most likely will pay more than $2 per month." MISO was following the lead of the Southwest Power Pool, another regional operator, that won FERC approval for "spreading the full cost of building the transmission lines among that region's consumers."

Jamie Karnik, a spokesman for Wind on the Wires, a wind-developer lobby. told Evanoff, "It's not a matter of we don't want to pay this 20 percent. It's that we can't pay. It's too expensive." (Read more)

EPA relies mainly on industry studies to judge safety of controversial herbicide atrazine

In determining the safety of atrazine and other herbicides sometimes found in drinking water near fields in which they are used, the Environmental Protection Agency has weighed heavily on studies funded by the chemical industry, Daniell Ivory reports for The Huffington Post Investigative Fund. "Many of these industry-funded studies, which largely support atrazine’s safety, have never been published or subjected to an independent scientific peer review," Ivory writes. "Meanwhile, some independent studies documenting potentially harmful effects on animals and humans are not included in the body of research the EPA deems relevant to its safety review."

An estimated 76 million pounds of atrazine are sprayed on corn and other fields in the U.S. each year, and the weed killer "has been the focus of intense scientific debate over its potential to cause cancer, birth defects, and hormonal and reproductive problems," Ivory writes. EPA is re-evaluating the health risks of atrazine, which was banned by the European Union in 2004 due to a lack of evidence to support its safe use. Syngenta, the Swiss manufacturer of atrazine, says it has been used safely for decades and restrictions could prove devastating to farmers who are heavily dependent on it.
"At least half of the 6,611 studies the agency is reviewing to help make its decision were conducted by scientists and organizations with a financial stake in atrazine," Ivory writes. Over 80 percent of the studies used by EPA have never been published in a peer-reviewed journal. EPA officials told Ivory that the agency's limited budget forces it to rely heavily on research sponsored by parties with a stake in the outcome, but the agency’s test guidelines, governing how experiments are conducted, provide sufficient safeguards against skewed results.
"Companies have a very strong incentive to follow the guidelines," EPA senior policy analyst William Jordan, told Ivory. "We hope and think that we have written the guidelines with enough detail that it would be very difficult for someone to put a thumb on the scale, as it were, to slant the outcome, [or] to make something look safer than it is." Still, California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees environmental regulators, told the Investigative Fund, "it’s critically important that EPA use all of the information at its disposal." (Read more)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Propane providers, in renewed push to get the fuel into vehicles, say we should call it 'autogas'

Could propane, whose rounded oblong taks make it a familiar fuel in much of rural America, become a major alternative to gasoline and diesel fuel? The National Propane Gas Association hopes so, and has formed a coalition that it hopes will also lend a new name to propane: Autogas for America.

"The coalition launched last month in an effort to unite the fractured industry around promoting the fuel for transportation," reports Jason Plautz of Environment & Energy News. "Their pitch: The domestically produced gas burns cleaner than petroleum, is cheaper than other fuels, and the infrastructure is available now." Well, not really, if you consider vehicles part of the infrastructure. However, automakers are making more conversion or propane-only engines, and some vehicle owners are capable of installing their own conversion kits.

"Fueling stations can be set up in a matter of days for just $15,000 because the fuel can be stored in a liquid state in large tanks. Natural gas, meanwhile, needs a compression system," Plautz writes. "The rise of liquid propane injection engines, which delivers the fuel straight into the combustion cylinder, makes such storage facilities more viable."

However, several tax credits for propane as transportation fuel are set to expire at the end of the year, and "The autogas industry is also facing competition from other alternative forms of transportation, some with significantly larger lobbies," Plautz writes. Many propane suppliers are small, family-owned businesses, and that has undercut previous efforts to get the fuel into vehicles. "Even though autogas offers the industry a stable, year-round funding source, many companies do not see the need to expand beyond the local home heating market," Plautz writes. What does your local propane dealer think? (Read more, subscription required)

With 30,000 wells coming, Marcellus Shale generates economic activity and ecological worry

The natural-gas industry plans to drill 30,000 wells in the Marcellus Shale formation (map) in the next 10 years, creating economic activity amid environmental concern, and some of the gas may be used to generate power that would have been generated by burning coal, Joel Kirkland of Environment & Energy News reports. "A natural gas-burning electricity generator produces half the carbon dioxide emissions of a plant that burns coal," he notes.

In the second story in a "Gas Rush" series, Kirkland also notes that "Deep-seated public anxiety has set in about the environmental impact of horizontal gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking.' Regulators responsible for protecting the clean water supplies of New York City and Philadelphia have called a drilling timeout in the Delaware River watershed. But rivers of corporate cash continue to flow into the Marcellus and other shale fields. The magnitude of investment this year alone suggests energy companies have no plans to retreat from an ocean of recoverable gas."

The boom is good economic news for many. "The low cost of producing Marcellus gas, its pipeline-ready quality and its proximity to consumers in the Northeast have driven investment" by many multinational firms, Kirkland writes, and "The gas rush in southwestern Pennsylvania has claimed a significant slice of Pittsburgh's economy. One in five business expansions is tied to the nearby shale deposits, according to the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance." (Read more, subscription requried)

Which state will see next fight over animal welfare?

The animal-agriculture and meatpacking industries are wondering which state will be the next target of the Humane Society of the United States, which recently struck a compromise with the Ohio Farm Bureau to keep an animal-welfare issue off the ballot this fall.

"Missouri, Oklahoma, Illinois and Nebraska have all been mentioned as the next possible targets," reports Ken Anderson of Brownfield Network. "In Nebraska, the executive director of the state’s pork producer association, Larry Sitzman, says livestock groups have been discussing strategy and are preparing for a fight." Anderson's story is short, but it has a link to a six-minute interview with Sitzman.

The HSUS is interested in all kinds of animals. Its bill to regulate dog breeders in North Carolina "has been shelved as that state's legislative session winds down," Julie Harker of Brownfield reports.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Coal guys play rough with Ashley Judd over speech

When actress and University of Kentucky graduate Ashley Judd called mountaintop-removal coal mining "the rape of Appalachia" in a National Press Club speech last month, she probably knew there would be some pushback from the coal industry and its allies. But it may have taken a form she didn't expect, and it's making news in Eastern Kentucky.

This sign was displayed today at a golf course built on a reclaimed strip mine in Prestonsburg during a golf tournament related to the coal industry. "An anonymous donor paid for and made the sign in response to Judd's recent comments," reports Angela Sparkman of WYMT-TV in Hazard. "The sign is hanging at the same golf course Judd referenced regarding reclamation," telling the press club, "I'm not too keen on reinforcing stereotypes about my people, but I don't know many hillbillies who golf."

"She's not an Eastern Kentuckian," David Gooch, president of Coal Operators and Associates, told Sparkman. "A real Eastern Kentuckian never would have degraded the people here by saying hillbillies don't play golf." Judd was born in California but grew up mainly in Ashland, Ky., near the northeast tip of the state. Sparkman concluded, "We are are hoping for a response from the actress." (Read more) Here is News Director Neil Middleton's blog item on the topic.

The station did not show the sign's photo of Judd on air "because it might be offensive to some viewers," Sparkman said, but made it available through a link at the bottom of its online story. Its sister Gray Television station, WKYT-TV in Lexington, showed the whole sign but pixelated Judd's chest area in a report that led its 11 p.m. news. For coverage from Prestoinsburg's Floyd County Times go here.

UPDATE, July 9: Judd told WYMT in a statement that she expected criticism from "cunning, callous and greedy" coal companies. "They use people on the ground as their front, and pit us against one another," she said. "It is time to retire the cynical and superficial coal company-created argument that we must choose between people, their jobs, and our mountains," Judd said. "That is simply false, fear-based and fear-mongering." (Read more) Mimi Pickering of Appalshop in Whitesburg writes, "The true response to the coal industry 'topless' attack on Ashley Judd can be heard in 'Topless,' an amazing poem from Virginia Tech student Morgan Cain Grim. Listen to her reading it." Grim, of Floyd, Va., won the university's award for best undergraduate poem this year.

UPDATE, July 10: Celebrity-oriented media have picked up on the story: The New York Daily News and Hollywood News, and Auto Racing Daily; Judd is married to driver Dario Franchitti. (Hat tip to Penny Messinger of the Appalnet list-serve.)

UPDATE, July 11: Appalachian Kentucky author Silas House says in an op-ed in The Courier-Journal that WYMT's coverage has been biased and sexist. "Most of the controversy it's reporting on is being created by the station itself," he writes. "The sign is sexist, ignorant and infantile. ... Nudity is sometimes a part of acting, yes. But to imply that Judd has made her living off that is ridiculous. If George Clooney, another Kentuckian, had made the same speech, would they be putting up a sign about him taking off his clothes, since he, too, has appeared nude on film? Of course not. Because he's a man." (Read more)

UPDATE, July 15: Judd's mother, Naomi, Judd, has joined the "Music Saves Mountains" effort of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

UPDATE, July 16: In an op-ed, Ashley Judd explains her opposition to mounatintop removal and views on the region's future.

Meth lab count way down, but that's not whole story

Methamphetamine labs, once the scourge of many rural areas, "have become scarcer and their federally funded cleanups cheaper," thanks to federal and state laws that have made it more difficult to buy meth ingredients, Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers writes, about a Department of Justice inspector general's report on the agency's Drug Enforcement Administration.

"The report, however, doesn't indicate whether meth use has declined in the U.S.," Doyle notes. "In recent years, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted late last month, meth production "was displaced over the border to Mexico." The amount of methamphetamine seized near the U.S.-Mexico border nearly doubled from 2007 to 2009, the annual U.N. drug report stated."

Also, it should be noted that meth is now commonly made by the "shake and bake" method, in 2-liter bottles that are much easier to discard. This report from the Casey County News in Kentucky suggests that's what was going on in the cab of a truck there when an explosion occured.
The inspector general's report said DEA funded the cleanup of 3,866 meth labs in fiscal 2008, a 67 percent decrease from the record 11,790 cleanups it funded in 2005. "Contract improvements and other revisions also cut the average cost per lab cleanup from $3,600 in fiscal 2007 to $2,200 in fiscal 2009," Doyle notes. His story has year-by-year and state-by-state lists.

FFA has record membership, looks to the future

Could agricultural education and the FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America) continue to "draw record numbers of students at a time when 'farm life' and farming are thought of as bygones?" asks Mary Schulken, new rural-education blogger at Education Week. Yes, says Dr. Larry Case, above, who will end a 25-plus-year run as national FFA advsier in January.

First off, FFA has a record number of members, 520,000, all of whom must be involved in ag education. "Urban kids find it relevant, too," Case explains. "When I was young, I had a blue corduroy jacket that had my name on it and the name of my school, I had an FFA pin, and I had a manual. I looked at that manual and read it and I looked at that jacket with my name on it and said, "Me, little old farm boy me, is a part of something bigger. I don't think basic human nature changes from that standpoint. When you get a sense of belonging, a sense of achievement and self-worth, it's appealing. I think FFA creates community, and think that's important. Kids get excited about it, and it makes their education fun when they can work with their hands and get rewarded for it." (Read more)

State, local budget cuts undermine rural recovery

Budget challenges for state and local governments pose a serious threat to the revitalization of rural America, says a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. "Rural communities depend heavily on intergovernmental transfers from the states to provide local services. Many people in rural communities rely on the state or local government for their jobs and on Medicaid as a part of their income," write economist Alison Felix and bank Vice President Jason Henderson. "Thus, rural economies are highly susceptible to state budget shortfalls."

The writers say local governments in many rural areas have been insulated from state budget cuts because theior real-estate markets have remained strong, maintaining or increasing property-tax revenues, but "As state budget problems deepen, rural governments could suffer further from reduced intergovernmental transfers. Local governments receive, on average, 31 percent of their total revenue from state governments, making them sensitive to state budget cuts." Here's why:

Government cuts to the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled have more effect in rural America, where Medicaid accounts for a larger share of personal incomes. State and local government staff cuts also have a marked effect on rural areas where 14 percent of employment and 18 percent of earnings are accounted for by government jobs. (Kansas City Fed maps)

Such economic pressures will force rural governments to make tough decisions in the coming years, the economists predict. "Rural government authorities can choose to raise revenues, cut services, or improve efficiency of service delivery through consolidation, cooperation, or privatization," Felix and Henderson report. "Tough times present tough choices, but carefully crafted solutions may not only alleviate current fiscal strains but also create a more efficient service delivery system for rural America." (Read more)

Farmers plant more herbicide-tolerant crops amid concern about herbicide-resistant weeds

New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service shows U.S. farmers planted more biotech corn, soybeans and cotton in 2010 than ever before. "For all the reported problems with Roundup-resistant weeds in the South, the USDA survey shows little evidence that farmers are shying away from herbicide-tolerant crops," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog. In Iowa 90 percent of the corn planted in 2010 was biotech, up from 86 percent last year, and 96 percent of the soybeans, compared to 94 percent in 2008, Brasher writes. (USDA chart)

We have reported the rise of Roundup Ready-resistant weeds in the South, which also showed increases in biotech crops. "In Mississippi, 98 percent of the soybeans are herbicide-tolerant this year, up from 94 percent last year. Arkansas is at 96 percent this year, compared to 94 percent in 20008," Brasher writes. "The story is similar in cotton. Seventy-eight percent of the cotton seed planted this year contained the herbicide-resistant gene, up from 71 percent in 2008."

Pennsylvania cattle quarantined after contact with gas-well wastewater leaking from pit

Concerns about wastewater with natural-gas drilling chemicals have seeped into agriculture, as Pennsylvania officials have quarantined 28 beef cattle after water from a nearby well leaked into a field and came into contact with the animals. "The state Department of Agriculture said the action was its first livestock quarantine related to pollution from natural gas drilling," Nicholas Kusnetz of ProPublica reports. "Although the quarantine was ordered in May, it was announced Thursday." Carol Johnson, who along with her husband owns the farm in north-central Pennsylvania where the contamination took place, said she noticed fluids pooling in the pasture, killing grass, in early May.

The farm sits above the Marcellus Shale formation, whose vast natural gas reserves recently became accessible for the first time by using hydraulic fracturing. "Fracking" injects thousands of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the well to create small cracks in the shale, releasing natural gas reserves to be collected above. Reports of contamination from drilling wastewater have popped up around the country.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said "In the Johnsons' case, a mixture of fresh water and wastewater that had been injected into the well leaked from an impoundment pit on the farm," Kusnetz writes. Tests performed for East Resources Inc., which owns the well, "found hazardous chemicals and heavy metals, including chloride, barium and strontium," Kusnetz reports. No adverse affects have been observed in the cattle, and East Resources told Kusnetz that tests of the leaked fluid did not show unhealthy levels of any contaminants and that the quarantine was unnecessary. (Read more)

Deficit concerns complicate incentives for biofuels

The biofuels industry is lobbying Congress to renew or start several subsidies it says are needed to protect the industry's future, but as lawmakers look for ways to trim the federal deficit those incentives may be in jeopardy. The $1-a-gallon biodiesel tax credit lapsed at the end of 2009, and Senate has been unable to agree on a bill that would revive the subsidy and extend it to the end of the year."The biodiesel subsidy itself isn't controversial, but Senate Republicans and some Democrats have objected to other spending in the bill that would add to the budget deficit," Phillip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "The legislation includes money for state Medicaid programs and an extension of unemployment benefits."

"Congress must renew the 45-cent-per-gallon tax credit for ethanol or else the subsidy will expire at the end of the year," Brasher writes. "At the same time, the industry is seeking subsidies to install new pumps at service stations and fund the development of biorefineries that can make biofuels from crop residue and other new feedstocks." Salo Zelermyer, a former U.S. Department of Energy lawyer who now lobbies for some renewable energy firms, told Brasher any new biofuel measure that has a cost to taxpayers "is going to be difficult unless there's a clear mechanism to pay for it."

"Companies that want to make the next generation of biofuels claim they are close to making it economically but need more help from the government," Brasher writes. "None of the projects has yet to qualify for a federal loan guarantee." Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has long protected the industry from his seat on the Senate Finance Committee, told Brasher he was optimistic Congress wouldn't let the subsidy expire, but he wasn't sure anymore after the biodiesel credit. "If you were asking me this question a year ago about biodiesel, I would have said there's not a problem," Grassley said. "We would have gotten it passed by the end of the year." (Read more)

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Massey stops work on its first mine in Western Ky.

"Controversial coal-mining giant Massey Energy Co. had been quietly developing a new underground mine in McLean County in what would apparently be its first operation in Western Kentucky," Chuck Stinnett writes for The Gleaner in Henderson. "But the company recently suspended development on its Delaware Mine, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration."

An MSHA spokeswoman told Stinnett, "The mine was projected to start production sometime in 2012, but the recent delay may push that date into 2013," and a Massey spokesman said, "The company is still evaluating the reserves and has not finalized a potential mine plan." (Read more)

EPA issues tighter pollution limits on power plants

Amid all the talk of a climate-and-energy bill that now seems unlikely to pass, and the alternative of a carbon-dioxide regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA is moving ahead with stricter limits on "old fashioned" air pollutants from power plants, such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulates, or soot.

Assistant EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the proposed rule would reduce SO2 emissions by 71 percent and NOx emissions by 52 percent from 2005 levels, reports Gabriel Nelson of Environment & Energy News. Labeled a "transport" rule, it is aimed at reducing accumulations of the pollutants in the northeastern U.S., making "it harder for those states to meet federal standards for particulate matter and ground-level ozone," Nelson writes. (Subscription required)

Rural migration alters landscape of rural states as 'sponge cities' grow; media partly to blame?

Reports of rural outmigration are nothing new, but new research suggests many of those former ruralites may not be moving to sprawling metropolises like Chicago or New York. Instead these migrants may be moving to urban areas withing predominately rural states like North Dakota, creating so-called "sponge cities," Debora Dragseth, a associate professor of business at Dickinson State University in North Dakota, writes in NewGeography. "North Dakota’s four largest cities, Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot, are growing in large part due to the young adults who for decades gone elsewhere to other regions," Dragseth writes. "In the process, rural North Dakota is facing a protracted population crisis as significant numbers of its small communities are on a slow slide to extinction."

A survey of 111 North Dakota high school juniors last month revealed this growing trend. NewGeography chart). "Although roughly four in ten were raised in communities of fewer than 2,000 residents, out of more than 100 students surveyed, only six wished to live their adult lives in the a town of fewer than 2,000," Dragseth writes. The largest Great Plains cities, like Minneapolis, may not end up being the ultimate sponge cities, Dragseth writes: "Minneapolis has experienced a 1.4 percent drop in population since 2000. Demographers are beginning to observe that for many of us there is a point where diseconomy of size becomes real."

"A dozen young adults moving from Edgeley, N.D. (population 637), to Fargo is irrelevant to Fargo as it absorbs the new residents with barely a nod, but to Edgeley, the shift represents significant and chilling loss of young, skilled, educated workers that will have a detrimental impact on the town’s future prosperity or even survival," Dragseth writes. Mark Stephens, a young college graduate who left his small town of fewer than 400 for Fargo, explained, "The first thing people throw out as an excuse is increased opportunity, but let's face it, 18- to 20-something adults are not thinking long term. For the most part, kids in that age group are really pretty shallow. In truth, I think it comes down to one word: jealousy. They are walking down a gravel road in their tiny town with a link to massive amounts of media right in their back pockets. It's no different than when they were little kids—they see someone with ice cream and they want some too." (Read more)

Utah study points to backyard chickens as source of elevated arsenic levels in two children

Backyard chickens are growing in popularity, but a study has concluded that they are to blame for elevated levels of arsenic in two children in Utah. "The trail eventually led [Christina] McNaughton, a toxicologist for the Utah Department of Health, to the family’s backyard chicken coop — along with the eggs that came out of it, the feed that went into the hens that laid them and, finally, widely used animal-feed additives containing arsenic," Judy  Fahys of The Salt Lake Tribune reports. "For everyone who has backyard chickens, this is an issue," McNaughton told Fahys.

"The Utah study goes far beyond a Mapleton chicken coop," Fahys writes. "The use of roxarsone and other arsenic-based additives in poultry and swine feed is at the center of a national controversy." David Wallinga, director of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an organization that is petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the arsenic additives, told Fahys, "Because we’ve turned a blind eye to what we put in our animal feed, we’re putting our children at risk." The American Chemical Society reports about 70 percent of U.S. broilers were fed roxarsone, the most widely used arsenic-based additive, but "the poultry industry and regulators insist that virtually all of the additive is excreted," Fahys writes. McNaughton noted they "tested regular grocery store eggs, and they did not have any arsenic."

The Utah health agency has no position on the Institute's petition to ban arsenic additives, but "does stand by its findings — the first of their kind — that arsenic from feed is winding up in eggs and the people who eat them," Fahys writes. The two children in the study showed no signs of arsenic poisoning, but one had double the arsenic level deemed toxic and the other was 75 percent above the limit. Studies of the water and soil revealed they were within legal parameters for arsenic but examination of eggs from the backyard chickens revealed the likely source. After the chickens were given arsenic-free feed and the children stopped eating their eggs contamination levels declined. (Read more)

Research questions cost-savings claims of private-prison industry, a familiar rural employer

Supporters of for-profit, private prisons say they are cheaper and safer than those run by government, and are at least as accountable to the public, but a growing body of research has cast doubt on those claims. Michele Deitch, a University of Texas professor who was part of an American Bar Association task force that drafted proposed national standards on the treatment of prisoners, says it's a "myth that private prisons can provide services better and more cheaply that those run by the government," R. G. Dunlop of the Courier-Journal of Louisville reports.

"The facts are that private vendors compromise safety and security to keep down costs," Deitch said in an address to a criminal-justice conference in Honolulu last October. "They save money by hiring inexperienced staff at the low end of the wage scale. When you've got inexperienced, poorly trained staff, you've got a recipe for security and safety problems in a prison." A spokesman for Corrections Corp. of America, the nation's largest operator of private prisons, asked the Courier-Journal to submit a list of written questions for the story then did not respond to them. CCA cites a study on its website which revealed private prisons are more cost effective, but notes it partially funded the research.

Kentucky Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Lamb acknowledged to Dunlop that "private prisons are not less expensive than all of our institutions," but noted the department "does continue to assert that the private prisons are a cost-effective option in housing Kentucky's felon population." She said it was "very difficult" to determine whether Kentucky's private prisons actually comply with the state-mandated 10 percent savings required compared to state-run facilities. "Since the mid-1990s, at least 10 studies, including several by researchers at the federal Bureau of Prisons, have questioned the private prison industry's claims, especially with respect to cost savings and security," Dunlop writes.

"I'm not anti-privatization," Gerald Gaes, formerly of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who in 1999 released a report for the bureau questioning many of the cost-saving claims made by the private prison industry, told Dunlop. "But I don't think the case has been made that (private prisons) are superior in cost or quality. Quite the opposite, in fact." One area private prisons seem to have a clear cost-saving edge is in employee compensation, especially in rural areas, which are popular locations for prisons. Starting pay at CCA's Otter Creek prison in Eastern Kentucky is $8.25 an hour, $3 an hour less than two nearby state-run prisons. (Read more)

Not all the jobs go to locals. Jessica Lilly of West Virgnia Public Broadcasting reports that at a new prison in McDowell County, residents of the county have "landed very few of those rare jobs" filled so far. Meanwhile, Newsweek reports that the recession has been hard on corrections companies. "State corrections agencies are crowding prisoners into more facilities as they do in California, or trying to change legislation to make sentencing less harsh for nonviolent criminals," Nancy Cook reports.

Gun owners from all over get permits in Utah, which has waived residency and other requirements

A growing number of gun owners across the country looking for the most bang for their buck are hoping to be permitted to carry a weapon in Utah despite never visiting the state. "With the Supreme Court ruling last week that the Second Amendment’s guarantee of an individual’s right to bear arms applies to state and local laws, Utah is a popular player in Americans’ efforts to legally obtain firearms," Dan Frosch reports for The New York Times. Thirty-two other states recognize or have formal reciprocity agreements with Utah's gun regulations.

"Fifteen years after the Utah Legislature loosened rules on concealed firearm permits by waiving residency and other requirements, the state is increasingly attracting firearm owners from throughout the country," Frosch writes. The Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification, which issues gun permits, reports just under half of the 241,811 permits granted by the state are now held by non-residents. In 2004, Utah received 8,000 applications for permits, but by last year the number was up to 73,925, with almost 60 percent coming from non-residents.

"By passing the class and the background check, and paying a $65.25 fee, the applicant receives what many consider to be the most prized gun permit in the country," Frosch writes. "Permits are good for five years and cost $10 to renew." Of the 1,097 course instructors certified by Utah, 706 are in other states. Still some question the safety of the practice as Utah does not require permitees to ever fire a weapon to receive certification. "I think it’s absolutely shameful and ludicrously irresponsible to say that anybody anywhere who wants one of our concealed-carry permits, and thus will be able to carry legally in dozens of states, can just log on to our Web site and pay 60 bucks and that’s all she wrote," Peter Hamm, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told Frosch. (Read more)

Experts coming to E. Ky. agri-tourism conference

A conference in Eastern Kentucky on agri-tourism hopes to redefine the region's economic future by highlighting many of its unique opportunities to attract visitors and their money. "It’s Your Idea: Make it Pay!" will be held July 28-30 at Morehead State University's Regional Enterprise Center in West Liberty. The University of Kentucky is co-sponsoring the conference with the Eastern Kentucky Foothills Eco-Agri-Tourism Corporation.

The event will feature presentations from Peter Hille, director of Berea College’s Brushy Fork Institute, Vaughn Grisham, right, director of the George McLean Institute for Community Development at the University of Mississippi, and Todd Comen, founder and manager of the Institute for Integrated Rural Tourism. "We want people in Carter, Elliott, Menifee, Morgan and Wolfe counties to think differently about their communities and economy," Gwenda Adkins, Cooperative Extension agent for family and consumer sciences in Elliott County, told Aimee Nelson of the UK College of Agriculture. "We’re offering free registration to people in those counties to come and learn about making their ideas pay. We’ll emphasize eco-agri-tourism and related businesses." Other registrants will pay $30. Participants will also "tour local farms and businesses including Vertical Acres Farm, a nationally known farm where deer are raised for breeding and research," Nelson writes. (Read more)

Monday, July 05, 2010

False notion about Jones Act waivers and oil cleanup just won't subside

Paul Rubin, an economics professor at Emory University in Atlanta, has a column in The Wall Street Journal today that ranks as the paper's second most e-mailed item. Rubin makes several strong points about the need for a stronger federal response to clean up the oil from BP's continuing blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, but he repeats an off-base talking point that has become myth.

"The Obama administration can waive the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from operating in U.S. coastal waters," Rubin writes. "Many foreign countries (such as the Netherlands and Belgium) have ships and technologies that would greatly advance the cleanup. So far, the U.S. has refused to waive the restrictions of this law and allow these ships to participate in the effort."

You've probably heard this assertion before, but it's wrong, according to and a story from McClatchy Newspapers, written by William Douglas.

FactCheck, a service of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, reported June 23: "No waiver has been needed. The Jones Act requires goods carried between U.S. ports to be shipped aboard U.S.-flagged vessels built in the U.S. and owned by American citizens. The law doesn’t apply to ships operating far from the U.S. coastline, skimming oil or performing other such chores and not hauling cargo from one American port to another. In the case of the BP oil spill, the Jones Act hasn’t prevented several foreign-flagged ships from delivering resources and skimming oil. And the administration says it’s prepared to expedite requests for waivers, should any be needed." (Read more)

A week later, McClatchy published a story saying much the same thing, and citing FactCheck, with a tough headline: "GOP's false talking point: Jones Act blocks Gulf help." It reported a State Department announcement "that new offers of aid would be accepted from 12 foreign countries and international organizations, but spokesman P.J. Crowley noted that booms donated by Mexico, Norway and Brazil had been in use since May 11, and that 24 foreign vessels from nine foreign countries already have been helping with the cleanup." (Read more)

FactCheck has other "whoppers" related to the blowout.

An American summer: The rivers are full, the grasses are lustrous and the animals are sleek

Verlyn Klinkenborg is an editorial writer for The New York Times, and also a small farmer. From time to time, he writes short columns that are labeled "The Rural Life." His latest, after a drive across the northern half of the United States, is labeled "Editorial Notebook" but still merits our attention. And if you have a current photograph that would illustrate this item, please send it to Thanks to George Ferrell for this one from Kentucky (US 421 in Madison County).
"I didn’t solve any problems, for all my thinking, but I did a lot of looking," Klinkenborg writes. "And, to use the wonderful old phrase, I will tell you what.

"In America the rivers are full — the Yellowstone, the Cheyenne, the Missouri, the Rock, the Mississippi. They reach up into the boughs of the trees that overarch them and sweep their shadows away downstream. And everywhere I looked, all across the mountains and the plains, I saw grass of a kind you see only perhaps once in a generation, so thick and lustrous that it looks as though it had the texture of a beaver pelt. The high-pressure dome above me scattered the winds, sending the sunlight skittering over the grasses as though they were ripples on the waves at sea.

"The cattle and horses were sleek and almost fatigued with good feeding. In western South Dakota, cows stood belly deep in a ranch pond, doing their impersonation of the kind in Constable’s paintings. In the eastern part of the state, I came across an old barn sinking, prow high, in the ocean of grass. I wanted to pull over and lie down in the thick of those pastures, watching the seeded heads of the grasses bending deeply in the wind above me. But I drove on, and noticed that northern Iowa, where silos were once the only tall landmarks on the horizon, has now given itself a certain grandeur by building towering windmills, mostly in pods of six." (Read more)

Theaters give anchor to life in Great Plains towns

In an age of streaming online video and massive multiplexes, one-screen movie theaters might seem to be a thing of the past, but across the Great Plains they are making a comeback, Patricia Leigh Brown of The New York Times reports. "The small-town, Main Street movie theater is thriving in North Dakota, the result of a grass-roots movement to keep storefront movie houses, with their jewel-like marquees and facades of careworn utility, at the center of community life. The revival is not confined to North Dakota; Main Street movie houses like the Alamo in Bucksport, Me., the Luna in Clayton, N.M., and the Strand in Old Forge, N.Y., are flourishing as well." (NYT photo of theater in Langdon, N.D., by Fred R. Conrad)

"If we were in Los Angeles or Phoenix, the only reason to go to a movie would be to see it," Cecile Wehrman, a newspaper editor who, with members of the nonprofit Meadowlark Arts Council resuscitated the Dakota in Crosby, N.D., told Brown. "But in a small town, the theater is like a neighborhood. It’s the see-and-be-seen, bring everyone and sit together kind of place." Brown writes, "In the Great Plains, where stop signs can be 50 miles apart and the nearest multiplex is 200 miles round trip, the town theater — one screen, one show a night, weekends only — is an anchoring force, especially for families."

Tim Kennedy, landscape-architecture professor who has traveled to small theaters across North Dakota for a book, says "The communal will of rural towns that keep theaters going represents 'buildings as social capital,' forged 'outside the franchise cinemas and their ubiquitous presence at the malls,'" Brown writes. Some point to baby boomers as the source of the revitalization. "They are the last picture-show generation on the plains," Tom Isern, a professor of history at North Dakota State University Fargo, told Brown, "who can remember that movie theater experience and want to transmit that to their kids." (Read more)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Horses pulling buggy bolt in parade, kill 1, hurt 23

Here's a cautionary tale for parades using horses and buggies: "Two horses running out of control trampled children collecting candy and other onlookers along a Fourth of July parade route" today in Bellevue, Iowa, population 2,350, The Associated Press reports. "A 60-year-old Iowa woman died and 23 others were hurt, including at least two children who were in critical condition, police and hospital officials said."

The horses bolted "after one rubbed its head against the other, removing that horse's bridle, police said. The horses, with a wagon in tow, galloped for several blocks, running over children and adults who sat and stood along the streets watching the parade in Bellevue. At one point, the wagon flipped, ejecting two people in it," AP reports. The Dubuque Telegraph-Herald calls the vehicle "a black buggy."

"Five people were critically injured, five others severely injured and 14 suffered minor injuries, police and fire officials said in a statement," AP reports. "The victims were as young as 2 years old and suffered injuries ranging from multiple fractures to collapsed lungs and abrasions, officials said." Bellevue is on the Mississippi River, about 25 miles south of Dubuque. (Photo by Mike Burley, Telegraph Herald)

Berry: Might not have given papers to university anyway, depending on its support of small farmers

Author Wendell Berry, who decided not to donate his personal papers to the University of Kentucky after the school named its basketball dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge in return for $7 million from Alliance Coal CEO Joe Craft, said in an interview published today that he might not have given the papers to the university anyway, because his initial condition was that it serve the interests of small farmers.

Berry told Charlie Pearl of The State Journal in Frankfort that when the school asked him to donate his papers that it had on loan, "I said I have two children farming and these papers have a value, and if I come to feel that the university is really serving the interest of people like my children who hope to prosper on small farms, then I may consider donating them. But until they’re secure and I’m assured of the university’s interest in people like them, I’m not going to do it. And I’m not naïve. I was not at all inclined to make an issue of the university’s manifest lack of concern about surface mining in Eastern Kentucky and its ecological implications, its implications for the forests, for the survival of the wild creatures and maybe preeminently for the rural people there that a land-grant university is mandated to look after and help. . . . I understood that it was probably too much to expect, even a land-grant university, to take an interest in those things.

"But when the university accepted that gift ... that meant they had passed over from indifference to a manifest alliance with the coal industry. I don’t think a university ought to make an alliance with any industry. I know that’s going on at other universities, and I think it’s always a breach of intellectual integrity and reputability and a breach of public obligation. That is a public university. It ought not to be allying itself with a private interest of any kind. When that happened, that made it impossible for me to tacitly accept that in terms of my own relationship with the university. So the question I had to answer was whether I wanted to be associated with the university on its terms, and the answer I had to give is that I don’t." (Pearl photo)

Berry, who will be 76 next month, also talked with Pearl about how he writes (without electricity), farms (with horses) and lives (without television or a computer). "I use a spiral notebook, and I write on the right-hand page," he said. "Anything I want to add I put on the left-hand page. If I don’t like what I’ve done, I rip pages out and start all over again. It’s pretty good technology. I have a pencil and eraser. It’s wonderful new technology, that eraser is." (Read more)