Friday, July 23, 2010

Milk security system among projects stemming from rural Ky. congressman's hometown earmarks

A University of Kentucky food engineer stands to benefit from the investment in homeland security as his high-tech "milk-transport security system" nears completion. Fred Payne, who has started a company, TranSecurity Systems Inc. to market his system, began his research with $2.67 million in federal grants from the National Institute for Hometown Security, established by Kentucky Republican Rep. Hal Rogers in his hometown of Somerset, John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "Other NIHS-funded projects have included research on face recognition, disaster prediction, pedestrian surveillance and trying to reduce the explosiveness of ammonium nitrate fertilizer," Cheves writes.

Payne's idea arose after many food scientists began questioning the safety of the nation's food supply following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Payne and his partners, "including dairy expert Chris Thompson of the UK College of Agriculture, designed a hand-held wireless computer to record a truck's contents and send that information to remote locations; a global positioning system to identify a truck's whereabouts at all times; and secure locks on the dome lid and rear doors, with a key pad to enter access codes," Cheves writes. (Payne, left, and Thompson in Herald-Leader photo by Matt Goins)

NIHS was created when Rogers earmarked $52 million in federal funds for the project, in part to pay for anti-terrorism research at Kentucky universities. Rogers' critics have questioned the decision to establish "his own homeland security agency in a small town with no obvious terrorist targets," Cheves writes, and claim "Rogers is building an empire for himself in southeastern Kentucky using his so-called budget earmarks." NIHS chief executive Ewell Balltrip, a former newspaper editor and publisher in the region, told Cheves that "Politics doesn't have anything to do with what we do," and the organization provides a needed plug for a hole in national security. (Read more)

Bureau of Land Management says it will continue wild horse roundup despite recent deaths

In June we reported the Bureau of Land Management's plan to round up wild horses in the West. Agency officials say they will not abandon the plan despite calls from animal-rights groups to do so after a spike in wild-horse deaths following the plan's early stages. Last week, BLM officials "suspended a wild-horse roundup in northeast Nevada's Elko County after seven animals died," April Reese of Environment & Energy News reports. "Another was euthanized after it broke its leg in a holding pen, and two others died from neck injuries sustained during the roundup. Later, another nine horses died of dehydration." (BLM photo)

"In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week, philanthropist Madeleine Pickens, the Animal Welfare Institute, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and other animal rights organizations called for the suspension of all BLM wild horse roundups this summer to avoid further deaths," Reese writes. Don Glenn, division chief of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, said most of the deaths have been because of conditions beyond the agency's control so the roundup will continue as planned with BLM set to capture and remove another 5,800 wild horses and burros from six Western states.

"It's not because we rounded them up. It's because they didn't have water," Glenn told Reese. "It was a combination of a drought and too many horses trying to drink. That's why we do these roundups, because they become overpopulated." Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals, said "BLM has overstated the severity of the overpopulation problem and is removing wild horses from the range unnecessarily," Reese writes. "Furthermore, he added, the agency often exaggerates the health conditions of the herds to justify removals." (Read more, subscription required)

Forest Service considering closing Western caves to slow spread of bat-killing disease

Federal and state agencies in the Eastern U.S. have been closing caves in an effort to slow the spread of mysterious white-nose syndrome killing bat populations; now Western U.S. parks are considering similar closures, though the syndrome still appears to be hundreds of miles away. "The closures would limit human access to caves on Forest Service lands in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and most of Wyoming and South Dakota in hopes of stemming white-nose syndrome, which scientists believe people can transport on clothing, boots, caving gear and other equipment," Eryn Gable reports for Environment & Energy Daily.

"It is something we are considering, but we are yet to make the final decision," Janelle Smith, a spokeswoman for the service's Rocky Mountain region, told Gable. The closure issue could be announced in the next couple of weeks and is expected to last for 12 months, Gable writes. The order could also limit access to some trails that lead to caves. Karen Carter, the agency's spokeswoman for the Southwest region, told Gable the agency is expected to make a decision on its response to the disease, including cave closures, in the next few weeks.

White-nose syndrome was first discovered in a cave in upstate New York in early 2006 and has since been discovered in 14 states and two Canadian provinces with bats throughout much of the affected area now dying at extremely high rates. Cave closures have shaken the caving community as officials look to fight the spread of the disease. Colorado Cave Survey chairman David Lambert told Gable the decision to close caves in that state was "difficult and controversial" and "a bitter pill," but his organization supported the closures. "Cavers rightfully consider themselves to be stewards of the underground world," he told Gable. "Across the West, our claim to that identity will be measured to some extent by our support for these closures." (Read more, subscription required)

Colorado developer creates a controversy by trying to ban river rafting through his property

Whitewater rafting can be a boon for many rural communities, but a Colorado controversy shows the tension between public and private land ownership can be an obstacle. "Most of Colorado's raftable rivers flow through a patchwork of public and private land," Bente Birkeland of National Public Radio reports. "The state constitution says the waterways are open to the public for their enjoyment, but private landowners often own the riverbeds and banks. Touching an underwater rock or coming ashore could be considered civil trespassing." (Associated Press photo by Ed Andrieski)

Texas-based developer Lewis Shaw brought the issue to the fore when he told two rafting companies they could no longer float rafts along the river past his ranch, where he is building an exclusive fishing community with multi-million-dollar homes. "Everyone seems to lead off with the statement that a rich Texan flies in, in his Learjet, and wants to shut down rafting in Colorado," Shaw, whose ranch lies on the banks of the Taylor River near Crested Butte, told Birkeland. "None of that is true. My goal was simply to develop this and the little bit of heaven that it is and have peace." State lawmakers stepped in this spring with a controversial bill that would have given rafters the legal right to float regardless of land ownership.

"I labeled this a 'right to trespass' bill," Republican state Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg told Birkeland. "Are we trying to set a precedent that maybe then hunters can go on our property on the eastern plains — where we don't have rafting — in the name of recreation? And I think that's why we saw people from across the state get involved in this." The bill died on the final day of the legislative session, and Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter brokered a temporary compromise on the Taylor River case, giving the rafting companies floating rights for the next four years. Rafters continue to worry, due to the legislature's inaction that the issue won't go away. "I just have always believed that the rivers belong to the public," Matt Brown, who co-owns Scenic River Tours, one of the companies involved in the dispute, told NPR. "Everybody has the right to use them." (Read more)

Massey Energy suggests big April mine disaster was act of God or a giant burst of methane gas

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship made the national media rounds in Washington yesterday, spreading the message that coal-mine disasters like the one that killed 29 miners at a Massey mine in West Virginia in April, are often unavoidable acts of God. "I’m a realist. The politicians will tell you we’re going to do something so this never happens again; you won’t hear me say that," Blankenship told the National Press Club. "I believe that the physics of natural law and God trump whatever man tries to do. Whether you get earthquakes underground, whether you get broken floors, whether you get gas inundations, whether you get roof falls, oftentimes they are unavoidable just as other accidents are in society."

Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his Coal Tattoo blog, "At a news conference Massey went into 'Act of God' mode in full force today, blaming the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster on a gigantic outburst of methane into the mine that company officials say there was little — if anything — they could do to control." Ward, the top coal reporter in the country, notes that he wasn't allowed to participate in the post-conference phone call between Massey and reporters because he wasn't on Massey's approved media list.

Massey seemingly pointed to an "unexpected release of methane gas into the UBB mine" that "was intense and overwhelming to the normal safety systems" as a possible cause for the disaster in a news release. Davitt McAteer, West Virgina Gov. Joe Manchin’s special investigator for the disaster, told Ward Massey was likely shifting blame in the wrong direction. "The effort to place blame on God or another person is not an uncommon practice after disasters, particularly in the mining industry," he said. "But investigations have almost always led to the conclusion that it wasn’t God who did it." (Read more)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Harry Reid delays climate bill, maybe forever; 2 Dems on House panel back delay of EPA regs

"Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will bring a limited package of oil-spill response and energy measures to the floor next week, delaying action until at least this fall on a broader proposal that would impose greenhouse gas limits on power plants," reports Darren Goode of The Hill, citing "senior Senate Democratic aides" who "insisted Reid’s decision is a nod to the packed floor schedule the Senate faces before it leaves in two weeks for the August recess, and that he he has not abandoned plans to try and bring up a broader climate and energy plan later in the year. But other legislative priorities and election-year politics may scuttle the wider climate and energy plan altogether." (Read more)

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told Environment & Energy News that he didn't have a "clear understanding" of Reid's plan, "but likes the idea of moving ahead with legislation that can pass the Senate," says the story by Josh Voorhees, Robin Bravender, Alex Kaplun and Katherine Ling. "I've been of the view that we should go ahead and bring up a fairly narrowly crafted bill if we can get the votes to proceed and pass it," Bingaman told E&E. "If Senator Reid can identify some provision that relates to energy and the oil spill that he can get 60 votes for, I would urge that he go ahead and go for it." (Read more, subscription required)

Meanwhile, a House appropriations subcommittee deadlocked today on an amendment that would have delayed for two years any Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases from power plants and other stationary sources. Voting for the measure were all committee Republicans and two Democrats: Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, the No. 2 coal-producing state, and Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky, the third-ranking state.

Chandler, left, meets with directors of coal-dependent Kentucky rural electric cooperatives. Chandler's Bluegrass Region district has no coal mines but the state gets 92 percent of its electricity from coal, and his vote for the House cap-and-trade bill last year spurred Republican opposition to him and his re-election bid is likely to be his most contested yet. "A similar measure introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) will go to the Senate floor at some point this year, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last month," reports Greenwire's Gabiel Nelson. (Read more, subscription required)

Sherrod flap puts heat on secretary of agriculture

We've been following the ouster of former Georgia Rural Development Director Shirley Sherrod by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (right) and his subsequent apology; now much of the focus has shifted to Vilsack himself. The firing appears to be an out-of-character rush to judgment by the former presidential candidate, who is likely to retain his job even after the White House's public apology to Sherrod on Wednesday, according to published reports.

"The former Iowa governor precipitously fired a black Agriculture Department official and then issued an anguished mea culpa that took all day Wednesday to materialize," writes Philip Brasher, the Washington reporter for the Des Moines Register. "The episode embarrassed an administration already weighed down by the sagging economy and slumping poll numbers and instead focused the nation's attention on the explosive issue of race."

"This is a good woman. She has been put through hell," Vilsack said in his public apology Wednesday after full video of Sherrod's remarks showed that her description of her discriminating against a white farmer in a job with a nonprofit 24 years ago was actually part of a story of how she overcame prejudice. "I could have done and should have done a better job," Vilsack said. He has offered Sherrod a senior civil-rights post that would take advantage of her personal experience in dealing with discrimination.

During his daily press briefing Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs expressed support for Vilsack, but he called the firing a "disservice" that was made "without knowing all the facts." Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told Brasher, "It's fairly clear that for probably very good motives Secretary Vilsack moved prematurely, clearly, on this issue, and it's creating an embarrassment."

Vilsack, like most agriculture secretaries, usually works out of the media spotlight, but he may have a tougher job that most of his predecessors as the Obama administration tries to make the department more responsive to a broader public and erase its history of racial discrimination. "Vilsack has received high marks for his efforts to resolve long-standing racial discrimination claims against the department, an issue that's plagued the USDA since the Clinton administration," Brasher writes. "He said he acted too hastily in firing Sherrod because he wanted to avoid any appearance of racism in the department."

Sherrod told the Associated Press she hadn't yet decided whether she would accept Vilsack's offer. "It took too long, but it makes me feel better that the apology is finally coming," she told CNN following the White House apology. (Read more) This afternoon The White House released this "readout" of a call President Obama made to Sherrod: "The President reached Ms. Sherrod by telephone at about 12:35. They spoke for seven minutes. The President expressed to Ms. Sherrod his regret about the events of the last several days. He emphasized that Secretary Vilsack was sincere in his apology yesterday, and in his work to rid USDA of discrimination. The President told Ms. Sherrod that this misfortune can present an opportunity for her to continue her hard work on behalf of those in need, and he hopes that she will do so."

School chiefs say their biggest technological challenges are in rural homes, not schools

Three state school superintendents said at the National Rural Education Technology Summit Wednesday that their biggest challenge is integrating technology into rural homes, not rural schools. "North Carolina schools chief June Atkinson said one of her biggest battles is convincing parents and teachers that it's OK for students to learn virtually on their own schedule and read books on computer screens instead of bound pages," Ian Quillen of Education Week reports.

The chiefs also voiced a variety of challenges that weren't uniform across regions. Virginia Barry of New Hampshire "said it's difficult reining in a large number of forward-thinking districts to use technology to accomplish uniform, statewide goals," Quillen writes. "And in South Dakota, where more than half of about 150 districts have less than 300 students, state superintendent Tom Oster said distance has forced most residents to embrace online learning, but that the state—with only 123,000 PreK-12 students—is too small to independently fund research to support effective online learning."

"We don't have enough students in our states to develop these types of things in a vacuum," said Oster, speaking on behalf of several states, before "adding that those less-populated states are hoping the common academic standards movement will spark some collaborative research," Quillen writes. Educators also voiced concerns that many of the technologies they do have are becoming slower and out of date without proper maintenance and updating. Seizing upon students' increased use of mobile technology has also been difficult. ""The challenge has been to ensure that platform would be available through all kinds of multiple devices," Atkinson said. "To make sure that every child has that one-to-one [computing experience] is another cost factor." (Read more)

Mine-safety citations are up by one-third in four years, after more inspectors were put on the job

Citations for violations of mine safety and health laws are up by almost one-third since 2006 with most citations being focused on fire and coal dust issues, ventilation problems or electrical issues, National Public Radio reports. Its "analysis of nearly 80,000 citations written last year found that an accumulation of combustible coal dust was the most frequently cited violation overall, accounting for more than one in 10 citations," Robert Benincasa reports.

"Most of our major disasters since 2001 have been related to mine ventilation and accumulations of explosive dust in the mine and problems that could be triggered by an electrical malfunction," Jack Spadaro, a mining engineer and former head of the National Mine Safety and Health Academy, told NPR. "So, I think it's reasonable to expect that the numbers of citations in those areas would be substantial, and about the same." Noting the recent disaster in West Virginia, Spadaro said increased enforcement won't matter until the Mine Safety and Health Administration uses its authority to close mines. "The agency already has the authority to close a mine or a section of mine for imminent harm," he told NPR. "The management of the agency needs to make it clear to the inspectors that they have that authority, and they haven't done that." Last year federal inspectors spent 180 days at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 miners were killed in an April explosion.

MSHA ratcheted up its approach to inspections after 14 West Virginia mining deaths in two separate incidents in early 2006. MSHA hired 270 new mine inspectors in the year after the two disasters. "That's when they started emphasizing more the ventilation plans that each company files with MSHA," Bruce Dial, a mining safety consultant and former mine inspector, told Benincasa. "So that's why the number of citations has gone up rather significantly." But even as the number of inspections has gone up, a "Department of Labor audit released in March 2010 found several problems with the way MSHA trains inspectors — including a charge that some mine inspectors were not getting adequate training," Benincasa reports. (Read more)

Gas industry study says Marcellus Shale drilling could create 100,000 to 230,000 jobs

An industry-commissioned study says development of natural-gas resources in the deep Marcellus Shale (map) could pump up to $25 billion into Appalachia and create 230,000 jobs by 2020. The report says if production is only slightly increased, with limits on drilling in New York and only modest expansions in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, shale drilling and production would generate $9 billion in value added and 100,000 jobs.

"Maintaining production growth is like running on a treadmill," Timothy Considine, an economics professor at Penn State and the report's author, told Katie Howell of Environment & Energy Daily. "Slowing down drilling and production would negatively impact employment and economic growth."He added, "If governments pursue policies that encourage the development of natural gas, the ultimate benefits to the economy, the tax base and society would be significant." A possible severance tax on gas drilling in Pennsylvania, a ban on horizontal drilling in New York and a challenging tax and regulatory environment in West Virginia are listed by the study as possible barriers to shale development. The study was commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute. (Read more, subscription required)

Meatpacker groups spurn Nebraska radio station's debate on competition and proposed rules

The American Meat Institute, National Meat Association and National Cattlemen's Beef Association have declined an offer from a Nebraska radio station to debate the state of competition in the U.S. cattle and beef industries. R-CALF, a cattle ranchers' group that advocates reduced concentration among meatpackers, had accepted an invitation to the debate proposed by a station in Gordon, Neb. "KSDZ-FM’s invitation to those four groups comes amid the comment period for proposed changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act that USDA says will increase competition in the industry," Tom Johnston of MeatingPlace reports.

AMI President J. Patrick Boyle told MeatingPlace the controversy is best addressed by competing producers who will be hurt by USDA’s "undue preference rule." Boyle, however, was not shy in explaining his group's position on the proposal. "This rule would turn back the clock on today’s modern livestock marketing system and ‘recommoditize’ the meat industry," he told Johnston. "It would make illegal through the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen many of the practices that have been mutually beneficial to producers, their financial lenders and packers alike, thereby jeopardizing the value-added, branded products which our customers demand and placing U.S. meat exports at a competitive disadvantage."

NMA said it declined the invitation because it felt the debate was not focused on its primary issues of concern. "NMA’s expertise is with food safety and regulatory oversight of packers and processors," spokesman Jeremy Russell told Johnston. "The focus of this debate is on ‘cattle industry competition,’ something more appropriate for producer groups." NCBA CEO Forrest Roberts also declined the offer, telling KSDZ, "We do not want to divert attention away from educating USDA and decision-makers in Washington D.C." The comment period for the proposed rules ends Aug. 23, though meatpackers and several members of Congress are lobbying for an extension. (Read more)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

FCC redefines broadband, says many more lack high-speed Internet than previously thought

Millions more Americans lack meaningful broadband access to the Internet than previously believed, and the prospects for getting it to those 14 to 24 million people are bleak, says a report released Tuesday by the Federal Communications Commission. The conclusion stemmed in large measure from the FCC's redefinition of broadband, to a truly high speed more reflective of current needs.

"This newly pessimistic stance contradicted previous statements by the FCC, which had said that high-speed Internet service was being made available to all Americans in a timely fashion," Brandon Griggs of CNN reports. "The report found disproportionately large segments of people without broadband access in rural areas of North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky, among other states."

The report was the FCC's sixth on the subject since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 required it to measure the "digital divide" between those with broadband access and those without, but FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps termed it "the first really credible effort" by the agency to deliver findings based on quality data. "The sixth time is the charm," he told Griggs. "The documented failure to connect millions upon millions of Americans disproves previous FCC findings that broadband is being reasonably and timely deployed."

The change stemmed largely from the FCC's new definition of broadband, which had been "200 kilobits per second downstream, a standard set over a decade ago when Web pages were largely text-based, to 4 megabits per second downstream, a minimum generally required for using today's video-rich applications and services," Griggs writes. FCC reports 65 percent of Americans have high-speed Internet access at home. (Read more)

GAO report says feds need to collaborate better to address rural homelessness

A new study commissioned by the Government Accountability Office calls for better collaboration between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Health and Human Services to address the unique challenges associated with tackling rural homelessness. "Rural homelessness involves a range of living situations but comparing the extent of homelessness in rural and non-rural areas is difficult primarily due to data limitations," the report's summary says. "Based on GAO visits to six states, persons experiencing homelessness in rural areas could be living in one of a limited number of shelters, in extremely overcrowded situations, in severely substandard housing, or outdoors."

Difficulties in counting transient populations, limited reporting by service providers in federal data systems, inconsistent reporting across programs, and focusing on the segments of the homeless population that the agency serves make comparing homeless populations in rural and non-rural areas difficult, GAO reports. "Federal agencies maintain limited data on the amount of homeless assistance awarded to rural areas, making comparisons with assistance awarded to non-rural areas difficult," GAO writes.

Accessing and providing homeless services in rural areas brought its own barriers, including "limited access to services, large service areas, dispersed populations, and a lack of transportation and affordable housing," GAO reports. Despite these challenge little evidence of collaboration across departments to address them exists. "Without a more formal linking of housing and supportive services by HUD and HHS, two of the key agencies for funding these activities, the effectiveness of federal efforts to address homelessness may be diminished," GAO concludes. (Read more)

Rural America getting older, with some exceptions

Rural America has been getting older faster than its urban and exurban neighbors since 2000, but a few rural regions have experienced growth in their under-25 populations. "The percentage of the population that was under 25 dropped in urban, rural and exurban America," Roberto Gallardo reports for the Daily Yonder, but notes counties in West Texas, the Panhandle and Oklahoma as well as isolated counties in the Mountain West actually increased their young population. (Yonder map by Gallardo; click on image for larger version)

With the exception of several Great Plains and Central Texas counties most of rural America increased its share of population over 65 during the 2000s. "Rural America has a larger percentage of its population over 45 than either urban or exurban counties," Gallardo writes. "Urban counties had the smallest increase in this population." In 2000 61.7 percent of rural Americans were under 45, compared to just 56.7 percent in 2009. Conversely urban areas had the largest share of under-45 population at 66.6 percent in 2000 and 62.5 percent in 2009 and experienced the smallest decrease. (Read more)

The data from West Texas and the Panhandle may help explain why there was such a good turnout at the 100th anniversary meeting of the Panhandle Press Association, which covers part of West Texas, in April. Perhaps more explanatory than the presence of a certain speaker (blush). Or maybe it was Bill Bishop of the Yonder! --Al Cross

Poultry growers and processors debate proposed rules feds say are designed to protect growers

Independent poultry growers and large poultry-processing companies are at odds over proposed federal rules to govern their relationships. Growers currently follow contracts they sign with processing companies like Tyson Foods, but new federal rules would "give growers more time to fix problems before their contracts are canceled, require processing companies to give growers more notice before suspending delivery of birds to their farms and prohibit companies from retaliating against growers who speak out against their contracts," Lorraine Mirabella of The Baltimore Sun reports. You can read our report about the proposed changes here.

Conversely, "chicken processing companies argue that their flock-to-flock contract system gives growers a guaranteed market and little risk, since the companies provide the chicks, feed and delivery services," Mirabella writes. The federal proposals, mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill, would also prevent growers from being forced to make expensive upgrades on their poultry houses without protections to safeguard those investments and limit the ability of processors to cancel contracts when growers made big investments to get a contract.

"Things have changed drastically as small mom-and-pop poultry operators and farmers' co-ops around the country have been bought up by Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride and other megacorporations" such as Perdue Foods, Mike Weaver, president of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias, told Mirabella. "They've changed the rules in their favor. Once they took over, they started making their own rules. We got in a position of 'You either do this, or you're not going to get chickens anymore.' The growers are sick of it."

Processing companies counter the changes would cause unnecessary uncertainty in the system. "The current system has been working quite well for both Perdue and the more than 2,200 independent farms we now have who are raising poultry for Perdue, and many have been growing for Perdue for many generations," Luis A. Luna, Perdue's vice president of corporate communications, told Mirabella. "They produce a product for which they have a guaranteed customer." (Read more)

National Mining Association sues EPA over new rules for mountaintop-removal coal mines

The National Mining Association Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency alleging EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson ignored requirements for public involvement when she issued the new water-pollution guidelines for surface coal mining in Appalachia, in which it oversees water-pollution permit decisions of the Army Corps of Engineers. "In the 42-page complaint, the association alleges EPA's permit reviews were an effort to "rob" other agencies of their regulatory role," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. EPA made its guidance effective immediately on an interim basis while an eight-month public review process is completed.

"NMA members' efforts to navigate this unlawful process and obtain reasonable and predictable permit terms have been unsuccessful, leaving us no choice but to challenge the EPA and Corps policy in court," NMA President Hal Quinn told Ward. "Detailed agency guidance is not a valid substitute for lawful rulemaking based on public notice and comment." EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit but added "EPA's mining guidance is fully consistent with the law and the best available science and will help ensure that Americans living in coal country don't have to choose between a healthy environment for their families and the jobs they need to support them."

NMA alleges  the new process "adds significant additional time to the Corps' regulatory review" and is "dramatically altering timelines" for companies to receive new mining permits. "Industry lawyers also complain that, without public involvement, EPA wrongly put into place a detailed tool that grades the potential impacts of permits to help agency officials determine which mining permits need more rigorous reviews," Ward writes. "The new guidance calls for much tougher review, and perhaps rejection of permits, based on the potential to increase the electrical conductivity of streams, which is a stronger measure of many harmful pollutants from mining and has been linked to damage of aquatic life." (Read more)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

States fail to report health professionals' discipline to U.S. database; Kentucky worst scofflaw

A federal government database designed to track problem health professionals across state lines has been undermined by hundreds of state agencies who have never reported information required for the database, Tracy Webster and Charles Ornstein of ProPublica report. Many such professionals relocate in rural areas that are happy to have them because the areas are medically under-served.

The database "is supposed to contain disciplinary actions taken against doctors, nurses, therapists and other health practitioners around the country so that hospitals and select others can run background checks before they hire new employees," the reporters write. "Federal officials discovered the missing reports after a ProPublica investigation in February found widespread gaps in the data, including hundreds of nurses and pharmacists who had been sanctioned for serious wrongdoing."

Since that report, state agencies have submitted 72,000 new records to the database, nearly double the total submitted in all of 2009. ProPublica reports many agencies were simply failing to comply or didn't know they are required to submit the information for the database, administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration. Congress ordered the government to create a disciplinary-action database more than two decades ago, when information about doctors and dentists was first made available in the National Practitioner Data Bank in 1990, but hospitals could begin searching for other types of professionals only in March 2010.

"Despite the important public safety role of the database, federal officials have little power to enforce compliance," Webster and Ornstein write. "Earlier this month, they took what they said is the strongest action allowed against scofflaws: They put a checkmark next to state names indicating they were 'noncompliant' and posted the information on the HRSA website." In total, 21 states and Puerto Rico were labeled noncompliant for not reporting on at least one category of health professional or for ignoring the government's requests for information. Kentucky was the main scofflaw, failing to report information for 10 professions. Louisiana didn't report six, and Alabama and New Mexico each failed to report five. (Read more)

Rural veterans and their allies call for better service from Department for Veterans Affairs

Rural veterans' lack of access to Department of Veterans Affairs facilities was one of several concerns voiced by witnesses at House Committee on Veterans' Affairs subcommittee hearing in Bedford County, Virginia. Among the witnesses was Lynn Tucker, whose son, Army PFC Benjamin Tucker, suffered a traumatic brain injury after a non-service-related accident, Janelle Rucker of The Roanoke Times reports. "Ben's story reveals what should be our concerns for all veterans, particularly those representing rural areas," Tucker testified. "The concerns are access to primary and specialty care, effective and efficient communication with the VA and approval and remittance of payments from the VA for medically related items and services. Problems in these areas affect rural veterans ... by limiting medical choices, causing travel hardships and contributing in an overall breakdown in the quality of care and life."

Virginia Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello, facing a tough fight for re-election, said the testimony puts the VA "on notice that Congress is watching," Rucker writes. Perriello and the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, took the VA to task for its hesitance to implement a pilot program that would contract out health services for veterans, giving them more options closer to home. Under the Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act of 2008, the VA was supposed to implement the pilot program within 120 days of the law's enactment, but now says the program will begin in late 2010 or early 2011. (Read more)

USDA official, victimized by selective use of video and forced out, is offered a new job

UPDATE, July 21: The White House apologized to Shirley Sherrod today; yesterday it asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to reconsider his decision. Late today, Vilsack offered Sherrod a new job. He took responsibility for the debacle and said the decision "should have been done with far more thought and with much less haste." He reiterated that he made the decision without consulting the White House. Last night, Jake Tapper of ABC asked, "Did Vilsack know that the incident in question was in 1986 at a different place of employment when he issued his statement? An official with the Department of Agriculture concedes that he didn’t, but insisted that didn’t matter since her telling of the story in 2010 was the real issue." (Read more) The NAACP released the full video. Shepard Smith of Fox News criticized his own network today for airing the partial video from "a widely discredited website that has had inaccurate postings of videos in the past" without proper checking. He asked, "What in the world has happened to our industry and the White House?" Good question.

Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign her job as Rural Development director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Georgia this week because it was revealed that she told an NAACP banquet in March that she had only halfheartedly helped a farmer because he is white. The video was originally posted by "as part of the running feud between the NAACP and the Tea Party over which organization is more racist," Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. (Read more)

A caption on the video says Sherrod discriminated while in her USDA job, but she told reporters that the episode occurred in 1986, when she worked for the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund, and the clip "excluded the breadth of the story about how she eventually worked with the man over a two-year period to help ward off foreclosure of his farm, and how she eventually became friends with him and his wife," Marcus Garner of the AJC writes. "And I went on to work with many more white farmers," she told Garner. "The story helped me realize that race is not the issue, it's about the people who have and the people who don't. When I speak to groups, I try to speak about getting beyond the issue of race." The farmer told TV networks that Sherrod saved his farm.

In a statement announcing Sherrod's resignation, Vilsack he sought it because "We have been working to turn the page on the sordid civil rights record at USDA and this controversy could make it more difficult to move forward on correcting injustices. Second, state Rural Development directors make many decisions and are often called to use their discretion. The controversy surrounding her comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia."" (Read more)

Fracking firms say they don't know when they're working through possible sources of drinking water

The oilfield service companies that perform hydraulic fracturing for natural-gas companies told congressional investigators they don't know when they drill wells into rock strata that may be sources of drinking water. That prompted Democratic Reps. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Henry Waxman of California, the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, to ask "10 oil and gas producers who hire the service companies to provide a list of all hydraulically fractured wells in or near such sources," Mike Sorghan of Environment & Energy Daily reports. Waxman's letter to well operators asking for the information also sought information on recovery and disposal of "produced water" and other fluids that come back out of the well.

Chris Tucker, spokesman for industry group Energy in Depth, told Sorghan, ""The basic geological reality of shale gas exploration is the formations we fracture are separated from the formations carrying potable underground water by thousands and thousands of feet -- and millions and millions of tons -- of solid, impermeable rock," If the chairman is looking for some additional information on that scientific phenomenon, or on the steps that operators take at every wellsite in America to ensure what happens inside the wellbore has no way of communicating with what occurs outside it, that's a conversation we look forward to being part of."

Some of the companies who told investigators they didn't know which wells were located near drinking water sources signed a memorandum six years ago with the Environmental Protection Agency agreeing not to use diesel fuel in such wells. "It is not clear how the companies could honor the agreement if they did not know whether they were pouring chemicals into sources of drinking water," Sorghan writes. Fracking has been used the industry for decades but "questions about drinking water contamination have mounted in the past few years as the process has opened up vast reserves in shale formations in new areas," Sorghan writes. (Read more, subscription required)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Volunteers at your county fair deserve recognition

All over rural America this summer, thousands of community-minded volunteers are braving record heat, thunderstorms and the inevitable hassles of a county fair to make theirs a success. Every fair has one or more volunteers who really make that happen, and they deserve recognition in the local news media and beyond.

My favorite fair volunteer is my wife, Patti Cross, and she is the subject of a very nice feature story by Kristina Betsworth and photos by Tricia Spaulding in today's edition of The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky., in the wake of last week's Franklin County Fair. Since this item is personal, and the point of it is to encourage other papers to follow suit, I'll limit our excerpt to the last three paragraphs of the story:

In the end, Patti says all of her hard work pays off.

“All it takes is one or two little faces beaming after they have won a competition or ridden a midway ride or had their first funnel cake or seen their first sheep,” she said.

“The enjoyment of the community is what it is all about.”

The State Journal's site is subscriber-only, but if you want a copy of the story e-mail me.

Study shows students adapt to consolidation of rural schools better than teachers do

Much of the conversation about rural school consolidation has centered on its effect on community and small-town identity. Now a study looking at the impact on four rural Arkansas schools districts has identified different effects for students and teachers. The study revealed "students in rural districts readily adapt to the life changes imposed by school consolidation while teachers—especially veterans—struggle with new relationships," Mary Schulken of Education Week reports on her Rural Education blog. The study, conducted by Keith A. Nitta of the University of Washington, Marc J. Holley of the University of Arkansas and Sharon L. Wrobel of UA-Little Rock appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of Research in Rural Education.

Researchers interviewed students, teachers, and administrators about the impact on their everyday lives and found nearly all students and teachers reported some benefits from consolidation, including wider course offerings and having to teach fewer subjects. "The study offered no recommendations about whether consolidation is helpful or hurtful," Schulken writes. "Yet, it did make this important point: The narrow, cost-versus-community-impact focus of research and debate has ignored the effect of consolidation on students and teachers. In turn, decisions have discounted that critical factor."

"When it happened it ranked with the death of my mother and our store burning," one teacher, who moved from a tiny district to a larger one, told the researchers, who used pseudonyms for the schools to protect anonymity. "I had been at Cherry all my life. I had done my student teaching there, and went to work there. We live there and have a business there," one teacher said, but acknowledged that the negative effects of consolidation eventually decreased: "Now I’m happy as I’ve ever been, so it’s worked out OK," she told the researchers. "The initial shock of it was a little overwhelming… As bad as it is at first that in the long run they have to remember that it’s for the kids." (Read more)

Recession, budget cuts prompt some states and localities to let asphalt roads go to gravel

Paved roads have long been a signal of rural development, but now as local governments look to cut costs some are letting asphalt go in favor of unpaved roads. "Paved roads ... are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue," Lauren Etter of The Wall Street Journal reports. "State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls." At least 28 of Michigan's 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years, and South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt into gravel last year.

"Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as 'poor man's pavement,'" Etter writes. (It's also called "cold mix.") "Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel." While the jarring road conditions and dust that come with gravel roads have angered some locals, raising taxes for road maintenance is equally unpopular. The price of asphalt has more than doubled in the last 10 years. "Gravel becomes a cheaper option once an asphalt road has been neglected for so long that major rehabilitation is necessary," Etter writes.

"A lot of these roads have just deteriorated to the point that they have no other choice than to turn them back to gravel," Larry Galehouse, director of the National Center for Pavement Preservation at Michigan State University, told Etter. Still, "we're leaving an awful legacy for future generations." However Purdue University's John Habermann, who organized a recent seminar about the resurgence of gravel roads titled "Back to the Stone Age," noted that a gravel road "is not a free road," because of the costs of frequent grading and smoothly needed to maintain them. (Read more)

Rural wireless carriers urge FCC to break up company-exclusive cell phone deals

Rural wireless phone carriers are pushing the Federal Communication Commission to consider giving them access to other companies' exclusive cell phones, after a Japanese company recently announced it would begin doing so for customers in the spring. "The FCC is investigating whether exclusive handset deals are anticompetitive," Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post reports on the Post Tech blog. For instance, Apple’s iPhone runs only on AT&T’s network, and the Palm Pre is exclusive to Sprint Nextel. Rural carriers say aren’t able to strike the same deals with manufacturers.

NTT Docomo of Japan announced starting April 2011 it will "preinstall its phones in Japan with software that will unlock the device upon request," Kang writes. The move came following a call from Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to unlock handsets in order to give consumers more choices. "I strongly urge the FCC to take similar pro-consumer action," Rural Cellular Association President Steven K. Berry wrote in a letter to the agency. "Doesn’t the American consumer deserve a similar freedom to choose the carrier and handset they desire?"

"The rural wireless trade group has been lobbying for the agency to break open the handset market, where carriers take on marketing costs for manufacturers and offer other incentives to attract the sleekest and most-desired new gadgets," Kang writes. Without exclusive deals rural carriers say it's hard for them to attract customers who demand the latest and trendiest phones. "The issue has a potentially impact on the bottom lines of wireless carriers, as well," Kang writes. "Rumors of the iPhone going to Verizon, for example, have sent AT&T’s stock lower and Verizon’s higher." (Read more)

Farm subsidies become issue in Ky. Senate race

We've previously reported on Kentucky Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul's position on farm subsidies, here and here, and now the issue is continuing to get attention in his race with Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway. "The votes of those who till the rich soil of Western Kentucky have long been important to politicians who hope to carry the conservative region, where most people register as Democrats but tend to vote Republican in federal elections," Bill Estep and Halimah Abdullah of the Lexington Herald-Leader report. "Paul's position that subsidies are not a good idea — a stance he took in May that meshes with his overall Libertarian-leaning philosophy — isn't popular with many of those voters."

Paul most recently said he was "not sure" what level of farm-subsidy spending spending would be appropriate, "but suggested that cutting subsidy payments to the richest farmers would be a good starting point," the newspaper reports. Chris Clark, agriculture extension agent in Hart County, told the reporters that Paul's position had "raised a lot of eyebrows in the farm community." His county, in south-central Kentucky, is one of those getting more than $3 million annually in subsidies. (H-L graphic by Chris Ware)

"For a lot of farmers, subsidies have become a sort of birthright, and there's talk about 'Why us. Why go after farmers and not someone else,'" Donald Gross, a University of Kentucky political science professor, told the Herald-Leader. "If you say cut spending and that means eliminate these subsidies that you've had for the past 50 years, then people will kind of go, 'Oh, well now, wait a minute.'" Conway "accused Paul of favoring elimination of programs to help farmers," the reporters write. "Conway did not say whether he would favor any cuts in subsidies." (Read more)

Paul's previous statements against farm subsidies are "remarkable for anyone seeking to represent Kentucky in Washington, even six years after the federal tobacco program was repealed," Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Director Al Cross writes in a column for The Courier-Journal. He notes that in 2008, the last year for which complete data are available, 69,284 people and businesses in Kentucky got money from federal farm programs. Paul "talks little about Kentucky in his campaign, which is almost completely focused on national issues and is clearly playing to a national audience," Cross writes. "He may be at the cutting edge of a national movement that will in fact change Washington, but before he can do that, he must be elected in a relatively poor state that has depended on Washington. It remains to be seen whether Kentucky voters will change the description of the job for which he is applying." (Read more)

UPDATE, July 23: At the Kentucky Farm Bureau candidate forum July 22, Paul said, “It is really galling to people that three companies in the U.S. got a billion dollars” in farm subsidies. But the “companies,” Joe Gerth of The Courier-Journal reports, “are all cooperatives that are owned by thousands of farmers” who grow rice ijn Arkansas and California and get an average of $4,000 a year in subsidies. Asked about that, Paul's campaign manager said “I don’t know what a co-op is. But it certainly doesn’t change the point that farm subsidies are often full of waste, fraud and abuse by corporations at the expense of the farmer.” (His initial comment drew a sharp rejoinder from a Republican-leaning rural blogger.)

Gerth also notes Conway "twice claimed erroneously that Paul had called for doing away with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ... In fact, Paul has said it’s not feasible to abolish the department. Instead, he has advocated getting rid of individual programs in the department that aren’t effective or cost-efficient." Paul told Farm Bureau directors, “We are drowning in a sea of debt, and it's not about if you’re for or against farmers. If you want to be for farmers, open up markets. … Don’t say 'I'll give you more money,' when the money is gone.” (Read more) C-SPAN airs the forum at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Following up on his earlier story, which contradicted Paul's claims about payments to dead farmers, Ronnie Ellis of Community Newspaper Holdings reports that Paul's father-in law "received relatively small farm subsidy payments for 12 years — including a portion of a USDA payment due his deceased father’s estate in 1995." (Read more)

UPDATE, July 24: New York Times columnist Gail Collins, a Cincinnati native, attended the forum in Louisville. In a column she pokes fun at Conway for overemphasis of his "Kentucky first" mantra and Paul for his even more heavy use of the name of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. She concludes with this from the post-forum press conference:
A local reporter noted that the state sends less money to Washington than it gets back and asked Paul if he wanted to “sacrifice our take.”
“I don’t think anything coming from the federal government is a net-plus,” he replied.
You have to give this to Rand Paul. It’s generally clear where his heart lies, even if he was a little weaselly on his well-established opposition to farm subsidies when addressing a roomful of farmers.
On that point, I would like to say: Go for it, Rand Paul! Not sure we urbanites share your antipathy toward the minimum-wage laws, but when it comes to crop supports, we’re there for you. (Read more)

Researcher warns Iowa farmers that overuse of a single herbicide will lead to resistant weeds

We've been following the rise of so-called Roundup-resistant weeds as farmers use more and more herbicide-tolerant crops, and now one Iowa State University researcher is warning local farmers they need to change their usage levels before it's too late. "I tell them to quit doing what they're doing now, because it won't work for long," ISU agronomy professor Michael Owen, who has overseen a 10-plot study of weed herbicide resistance on Iowa farms for the last year, told Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register. "Iowa is probably about two years away from a serious problem with glyphosate resistance, and it's better to react now than to wait until it's too late."

"Weed resistance has yet to inhibit Iowa's corn and soybean yields, which have risen steadily in recent years to the 2009 harvest averages in Iowa of more than 180 bushels per acre for corn and 60 bushels per acre for soybeans," Piller writes. Accounts of Roundup-resistant weeds have popped up across the South, and Owen said those examples could be a glimpse of the future for Iowa. "We can't say for sure how deep the damage would be from weed resistance, but it would happen," he told Piller. "What's happened in the South is a good example of what shouldn't happen here."

Owen warned varying herbicides is important to residual weed control. "Farmers [in the South] didn't change their practices," Owen said. "Roundup works so well, they just kept applying it year after year. You need to mix up the herbicides, put different types on the fields." Owen said he isn't an opponent of no-till farming, which is more popular among heavy herbicide users, but he said no-till farmers should be especially vigilant regarding herbicide resistance. "Roundup isn't going away," Owen said. "It will be around for a long time. So have other herbicides like 2, 4-D, Atrazine and DiCamba. They're still around and still can be used." (Read more)