Friday, October 15, 2010

EPA closer to blocking huge mountaintop mine

"The Obama administration has moved another step closer to blocking the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history, with a veto recommendation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator," writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

The recommendation on Arch Coal's Spruce No. 1 Mine near Blair (MapQuest image), which environmentalists have been trying to stop since it was proposed in 1998, went to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson three weeks ago, "but agency officials had refused to publicly release it until pressured to do so by a federal judge" handling legal action over the permit process, Ward reports.

An EPA spokesman said the agency would "reach out" to Arch, state officials and the Army Corps of Engineers, which issues Clean Water Act permits for mines, to discuss how the mine plan might be altered to reduce potential damage to streams, wildlife and communities. "In the past year, EPA efforts have produced two mining permits in which much of the coal reserves could be mined, while impacts on water quality were significantly reduced," Ward notes. (Read more)

EPA questioned the permit more than a year ago. The revelation of the regional administrator's recommendation comes as Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin is working hard to separate himself from the Obama administration's coal policies and fend off a surprisigly strong challenge from Republican John Raese in a U.S. Senate race that could decide control of the chamber.

Death of twin papers prompts 'group hug' in N.Y.

In the creative destruction that marks the news business today, "at least as vexing as the future of brand-name publications is the question of who, if anyone, can provide news in rural and exurban communities where, even in the best of times, the most informed people are often the ones with police scanners." So writes Peter Applebome of The New York Times in reporting the death of twin rural newspapers in the Catskill Mountains of southern New York.

"The Phoenicia Times and The Olive Press were lively, intensely local and culturally sophisticated biweeklies, nine and seven years old," Applebome reports. (By "biweekly" he means every other week. The papers were mailed free to every postal patron.) Phoenicia is "a tiny hamlet of about 400 people within Shandaken, a rural town of about 3,400 year-round and 7,000 in the summer, spread over 120 square miles. (Top of MapQuest image shows route from Phonecia [A] to Olive [B], pop. 4,600, both in Ulster County. Click image for larger version.)

"In an area where the daily Kingston Freeman historically tilted right, the papers tilted left, with raucous letters pages and coverage critical of the area’s biggest development plan at Belleayre Mountain," Applebome writes. "But in a bad economy, the papers’ publisher, Brian Powers, and their editor, Paul Smart, found themselves skating too close to the edge of viability. A plea for financial help from readers in August was not enough to keep the doors open. Mr. Powers still thinks he had the right model . . . and is hoping to raise money to revive the notion on a larger scale. Having something tangible like print sent to every residence is more appealing to advertisers than the wispy notion of who might read what online, he argued."

The need for local news was demonstrated by what Applebome calls a "group hug" among the papers' staff and readers, started with a post by Lissa Harris, editor of a new website for the region, Watershed Post. For a PDF of the first 16 pages of the Times' final edition, with a story about its demise and other, related material, go here; for the Olive Press, here.

Virgina extension agencies may change focus from county-level services to regional

To help meet dwindling budgets, Virginia Tech announced it was restructuring the state's cooperative extension service to focus on regional services instead of county-level ones. "Since 2007, the budget for extension has shrunk from $65 million to $55 million," Tonia Moxley of The Roanoke Times reports. Alan Grant, dean of Tech's College of Agriculture, said under the plan most or even all of the state's 106 county extension offices would remain open, if local governments wish to keep them operating. Local governments could opt out of locally based extension services.

Local governments co-fund extension agents working in their counties, Moxley writes. At least one local stakeholder voiced concerns that a regional model would hurt extension services in local schools. "We all realize there has to be budget cuts, but it has to be equitable," Deborah Ring, of the Extension Leadership Council in Pulaski County, told Moxley. "My feeling is the giant portion should be for field and community, and a lesser portion for the university and research."

"The biggest organizational change will be to streamline management operations," Moxley writes. "The 106 administrators who oversee county offices across the state will be reduced to 22." The 22 administrators will oversee newly established regional extension "hubs" or "business centers." Each hub would serve up to five counties with science-based educational programming provided by up to three extension agents. "The extension agents, who work directly with farmers and other stakeholders, will be renamed 'extension educators' to reflect a new focus on programming," Moxley writes. (Read more)

Southwest ranchers look for alternative strategies for dealing with wolves

A growing number of southwestern ranchers are adopting deterrence projects as they become resigned to living with increased wolf populations. Arizona rancher Carey Dobson has put up an electric fence with long slips of magenta plastic flagging over the entire length, April Reese of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. "From the time we started doing that in 2007 up to now, we've had zero wolf depredations," Dobson said. "I think the fence has a lot to do with it." Other ranchers have hired additional range riders to monitor herds. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Arizona rancher Sydney Maddock is letting her calves grow bigger before turning them out for grazing as wolves usually target young, old or weak livestock, Reese writes. "I don't know if it's going to work out or not," Maddock's ranch manger Eddie Lee told Reese. "But it's been two years, and it seems to be working." The deterrence projects represent a "new, more collaborative way of dealing with Mexican wolves, which the Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico in 1998," Reese writes. Previous focus has been on removing wolves by killing or relocating them. "If they were to take the wolves out tomorrow, I'd be happy," rancher Barbara Mack said. "But they are here, and we have to work with everybody to try to get along and to survive."

"Nothing is as divisive as this," Chris Bagnoli, Mexican wolf interagency team leader for Arizona, said of the Mexican wolf reintroduction program. "But some folks have come to understand that they're here, and there are ways to live with it." About 15 ranchers in Arizona and 12 in New Mexico have tried deterrence strategies, and many have seen benefits. "One of the most effective things you can do is separate cattle and wolves," John Oakleaf, a senior Fish and Wildlife Service biologist with the Mexican wolf program, told Reese. "Reducing wolf depredations -- that's a common goal for sure. That's something wolf biologists and ranchers and everyone can all get behind." (Read more)

Wal-Mart to double percentage of locally grown food in U.S. stores

The nation's largest retailer is latching on to the local food movement. "Wal-Mart Stores announced a program on Thursday that focuses on sustainable agriculture among its suppliers as it tries to reduce its overall environmental impact," Stephanie Clifford of The New York Times reports. "The program is intended to put more locally grown food in Wal-Mart stores in the United States, invest in training and infrastructure for small and medium-size farmers, particularly in emerging markets, and begin to measure how efficiently large suppliers grow and get their produce into stores."

In the U.S. Wal-Mart plans to double its percentage of locally grown food, defined as food grown in the same state as the store, to nine percent. Local food advocates called the proposal significant, but questioned how "local" the $405 billion company with two million employees could be. "No other retailer has the ability to make more of a difference than Wal-Mart," the retailer’s president and chief executive Michael T. Duke said. "Grocery is more than half of Wal-Mart’s business. Yet only four of our 39 public sustainability goals address food."

The company's goals are more ambitious for other countries, like Canada, where Wal-Mart plans to buy 30 percent of its produce locally by 2013. "Our food business in Canada is brand new, so there’s a lot they can do," Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability, said at a news conference. The company will also invest more than $1 billion to improve its supply chain for perishable food, a move Michelle Mauthe Harvey of the Environmental Defense Fund, called significant. "As we’ve moved to reliance on key locations like California and Florida," she said, "we’ve made it very difficult for local farmers to actually get their food to market." (Read more)

Chilean mine rescue could offer lessons for U.S. regulators

In the wake of the rescue of the Chilean miners, the U.S. mining industry should ask itself what it can do to improve mine disaster response, writes the country's leading coal reporter. In March, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reported "fewer than one of every 10 underground coal mines in the United States has added improved communications and tracking equipment that could help miners escape an explosion or fire" in the four years since the Sago Mine disaster. Since then we've learned emergency response at Upper Big Branch didn't go as smoothly as it could have, Ward writes.

"Regulatory agencies and politicians — and we in the media — tend to respond to emergencies, and to focus only on the crisis at hand," Ward writes on his Coal Tattoo blog. He notes the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's focus on preventing mine disasters, and thus the need for mine rescues, is the proper one, but advocates for further examination of the mine rescue process. "Legislation to further reform coal-mine safety in this country appears stalled for now…but in the meanwhile, why don’t Democratic congressional leaders hold hearings just to check in on the MINER Act’s mine rescue provisions?" Ward writes. "Even with a Democrat in the White House and a UMWA safety director running MSHA, don’t members of Congress have a responsibility to perform some stronger oversight in this area?" (Read more)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

With Chilean rescue done, Spike TV announces reality show about life and work in a coal mine

The rescue of the gold-and-silver miners in Chile, and the massive attention to their story, has prompted announcement of a cable-and-satellite-TV reality show that will be about coal miners working in a very different underground environment in Central Appalachia, reports James Hibberd of The Hollywood Reporter.

Spike TV has ordered 10 episoides of 'Coal,' which Hibberd calls "a docuseries chronicling the dangerous profession of coal mining set in West Virginia. ... With the rescue of 33 Chilean miners drawing international headlines, the project should have little trouble generating interest from viewers and the media. But Spike executives note that 'Coal' has been in development for nearly a year. ... The network was prepared to announce the project weeks ago but held off until rescue workers could begin freeing the miners."

"It didn't take a tragedy, and then a miracle, to get us excited about this," Sharon Levy, executive vice president for original programming at Spike, told Hibberd. She said people at the channel are "humongous fans of the kind of shows" produced by "reality powerhouse Thom Beers and his Original Prods," as Hibberd describes them. They make "Ice Road Truckers" and "Ax Men," for example.
Hibberd reports, "The show will focus on Mike Crowder and Tom Roberts, co-owners of Cobalt Mine in Westchester, W.Va.," just west of Fairmont. "The mining team has more than 40 employees, and this series will show every major aspect of their jobs, from planting explosives to surface mining to working in a traditional mine shaft."

The one-hour shows will begin in April. "We've tapped into something that people are passionate about," Levy told Hibberd. "This is a topic the world is interested in. Everybody is afraid of being buried alive." (Read more)

Spike TV has issued a release noting the show will include 10 unscripted, hour-long episodes set to debut in April 2011. "Every aspect of the job will be covered, from the dangers behind the super-charged explosions needed to open surface mines, to the well-publicized daily dangers of working in the dark recesses of the earth's crust in a traditional shaft mine," Spike writes. "As they face the daily pressure to keep the mine up and running and their workers safe, family men Crowder and Roberts will rely on the support of their loved ones to tackle the mine's daily demands." (Read more)

Obama administration moves to curb black lung

UPDATE 10/15: In addition to the two-year tightening of the coal dust limit in underground mines, the proposal also requires the use of continuous personal dust monitors to measure miners’ exposure in a more timely and accurate manner, provides for full-shift sampling — rather than averaging samples from multiple shifts, which can underestimate actual numbers — to more accurately measure miners’ exposure and redefines work shifts for compliance purposes to more accurately reflect that miners simply don’t always work eight-hour shifts anymore, Ward reports. "I hope the miners and the mining community embrace this approach," MSHA chief Joe Main said. "It is the right thing to do. It is aimed at eliminating the disease that has afflicted and plagued the mining industry for far too long." (Read more)

As part of its strategy to end black-lung disease, the Obama administration is proposing a two-year phase-in of of a tighter limit for coal dust at a news conference this afternoon. "Copies of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration proposal are available now through the Federal Register website here," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his Coal Tattoo blog. "According to the proposal, the legal limit on coal dust in underground mines — currently 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter of air — would be tightened to 1.7 milligrams six months after the rule is finalized. The limit would be tightened to 1.5 milligrams in a year and then to 1.0 milligrams a year after that."

The agency is "is proposing a 24-month phase-in period to allow the mining community the opportunity to identify, develop and implement feasible engineering controls; train miners and mine management in new technology and control measures; and to improve their overall dust control program," MSHA writes in the proposal. (Read more)

Rural schoolchildren lack afterschool programs

A new study of how U.S. children spend their afternoons reveals one in 10 rural schoolchildren attend an afterschool program, a third less than the national 15 percent average. "According to the study, each community type has its own distinct barriers to access to afterschool services," the nonprofit group Afterschool Alliance writes in a news release. "While more than half of rural parents seeking programs struggle with availability of afterschool options, urban and suburban parents cite affordability as their major concern." Parents in all communities listed transportation as a barrier to afterschool program participation.

The study points to the barriers as factors in the key finding that one in four students in America is left unsupervised every day after the school bell rings. "This new data is alarming because it demonstrates that nearly 3 million rural children in this country are missing out on the educational, enriching activities that afterschool programs provide," said Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant. "While there are not enough afterschool programs to meet the growing needs of every community, the problem is particularly acute in rural America. We need more dedicated funding to ensure that rural communities are equipped with the resources to offer quality afterschool programs that keep kids safe, inspire them to learn and help working families." The study was sponsored by JCPenney. (Read more)

Preliminary study suggest fracking, by definition, harms water; industry says finding not proven

Preliminary research from the Academy of Natural Sciences suggests hydraulic fracturing for natural gas can degrade nearby streams even without spills or accidents. "The researchers compared watersheds where there was no or little drilling to watersheds where there was a high density of drilling, and found significant changes," Sandy Bauers of The Philadelphia Inquirer reports. "Water conductivity, an indicator of contamination by salts that are a component of drilling wastewater, was almost twice as high in streams with high-density drilling."

"Populations of salamanders and aquatic insects, animals sensitive to pollution, were 25 percent lower in streams with the most drilling activity," Bauers writes. The Academy is the nation's oldest natural-science research center and a leader in stream biology. Researchers noted "their study was not looking at drilling accidents or other irregularities, but whether -- and if so, at what point -- drilling posed a potential for harm," Bauers writes. The study has not been peer-reviewed or published in a journal.

"This suggests there is indeed a threshold at which drilling, regardless of how it is practiced, will have a significant impact on an ecosystem," David Velinsky, vice president of the academy's Patrick Center for Environmental Research, told Bauers. Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said the group "does not comment on preliminary, non-peer reviewed, unreleased 'studies' that we have not even had the opportunity to examine," and noted the presence of total dissolved solids in streams wasn't necessarily related to drilling. (Read more)

Weekly editors consult colleague about dealing with threat from violent criminal

UPDATE: Editors across the U.S. face similar problems. The Crossville (Tennessee) Chronicle was threatened recently when a man armed with a knife entered the mail and pressroom and allegedly threatened employees, according to a report in the October Tennessee Press Association newsletter. The Crossville police disarmed the intruder and no one was injured. The intruder, a Crossville resident formerly of Georgia, was charged with two counts of felony aggravated assault, criminal trespass and violation of an order of protection.

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors has an e-mail "hotline" for members to consult among themselves about problems. Recently posted was a query from an editor who was concerned about her safety and that of her staff because a local man charged with stalking had made threats against the newspaper. Following is an abridged rendition of the ISWNE discussion, beginning with pertinent parts of the editor's question:

"This is actually his second arrest in the last month and he recently got off probation in another stalking conviction. We had a case when a stalker murdered his victim ... and this was the first murder here in a decade, so people are pretty concerned about stalkers. Our story pointed out that the guy in question has said he has a hit list and has said that he will 'take care of' those on the list and then commit suicide by driving head on into another vehicle on the highway. People on the hit list have armed themselves. While police were tracking him down to arrest him, three families were relocated out of the county for their protection. Of course, we have named no victims. When he appeared in court, the judge cut the requested bail in half and did not order a mental health evaluation, which had been requested by the D.A. So he is free on bond.

"My story appeared today complete with a mug shot. The police chief called and said that he heard the guy is really angry about the story and would be visiting us. I had already told my staff to keep the doors locked this morning and let people in as they needed to be let in, but to call the police if this person appeared. Actually he did appear and the only person in the office was in back, saw him and did not let him in but did not call the police. Since then, I have had a lengthy conversation with him by phone (I know him and all his victims and most of the people on the alleged hit list) and I feel a bit better about the whole situation, but we’re still on guard.

"My question: Have you dealt with similar situations and what precautions have you taken? My ad manager flew out the door first thing this morning and hasn’t been seen since, and I have told everyone that they don’t need to be at the office if they feel at all threatened. I considered hiring some thug to be on site for a few days, just in case, but haven’t done that although the police offered to find someone for us. The police chief told me that we need to be concerned 'because this guy is insane.' We’ve now unlocked the door, but if he should show up, we will notify the police that he is here. We have a pretty open office here, and people kind of wander in and out. I have a separate office in the back, but people also walk in pretty much at will. In other words we aren’t the most secure place around. Any thoughts?"

Wow, scary. Our office is staffed by women only, and yeah, I'd have someone there as a guard if at all possible. I've never had anything that made me feel really threatened, but this most definitely would. I probably would have handled it the same way. I think putting a "thug" (or an off-duty cop) at the front door is probably something you should do now, for the staff's sake. In the future? This will make it harder to not back off a little bit when another nutball situation arises, though the great likelihood is that it will not.

In my 25 years, I've had one guy really put a concern into me. He was a paroled murderer and I had published something where he was the victim. He went off because his name was in the newspaper, and threatnened by phone to kill me. I called the police chief and made him aware in case something happened. Nothing did.

Do what is necessary to make sure that you, your staff and the public who visits you are safe. Editors of independent weeklies who do real enterprise journalism in small towns are at far greater risk for threats to their safety than those working in urban papers.

The simplest things we report may have the ability to set someone off unexpectedly — even children's soccer. Each syllable is personal to someone. We are uniquely accessible. Everyone in town expects to be able to walk in and lean on the front counter to tell the whole office how they feel about a story — good or bad. Some come in to plead with us not to publish their name in the Sheriff's Log after they get drunk, swing punches and threaten the officer who arrests them.

Over the last six years, a long list of stories have triggered attempts to intimidate the paper to choose silence over reporting. . . . It is true that some of the people who come in angry have been diagnosed with mental illness, and it is true that use of psychotropic drugs with sometimes obsessive results has increased by 75 percent in the U.S. Many are self-medicating with alcohol. But most are ordinary people, edgy with anxiety over stresses affecting small towns right now. . . . Meanwhile, election-season litanies and attack ads devalue facts and amp up emotion. People who see themselves as victims demonize those with whom they disagree. Dehumanizing opponents is the first step toward justifying violence against others. A sense of helplessness is a volatile fuel. Almost anything can become a spark. Words morph into irrational acts. So yes, these are uniquely challenging times.

On production days I used to work late into the night and early into the morning in a glass office with windows visible from the street, like a duck in a shooting gallery. No more. We researched the cost for bullet-proof glass. Instead I got a laptop and work in a different office, apart from the foot traffic, and sometimes many miles away. I still go to thousands of meetings and am constantly in the public on stories, but I'm not as predictable a target as I was before. After business hours the staff is required to lock the heavy glass front door and we always keep the back door locked. A person working in the office alone must lock the door. We monitor cars coming into the parking lot. If there is a possibility that keys have gone afield, we change the locks. We maintain a close dialogue with the local sheriff's substation. . . . If I feel someone is following me on our remote mountain roads, I don't make the usual turns if I'm heading to my home. We also keep our home doors locked, which we didn't used to do. And our most effective defense technique? We are very nice. We really, truly care. We listen sympathetically. We work like willing slaves to serve the community. We try to understand differing points of view. We do our best to be fair. If we make a mistake we say we're sorry, in print. It probably doesn't hurt that our publisher is six feet tall and a very quiet guy who doesn't let conflict escalate.

Please continue to be careful. Hone in on those gut instincts. . . . When I was younger and was living as a single mom in my hometown, I didn't originally have sense enough to be afraid until I realized some nut had been on my property. On more than one occasion after a controversial trial and court issues, I was followed home. Luckily for me, I had friends like you do on the police force and they began to patrol extra rounds in my neighborhood. . . . Use the buddy system. Keep your cell phone handy. Have 911 on speed dial. A lot of the time these folks are more talk than anything else.

It requires a great deal of courage to be a newspaper editor.

EPA approval of E15 fuel doesn't mean it will be at pumps soon

The Obama administration's approval of limited use of a 15 percent ethanol blend in gasoline doesn't mean drivers should expect to see E15 fuel at the pumps anytime soon. "Biofuel industry advocates said the decision would create new inroads for an industry that is producing more corn-based fuel than can be used," Allison Winter of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "But it remains unclear when or where the fuel would be offered." Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency is giving gas retailers the option of selling E15 but not mandating it.

"We followed the law and followed the science, and we have done the testing that makes us very confident that this fuel is safe for newer vehicles," McCarthy said. "There will be many decisions that follow, but EPA is not the entity that will roll those out, and use of these fuels will not be compelled." Without a strong demand for E15 fuel, fewer stations may provide it, Winter writes. "The Petroleum Marketers Association of America has asked EPA and Congress to ensure that the fuel would not harm tanks, pipes and glue -- all of which are approved for E10," Winter writes.

"A representative from the petroleum-retail trade group said there may be a 'chicken and egg' problem with the fuel -- retailers may not bother to carry it unless there is a push from consumers. But consumers may not be interested in using it unless it is commonly adopted by retailers," Winters writes. Critics of the decision were quick to note permitting E15 is a political gift top Midwestern states in advance of the upcoming elections. "EPA's unwise and premature decision to allow the sale of gasoline with higher levels of ethanol may be good politics in Corn Belt states on the eve of the midterm elections, but it is bad news for every American who owns a car, truck, motorcycle, boat, snowmobile, lawnmower, chainsaw or anything else powered by gasoline," Gregory Scott, executive vice president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, told Winters. (Read more, subscription required)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

EPA allows 15% ethanol in blend with gasoline

The Environmental Protection Agency announced today that it will allow higher levels of ethanol for gasoline in cars and light trucks made in 2007 and later. EPA will allow "ethanol levels in gasoline blends to be as high as 15% for vehicles made since 2007, up from 10% currently," Stephen Power of The Wall Street Journal reports. For cars made between 2001 and 2006, the agency says it is awaiting the outcome of additional research and not ready to announce a decision.

Groups including livestock ranchers, auto makers and oil refiners are expected to oppose the decision. "While the groups have varying motives for opposing greater corn ethanol production, they — along with many environmentalists — generally say the government hasn't conducted sufficient testing to warrant higher concentrations of ethanol in motor fuels," Power writes. Opponents note approving the E15 blend for some cars but not others will confuse drivers at the gasoline pump.

Industry officials say without expanding the allowable blend to 15 percent the U.S. will not be able to meet a Congressional mandate of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2020. The industry has construction projects underway that could expand its annual capacity to 13.5 billion gallons within months, Powers reports. "Another critical concern for the ethanol industry: the 45 cents a gallon excise tax credit that has long helped to drive demand for ethanol is slated to expire at the end of the year," Powers writes. (Read more)

The recent run-up in corn prices did not factor into EPA’s decision, EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Gina McCarthy told reporters on a conference call. The Daily Livestock Report predicts that while the rule change will not increase corn usage for ethanol production soon, “it does promise an expanded market for ethanol producers who have been caught between rising (Renewable Fuels Standard) requirements and the 10 percent allowable blend rate.” (Read more, subscription required)

Local produce in school cafeterias, a 'win-win-win'

We've been following the farm to school movement, most recently here, but one Kentucky county's experience shows schools face significant barriers getting local food in school cafeterias. A five-member team in Franklin County "began work this summer to boost the amount of local produce served in school cafeterias," Katheran Wasson of The State Journal in Frankfort reports. "The group attended a workshop in July to kick-start the effort, led by state agriculture, health and education groups." The process isn't without barriers as lunchroom workers don't have enough time to process fresh produce.

"Instead of buying whole tomatoes from a local farmer, they might buy pre-made spaghetti sauce, tomato juice or salsa," Wasson writes. Storage is also a problem as cafeterias have little space to store frozen local produce during the winter. "We can get this product year-round from the vendor," Geraldine Jette, food services director of Franklin County Public Schools, told Wasson. "But when it’s out of season from your local farmer, it’s done for the year." Sometimes farmers simply can't meet school's needs either. "We also have to be realistic," Jette said. "You can’t just make a firm commitment (to a farmer), because if you need it and they don’t have it, you do have to have that vendor there that can bring you that."

 Many of the farms supplying Franklin County schools also sell at farmers markets meaning they likely have training or certification in the Good Agricultural Practices program run by the state Department of Agriculture, Department for Public Health and county extension offices. "GAP training covers safe and sanitary practices during planting, the growing season, harvest, packing and storage," Wasson writes. Despite the barriers, local food advocates say farm to school programs are good for all. "We know that farm to school is kind of a win-win-win," Elaine Russell, chair of the Kentucky Farm to School Taskforce, said. "Kids eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, it creates an additional market for farmers, and it’s good for the classroom teachers and food service directors because it can increase lunch participation." (Read more)

Coal company owner sees future and profit in Illinois coal

King coal may have a new figurehead, emerging not from central Appalachia or the Powder River Basin, but instead from Illinois, home to what was long been thought of as "dirty" coal. In 2002, Chris Cline spent $300 million on mining rights, land and equipment in Illinois, betting that dwindling coal reserves in Central Appalachia and future Environmental Protection Agency action would force coal-fired plants to clean all coal, John Lippert and Mario Parker of Bloomberg report. "If plants had to clean the coal anyway, Cline reasoned, why not use inexpensive Illinois stock?" the reporters write. (Chris Cline, owner of Foresight Energy, Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer)

Three years later, EPA "required power plants to add scrubbers to cut emissions, reviving the stagnant market for high-sulfur coal," Lippert and Parker report. "The value of Illinois deposits quintupled during the next five years, helping Cline raise $1.2 billion to build the mines that he’s now parlaying into a fortune." Cline is principal owner of private company Foresight Energy LLC and until talking to Bloomberg, had never spoken to the media. Foresight ships 11 million tons of coal a year and Cline estimates the company could ship as much as 80 million tons by 2018.

Cline recently abandoned his no-media policy to help the coal industry improve its public image. "We in the industry probably do the worst job in the world getting out the story of the good lives we’re helping people live," Cline told Bloomberg. "Changing that is certainly a big interest of mine." If Foresight goes public next year Cline forecasts the company would be worth $3 billion at initial public offering and the value would double by 2013.

Cline had an interesting description of arguably the coal industry's most visible representative, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. "Don thinks his convictions are morally correct and follows them," Cline told Bloomberg. "In some ways, people should admire it. They should also think, 'Maybe there’s a way to not be a bull in a china shop.'" Cline told Bloomberg he is amazed mountaintop removal is profitable, noting his underground mines "have less environmental impact." (Read more)

Hazard, Ky., says goodbye to Bill Gorman, mayor 42 years and an Appalachian icon

Perhaps the most durable and emblematic public official in Eastern Kentucky, Hazard Mayor Bill Gorman, was eulogized by the powerful and honored by the downtrodden as he went to his grave yesterday after almost 43 years as mayor. Gorman died Saturday at 86. He was an insurance agent and started the town's television station, which became WYMT and a beacon for the region. "He staunchly defended Eastern Kentucky from attacks and stereotypes," reports Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Associated Press photo by Shawn Poynter)

"People lined the streets of downtown to pay their final respects to the longtime Mayor as the procession traveled through," reports Ivy Brashear of The Hazard Herald. "Two fire trucks were positioned next to Triangle Park, ladders up, with American flags hanging from the ladders, waiting for the procession to pass between them. The hearse carrying Gorman’s casket stopped under the ladders as Hazard High School’s band played music for the Mayor one last time." (Herald photo by Cris Ritchie)

The eulogists were Kentucky's main appropriators in Congress, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Hal Rogers, who won laughs when he quoted Gorman as saying "A vision without funding is a hallucination." He said Gorman's last words to him were "Take care of my city." (Read more) Hjalmarson writes that McConnell first met Gorman as a young Republican campaign volunteer in 1968, after being told to look him up. "He was the guy, they said. And they were right," he said, and 42 years later, "He was still the guy." (Read more)

Gorman “helped turn the struggling coal town into a regional hub,” Joseph Gerth wrote for The Courier-Journal. "Although he had been critical of movies that had stereotyped the people of Eastern Kentucky, he welcomed to the state a planned HBO production, "The Kentucky Cycle." Gorman said at the time that Eastern Kentucky can't afford to chase away every film that offends its sensibilities: “We told them we didn't like their program but we like their money. I don't agree with it. I don't approve of it, but I'm not stupid enough to say it wouldn't be done.” (Read more)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

'Appalachia and Wales: Coal and After Coal' symposium set at Appalachian State Oct. 14-16

What happened when Welsh coal mines closed during the 1980s? How did communities make the transition from an economy dependent on fossil fuels? What does the Welsh story mean for creating sustainable Appalachian communities? "Appalachia and Wales: Coal and After Coal," a symposium to answer those questions, will be held in the Blue Ridge Ballroom at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., Oct. 14-16.

Scholars, artists, and activists will provide an interdisciplinary view of how issues relating to how coal, climate change, economy, and technology have shaped the coalfields of South Wales and Appalachia. Featured speakers include Jeff Biggers and Helen Lewis. Rare film clips from Lewis and John Gaventa’s visits to the Welsh coalfields in the 1970’s will be shown, as well as the new Appalshop documentary "The Electricity Fairy." All events are free and open to the public; for a complete schedule go here.

Impact of massive Eastern Kentucky coal-slurry spill is still felt a decade later

On Oct. 11, 2000, an estimated 300 million gallons of coal slurry spilled in Martin County, Kentucky, blackening 100 miles of waterways, polluting the water supply of a dozen communities and killing aquatic life. A decade later, the impact is still being felt in Inez, Dylan Lovan of The Associated Press reports. "The sludge looked like a flow of black lava," Mickey McCoy, an Inez resident whose creek was blackened by the spill, told Lovan. "We're not talking brown water, we're talking black, black lava just rolling."

"The coal company, a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy, eventually paid $46 million for the cleanup, along with about $3.5 million in state fines and an undisclosed sum to residents," Lovan writes. Data from the Coal Impoundment Location and Information System, a database kept by Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, reveals there have been 20 slurry spills at Massey-owned sites since the 2000 disaster, but none have approached the size of the Inez one.

The spill occured when a slurry impoundment broke into an old underground coal mine. Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said the spill led the company to study other slurry ponds, or impoundments, and hired outside experts to prevent another release. There are 285 active slurry ponds in 11 states, with over half in Kentucky and West Virginia, Lovan reports. Mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard, a Lexington attorney and former government regulator, told Lovan the Mine Safety and Health Administration "missed the boat" in the wake of the disaster by failing to examine whether slurry ponds should be built above old mines. "It's just a matter of time before you have another failure in one of them," said Oppegard, who was MSHA's lead accident investigator of the calamity until he was replaced when President George W. Bush took office in 2001.

Martin County residents say it's easy to see the spill's effects a decade later. McCoy told Lovan he went looking for leftover sludge at a neighbor's home last week. "I dug at the edge of the bank," he said. "Now this was in the water, and I pulled up a shovelful and threw it upside down on the bank and there was the sludge, under about 3 inches of sand." (Read more)

Liability for open range cattle at issue in Arizona

Free-range cattle still roam widely across the west, protected by century-old laws, but growing urban sprawl is bringing fresh scrutiny to open range laws. "People have been killed in collisions with large cows," Daniel Patterson, an Arizona state representative from Tucson who is pushing to scale back the rights given cows and their owners in his state, told Marc Lacey of The New York Times. "We need to get rid of this antiquated law from the 19th century. It’s important for ranchers and other livestock owners to keep their cattle where they belong." Patterson's bill would end Arizona's open range law but has yet to gain traction, Lacey reports. (NYT photo by Mark Holm)

The bill has garnered backlash from the Arizona Cattlemen's Association, "but by introducing it, Mr. Patterson said he had heard from many Arizonans who have had unpleasant bovine encounters," Lacey writes. In May, a border patrol agent died after crashing into an open range cow near the Mexican border in Texas. "I am sure there was a time when this law made sense, but today it does nothing except benefit the rancher at the expense of me and my neighbors and other citizens around the state," Victor Eastridge, who complained of cattle damaging his property in Douglas.

Industry officials say ending the law would put undue hardship on ranchers. "We live by the policy of good neighbors," Patrick Bray, executive director of the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, told Lacey. "Ranchers try to maintain their fences as best they can. But it takes a lot of work, and cattle have a mind of their own. To put the liability on the ranchers if an animal gets out would be devastating to our industry." California has already restricted its open range law to rural areas, and Arizona cows are restricted in incorporated areas but not suburbs. (Read more)

Crackdown on mine safety violations increases backlog of citations

The Obama Administration's efforts to reduce the backlog of contested mine safety violations have backfired as the Mine Safety and Health Administration issues more citations. "The list of unresolved safety appeals has grown to 18,100 cases, from 16,600 at the time of the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine," which killed 29 West Virginia coal miners in April, Kimberly Kindy and David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post reports. "The increase has occurred, safety experts said, because more citations are being issued, and companies are fighting back harder than ever."

"The result is that instead of revolutionizing mine safety in the wake of the worst mining disaster in 40 years, some experts said government officials have succeeded only in generating increased litigation," the reporters write. Nine men have died in U.S. coal mines since the Upper Big Branch disaster. Administration officials say the crackdown has worsened the backlog only in the short term and that "a growth in staffing from increased funding should eliminate the backlog," Kindy and Fahrenthold report.

The recent MSHA crackdown has been focused on mines the agency considers to be high risk, and the agency reports that consequently many of the recent citations have been "significant and substantial." Serious citations "carry fines of thousands rather than hundreds of dollars and are twice as likely to be contested before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission," the reporters write. Mining companies counter they are fighting the citations harder than ever because many are faulty. "The violations in the law are open to interpretation by the inspector. If we think there has been a misinterpretation of the law, of course we challenge it," Nicholas Deluliis, chief operating officer for Consol Energy, told the reporters. "We're not trying to gum up the system." (Read more)

Questions arise about bee researcher's ties to pesticide industry

Last week we reported researchers from the University of Montana and the Army had discovered a likely cause for the mysterious colony collapse disorder killing honey bee populations, but now questions have been raised about a possible conflict of interest from the lead researcher in that study. Prior research has pointed to pesticides as a possible cause of CCD and The New York Times story we excerpted did not explore, nor did the study disclose, the relationship between the study's lead author, Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, above, and pesticide company Bayer Crop Science, Katherine Eban of Fortune reports. (Fortune photo via Bromenshenk)

"In recent years Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination," Eban writes. "Indeed, before receiving the Bayer funding, Bromenshenk was lined up on the opposite side: He had signed on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer in 2003. He then dropped out and received the grant." Bromenshenk also runs a company, Bee Alert Technology, "which is developing hand-held acoustic scanners that use sound to detect various bee ailments" and would "profit more from a finding that disease, and not pesticides, is harming bees," Eban writes.

Bromenshenk counters that the study, pointing to the combination of a fungus and virus as a likely cause of CCD, did not examine pesticide impact because other research had previously done so. He also said his funding from Bayer for previous research had no impact because no Bayer funds were used for this study. "We got no money from Bayer," he told Eban. "We did no work for Bayer; Bayer was sending us warning letters by lawyers."

Times reporter Kirk Johnson told Eban that Bromenshenk didn't "volunteer his funding sources" and notes the study "doesn't say pesticides aren't a cause of the underlying vulnerability that the virus-fungus combo then exploits." Johnson said he tried to portray the caution regarding the findings from the study in his story, but the Knight Science Journalism tracker notes many stories building on the Times' reporting have failed to do so. (Read more)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Warming temperatures help shift crop patterns

Warming weather combined with increased rain have expanded the northern boundaries of the area where corn, soybeans and other crops can be grown in the Midwest. "Bruce Babcock, an Iowa State University agriculture economist, said soybean production is expanding north and the cornbelt is expanding north and west because of earlier planting dates and later freezes in the fall," Michael J. Crumb of The Associated Press reports. Jay Lawrimore, chief of climatic analysis for the Asheville, N.C.-based National Climactic Data Center, points to a seven percent increase in average U.S. rainfall over the last 50 years as a key factor in the shift.

"The storm tracks are moving northward as the climate warms," Lawrimore told Crumb. Data from NCDC shows "Earth's temperature has risen about 1.3 degrees since the late 1800s with the warming greatest over North America, Europe and Asia," Crumb writes. "Seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, data from the center shows." The expansion has been further accelerated as successful seed company efforts to adapt to the changes are coupled with warmer and wetter weather. "Plant seed companies are making more productive, short-season varieties," Babcock said. "It's both climate change but also technology change."

Excessive rains have hurt some farmers. "Jerry Main, who grows corn near Fairfield in southeast Iowa, said repeated deluges this spring prevented him from planting one-third of his 600 acres, making it one of the worst years he's seen," Crumb writes. Babcock explained, "It all depends how that comes about. In general, more rainfall means less irrigation and more ability to produce crops. Getting 4-inch rainfalls on a regular basis, that's not good for crops." (Read more)

Deadly bat disease appears to be on Colorado's doorstep

In July we reported Western U.S. parks were considering closing caves to prevent the spread of the mysterious white-nose syndrome killing bat populations in the eastern half of the country. "Trying to buy time for researchers to find a solution, Denver-based U.S. Forest Service officials have ordered the closure to visitors of hundreds of caves and 30,000 abandoned mines in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota," Bruce Finley of The Denver Post reports. The disease has been found as far west as Oklahoma this summer. (Photo by Judy DeHaas, Denver Post)

If the disease reaches Colorado, locals should expect an explosion of flies, beetles, moths and mosquitoes, said Rick Adams, a biologist at the University of Northern Colorado and a bat expert. "You're going to feel the effects of this," he told Finley. "You're going to get bitten by a lot more other things that are actually likely to bite you, like mosquitoes. If you are a farmer, it's going to cost you a lot more for pesticides to protect your crops." The fungus attacks bats through the mouth or nose and prevents them from sleeping. Bats generally starve or freeze to death after burning up body fat reserves while looking for food when they normally would be hibernating from November to April.

"The threat of White-Nose Syndrome to the bat populations in this region is on our doorstep," Tony Dixon, the Forest Service's acting regional director, told Finley. "With White-Nose Syndrome killing from 80 to 100 percent of infected populations, the ecological consequences are too severe to risk the human spread of this deadly disease." A study from Boston University ecologist Thomas Kunz estimated demise of bat populations would cost farmers between $750,000 to $1.2 million from applying additional pesticides. "The only thing that could be done — it's going to take manpower and money — is to develop a vaccine to protect survivors," Kunz said. "Inject them with some kind of vaccine. That's years away. We're likely going to end up with large numbers of bats dying." (Read more)

Disappointing yields from engineered seed may not stop companies from controlling market

Minimalism, a movement more commonly associated with the arts, has finally caught on in agriculture, but that may not be enough to thwart seed company control, writes one farmer. The movement "has finally gotten around to agriculture, because now we know that crops with more transplanted genes can be poorer than better hybrids with less DNA fiddling," Richard Oswald writes for the Daily Yonder. Last week we reported seed giant Monsanto was facing dropping stock prices after its most recent product, SmartStax corn, which contains an unprecedented eight inserted genes, produces yields no higher than products with fewer inserted genes.

"Gene stacking, the seed company practice of cramming as many versions of the insecticidal bacteria, bacillus thuringiensis, into corn hybrids doesn't necessarily deliver superior yields unless the genes are placed into superior yielding plants," Oswald writes. "One problem may be that once the gene insertion takes place; good genes are disrupted which renders that corn plant less than it might have been." Oswald speculates that if the highly touted Roundup Ready 2 gene doesn't return higher yields as projected when it replaces the original Roundup Ready gene after protections expire in 2014, farmers may chose to save seed from their own farm instead of paying for the new product.

Farmers may not have that option because "if somehow the Roundup Ready 2 gene were to be found in older Roundup soybeans, farmers could be prevented from growing their own seed by the same patent law that’s held seed-savers at bay over the last 16 years," Oswald writes. The gene could conceivably jump from adjoining fields planting the Roundup 2 seeds. "For better or worse, a single company could be an economic gatekeeper, controlling seed rights and profits from an entire crop grown worldwide, for another 20 years," Oswald writes. "That could go on and on as new gene insertions continue to be patented … possibly forever." (Read more)

Education Department official wants to help rural schools adopt technology

Increasing internet access at rural schools is an important tool in improving rural education, says the Education Department's top technology official. "Technology can be a great multiplier," Karen Cator, director of the department's Office of Educational Technology, told Tech & Learning magazine in a recent interview. "So, if you have a fantastic course online, for example, it has this kind of multiplier effect. It helps students, but it also amplifies the efforts of the in-classroom teacher." Online courses may be the first technology area associated with rural schools, but Cator says other technological improvements can be key for rural schools.

"Online learning is definitely the main thing we think about when we think about rural areas, but there are other access solutions such as in Vail, AZ, where they put routers in their school buses so students who have very long bus rides can do their work," Cator said. "It’s about extending that school day." Since cost can be prohibitive to rural schools adopting new technologies, the department is working to ease the financial burden, Cator said. "What we are really trying to figure out is how technology can be funded by integrating it into the core context of school programs," she said. "So whether you are trying to teach reading, or math, or social studies, or whatever, that technology is a slice." John White, deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach, pointed to the Rural Education Achievement Program as one area where rural schools can look for funding. (Read more)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Expert help can get woodland owners what they deserve for their timber stands

One of the most widespread sources of wealth in rural America is its timber, but many woodland owners don't make as much from timber sales as they could because they lack useful information and aren't properly advised. They need someone who can give them expert advice and conduct a competitive sale through sealed bids, Curtis Seltzer writes for (Photo by Doug McLaren)

"Loggers often buy timber directly from landowners," writes Seltzer, who lives in Highland County, Virginia. "Sometimes the landowner benefits from such an arrangement. But, again, my experience is that landowners almost always get less . . . in this arrangement than they would through other sale methods. My usual recommendation to a landowner is to retain a consulting forester . . .

"Landowners can become knowledgeable about what selling their timber involves. But unless the sale is small or overwhelmingly simple, I would not sell my own timber without involving a consulting forester to represent my interests. My personal experience suggests — and the academic research confirms — landowners net more sale income after paying a consulting forester than they do through other methods available to them. Landowners should research and question foresters they’re considering. Rosters are available from the Association of Consulting Foresters, Society of American Foresters and state forestry agencies." (Read more) Some states also have helpful organizations, such as the Kentucky Woodland Owners Association.