Saturday, April 16, 2011

Future use of Roundup questionable as EPA investigates agricultural and health effects

Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup herbicide and the focus of several lawsuits, is now under review by regulators in United States and Canada to determine its future use. "The Environmental Protection Agency is examining the issue and has set a deadline of 2015 for determining if glyphosate should continue to be sold or in some way limited," Carey Gillam reports for Reuters.

In 2007, EPA reported U.S. farmers used about 185 million pounds of glyphosate, double the amount used six years earlier, Gillam reports. Meanwhile, more than 130 herbicide-resistant weeds have appeared in more than 40 states. "Experts estimate glyphosate-resistant weeds have infested close to 11 million acres, threatening U.S. farmers' yields."

Monsanto, maker of Roundup and Roundup Ready corn, soybeans and cotton, which are resistant to the chemical, announced a collaboration with German conglomerate BASF "to develop alternative herbicide formulations using 'dicamba' and to create dicamba-tolerant soybeans, corn, cotton and canola," Gillam reports. However, "that is going to spell big problems ... even larger problems with herbicide-resistant weeds," Center for Food Safety analyst Bill Freese told Gillam. "It will just accelerate this toxic spiral of increased pesticide use."

Herbicide-resistant weeds are not the only concerns of glyphosate use, scientists have been warning of glyphosate's effects on livestock and humans. Plant pathologist and retired Purdue University professor Don Huber wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "warning of tests that indicated glyphosate could be contributing to spontaneous abortions and infertility in pigs, cattle and other livestock," Gillam writes. "Another study being looked at by the EPA cited detectable concentrations of glyphosate in the urine of farmers and their children in two U.S. states." (Read more)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Energy from wind must give way to energy from water, federal power agency in Northwest says

Heavy snows in the Cascade and Rocky Mountains this year could force a temporary shutdown of wind-energy producer Pacific Northwest, and that may just be the beginning of conflicts between the new industry and the old-line producer of power from water in the Columbia River basin, Hal Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. (Times photo by Steve Ringman: Wind farm near Walla Walla, Wash.)

"Bonneville Power Administration officials say that limiting wind production could be required to free space in the regional transmission system to handle hydro power generated from the melt-off of a large mountain snowpack," Bernton writes. This statement comes as part of BPA's new proposal to "periodically shut down wind-power farms to balance loads" instead of overproducing power and giving it away to utilities across the West. BPA's service area is largely in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, but it sells power outside the Northwest.

Wind-power producers are unhappy and believe the federal agency should compensate them for any prolonged shutdowns. "BPA officials say the shutdowns will only happen as a last resort and that wind producers should not receive compensation," Bernton writes. Since payments would raise operating costs, resulting in possible rate increases for BPA's major customers, "We think that is not a fair transfer of costs and puts too much of a burden on public-utility ratepayers," BPA spokesperson Doug Johnson said. (Read more)

Four in 10 say they want to live in a rural area or small town, but what about commuting?

About 40 percent of Americans want to live in a rural area or small town, says a report from the National Association of Realtors. "Americans are dreaming new dreams and making new choices, when it comes to choosing where and how they want to live," Richard Florida writes for The Atlantic. "More and more, they're choosing not to go further out so they can get bigger houses set on bigger lots." Just under half of respondents said they want to live in a city, while 22 percent said rural area and 18 percent said small town. Just 12 percent said they wanted to live in a suburban neighborhood with just houses.

While four out of every 10 Americans said they wanted a small-town or rural home, that doesn't mean they are willing to make long commutes to work. Around 59 percent said they would choose a smaller house and lot if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less. "The ideal home today is located closer to the workplace and mass transportation and in a neighborhood that's denser and mixed use, with amenities and businesses--parks, pharmacies, grocery stores, doctors offices, schools, restaurants--that can be walked to," Florida writes. (Read more)

Small, rural cemeteries may fade away with their aging caretakers

Rural cemeteries are increasingly at risk of degradation as a generation of caretakers dies off and families sell of their land with family plots. "There are thousands of graveyards scattered across Virginia, many of them small family burial plots on private properties, according to preservationists and historians," J. Freedom du Lac of The Washington Post reports, noting "The burial sites can become overgrown and, eventually, consigned to oblivion."

"The memory of some of these cemeteries tends to be forgotten," Thomas Klatka, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, told the Post. "It’s a really widespread problem." Virginia is hoping to alleviate the problem by offering cemetery preservation workshops, hoping that the wealth of historical, genealogical and biological information contained in them will not be lost to time.

Vernon Peterson (Post photo) has been looking after the 122-year-old Rock Hill Cemetery in Loudoun County, Va., for almost half its existence, but he worries what will happen to the facility after he dies. "Somebody’s gotta take it over," he said. "Nobody has stepped up yet. It bothers me, yes it does." In a book for his successor, Peterson, 80, has recorded each of the graves, which include a member of the Union army's 1st U.S. Colored Infantry and his granddaughter, who was killed during the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting spree. "Somebody has to take an interest. And it can’t just be anybody. It has to be a special person." (Read more)

Fla. governor changes mind, backs prescription-tracking system aimed at 'pill pipeline'

In February we reported Florida Gov. Rick Scott had angered Appalachian lawmakers with plans to scuttle a program that would monitor painkiller prescriptions in an effort to curb the pill pipeline from his state to the region, but now he has changed his mind. Scott said Thursday he will allow the monitoring program.

"It is no secret Florida's pill mills have been ground zero for the illicit diversion of the drugs that are wreaking havoc in Kentucky and around the country, and I'm glad Governor Scott has finally seen the light," said U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, a fellow Republican, as reported by Halimah Abdullah and Lesley Clark of McClatchy Newspapers.

Scott told a House subcommittee that private companies other than pharmaceuticals will fund the program for two years. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who also testified before the panel, said he was "very excited and pleased" that Florida was moving ahead with the program. "Let me be frank. Our people in Kentucky are dying," Beshear said. "Eighty-two people a month. More people in Kentucky die from overdoses than car wrecks." Scott said he was still concerned about privacy concerns associated with the monitoring system, but Beshear noted Kentucky's tracking system  has never had a security breach in its 10-year history. (Read more)

3 states have bills to ban undercover farm videos

In March we reported that a Florida bill that would make photographing farm operations without written consent illegal had passed its first hurdle after major amendments. Now Iowa and Minnesota are considering similar bills, The New York Times reports.

"Made by animal rights advocates posing as farm workers, such videos have prompted meat recalls, slaughterhouse closings, criminal convictions of employees and apologies from corporate executives assuring that the offending images are an aberration," writes A.G. Sulzberger, son of Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

The Iowa bill would "make it a crime to produce, distribute or possess photos and video taken without permission at an agricultural facility. It would also criminalize lying on an application to work at an agriculture facility 'with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.'"

Opponents of the bills say undercover investigations are essential to revealing animal abuse and food safety violations and the bills are an attempt to hide those problems. "It’s because they don’t want you to see what’s going on that we’ve resorted to employee investigations," Wayne Pacelle, the executive director of the Humane Society of the United States, told the Times. An undercover HSUS employee spent 15 days at Rose Acre Farms in Indiana filming hens at an egg producing facility. HSUS released the video, which showed injured and disfigured hens, at a news conference without telling Rose Acre. No crime was alleged but the video portrayed the farm as neglecting the birds.

"Kevin Vinchattle, chief executive of the Iowa Poultry Association, which helped write the bill, suggested that those willing to lie on an application might go further and stage fake videos, destroy equipment or carry diseases onto farms," Sulzberger reports, adding that Vinchattle did not offer any examples of such things ever happening. (Read more)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

TVA will shut oldest coal plants, retrofit others

Under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, states and environmental groups, the Tennessee Valley Authority has agreed to close 18 of its oldest coal-fired power plants and  spend as much as $5 billion on pollution controls for its other coal burners. It also agreed to pay a $10 million civil penalty and spend $350 million on projects to reduce air pollution and boost efficiency, including $240 million to retrofit low-income housing.

Environment & Energy News calls the settlement "a move that will transform one of the nation's largest coal-burning utilities," and The Tennessean calls it "a historical step." Historic, maybe?

The federal utility's board approved the 10-year plan on a 7-1 vote today. The dissenter was Mike Duncan of Inez, Ky., in the Central Appalachian coalfield, where TVA has long bought much of its coal. “I think the settlement is going to be very expensive,” he said. “I think it takes away some flexibility for us in capacity." (Duncan is on the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.) U.S. Rep. John Duncan Jr. of Tennessee wlao criticized the deal, Ed Marcum of the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports.

The Tennessean's Anne Paine writes, "Coal is TVA's cheapest form of power, except for hydroelectric power, but as clean air and water regulations tighten, lawsuits continue and the plants grow older, other options are looking more attractive, officials have said." The deal is forecast to reduce TVA emissions of nitrogen oxides by 69 percent and sulfur dioxide by 67 percent. (Read more)

Legislation would combat rural veterinarian shortage by making loans tax-exempt

Many farming communities, faced with population declines, unemployment, and shrinking budgets, also face a shortage of veterinarians. "Nationwide, there are 500 counties that have at least 5,000 farm animals but no veterinarians in the area to treat them," the American Veterinary Medical Association reports.

"I suspect that part of what makes a community attractive for a new person to move to the rural setting is how progressive that established practitioner is in his/her present business operation. But I see a major challenge for a solo practitioner to move to an underserved area, open up a business and have a profit center without a three- to five-year time line at best. In some areas, you will starve no matter how well intended you might be in being a service provider," Mike Whitehair of Abilene Animal Hospital, Abilene, Kan., and AVMA delegate for the Kansas Veterinary Medical Association told Geni Wren of Bovine Veterinarian Magazine. (Read more)

In response to the rural veterinarian shortage, U.S. Senators Tim Johnson, D-S.D. and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho have proposed a bipartisan bill that may reduce the shortage in rural areas by making the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Act tax-exempt. "By eliminating the tax burden on the Veteriranry Medicine Loan Repayment Program, we will be sending more veterinarians into areas around the country that lack professionals possessing critical expertise in animal care, food safety and public health," said Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief executive officer of the AVMA. (Read more)

Monsanto aims for the grocery store with new biotech fruits and vegetables

Agri-business giant Monsanto, known for its Roundup Ready seeds that are engineered to be resistant to the common herbicide, is "developing new varieties of produce with added benefits for consumers," that may change how many shop for produce, Tim Lloyd of Harvest Public Media reports. The company's seed catalog now includes 4,000 fruit and vegetable varieties across 20 species. "The tearless EverMild onion and SweetPeak melon that turns light orange when it’s ripe are just the opening acts," Lloyd writes.

"Monsanto is definitely putting its time and its energy behind these investments in fruits and vegetables," David Stark, a vice president at Monsanto who oversees the company’s push into the checkout aisle, told Lloyd. "I’ve got tons of things coming." While the market for fresh produce sales totaled $39.8 billion in 2010 and represents a promising opportunity for Monsanto and other biotech companies, consumer resistance to genetically modified foods still exists. "The perception is someone’s been messing with my food," Kathy Means, vice president for the Produce Marketing Association, told Lloyd. "Though the U.S. government and others have deemed these breeding techniques safe, marketers still have to deal with these consumer perceptions."

"Clearly there are a lot of people who have questions about biotechnology, not just in the U.S. but around the world," Stark said. Monsanto hopes to deal with those concerns by basing its produce line around products that do not involve direct manipulation of the genetic code. Monsanto left the fruit and vegetable seed business for the most part in the mid-1990s but returned in the mid-2000s with the purchase of seed companies Seminis and De Ruiter. (Read more)

State and federal budget deficiencies threaten land-grant research programs

In the wake of state and federal budget cuts land-grant universities may have trouble underwriting the research that has helped improve farm productivity. Those cuts threaten "to handicap U.S. agriculture's ability to double food production within 40 years and simultaneously protect the environment, leaders of land grant universities told a Farm Foundation Forum Tuesday," Marcia Zarley Taylor of DTN reports."We see states disinvesting in higher education and research all across the nation," said Dan Dooley, vice president of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California. "Left to our own devices, I'm confident agriculture will meet the world's demand for food by 2050."

"Anyone who believes major changes aren't ahead for agriculture is living in a dream world," former Texas Congressman Charlie Stenholm told DTN. The recent budget deal halts all research earmarks and recalls $230 million budgeted for research buildings that has not been spent this fiscal year, Taylor writes. "Federal funding is at an all-time high now. Any increase in money for ag research will have to come from other sources," Stenholm said. The research budget also cuts $126 million from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and $44 million from the Agricultural Research Service.

Dooley said "the ability to do more with fewer resources and a lower environmental footprint is what society demands of agriculture in the future," Taylor writes. George Norton, an economist at Virginia Tech, told Taylor returns on public investment in ag research range from 20 percent to 80 percent, "so you do get bang for your buck." Beyond that, the intangible benefit comes when the world gains "national security through better food security," Norton said. (Read more)

House, Senate ag committees warn of future budget cuts and impact of commodity prices

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will face a 2011 fiscal budget of $3 billion less than its 2010 budget, and those cuts are "only the beginning," Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Oklahoma Republican Rep. Frank Lucas, the head of the House Agriculture Committee, said to the National Farmers Union on Tuesday, the weekly Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse reports. Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell said the momentum from the 2011 budget deal could lead Congress and the president to sign significantly larger cuts for 2012.

Stabenow told NFU leaders that writing the 2012 farm bill presents "one heck of a challenge." "She's confident North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, will tell her how much money needs to be cut from USDA spending and leave deciding the specifics up to her committee," Agri-Pulse reports. Lucas said he will not write a farm bill until next year because 16 members of the House Ag Committee are new and he wants to wait for commodity prices to stabilize. "We have to write a farm bill that reflects five years, not one unusual 12-month period," he said.

Lucas thinks the high commodity prices over the past 12-months has led urban lawmakers to push to cut the farm safety net, Agri-Pulse reports. Minnesota Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking member of the House Ag Committee, said he will consider making cuts to agriculture spending if they are done fairly, but he doesn't think a 20 percent cut fair as long as defense spending is left alone. He said he was "not a big fan of raising taxes" but to cut the federal deficit, "we're going to have to raise more revenue." Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free four-issue trial subscription.

Deadly bat disease found in Western Ky. cave

The fatal bat disease that has decimated bat populations across the eastern U.S. has been confirmed in Kentucky for the first time. "White-nose syndrome was confirmed in a little brown bat from a cave in Trigg County in Western Kentucky, about 30 miles southeast of Paducah," Greg Kocher of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. The disease was first located in New York in 2006 and has killed an estimated 1 million cave-dwelling bats in 16 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. "This is likely the most significant disease threat to wildlife Kentucky has ever seen," Jonathan Gassett, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said in a news release.

Kentucky was the first state to develop a comprehensive response plan for the disease in 2009 when it "increased education on decontamination procedures, surveillance, monitoring, and cave closures on private, state and federal lands," Kocher writes. Officials found no other cases in a 16-mile radius of the Trigg County cave. Gassett said his department will not sit idle against the disease, which has a near 100 percent mortality rate in affected caves, noting "We plan to aggressively manage this threat ... as it occurs in Kentucky in order to protect and conserve our bat populations." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rising gasoline, diesel prices pinch rural schools

Many rural schools, already faced with budget shortfalls and cuts, have another expense to juggle. Fuel prices are "impacting vehicle fleets that can't trim any miles from their daily drive" and hundreds of students use school buses to get to school daily, Nikki Davidson reports for TV6 News in Negaunee, Mich. The Superior Central school district in Eben Junction "covers 225 square miles, and about 50 percent of students take the bus to school, Davidson reports. Sharon Vierk, who drives a bus 50 miles each morning, told Davidson, "It's a big triangle; there's no shortcuts."

Supt. Pamela Morris told Davidson that the higher fuel prices will cost the school district 7 to 10 percent more, and with additional cuts coming from the state, the increase will be difficult to handle. The district is looking at combining routes, purchasing more fuel-efficient buses, and other alternatives to minimize costs. (Read more)

Rural bridges and repair budgets are insufficient

A recent report from Transportation for America reveals that over 11 percent of America's bridges are "structurally deficient" and almost two-thirds of those bridges are found in rural America, the Daily Yonder reports. Yonder map of "structurally deficit" bridges:

Federal inspectors evaluated the bridges' superstructure or "bridgey" part, the deck, where the vehicles travel, and the substructure, where the bridge connects to the ground, the Yonder reports. If any of these parts needed significant repair, the bridge is deemed deficient. "The Federal Highway Administration estimates it would take $70.9 billion to bring all the bridges up to standard" and federal spending for bridge repair is only about $5 billion a year.

"Nuckolls County, Nebraska, along the Kansas border, has the highest percentage of bridges needing repair in rural America, with 120 of its 194 bridges, 61.9 percent, deemed "structurally deficient," the Yonder reports. (Wikipedia map) Greer County, in far southwestern Oklahoma, has the most bridges in need of repair, at 260. Florida has the smallest percentage of "structurally deficient" bridges at 2.3 percent and Delaware, Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Utah all have less than 5 percent. (Read more)

Mine-safety agency puts two mines on notice they may be shut for patterns of violations

On Tuesday the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced for the first time it has successfully placed two coal mines on notice that bthey could be closed for a pattern of violations. "Bledsoe Coal Corp.'s Abner Branch Rider Mine in Leslie County, Kentucky, and The New West Virginia Mining Co.'s Apache Mine in McDowell County, West Virginia, are the first in the history of the 1977 Mine Act to be subject to a pattern of violations enforcement action, which targets mines with chronic and persistent health and safety violations," Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

"We're trying to send a message to the mining industry that you don't want to go down this path" of a pattern of violations, MSHA chief Joe Main said during a conference call Tuesday. "There are some in the industry that don't get it, and we have two here that have exposed themselves." Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the Bledsoe mine owner had appealed the majority of the citations, which included roof control problems, coal dust accumulation, mine ventilation and electrical wiring issues, that led to the pattern-of-violations sanction.

MSHA, part of the Department of Labor, issued the Bledsoe mine and 12 others potential pattern-of-violations notices in November. Massey Energy voluntarily closed one of those mines, Freedom No. 1 in Pike County, Kentucky, after MSHA sought a court-ordered shutdown. From January to March, MSHA inspected the remaining 10 mines that were still operating and found eight had met the safety plans put in place in November. The Bledsoe and New West Virginia mines had not; in fact, their rates of serious violations had increased. "The great disappointment is this, that they didn't take measures that they should have to fix the problems . . .  to avoid this enforcement action," Main said. (Read more)

Communities fade away as residents choose money over living with mountaintop coal mines

Some Appalachians living near mountaintop removal mines have been vocal in their opposition of the practice, but some other communities near such operations have quietly faded away, partly because coal companies have bought residents out. Almost all that remains of Lindytown, W.Va., is the home, above, of 85-year-old Quinne Richmond. (NYT photo by Nicole Bengiveno)

"A couple of years ago, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, which owns a sprawling mine operation behind and above the Richmond home, bought up Lindytown," columnist Dan Barry of The New York Times writes. "Many of its residents signed Massey-proffered documents in which they also agreed not to sue, testify against, seek inspection of or ''make adverse comment' about coal-mining operations in the vicinity."

Quinne's husband Lawrence, who died recently, said he chose to stay because he feared moving would upset his wife, who has Alzheimer's. Instead, Lawrence and his son Roger signed easements granting Massey certain rights over their properties for $25,000 each and a promise they would not make adverse comments against the company. Roger now describes that deal as "hush money." Massey says Lindytown residents contacted the company about buying their property and "the entire mine plan could have been legally mined without the purchase of these homes."

James Smith, a former Lindytown resident, says many residents only wanted to move because of the mountaintop mining operation above them.  "You might as well take the money and get rid of your torment," he told Barry, adding that he received more than $300,000 for his property. "After they destroyed our place, they done us a favor and bought it." Roger Richmond noted "Some of them were tired of fighting it. Of having to put up with all the dust. Plus, you couldn’t get out into the hills the way you used to." (Read more)

Increased crop production, changing weather and relaxed regulations erode Midwest landscape

Last year's rush to cash in on soaring corn and soybean prices has left many hillsides and pastureland throughout the Midwest bare and at risk for erosion during the heavy spring rains. "Long in decline, erosion is once again rearing as a threat because of an aggressive push to plant on more land, changing weather patterns and inadequate enforcement of protections, scientists and environmentalists say," William Neuman of The New York Times reports. Research from Iowa State University scientists shows erosion is taking its toll in parts of Iowa and erosion has been exacerbated by severe storms.

"The thing that’s really smacking us now are the high-intensity, high-volume rainstorms that we’re getting," said Richard M. Cruse, agronomy professor at Iowa State and director of the Iowa Daily Erosion Project. "In a variety of locations, we’re losing topsoil considerably faster — 10 to as much as 50 times faster — than it’s forming." Erosion can damage water quality by dumping fertilizers and pesticides into water supplies. It can also hurt crop yields by washing away rich topsoil.

Erosion was curtailed during the 1980s and 1990s when the federal government began requiring farmers who receive subsidies follow individually tailored soil conservation plans, Neuman writes. Environmentalists say stricter enforcement of those plans is needed "because high crop prices provide a strong incentive for farmers to plant as much ground as possible and to take fewer protective measures like grass buffer strips," Neuman writes. Craig Cox, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, which released a report on soil erosion this week, said "You've got all these market forces and public policies and biofuel mandates and more severe storms. It's all coming together, and we're asleep at the switch." (Read more)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Budget deal cuts USDA 15%, Forest Service 11%

Details keep trickling out about the budget compromise that will come up for a vote in Congress on Thursday. For a list of the cuts, click here.

The cuts include 11 percent for the Forest Service, down to $4.7 billion, and 15 percent for its parent agency, the Department of Agriculture, down to $20 billion. The bill "reduces agricultural credit programs by $433 million, Agricultural Research Service by $64 million, and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture by $125.9 million below the fiscal year 2010 levels," says the House Appropriations Committee's summary of the bill, available here.

"Rural development initiatives . . . would experience significant reductions," Philip Rucker of The Washington Post reports. "But some of the worst-sounding trims are not quite what they seem, and officials said they would not necessarily result in lost jobs or service cutbacks. In several cases, what look like large reductions are actually accounting gimmicks."

The bill would halt "one of the Obama administration's cornerstone policies to protect unspoiled lands in the West," an inventory of roadless federal lands with an eye to greater protection for them. It "mirrors language from the continuing resolution that the House passed in February but was excluded from the Senate's proposed short-term funding bill," Phil Taylor reports for Greenwire.

Taylor also notes "The Land and Water Conservation Fund -- the main vehicle for acquiring new federal lands, protecting species and promoting urban recreation -- would be funded at $301 million, a $149 million cut below current levels. . . . The proposal weakens the Obama administration's odds of receiving its requested $900 million -- the maximum authorized -- in fiscal 2012 and threatens a central goal of the president's Great Outdoors initiative." (Read more, subscription required)

EPA's No. 2 official says drillers who fractured wells with diesel fuel violated federal law

The Environmental Protection Agency's No. 2 official told a congressional hearing today that drillers who used diesel fuel to hydraulically fracture oil and gas wells without a permit violated federal law. "The assertion by Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe means some companies that have acknowledged injecting diesel could be subject to sanctions under the Safe Drinking Water Act," Mike Soraghan reports for Greenwire. "It is a technical but politically charged question in the ongoing debate about regulation of the fracturing process."

Drillers have acknowledged injecting at least 32 million gallons of diesel fuel during fracturing, though an EPA official told congressional investigators that the agency "had assumed that the use of diesel had stopped seven years ago," Soraghan writes. "Of the total figure, 10 million gallons was 'straight diesel fuel,' the investigation found, while another 22 million gallons was products containing at least 30 percent diesel." After the Environmental Working Group "found confusion among state officials about the diesel exemption" and issued a report last year, charging that many wells were diesel-fractured without the necessary permits, "EPA posted rules about fracturing with diesel on its website without notice." The Independent Petroleum Association of America is challenging the rules in federal court. "Industry representatives said EPA never clarified to them whether they could be penalized for that past use," Soraghan writes. (Subscription required)

Indians stand at forefront of water-rights battles

Water is expected to become more important over the next 50 years, and Native American tribes may be positioned at the forefront of the battle over water rights. "By midcentury, water is expected to loom as large as oil in the economic and political life of the country, as parties race to lock up supplies," Felicity Barringer of The New York Times reports. "As droughts exacerbated by climate change and by population growth expand in the Great Plains and the Southwest, Indian water rights loom as a largely unsettled — and unsettling — factor that could affect the price and availability of water to millions of homes and businesses."

In Oklahoma (NYT map), the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes have joined the fight for water rights to Sardis Lake, which could supply water to Oklahoma City, Tulsa and their surrounding suburbs. A 103-year-old Supreme Court decision, known as the Winters doctrine, "effectively puts tribes in Western states at the head of the line in times of water shortage," Barringer writes. The Choctaw and Chickasaw want Oklahoma to recognize them as joint owners of the water rights, but despite the Winters doctrine, establishing water rights can take decades.

The Interior Department has tried to make sure there are no big losers when a tribe's water rights are recognized, Barringer writes. The Choctaws' and Chicasaws' claims are further complicated because they no longer have reservations, raising questions about whether the water rights are tied to a specific land grant. Tribes may lose in the push for water rights if the federal courts trim earlier rulings establishing Indian rights, Daniel McCool, director of the environmental studies program at the University of Utah, told Barringer. "It's case law," he said, "and case law can be changed." (Read more)

Community-college funding takes a hit as states deal with budget shortfalls

Texas lawmakers have abandoned a plan to cut all funding to four of the state's community colleges, but those schools and other community colleges across the country still face dramatic cuts in funding, David Harrison of reports. Frank Phillips College, a 1,300-student school in Borger, Tex., population 13,000, was originally scheduled to lose all funding but now faces a 20 percent cut. "This takes us, I think, to the lowest funding level in history, if you look on a per-student basis," Rey Garcia, the president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, told Harrison.

"In 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, the state share of community college funding fell by one percentage point to 26.8 percent, the lowest level in at least five years," Harrison writes. Still, enrollment at community colleges rose 20 percent between 2004 and 2008, according to federal data. In addition to Texas, the community college funding crisis appears most severe in California and Arizona. "All are making deep budget cuts that seem destined to fundamentally change the nature of what community colleges do, how many students they serve and what they charge for tuition," Harrison writes.

Frank Phillips College officials wonder how long their school can exist in the current economic climate. "We have 58,000 people in our nine-county service area and we have no other institution of higher education anywhere in there," President Jud Hicks said. "I'll call it a moral obligation to educate citizens in our service area." Deborah Summers, an anthropology professor at the school, notes "Whether those people in Austin believe it needs to go or not doesn't matter. We know we're important, and we know we're going to be here. There are very strong numbers of older ranch women like myself here that don't like being told what to do." (Read more)

Stateline's map showing state specific changes in enrollment and funding at community colleges, which are especially important in rural areas, is here.

Kansas governor and legislature offer tax breaks for moving to one of 50 rural counties

How do rural areas halt or slow population declines, being freshly reported in new census data? Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has an idea: He recently signed a bill that aims to attract new residents to some of the state's most rural counties. "His administration created a plan that targets 50 rural counties — pegged as rural opportunity zones, or ROZ — with a two-pronged approach for a five-year stretch," Rick Plumlee reports for The Wichita Eagle. (Eagle photo by Jaime Green)

The first part of the incentive plan "waives state income taxes for tax years 2012-16 for those who relocate to one of the ROZ counties after having lived outside of the state for at least five years or having had a Kansas-source income of less than $10,000 for at least five years prior to moving," Plumlee writes. The second part, designed to bring younger people to designated rural areas, pays $3,000 a year — max $15,000 — towards student loans to college graduates moving to the targeted communities. The state and county would split loan payment costs, Plumlee reports.

"Graduates are sometimes reluctant to move to a rural area because jobs there don't usually pay as high as in urban areas," Brownback said in a ceremony at Wichita State University. "But combine this with student loan paydown and they may be able to make it work." (Read more)

Iowa senator: Direct farm payments will end

Direct federal payments to farmers and landowners are likely to be eliminated in the 2012 Farm Bill, says Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, a farmer by trade. He says at least some of the $5 billion in direct payments is "likely to be shifted into crop insurance and to traditional price-support programs in which subsidies are tied to drops in commodity prices," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports.

"I think direct payments are going to be done away with," Grassley told Brasher. "The question is whether the $5 billion will be saved or go into other programs." Brasher notes, "A House Republican budget plan called for slashing the payments as a way of cutting farm spending by 20 percent over the coming decade." The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation has called for direct payment funding to be shifted to other programs, but southern farmers, who depend more on the payments, have resisted that plan. (Read more)

Unusual public radio station in Appalachia worries about federal funding, a third of its total

On Monday we reported proposed cuts to funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had been omitted from the deal on this year's federal budget, but the future of CPB funding and rural radio in future years remains unclear. The uncertainty worries WMMT, the radio station for Appalshop in Whitesburg, Ky., and listeners in Eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia. "If that station were to be shut down for lack of funding, it would really, really hurt this town," Whitesburg Mayor James Wiley Craft told Kit Seelye of The New York Times.

WMMT, an unusual public station in that it is not affiliated with NPR or a university, received $86,000, one-third of its budget, from the CPB last year. As we've noted more than once, rural radio stations that depend on federal funding to operate may be in danger of going off the air if their funding is cut. More than 20 rural stations, some of which are one Indian reservations, rely on CPB for over half of their revenue, Seelye writes. "This is the worst threat we've ever had because the economic climate is so bad for everything else," said Jim Webb, left, who hosts WMMT's "Appalachian Attitude." (NYT photo by Scott McIntyre)

While WMMT doesn't broadcast NPR programming and thus is not forced to defend NPR against claims of liberal bias, Craft said the station has at times been portrayed as anti-coal. "Some of the people who are there are associated with other groups" that oppose mountaintop removal, he said, "but those people at the state are intelligent enough to know which side of the bread is buttered. This area depends on coal 100 percent." (Read more)

UPDATE, April 16: Times columnist Tim Egan writes about a rural public station in eastern Idaho that does run NPR programming and is managed by a conservative who finds it largely balanced. For the piece on Pocatello's KISU-FM, click here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Rural population loss continued in last decade, especially in rural areas farthest from metros

Rural population growth continued to lag behind the rest of the country, and almost half the nation's rural counties lost population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, according to an analysis by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the institute, also found that nearly 60 percent of counties not adjacent to a metropolitan area lost population, Conor Daugherty reports for The Wall Street Journal.

The census found that metro areas' population grew 10.8 percent, while non-metro or rural areas grew only 4.5 percent. "Such findings come as no surprise to Robert Knudson, city manager of Belleville, Kan.," Daugherty writes. "Over the decade, the county surrounding Belleville lost 855 people—15 percent of its population—and has been tearing down empty homes in recent years." Like many in Belleville, Knudson watched his children move away, to Wichita. "We were producing children for the jobs we couldn't support," Knudson told Daugherty. (Read more)

Gray wolf delisting included in budget bill, but anti-EPA measures are not; public radio spared

Proposed bipartisan legislation to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act was among the few environmental policy riders to survive last week's intense congressional budget negotiations. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, proposed the rider to "bring relief to hunters, ranchers and wildlife officials in their states who have warned that wolves are preying on livestock and causing serious declines in big-game herds," Phil Taylor of Greenwire writes for The New York Times. (First People photo)

The budget bill, House Resolution 1, which is still being put into legislative language, has angered some environmentalists because it interferes with a proposed settlement between 10 environmental groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The settlement "would have delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho but retained protection in Wyoming until an acceptable management decision is reached," Taylor writes. "The settlement is definitely far superior to the Simpson language that was in HR 1, which would simply delist wolves throughout the northern Rockies," Bill Snape, a lead attorney for Center for Biological Diversity, one of the 10 settling parties, told Taylor. "If Tester really cares about wolves and about settling this problem once and for all, he will embrace and lead the administrative conservation measures identified over the past several months rather than inflaming the situation further with a bogus political delisting." (Read more)

Riders aimed at limiting the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to limit greenhouse gases and the impact of montaintop-removal coal mining died, apparently along with other anti-EPA riders.

On other topics, National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were spared, good news for public radio stations in rural areas, which rely more heavily on CPB to buy NPR programming. But a rural broadband loan program was eliminated, as we reported was in the works Friday.

Researchers say hydraulically fractured shale releases more greenhouse gases than coal

One researcher's conclusion that "natural gas pried from shale formations is dirtier than coal in the short term" and "comparable" in the long term will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, giving it more credence, Mike Soraghan reports for Greenwire.

"That finding, fiercely disputed by the gas industry, undermines the widely stated belief that gas is twice as 'clean' as coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions," Soraghan writes. "The gas industry has promoted that concept as a way for electric utilities to prepare for climate change regulations by switching from coal-fired plants to gas. But if both gas and coal are considered plentiful and cheap, utilities would have little incentive to switch."

The lead author of the study, Robert Howarth, announced the finding more than a year ago, but has now had it accepted for publication by the journal Climate Science. His co-authors are Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea, like him professors at Cornell University. They focus on the greenhouse gas methane, the main constituent of natural gas. They say 3.6 percent to 7.9 percent of the methane in a hydraulically fractured well escapes to the atmosphere during fracturing, at least one-third and perhaps as much as one-half more than in conventional gas drilling. To read the study, which was obtained by The Hill newspaper, click here.

UPDATE, April 12: David Hawkins, director of climate programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times that regulators could make drillers capture more methane, "but that it is often more economical for industry to simply let it escape. Hawkins also said that too little was known about just how much methane was being lost and vented, and that studies like Mr. Howarth’s, while needed, relied on too slim a data set to be considered the final word." (Read more)

Minn. news site follows rural youth in college

A news website has launched a project that follows several rural youth such as Kelly Schoenfelder, right, on their path to higher education and explores the impact their choices have on the future of Minnesota. "Every conversation I've had with a young person in rural Minnesota eventually gets around to the question of staying or leaving – for college or forever," Jeff Severns Guntzel of the Minnesota Post reports as part of the "Rural Minnesota: A Generation at the Crossroads" project.

Tasha Cary, 19 of Hibbing, is attending Hibbing Community College and plans to transfer to North Dakota State University in Fargo. She says she is not sure if she will return to Hibbing, but she "knows she feels more comfortable in a small community," Guntzel writes. She notes "I like small town life. I just like that you don't have to really be going all the time." Matthew Sullivan, 19, and plans to move to Minneapolis instead of remaining in Hibbing. "I'm definitely not coming back. I like things going on. I like culture; I like theater; I like technology," he told Guntzel. (Read more)

You can follow the Rural Minnesota project here or on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. The project is funded by a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation.

Nebraska town loses half its population between censuses, and now has just one resident

There are varying degrees of rurality, but one Nebraska town may be the most rural: it has only one resident. "Elsie Eiler is the most admired person in Monowi, Neb. She is also the smartest, wealthiest, best-looking and youngest," Kevin Murphy of Reuters reports. Monowi lost its other resident in 2004 when Elsie's husband, Rudy, died. "We probably have the record by going down in population 50 percent," Eiler told Murphy. "I chose to stay here after my husband died. It's home." (CBS News image)

Wikipedia map: Nebraska, Boyd County and Monowi
The Census Bureau has not confirmed the data yet, but Reuters reports "Monowi appeared to stand alone as a one-person incorporated village, town or city." Eiler owns the town's only business, the Monowi Tavern, and operates the library, a "tiny building jammed with 5,000 books that is dedicated to Rudy, a devoted reader," Murphy writes. "Eiler has done the required paperwork to keep Monowi a village," and she serves as the village clerk, treasurer, mayor and council, Murphy reports. "I'm the whole thing," Eiler said. There's no need for any elections, she said, "because I'd be the only one to vote." (Read more)

Study shows black-lung rates are increasing – not decreasing, as Sen. Rand Paul claimed

A new study refutes U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's recent statement that the coal industry has done well in reducing black-lung rates. The study from West Virginia University researchers, to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Chest, concludes "Contemporary occupational dust exposures have resulted over the last decade in rapidly progressive pneumoconiosis and massive fibrosis in relatively young West Virginia coal miners, leading to important lung dysfunction and premature death," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his blog Coal Tattoo.

Contrary to the Kentucky Republican's statement, the research means "Coal miners who are working in dust levels that are currently legal in this country are contracting and dying from serious lung diseases caused by their exposure to those legal levels of coal dust," Ward writes. Edward Petsonk, one of the study's authors, said at Wheeling Jesuit University's annual International Mining Health and Safety Symposium, "It’s still happening. There is a problem with miners’ health, and it is a current problem. This is no longer something that we can just sit on our hands about." (Read more)
National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health chart of black-lung incidence rates:

Feds to offer rural gas stations aid for E85 pumps

The Obama administration is offering grants and loan guarantees to rural gas stations for installing pumps for E85 pumps, the fuel that is 85 percent ethanol. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will offer grants and loan guarantees to cover up to 75 percent of the cost of installing equipment needed to dispense E85, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. The hope is to place ethanol pumps in 10,000 stations within five years.

"About 2,300 stations nationwide are now equipped to sell E85," Brasher writes. "About 8 million cars and trucks on the road are equipped to use E85." Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release,  "Many folks who own these vehicles may have a difficult time accessing the necessary fuel." Retrofitting a station to supply E85 costs around $120,000, and many stations will see that as too much even with the federal aid, John Eichberger, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Convenience Stores, told Brasher.

"The government is offering you a $25,000 grant. Most stations only made $30,000 to $40,000 in pre-tax profit last year," Eichberger told Brasher. "You're looking at a pretty hefty investment." He says a better solution would be for Congress to certify existing equipment as able to supply E85 and other blends of ethanol and gasoline. USDA has restricted the aid to stations in communities with fewer than 50,000 people, one definition of rural. (Read more)