Saturday, December 03, 2011

Strict definition of family farm may be sticking point for proposed rules on child farm labor

The formal comment period for the Labor Department's rules that would further limit child labor on farms ended Dec. 1, but the political debate will go on. More than 70 House members sent the department a letter saying the proposed regulation “challenges the conventional wisdom of what defines a family farm in the United States.”

The regulation would continue to exempt children working on their parents' farms, but the leader of the House group, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), told Rachel Leven of The Hill newspaper that the exemption wouldn't apply unless the parents had full ownership of the property, something that many might appear to have but do not. “It is so difficult to pass ranches or farms from generation to generation; oftentimes it’s the only retirement your parents have. So you buy the farm or the ranch from them,” Rehberg said. Paul Schlegel, a labor specialist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Leven that many families have only partial ownership of large farms because they use corporations or limited-liability companies “for tax reasons or estate purposes.”

Leven writes, "A Labor Department spokesman said 'the regulation would not impact' families who partially own or partially operate a farm. The way the current regulation is worded makes lawmakers and agriculture groups worry, however." Rehberg told her, “There’s apparently a big difference between what the rule actually says and how the Department of Labor promises to interpret it. The future of the family farm is too important to leave to the whims of how the next labor secretary or the next administration decides to interpret these rules.” (Read more

Top Ky. environmentalist quits state boards, citing governor's cuts and firing of strip-mine overseer

Kentucky's leading environmentalist resigned from two state boards yesterday to protest the environmental and energy policies of newly re-elected Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, the proximate cause being the firing of the chief strip-mine regulator.

Attorney Tom Fitzgerald is director of the Kentucky Resources Council, the state's leading environmental lobby. He quit the boards of the Kentucky Environmental Education Council and the Center for Renewable Energy Research and Environmental Stewardship, telling Beshear in a letter, "I cannot in good conscience continue to serve as your appointee to either Board in light of the current Administration’s environmental and energy policies."

Fitzgerald said Beshear's 26 percent budget cuts in environmental programs and called "indefensible" the fact that only one program "collects from regulated sources the fees necessary to offset the cost of regulation." He said the firing of Natural Resources Commissioner Carl Campbell, who was trying to increase reclamation bonds in the face of industry resistance, shows "the administration has lost its bearing regarding regulation of the coal industry." Many coal interests supported Beshear's re-election campaign.

FitzGerald said Campbell was trying to apply the "cumulative hydrologic impact assessment" on strip-mine permits "for the first time in 29 years, and to stem the disturbing trend of towards greater numbers of violations within the coal industry." He said the industry's compliance rate last year was the lowest since 1990. For the full letter, click here.

"Beshear said in a statement that he was disappointed FitzGerald had resigned," Tom Loftus of The Courier-Journal reports.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Politico examines the impact of mandatory cuts to the federal budget

Officially known as sequestration, the $1.2 trillion in mandatory budget cuts, left as a result of the failed 'supercommittee,' are on track to start in January 2013. Jonathan Allen of Politico has compiled a guide explaining the impact of these cuts on different areas of federal spending.

The $1.2 trillion in cuts will be spread out from 2013 to 2021. Tax increases, the presidential salary and Congressional benefits are off the table in the cuts, Allen reports. The cuts will be split equally among defense and nondefense programs. The result, $984 billion in cuts and $216 billion in savings from interest payments, averages "roughly $54.5 billion per year" for defense and nondefense functions.

The cuts will be divided between mandatory spending, ongoing government programs funded based on qualified participants, and discretionary spending, programs Congress approves each year, Allen reports. Both mandatory and discretionary spending will see a percentage reduction for each program during the first year, but in subsequent years discretionary spending will be further reduced until 2021 leaving Congress deciding which additional programs to cut.

What about health care and farm programs, two areas of specific interest to rural residents? While Medicaid and most of Medicare, except Part B premiums, have been spared with the supercommittee's failure, several provisions in the president's health care law are possible future targets. Click here to read a detailed review of possible health care cuts by Brian Depew of The Center for Rural Affairs.

Agricultural programs are not so lucky, since most subsidies are defined as mandatory spending. With spending cuts looming, "farm-state lawmakers in both chambers and both parties" are scrambling "to come up with a bipartisan plan for deficit reduction in areas under their jurisdiction," Allen writes.

Politico's guide was compiled from interviews and analyses by think tanks, the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service and Capitol Hill aides

New Jersey police, hit by state and local budget cuts, are dispersing to far-flung areas

The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department is looking for recruits 800 miles away in New Jersey, Darran Simon of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. A department spokesman told Simon when it heard about "sweeping police layoffs" in New Jersey, department recruiters saw an opportunity to hire trained personnel. They aren't the only department, either: Fort Worth, Tex., also recruited from the state this week. (Inquirer photo by Christopher Berkey: recruits from New Jersey before their graduation in Nashville)

New Jersey recruits told Simon they saw potential for professional growth in Nashville, and said they're grateful to "still be cops, which seemed unlikely in New Jersey, where layoffs have hit hard in the major cities," Simon reports. The state has 705 laid-off officers (since January) who haven't been able to find work in law enforcement, according to a State Policeman's Benevolent Association survey. Mitchell Sklar, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, told Simon the state's officers are attractive recruits for out-of-state departments because they are well trained. (Read more)

Craigslist ad promising easy farm work connected to death of at least three in rural southern Ohio

Three men have been killed and another injured in an online scheme that lured them to rural southern Ohio through a Craigslist ad, Erica Goode of The New York Times reports. The ad offered $300 a week, a free trailer and unlimited fishing for anyone willing to "watch over a 688 acre patch of hilly farmland and feed a few cows." The three men killed were from Virginia, the Akron area and an unidentified location, and were found in shallow graves on property that turned out to belong to a coal company. The bogus ad drew more than 100 responses and authorities say more bodies may be found.

Goode reports the number of applicants is not surprising in a rural area hit hard by the recession where people are desperate for jobs, implying the perpetrators played on this desperation to lure victims. Police suspect robbery may be the motive, though other theories have circulated, including identity theft and the desire to kill, Goode reports, adding "the perpetrators appeared to be looking for loners who would not be missed." Two suspects have been arrested: Richard J. Beasley, 52, of Akron and Brogan Rafferty, 16, of Stow, Ohio. Beasley hasn't been charged in the killings, but is being held on charges of promoting prostitution and selling OxyContin. Rafferty has been charged with attempted murder, aggravated murder and complicity in those crimes concerning two of the victims.

Goode reports survivor, Scott Davis of South Carolina, told police he met with two men for breakfast and then was driven to a nearby "farm." While walking through the woods, Davis reported hearing a gun being cocked and turned to see it pointed at his head. Deflecting the gun and running into the woods led Davis to help two miles away. Goode reports when police searched the property, they found a shallow, hand-dug grave. (Read more)

Landowners accuse gas companies of lying about leases; industry defends its practices

With millions of gas and oil leases in the U.S., some landowners are learning a costly lesson about the standard leases they signed. Industry officials insist the documents are written to protect the landowner, but a New York Times review of more than 111,000 leases, addenda and related documents obtained through open records requests tell a different story.

Fewer than half the leases include compensation to landowners for water contamination after drilling begins, Ian Urbina and Jo Craven McGinty of The New York Times report, and only about half of those include payments for damages to livestock or crops. Most leases give gas companies broad decision-making rights regarding tree removal, storage of chemicals, building roads and drilling. Few leases describe the environmental and other risks that federal law requires companies to disclose. Average leases are for three or five years, but two-thirds of those the Times reviewed "allow extensions without additional approval from landowners."

Urbina and McGinty report disappointed landowners in Pennsylvania, Colorado and West Virginia have spent hundreds of dollars monthly on bottled water or maintaining large tanks of drinking water in their front lawns. Thousands of landowners in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas, who claim "they were paid less than they expected because gas companies deducted costs like hauling chemicals to the well site or transporting gas to market," have responded by joining a class action lawsuit, Urbina and McGinty report.

Some industry officials say landowner criticism is misguided. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania company Cabot Oil and Gas responded to inquiries about waste pit cleanup on a Pennsylvania site by saying "the company's cleanup measures met or exceeded state requirements." Landmen, drilling company employees who pitch leases, say they don't mislead landowners. "Everyone I know who does this work is on the up and up, and most of the bad actors that there may have been before are no longer in business," Mike Knapp, president of Knapp Acquisitions and Production told the Times. Knapp added his company's leases ensure landowners get replacement water if needed and he encourages landowners to visit existing drilling sites before signing a lease. (Read more)

In response to increasing interest and concerns over mineral rights leasing, Athens County, Ohio attorney John Lavelle offered to draft a "landowner friendly" lease, like the one he used for his own properties, which he leased to Cunningham Energy based in Charleston, W.Va. He offered his services to other Athens County residents interested in contracting with the company, Sara Brumfield of The Athens Messenger reports. The New York Times has also published "A Layman's Guide to Lease Terms" to help landowners considering leasing.

Story offers facts about the payroll-tax cut, a big issue for pocketbooks and next year's politics

Weekly newspapers (and those dailies that don't subscribe to The Associated Press) and other rural news media, take note: There's a big pocketbook-and-politics story out there that your readers, viewers and listeners need to understand: The fight over extending the Social Security payroll tax cut, which expires Dec. 31.

In the Senate yesterday, each party's version of a tax-cut extension failed to muster the needed 60 votes, and most Republicans voted against their own party's version, an embarassment to Republican Leder Mitch McConnell, who had predicted the opposite. The votes set the table for "more serious negotiations over how to cover the cost of the tax cut," Lori Montgomery and Felicia Sonmez of The Washington Post report.

The negotiations will be hand-in-glove with public-relations efforts from both parties, which will surely obscure the facts in an effort to win votes next year, so we wanted to let you know about a good analysis of the issue that anyone can publish, with a few basic conditions. It's from ProPublica, the non-partisan, non-ideological, investigative news agency that has won prizes for its work and is overseen by Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.

ProPublica reporter Miriam Wang answers some basic and important questions: What is the payroll tax — and how big has the cut been? How much has the cut helped the economy? And what do economists say would happen if it’s not extended? For the story, click here.

Top coal reporter reflects on his career

The Rural Blog often shares Ken Ward Jr.'s coverage of the coal industry and the environment in Appalachia, both from his stories and his blog, Coal Tattoo, because if anyone knows the industry, it's Ward, who has extensively covered it for over 20 years. But we aren't the only outlet taking notice of The Charleston Gazette's veteran coal reporter; his work has been cited by The New York Times, The Washington Post, PBS and NPR, and he has received several journalism awards. In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review's Brent Cunningham for the magazine's 50th anniversary issue, Ward reflects on his career, which Cunningham says reflects late Gazette publisher Ned Chilton III's credo: "The hallmark of crusading journalism is sustained outrage."

Ward told Cunningham, "I think that most journalists, certainly in America today, are dishonest with the public by telling them that they’re objective. I used to go give talks at some of the trade groups in West Virginia, and I’d use this Hunter S. Thompson quote—that objective journalism is a pompous contradiction in terms—and people would always say, 'A-ha! That proves it! Ken Ward’s biased, we knew it all along.' And then I would say, 'Well, let’s talk about my biases.' And I would say things like, 'You know, I think everybody should be able to earn a living so they can take care of their families. I think everybody should have clean water to drink. I think everybody should have clean air to breathe. I think every kid deserves to have a chance at a good education. I think that everybody ought to share in the wealth of our nation.' Nobody ever really wanted to disagree with any of that. But they didn’t really like how it manifested itself in stories."

(Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, agrees that journalists shouldn't claim objectivity, except as a method to get to the best version of the truth they can deliver. "Objectivity is an unachievable ideal, as a goal," Cross says, "but an essential method for journalists. And Ken Ward is objective in his methods.")

Here are other highlights from the interview:

"Part of the reason I wanted to do Coal Tattoo was that I saw the growth of pseudo-journalism about these issues, about mountaintop removal, climate change, the coal industry. I saw this pseudo-journalism taking over the public discourse. If real journalism is to survive, I think we have to engage with that stuff to a certain extent ... the same kinds of tools and skills that real journalists have to sort out what’s true and what’s not true, and who’s doing what to whom and who’s winning and who’s losing public policy debates - we need to deploy those things for products other than seventeen-part series that win the Pulitzer Prize. I keep trying to get our newsroom to stop calling blog posts 'posts,' because I think it makes them these kind of lesser forms of journalism. And they ought not be."

"I think that maybe we need to focus a little bit less on storytelling, a little bit less on finding Joe Smith who lives near a Marcellus Shale gas well, and his story about what it was like having that big industrial complex move in next door to him, and do more of giving him information he needs to understand why that happened to him and what he could do as a citizen of this republic to change or resist the situation. I try to do stories that don’t necessarily tell about somebody who’s going through a difficult time, but that tell people who have gone through a difficult time why the hell it happened to them, and how their government let it happen, what powerful institution did it to them, and what can be done about it."

"West Virginia’s my home. I’ve never lived anyplace else. It is impossibly rich with things for a reporter to cover. Right now I’m focusing on coal. I’ve written about a lot of other things, and I have a huge list of things I still want to write about. And I can’t think of many places that are in need of good journalism more than West Virginia is, or what higher calling journalists have than to try to write stories that make their home a better place."

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Disability-benefit rate in rural areas is 80% higher than the national rate

"Rural areas are more dependent on disability benefits than are metropolitan areas," according to an investigation of the rate of Social Security benefits received by working age adults nationwide in 2009, Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo report in the Daily Yonder.

The national average of adults receiving benefits is 4.6 percent, but in rural areas, that rate is 7.6 percent, with some places like Appalachia, the deep South and the Ozarks becoming pockets with high rates of disability benefits received. (Yonder map; click to make larger)

To qualify for benefits, a person has to prove he or she can't work because of a disability that will last more than a year. Some conditions that qualify are cancer, chronic back pain, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Disability rates vary widely by state, Bishop and Gallardo report, with West Virginia having the highest rate at 9.6 percent and Utah with one of the lowest at 2.8 percent, or one third the rates in West Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas. In Alabama, Mississippi, Maine and the Ozarks there are areas with over 10 percent of working-age adults receiving Social Security benefits.

Among the 50 counties with the highest percentage of working age adults receiving benefits, three are urban, five contain small cities and 42 are rural. Bishop and Gallardo analyze the numbers this way: "Disability payments are concentrated in counties where the jobs require manual labor and where unemployment is traditionally high. Mining and timbering are major industries in many of the counties with the highest percentages of disability beneficiaries. These are also counties with historically high rates of unemployment." (Read more)

"In some areas, there is probably a correlation with low education, because the lack of schooling makes many people employable mainly in manual-labor work," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Drilling-pollution report nixes big Wyo. gas deal

Texas-based Legacy Resources announced this week it will not follow through on a $45 million deal to buy a natural gas drilling field near Pavillion, Wyo., where the Environmental Protection Agency recently found the cancer-causing chemical benzene at 50 times the level safe for humans during sampling of the town's water supply, Abraham Lustgarten of ProPublica reports, noting that the situation comes to light as the country waits for results from a nationwide survey on hydraulic fracturing and "could signal difficulty for companies trying to turn over aging gas fields if there are environmental or health concerns related to their operations."

A spokesman for EnCana, the company that owns the drilling field, told Lustgarten the company retains "responsibility for any outcome resulting from the ongoing groundwater investigation," but added "uncertainty regarding further development" made Legacy pull out of the deal. Legacy had planned to tap into the 45 billion cubic feet of gas believed to be under the field.

Residents had been complaining for years that hydraulic fracturing used in natural gas drilling had polluted their water supply. EPA previously found hydrocarbon contaminates in water wells and had advised residents not to drink their water and to ventilate their homes while showering or washing dishes. The water EPA tested last month came from two monitoring wells drilled 1,000 feet down, below most water wells, Lustgarten reports. Along with benzene, results found several other chemicals commonly used in hydraulic fracturing, like diesel fuel and 2-Butoxyethanol. The company told Lustgarten the chemicals occur naturally and drilling is not blame, and the EPA has not yet announced the cause of pollution, though it has said a detailed report analyzing possible causes will be released. (Read more)

Teacher salaries lower where students are poor

A study released by the Education Department yesterday reveals schools serving low-income students receive less local and state funding for teacher salaries than schools serving higher-income students, confirming long-suspected financial inequity by education experts.

Sam Dillon of The New York Times reports the data collected comes from 84,000 public schools that reported salary expenditures to receive emergency federal money under the 2009 stimulus bill. Salary inequities began to accumulate after the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed. Under the law, districts were required to prove the money was being distributed equally among their low and high-income schools, but a loophole "allowed school systems to report educator salaries using a districtwide pay schedule, thus masking large salary gaps between the higher-paid veteran staffs in middle-class schools and the young teachers earning entry-level pay in poor parts of the district," Dillon reports.

The Education Department said in a statement that alleviating the inequities would not be difficult: "Providing low-income schools with comparable spending would cost as little as 1 percent of the average district’s total spending, but the extra resources would make a big impact by adding between 4 percent and 15 percent to the budget of schools serving poor students." (Read more)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Probe finds federal mine-safety agency isn't keeping track of violators who owe fines

A U.S. Department of Labor report says the agency's Mine Safety and Health Administration is not identifying coal mining "scofflaw violators" who are not paying health and safety fines, keeping operators out of debt-collection lawsuits. This report comes seven weeks after another investigation by the department's inspector general found officials had overstated their rate of required inspection completion of non-coal mines.

Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports MSHA oesn't have an accurate view of the amount owed from delinquent fines as a result. "The IG's latest findings show continuing problems with MSHA's enforcement practices, following the agency's admission in 2008 that it allowed the industry to avoid required monetary penalties for 5,000 safety violations dating back more than a decade," Ward writes.

MSHA chief Joe Main said the report doesn't show a balanced portrayal of the agency's assessments and collections. "The recommendations refer to modifications of, or adherence to, MSHA internal policies and procedures that in some cases exceed federal requirements," Main wrote in an Oct. 17 memo. IG investigators found that MSHA collected 85 percent of fines in 2009 and 2010, but "did not always apply collected fines to the account of specific mine operators, or to the particular violations that drew the penalties in the first place," Ward reports.

MSHA wanted to prevent debt collection against operators who actually paid fines, but it wasn't able to match payment with fines that were due, so it created an "exclusion list" to deal with that, Ward reports. Operators on the list wouldn't "face debt-collection or other enforcement actions for unpaid fines 'because of uncertainty caused by unapplied payments.'" The agency said the list included 133 companies, but IG investigators found the list actually includes 325. The IG report says this list "did nothing to address MSHA's problem of not applying payment timely." (Read more)
On his blog, Coal Tattoo, Ward says all 325 companies on the Exclusion List "avoid having unpaid penalties sent to the Treasury for potential debt collection activities, all because MSHA doesn’t know if they’ve paid their fines or not. The IG report includes a chart that shows $4.2 million of that debt is more than 1 year overdue and another $3 million is more than two years overdue."

Community newspapers continue to be readers' top choice for news and ads

For the sixth year in a row, the annual readership survey conducted by the National Newspaper Association and the research arm of the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism confirms readers in small communities prefer their community newspaper for local news and advertising, Editor & Publisher reports. Seventy-four percent of people served by newspapers with circulations under 15,000 read a local newspaper weekly.

Newspapers came out on top compared to other information sources. More than half of respondents selected the community newspaper as their primary source for local community information, compared to 16 percent seeking information from friends and family, 13.2 percent from television, less than 6 percent from radio and 7.4 percent from the Internet, which could include newsppaer sites. The survey showed that readers prefer print over online versions; 48 percent of those surveyed have never read the local news online. Of the 167 respondents who go online for local news, 52 percent said they used the local newspaper’s website, 25 percent said they used a local television station's website and only 20 percent said they used visited Yahoo, MSN or Google. To see more results from the survey, click here.

Additional information, charts and presentations from the survey are available in the December issues of Publishers’ Auxiliary and will be available on NNA’s website soon.

Top coal reporter says real issue behind OSM and BLM merger being ignored: citizens' complaints

Over a month after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement would be folded into the Bureau of Land Management, he took action Monday that will delay the merger until February, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. A statement from the secretary's press office says this will allow more comments from interested parties. Ward reports coal industry officials, state regulators and coal-state lawmakers have voiced concern.

On his blog, Coal Tattoo, Ward attempts to weed through the red tape and explain what he says is a "pretty bizarre" situation. He says industry officials, coal-state lawmakers and congressional friends of the industry complain about the Environmental Protection Agency's recent crackdown on surface mining, and about OSM's enforcement; but they want OSM to remain a separate agency. Ward sums it up this way: "That same axis of powerful players appears almost desperate to stop the Obama Interior Department from doing what they usually are all about demanding - saving some money by consolidating some functions of two related government agencies." He suggests the industry wants to protect OSM because it's perceived to be closer to the industry than the EPA and more likely to craft regulation and policies favorable to the industry.

Ward says there are few people actually focusing on the real issue behind the merger. He references comments from West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley from a Senate committee hearing two weeks ago to explain: "Many coalfield citizens who understand the role of OSM under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 feel that Secretary Salazar’s issuance of Order 3315 shows a fundamental disrespect for them and their communities. I suspect, however, that the decision to issue this order was grounded in a failure to recognize and appreciate the mission of the long beleaguered OSM," a mission in which OSM field representatives take citizen complaints and concerns very seriously, and something that isn't referenced in the order to combine OSM with the Bureau of Land Management. (Read more)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rise in TV 'hixploitation' begs the question: Why are TV producers fixated on rural oddities?

There has been a recent rise in "hixploitation," or hick exploitation, on television in recent years with shows like "Call of the Wildman," "Hillbilly Handfihsin'" and "Swamp People" flooding the airwaves and becoming hit reality TV shows. The protagonists seem proud of their new-found fame, like Turtleman (aka Ernie Brown Jr., in photo) of Lebanon, Ky., star of "Call of the Wildman." But as Matt Frassica of The Courier-Journal in Louisville reports, the compulsion to watch such shows is not very clear.

Karen L. Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, told Frassica it's still socially acceptable to regard the South as different from the rest of the U.S. and poke fun at the region. "The reality shows trade in stereotypes. You roll your eyes and think, 'How do we move beyond that?'" Cox said. Others, like author of "Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched," play on a longing for "agrarian nostalgia," Mark Andrejevic told Frassica. He also said these shows may be seeing an increase in audience due to extreme economic uncertainty. Indiana University associate professor of gender studies Brenda Weber said the shows are not about looking down on people and making fun of them: "These reality shows are more concerned with the personal challenge of overcoming adversity. All of them take away their character’s civilized comforts and test their abilities as outdoorsmen and women."

That resembles the view voiced by MTV's programming director, David Janollari, about the station's new docu-series called "Buck Wild." Michael Schneider of TV Guide reports the series focuses on recent high school graduates living in West Virginia from "across the socio-economic strata - from the more well-off kids living 'up in the hills' to the working-class kids down 'in the holler.'" Janollari insists the show will not be ridiculing the graduates: "the show is so wholeheartedly not making fun of these kids." Rather, the station seems to be taking an approach more like Diane Sawyer's "Children of the Mountains" on ABC's "20/20" almost three years ago. Said Janollari: "Historically, we've had great success at MTV diving into unique and unexplored youth cultures."

UPDATE: Another article concerning television "hixploitation" has surfaced, this time focusing on whether or not showcasing illegal activities is in fact legal. John Jurgensen of The Wall Street Journal reports  the Discovery Channel is trying to cash in on the odd jobs reality show craze with shows like "Weed Wars" and "Moonshiners," about California medical marijuana dispensaries and Appalachians making corn liquor, respectively. Jurgensen reports: "Reality TV's exploration of the subcultures of work, especially the macho variety, is an effort to rope in coveted male viewers who might have a voyeuristic curiosity about Gulf Coast fishermen (History Channel's 'Big Shrimpin''), boar hunters (A&E's 'Lady Hoggers') or Texas oil workers (TruTV's 'Black Gold')."

Temporary towns being built to meet oil boom demand in western North Dakota

"Man camps" are dotting the prairie of western North Dakota, where an oil boom has created thousands of vacancies being filled by an "overwhelmingly male workforce," fueled by the poor economy, reports A.G. Sulzberger of The New York Times. Camps help the state deal with the problem of too many jobs and not enough empty beds. However, towns are starting to deny applications to build camps because, despite the wealth they bring, they symbolize "growing too big too fast, cluttering formerly idyllic vistas, straining utilities, overburdening emergency services and aggravating traffic jams, long lines and higher crime." (NYT map)

Local leaders say they can't keep up with demand, and in some places have instituted moratoriums on building new camps. Sulzberger reports they will use this time to "draft new fees for the camps to support fire and ambulance services; write tighter rules, like background checks, for residents in these facilities; and require performance bonds to ensure that the modular buildings aren’t simply abandoned whenever the boom turns bust." Brian Lash, chief executive of Target Logistics, the largest man-camp operator in North Dakota, told Sulzberger Target's camps maintain "strict prohibitions on alcohol, firearms and unauthorized women." If someone breaks these rules, they are evicted and almost always fired from the drilling company. Lash said officials are simply trying to establish necessary regulations.

The region was desperate for economic development five years ago, Sulzberger reports, and let oil companies have free rein as a result. Police and building inspectors say they haven't seen problems out of most camps, with some exceptions. One camp was shut down after raw sewage was found flowing on the property, while fights have happened at others. Unauthorized camps are also an issue. Camp owners have responded by drilling their own water supply and building their own sewage treatment plants. Officials say the moratorium will be lifted when capacity for sewer, water, electric, roads and law enforcement are increased. (Read more)

Sustainable agriculture could improve health, economy for rural areas

"Sustainable agriculture has the potential to create jobs in rural communities, to increase access to healthy food choices for low to moderate-income families, to serve as a catalyst for community development, to be a starting point in the sensitive discussion of environmentalism in rural communities, to operate as advocacy for migrant farm workers, and to give people from diverse backgrounds the chance to learn a valuable and respected trade," writes Todd Brantley, associate communications director for MDC, a nonprofit research firm in North Carolina. Writing for The Daily Yonder, Brantley tells how rural communities can capitalize on the sustainable agriculture movement sweeping suburbs and urban areas.

There are barriers to rejuvenating a movement that started in rural areas years ago, not out of trend, but necessity, Brantley writes. Access to land, education and training and markets are the top three. He says the movement is more than a return to "a bygone era of simplicity and determined self-sufficiency" because it can subvert rural communities' reliance on convenience, which has undermined growing one's own food. "The economic and physical rewards of growing one’s own meals are too often outweighed by the quick and inexpensive option of a restaurant’s dollar menu," Brantley writes. "The goods in chain supermarkets, prepackaged and often precooked food that’s sometimes been shipped far across the country or even from another continent."

For this movement to take hold in rural areas, Brantley says local political leaders will have to find ways to promote locally grown produce and make it available in markets accessible by rural growers. School systems can also start farm-to-school programs to place fresh, local foods on the lunch menu. Hospitals, community colleges, prisons and military bases could create similar programs, which would provide local growers with a consistent market. He discusses other methods of promotion: "Rural community colleges can offer certificate and degree programs in sustainable agriculture, including courses in business and marketing. Funding or tax incentives can be adopted to attract minority or beginning farmers to rural communities, helping them get established by purchasing land or finding affordable options for leasing." (Read more)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Appropriations bill ends ban on horse slaughter; opening of several slaughterhouses predicted

What amounted to a ban on horse slaughter for human consumption in the U.S. was lifted through a "mini-bus," or small omnibus appropriations bill passed by Congress this month. A horse-slaughterhouse proponent, Wyoming Rep. Sue Wallis, told Sonya Colberg and Chris Casteel of The Oklahoman that proposed slaughterhouses would likely be built in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Georgia and Missouri, a move she says could "turn the whole equine market around." Critics of the ban, sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitfield of Western and Southern Kentucky, said it removed the floor from the horse market, driving down prices and contributing to abuse and neglect.

The ban was not outright, but stated federal money couldn't be used to inspect horse slaughterhouses, which was required before horse meat for human consumption could be shipped across state lines. This created a problem for slaughterhouses because the majority of the horse meat market is overseas. Agri-Pulse reports, "Although this clause had support due the undesirable idea of horse meat for human consumption in the U.S., many believe the ban had 'unintended consequences,' including mistreatment of horses the owners could no longer afford and inhumane conditions used to ship horses to slaughter facilities in Canada and Mexico." The Government Accountability Office released a study in June revealing an increase in neglected and abandoned horses since the ban started in 2005.

The return path to U.S. horse slaughter is not without some opbstacles. Lauren Silverman Simon, a federal lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States, told Colberg and Casteel the slaughterhouses will have to seek state approval and many could face court challenges. Supporters also face criticism from many who consider horses an icon of the American West. (Read more) Pat Raia of TheHorse.com reports here.

Modern-day cattle rustlers causing problems in S. Fla.

Cattle thefts resulting from the recession continue, this time in South Florida, reports Peter Franceschina of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He writes that cattle rustling in the state is rare, but calls the recent thefts "a sign of the hardscrabble economic times" and the current high prices of beef. Florida Cattlemen's Association V.P., Jim Handley, told Franceschina that thefts are "trending upward" in recent years in the state, something he hasn't seen in his 15 years in the position. Cattle rustling in southern and Midwestern states in recent years has cost ranchers millions of dollars. (Sun Sentinel photo: The Wilsons with their cows)

"There are about 1.7 million beef cattle in Florida, and another 115,000 or so milk cows," Handley told Franceschina, adding the cattle industry has an annual economic impact of $3.8 billion in the state. Most thieves are caught in the act of selling cattle at livestock markets, though, and thePalm Beach County Sheriff's Department is relying on its agricultural crimes unit to investigate these cases. Cattlemen's Association state director, Chuck Russo, told Franceschina that some steal the cows to eat, while others steal them for profit. Franceschina recounts stories from several ranchers who've been hit by cattle theft in recent years. The Wilson's have recently been hit by rustlers and have become more vigilant as a result. They've been giving their cattle more feed to prevent thieves from enticing them with food. (Read more)

Community protests sale of legal synthetic drugs

A group recently occupied an area outside the D&M Market gas station in Crab Orchard, Ky., to protest its sale of synthetic drugs often bought by teenagers that can require visits to the ER, reports Katelyn Griffin of the Interior Journal in Stanford, Ky. Earlier this year, the Kentucky legislature banned sale of synthetic drugs known as bath salts, plant food and a variety of other names commonly sold in gas stations, liquor stores and on the internet. However, other forms of synthetic drugs are not included in the ban and are still being legally sold. (Photo: Katelyn Griffin)

Griffin reports most protesters agreed it was time for the community to address the issue since police can't arrest anyone for selling the products. Residents told Griffin they were in consensus that illegal drugs already create a lot of problems in the community and legal synthetic drugs simply add to that problem. Employees of the D&M Market saw the situation differently, though. They told Griffin they felt "targeted and looked down upon" because of the protest and said they were misunderstood because they don't sell the products to anyone they suspect will misuse it.

Police and residents agree that more legislation is required to keep the drugs away from teenagers. Legislation "needs to be broader to include more ingredients used to produce these substances" because "it has been easy for manufacturers to make the slightest change in structure" to keep synthetics legal, residents told Griffin. Griffin reports that "the Office of Drug Control Policy, Kentucky State Police and the Legislative Research Commission are in the progress of drafting legislation in response to this issue" for the 2012 legislative session. (Read more)