Friday, December 09, 2011

House votes, mootly, to block rural dust limits

"The House voted Thursday to block federal pollution limits on the dust kicked up by farms, mines and other rural operations," but "It’s unlikely the bill . . . will go any further," reports Philip Brasher of the Gannett Co. Washington bureau. "The White House has threatened to veto the bill, and it faces strong opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate." (Read more) For background, click here.

Rural areas continue to see lower unemployment

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released data this week that shows a continuing decline in unemployment in rural areas, report Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo of The Daily Yonder. The rate of unemployment in rural counties of 8.3 percent is lower than both the national rate of 8.5 percent and the rate in urban counties of 8.6 percent. (Yonder map)

Bishop and Gallardo report the rural unemployment rate has been falling steadily since June when the rate was 9.2 percent. It peaked in January 2010 at 11.2 percent. Bishop and Gallardo caution that the Bureau calculated its unemployment figures differently than the national rate announced each month, with one difference being unemployment rates aren't seasonally adjusted. Regional differences in rates are apparent, they report, with the Southeast and West continuing to have high unemployment, while New England, Great Plains and Mountain West states have better employment statistics than the national average.

The lowest unemployment rates come from a 60-county cluster in Great Plains states, with 25 in Nebraska and 27 in North Dakota. Bishop and Gallardo report rural counties with the lowest rates are places "that have been adding jobs." Rural America has added 130,000 jobs since October 2010, and seven out of 10 of those jobs were created in counties with rates already lower than the national average. There are rural counties that continued to lose jobs, however, and Bishop and Gallardo report they are scattered across the country. Athens, Ohio lost nearly 3,000 jobs over the past year, and Louisiana has 10 counties on the list of 50 rural counties that lost the most jobs at 10. (Read more)

Federal cuts, financial instability and competition leave many rural hospitals fearing the future

Many rural hospitals could be forced to close because of cuts to the Critical Access Program and the fact that, according to the National Rural Health Association, , 41 percent of critical-care hospitals are losing money, reports Jenny Gold of Kaiser Health News. This would be devastating to many rural communities, with a great impact felt by low-income and elderly residents. "A small hospital is often one of the biggest employers in a rural town, and closures 'can have an outsized economic impact,'" Eric Zimmerman, a health care lawyer and Washington lobbyist, told Gold.

More than 1,300 U.S. hospitals and nearly one in four acute-care facilities are designated as "critical access," giving them slightly higher Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements in return for limits on care they can provide. Many such hospitals like Hood Memorial, about an hour outside New Orleans, are dealing with uninsured patients, inability to collect payments from patients, and fewer funds from federal and state agencies, Gold reports. Many of these hospitals "tend to provide lower quality care" and are "less financially efficient than other facilities, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law. Hood, for example, had $700,000 in losses last year despite the higher reimbursements. "It's a lot of variables, and all of them right now are working against us," CEO Hoppie Jones told Gold.

To prevent closures of rural hospitals and ensure "Americans in in isolated areas would still have access to health care," the federal government started the critical access program in 1997. To qualify, hospitals had to have 25 or fewer beds and be at least 35 miles away from another facility. However, states could waive the distance requirement, and many did, leaving hospitals like Hood with at least four other competing hospitals "within a 26 mile radius," Gold reports.

EPA draft tying fracking, underground pollution is likely turning point in debate, ProPublica says

For the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency has linked hydraulic fracturing and underground water pollution by concluding contaminants found in a Pavillion, Wyo. aquifer were caused by natural-gas well drilling. EPA officials said in a 121-page draft report yesterday that"the presence of synthetic compounds … and the assortment of other organic components is explained as the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field" in Wyoming.

ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news agency, reports the findings will likely signal a turning point in the debate about whether or not fracking causes water pollution and will likely shape regulations in the Marcellus Shale region in Appalachian states, for example. Writers Abrahm Lustgarten and Nicholas Kusnetz also report EPA's findings "directly contradict longstanding arguments by the drilling industry for why the fracking process is safe," including the belief that hydrologic pressure forces fluids down, deep geologic layers are a barrier that prevents chemicals from moving toward the surface, and problems with barriers around gas wells aren't connected to fracking.

The report set off what will likely become a heated political debate in Congress as legislators consider how to better regulate the industry. After a phone call with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, whose office last year challenged the EPA investigation of Pavilion claiming the agency was biased, told colleagues the draft report is "offensive." (Read more)

In another first for monitoring of gas drilling, Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has asked 99 Marcellus Shale drilling and development companies to submit reports on air pollution. The reports will be used in a comprehensive three-year inventory of air pollutants required by EPA. Reports will come from companies involved in all phases of gas drilling, production, transmission and processing. (Read more)

Final rule will protect contract chicken and hog farmers, but not as much as administration wanted

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday published a final rule that will "protect contract poultry growers and pork producers," Agri-Pulse reports. The rule is a shadow of an earlier one that "ran into heavy lobbying from the meat industry and opposition in Congress," the Daily Yonder notes. "The House cut off funds for enforcement of the original rule," and prevailed in negotiations with the Senate.

The rule will take effect 60 days after publication, and mimics parts of the 2008 Farm Bill. It allows contract growers to decline arbitration of contract disputes, now mandatory under most contracts, and sets criteria for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration to determine if the arbitration process is meaningful for growers and producers. The rule sets criteria to require "reasonable notice" by a poultry processor to a farmer of "any suspension of the delivery of birds," how to determine if a requirement for additional capital investment violates the Packing & Stockyards Act, and whether a packer, swine contractor or poultry integrator has given adequate notice for a grower to remedy a possible breach of contract before termination.

"While the Final Rule is a good first step, it is certainly not a last step," National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson told Agri-Pulse. USDA's plan to requireme the collection and posting of sample contracts and the "need for producers to show harm to competition" were blocked by the 2012 agricultural appropriations bill, but the department says it remains "committed to promoting a fair and transparent marketplace," Agri-Pulse reports. (Agri-Pulse is a subscription-only newsletter but offers a free trial.)

"The rule focuses primarily on contract arrangements between poultry and hog growers, companies and packers, leaving out, for now, some of the most contentious provisions relating to beef cattle marketing," John Maday, managing editor of Drovers CattleNetwork writes.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Small upstate New York town owns state's first community-owned department store

When the Ames department store in rural Saranac Lake in upstate New York closed it's doors in 2002 and Wal-Mart threatened to overtake the small town of about 5,000 residents and it's locally-owned businesses, the community took matters into it's own hands. As The New York Times' Amy Cortese reports, residents decided to raise capital to open their own department store. One-hundred dollar shares in the store were marketed to local people as a way to "take control of our future and help our community," Melinda Little, Saranac Lake resident, told Cortese. (NYT photo: Customers peer into the windows of the Saranac Lake Community Store on opening day)

After five years, organizers reached their $500,000 goal and opened the Saranac lake Community Store on Oct. 29 of this year. It's located in a former restaurant space on Main Street across from the Hotel Saranac and has 4,000 square feet. Though the space was not fully renovated when the doors opened, Cortese reports shoppers seemed pleased with the mix of clothes, bedding and craft supplies for sale, and filled the store by 9:30a.m. on opening day.

Saranac Lake isn't the only rural town to create a community-owned department or grocery store. In western states where remote towns find it hard to attract business and retain population, community stores are not unfamiliar. However, these types of stores are less common on the East Coast. Organizers told Cortese the Saranac store is the first of its kind in New York state. Cortese reports communities from Maine to Vermont are taking notice, andthat "community ownership is resonating with people now because of frustration with Wall Street, corporate America and a system seemingly rigged against the little guy." (Read more)

North Dakota community newspapers discuss impact of oil boom on their business

North Dakota's recent oil boom has increased traffic accidents and created need for temporary towns; but, for the state's community newspapers it has created a rush of news stories, and as Teri Saylor reports for the National Newspaper Association's publication, Publishers' Auxiliary, they are scrambling to keep up with the boom's meteoric pace. Over a two-part series, Saylor interviewed four publishers from papers in the Brakken Oil Field of northeastern North Dakota to understand how their papers are handling the rush of stories related to the boom. North Dakota Newspaper Association Executive Director Roger Bailey told Saylor unemployment in the state is at 3 percent, far below the national average. This year, the state legislature had a surplus of $1 billion. There are downsides, like increased expendatures for infrastructure, not enough housing for workers and overflowing schools, and Saylor reports the publishers all think the oil boom will last a long time. (Publishers' Auxiliary map)

Steve Andrist, publisher of two third generation, family-owned newspapers: the Crosby Journal and the Tioga Tribune, told Saylor North Dakota has become the U.S.'s domestic Saudi Arabia, saying: "The oil reserves here are even more significant than earlier geographic surveys predicted." He said for the first time in 50 to 60 years, the population in his state is increasing, and all those people will have no trouble finding work. Now, his papers are "bursting at the seams" with legal notices, advertising and news. When the population was low, Andrist told Saylor his papers ran a lot of feature stories because his reporters struggled to find news. Now they "are wishing for the luxury of time so we can do more features. We are spending all of our time covering development stories: planning, zoning, water, roads. So many issues.”

At the Williston Herald, publisher Mitzi Moe told Saylor about housing for the droves of workers migrating to the state. Rent has "exploded," and tent cities, campers and basements have become residences of choice for workers who can't find other places to live. Hiring is "next to impossible" at her paper. "We are running short of staff in every department: news, advertising and circulation," she told Saylor. Moe said even she is pitching in to help meet demand and staff at the paper are currently doing multiple jobs to keep up. Williston is not prepared for the boom, she said, adding the town doesn't have the infrastructure for it.

Mary Kilen, Mountrail County Reporter publisher, is logging 80-hour work weeks and the four staff members at her husband's family paper are following suit. She told Saylor Mountrail County is considered ground zero in the oil boom. The population of Stanley, the county seat, grew by over 1,000 people in one year and Kilen said infrastructure needs have "turned into a nightmare," the hundreds of millions slated to fix it will only scratch the surface. Housing is a problem for her community as well, with current temporary housing "man camps"
on the edge of town reaching their 4,000-bed capacity. The county has currently placed a moratorium on those camps, though, and Kilen told Saylor the county government is "doing a fabulous job" of handling the boom.

McKenzie County Farmer's publisher, Neal Shipman, reminisced to Saylor about what life was like in Watford City 18 months ago when his paper was "a solid 10 to 12 pages a week." Now, the paper makes 16 to 22 pages easily. Stores can't keep the paper on news racks: issues are "disappearing from stores and racks in two days." While his community is also reaping the benefits the boom brings with it, it's also struggling with similar infrastructure, population and housing concerns. There are now 20 to 30 minute waits at the gas pump and school boards are looking for ways to increase classroom size to hold the addition 300 students enrolled this year. Shipman also told Saylor he's managing his paper the best he can with his three full-time and three part-time employees, but he adds they are dealing with stories they've never dealt with before and that keeps things fun.

This series can be found in Publishers' Auxiliary's November and December issues. An online version is available, but registration is required.

Former Massey CEO apparently heads new coal firm

Just days after a $200 million settlement was reached in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster case, a Massey Energy underground coal mine at time of incident, news has surfaced that former Massey CEO, Don Blankenship, is again at the helm of a coal company, and at least one congressperson is deplored by the move. Steve James of Reuters reports ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, George Miller, "lambasted Massey executives for allowing the company to flout federal safety regulations as well as intimidating workers and running two sets of books to hide safety failings" in Congress yesterday. He said Blankenship wants to get back into mining after killing 29 miners and that it's been suggested he may be able to get a permit to mine.

Blankenship, who stepped down as Massey's chief last year amid the chaos following the disaster, is now listed as president of newly incorporated McCoy Coal Group, according to Kentucky records. Attorney Gregory Blackburn of South Williamson, Ky., is listed as the company's registered agent and did not return calls seeking confirmation that Blankenship has started a new coal company. United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith told James he can't believe the "chutzpah" Blankenship has to get back into the industry. "If a miner does something that creates a hazard, he can lose his papers and can't work. But a coal company does it and 29 miners die, and nothing is done - there is something fundamentally wrong with that," Smith said.

As Ken Ward Jr. points out on his blog, Coal Tattoo, many are still wondering exactly whom U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin intends to prosecute for wrongdoing at Upper Big Branch. "It’s still important to remember that Booth Goodwin, while talking pretty tough about his commitment to the investigation, has also been clear about the difficulties of going after upper-level corporate officials for criminal conduct," Ward writes. "There is plenty of evidence - some already made public by the McAteer report and some outlined in documents MSHA released yesterday - of widespread criminal conduct regarding falsification of mine-safety examination reports. Will any of those folks make deals, providing information about higher-up corporate officials to avoid tougher charges themselves?"

It is clear how families of the 29 killed miners feel about the situation; money can't replace justice in the deaths of their loved ones. The sentiments of the families are perhaps summed up by Gina Jones, who told Kate White of The Charleston Gazette no dollar amount could not be placed on the life of her husband: "We want those responsible all taken away from their families like what has happened to us."

West Virginia officials refuse to let MTV get 'Buck Wild' with state tax dollars

The West Virginia Film Office was not impressed by MTV programming director David Janollari's pitch that the channel's newest reality show, "Buck Wild" will give its "viewers a singular and fun glimpse at this generation's experience as we go into Appalachia to capture the lives of a lovable group of dynamic young people." The office has twice denied the show's applications for tax credit incentives because it's concerned the show will not portray West Virginia in a positive light, reports the Los Angeles Times. The show is set to begin filming next spring in Charleston and Sissonville and will chronicle the lives of recent high school graduates.

The state offers tax credits up to 31 percent for film or television productions, but to qualify the production has to meet content criteria established by the state legislature. Director of the state's Film Office, Pam Haynes, said a production in West Virginia can't portray the state in a "significantly derogatory manner," noting what is considered significantly derogatory is decided by a six-member panel. "Buck Wild's" executive producer, J.P. Williams, of Parallel Entertainment, is a native West Virginian, but representatives from his company and MTV would not comment on this matter.

The Times reports many states have similar content requirements governing filming incentives. A legal provision in Michigan requires any films receiving tax credits to promote the state as a tourist destination; Productions in Texas can't portray the state in a negative light, either; and, in Florida, cries of censorship ended legislative pursuit of barring tax credits for family entertainment that exhibited "nontraditional family values." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Farmers and politicians speak out against newly proposed child farm labor rules

Farmers are saying the Labor Department is overreaching with newly proposed regulations that would restrict work children under 16 can do on a farm. The rules would only apply to children hired by large farming operations, not those working on their parents' farm. However, many children work on family farms not owned by their parents. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, about 98 percent of the two million farms in the U.S. are family owned. The Department is currently reviewing thousands of comments on the proposed rules.

Ana Campoy of The Wall Street Journal reports the childhood injury rate on farms decreased 59 percent from 1998 to 2009, but agriculture still has the second-highest fatality rate among youth at almost six times the average across all industries. Proponents, like Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, told Campoy the rules make sense because children performing hazardous work on farms is no different than children working in coal mines and construction. Joseph Lord of the Louisville Courier-Journal reports U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation the Obama administration is threatening family farms with the proposed regulations. "This administration is the most hostile to rural America as any I’ve ever seen, because apparently none of them have had any experience with it,” McConnell said.

Campoy reports farmers are saying they "are in a better position than city folk to determine what kinds of farming activities are safe for children." Oklahoma farmer Scott Neufeld said the regulations are the equivalent of outlawing children from helping their mothers bake cookies because they may "get their hand in the blender." Washington orchard owner Lorinda Carlson told Campoy the new law would make it harder for her to hire local teens to help load cherries during harvest – a job most adults aren't willing to do. She said working on a farm as a child helps build work ethic. President of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and pecan farmer Mike Spradling told Campoy he's worried the regulations would "reduce the number of future farmers by limiting the exposure kids have to the agricultural industry." (Read more)

United Health Foundation releases latest health rankings for states

The America's Health Rankings report by the United Healthcare Foundation, shows no improvement in the overall health of the nation this year, reports Anne Harding of Since 2000, the improvement trend has slowed to 0.5 percent annually with this year being the first with no improvement at all. Public health experts who contributed to the report believe the bleak economic situation is compounding increases in obesity, diabetes and higher child poverty rates which all contribute to the rankings. (United Healthcare Foundation graphic)

Low rates "of infectious disease, high use of early prenatal care and relative lack of violent crime" deemed Vermont the healthiest state for the second year in a row, Harding reports. Four of the top five healthiest states were northeastern states with New Hampshire and Connecticut ranking second and third, with Massachusetts ranking fifth. On the flip side, obesity, childhood poverty and preventable hospitalizations keep several southeastern states at the bottom of the list. Mississippi came in last, as it has for the last decade. Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana finished out the bottom five. To see your state's ranking and results on an interactive map, click here.

More primary care doctors needed in rural areas; medical schools can't meet demand

There is an increasing high demand for primary care physicians due to an aging baby boomer population and an estimated 32 million previously uninsured people being added to the patient pool under healthcare reform, reports Bryant Furlow for The Wall Street Journal. Physician shortages are "already evident" in rural and inner city areas, he reports, adding that medical schools can't keep up with demand for more doctors.

Furlow reports teaching hospitals nationwide will have to add an additional 4,000 students each year to meet demand, but current federal primary-care workforce grants and health service funding will only add about 500 to 600 a year. Medicare's funding for resident positions has been stagnant since 1999 and expansion to train new people could cost $1 billion annually. Nursing schools are also expanding to include more "interdisciplinary team training, care for the frail elderly, as well as areas prioritized in the health reform law, such as health information technology," Furlow reports. Also, the need for non-physicians will continue to rise because of health reform's emphasis on an "accountable care model that coordinates patient care across clinical disciplines." (Read more)

One rural community has high rate of soldiers dealing with effects of war

A disproportionate amount of veterans come from rural America, and in trying to "understand the impact of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on the American fabric," McClatchy Newspapers reviewed Department of Veterans Affairs documents to find a small town to chronicle. Reporter Chris Adams chose London, Ky., where almost 200 service members are now veterans collecting disability payments for war injuries. The area has one of the highest rates of disability collected for post traumatic stress disorder, one of the most prevalent ailments associ:ted with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (Photo by Chris Adams: Zola Hamlin held a photo of her grandson, Staff Sgt. Christopher Hamlin, at her home just outside London. He was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad in May 2007.)

Adams visited London and talked with veterans, preachers, shopkeepers and family members to report about the impact both wars have had on this community. "War and the consequences of war run deep here. At one church, five members are overseas now. At the veterans' halls, the talk by former Iraq and Afghanistan war vets is just beginning. American flags fly up and down Main Street. Patriotism is at the surface," Adams writes.

Three Londoners were killed in action, a higher number than most small towns, Adams reports. Corbin-native and Marine Matt Jackson was killed and his father, Timothy, told Adams many people don't know how the decade-long wars affect them. "I can tell you that until my son got killed, I didn't have a clue how it affects us," he said.

Many London-area service members are enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard. The town's unit is currently on its second tour of duty and their return date is uncertain. This leaves some, like Sarah Doggette, who's husband is in the unit, to raise family alone. Their 4-year-old son thinks his dad is at the London Armory - not 6,500 miles away in Iraq. Doggette coordinates the family readiness group for deployed soldiers from London and told Adams communication between families and soldiers is constant and has improved since the unit's first deployment, something she said helps family members cope. The unit's 124 members are now helping in cleanup and shutdown, including sweeping roads for improvised explosive devices.

London-area soldiers returning from war are also dealing with its heavy toll. Since 2003, 175 soldiers in the London area are on Veteran Affairs' disability rolls, with a total of 917 ailments ranging from mild to severe. Psychologist Cynthia Dunn has helped veterans deal with PTSD, which can last the rest of their lives. She told Adams only a tenth of the veterans she meets weekly are of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but that's likely to change as more soldiers return with the end of both wars and are pushed to attend by family members - "the first line of intervention." (Read more)

Violence against Native women by non-Indians high; U.S. senators want jurisdiction expanded

Though many areas of law enforcement in Indian Country have vastly improved, The Crime Report's Cara Tabachnick writes protecting Native American women from violence is still lacking. Comanche Nation police officer Donna O'Brien told Tabachnick "everybody seems to be on the same page when fighting the war on drugs, but nobody seems to be on the same page in fighting the war (that is being waged) on women and children." Experts agree with O'Brien, saying violence against native women "has grown to epidemic proportions."

According to a Justice Department study, two in five native women will become domestic violence victims and one in three will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. However, four out of five perpetrators is non-Indian and can't be prosecuted by tribal governments because they don't have jurisdiction over anyone outside Indian Country. In an attempt to curb this problem, U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka in October introduced the Stand Against Violence and Empower Native Women, or SAVE Native Women, Act in Congress. "We cannot let the next generation of young Native women grow up as their mothers have - in unbearable situations that threaten their security, stability, and even their lives," said Akaka.

The bill would extend jurisdiction of tribal authorities so non-Indians who commit crimes on native lands can be prosecuted by Native authorities, improve domestic violence programs and fund data collection to better understand and respond to sex trafficking of native women. "Essentially, it would correct a long-overlooked justice gap that has been a sore point in Indian Country for decades," writes Tabachnick. Supports of the act say it will end a cycle of violence that often results in death of the victim. The Indian Affairs Committee conducted hearings last month about the SAVE Native Women Act, but no further action is planned at this time, though communications director for the committee, Emily Deimel said the act is "a top priority for the committee." (Read more)

Sustainability report: A resource for rural communities' leaders

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaboration between the the Department of Transportation, Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Agriculture have published a resource to help rural community leaders promote and practice sustainability in their communities.

The report focuses on findings from the Rural Work Group, established to police the agencies' spending, policies and programs to ensure support of rural communities' economic and sustainability efforts, and offers other useful information for rural community leaders. The report provides examples of how rural communities are using DOT, HUD and EPA resources to "strengthen their economies, provide better quality of life to residents and build on local assets," Tyler Falk reports for Smart Growth America. It outlines performance measurements communities can use to understand the impact of their programs. The report elaborates on the Partnership's future plans to support rural communities. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Scientists say climate change will hurt farming; GOPers reject their consensus humans cause it

Scientists are mapping the impact of climate change on agriculture, and they say it doesn't look promising. Douglas Fischer of The Daily Climate reports experts at the American Geophysical Union have concluded weather "driving many of the globe's great breadbaskets will become hotter, drier and more unpredictable," making farming increasingly difficult. Scientists studied severe drought in East Africa, sediment cores from New York marshes, drought in Australia and the western U.S. to determine this conclusion. Scientists told Fischer other factors adding to climate change's impact on crops include population growth, deforestation, and policy choices.

Scientists caution that simple policy changes can often "blunt a crisis," something to which American farmers, who appear to vote mostly Republican, might want to pay attention. The Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire has released results from a new study which concludes Americans' perception of climate change is influenced by their politics. Democrats are more likely to trust scientists, while only a minority of Republicans trust them. The institute's Lawrence Hamilton said Republicans clearly believe climate change caused mainly by human activity isn't happening. (Read more)

Massey successor will pay $200 million in disaster settlement that doesn't shield former executives

A settlement has been reached in the lawsuit over the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster that killed 29 miners last April in West Virginia. Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired the mine from Massey Energy when it bought the company this June, has agreed to a $200 million dollar deal in which it promises to implement safety improvements in all its underground mines, pay tens of millions of dollars of government fines and pay restitution to families of the miners.

The settlement requires Alpha to spend $80 million to improve safety over the next two years, including upgrading equipment, training and increasing staffing at all former Massey underground mines. Digital air-flow, methane and coal dust monitors will be installed, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. The company "must also perform a study to determine if its mines have adequate staffing to clean up accumulations of explosive coal dust, accelerate research on new ways to control dust accumulations, and install new emergency oxygen equipment for miners. The company will build a new state-of-the art training center at its regional office in Julian and set up an aggressive new schedule of worker and supervisor training programs." Alpha will also create a $48 million trust funding mine-safety research at academic institutions, and pay $35 million to resolve civil penalties of all former Massey mines.It will pay $46.5 million to families of the victims.

Ward reports neither Alpha or its subsidiary that operates the Upper Big Branch mine are pleading guilty to any criminal charges. In exchange for Alpha following through on the details of the settlement, the government has agreed to not bring charges against the companies. However, Ward reports that key to this deal is that the U.S. Justice Department hasn't promised to not bring charges against individual executives, officers and employees of Massey or Performance. On his blog, Coal Tattoo, Ward writes that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin told him: "We’re not limiting the focus of our investigation at all. We are not slowing down at all. If anything, certain aspects of our investigation are going into high gear."

After the Justice Department announcement about the settlement, the Mine Safety and Health Administration released a report about its investigation of the disaster. Ward reports it "largely mirrors previously released findings" from independent investigator David McAteer and another from United Mine Workers safety experts. "All three investigations agree that the explosion involved an ignition of a small amount of methane gas that transitioned into a massive coal-dust explosion because of Massey's poor safety practices," Ward reports. MSHA investigators concluded that Massey "did not follow its agency-approved ventilation and roof control plans, short-circuiting fresh-air flow deep in the mine, contributing to the methane buildup and ignition." (Read more)

Smokey Bear may be fired if environmental literacy programs are cut, report says

"Only you can prevent forest fires," the familiar phrase from Smokey Bear has urged generations to keep campfires under control and not throw down matches in the woods; but Smokey, along with his pal Woodsy Owl, may soon become a thing of the past if Republican House members succeed in cutting the U.S. Forest Service Conservation Education's program for environmental literacy. The program is on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's YouCut website which is now overseen by freshman Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais. The site "asks the public to choose which spending cuts the program should sponsor in Congress," reports Pamela King of Energy & Environment News.

YouCut estimates eliminating environmental literacy programs would save taxpayers $50 million over 10 years, but National Wildlife Federation spokesperson Max Greenberg told King the claimed savings "are tiny by federal government standards." YouCut doesn't specifically mention Smokey and Woodsy in the cut proposal, but King reports Greenburg said in a blog post that it was "ironic that DesJarlais -- a congressman who hails from a state that suffered thousands of wildfires last year, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture's Division of Forestry -- would suggest eliminating such a famous fire-safety campaign."

The importance of outdoors activities promoted in environmental literacy programs is acknowledged on YouCut's website, but it's also stated that using tax dollars to "generate issue-oriented advocacy" among children is "inappropriate." A spokesperson for DelJarlais' office told King he classifies such programs as "unnecessary expenditures," adding that environmental literacy is being duplicated by other agencies and it's important to reduce duplicate spending. (Read more)

Newspaper in Appalachian coalfield gave big play to Huffington Post story about coal miner's struggle

It's not uncommon for news outlets to share stories. What is uncommon about the story that ran on the front page of the Harlan Daily Enterprise was the byline of a Huffington Post writer on a story from remote southeastern Kentucky.

Stories from various media outlets can be viewed on HuffPost, but this time, the news flow from small outlets to a big one was reversed. "Also, any of the reluctance to take on the most powerful local industry, a reluctance that has often been seen in the region's newspapers, was absent," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

The story, about coal miner Charles Scott Howard's fight against illegal underground-mine practices, ran on HuffPost Sept. 14 and was mentioned on The Rural Blog. Enterprise Editor Debbie Caldwell said when she saw the story, she asked its author, Dave Jamieson, for permission to run it with the understanding he and HuffPost would be credited. "I wanted to run the article because it involved a person from Harlan County and coal," Caldwell said. "The people of Harlan County enjoy reading about coal. Coal is our heritage."

The story ran over a two-day period in the Enterprise, in what Nieman Journalism Lab's Justin Ellis terms "a gesture of journalistic goodwill." Jamieson told Ellis no one at HuffPost "would have much hesitation about a print newspaper wanting to use a story like that." Ellis writes that HuffPost is often seen by some journalists as "the web's bad guy, a nemesis that subverts the norms of legacy media, soaking up other people’s work in the pursuit of money and the all-powerful pageview," but terms this example of one journalist helping another as "a neighbor borrowing a cup of sugar." Caldwell said sharing stories is simply standard operating procedure at the Enterprise: "I have always shared our stories with news outlets and I have never been denied when I've asked that in return. It has been the common practice and understanding to give a person credit for their work."

Many state oil and gas agencies are obliged to serve the industry as well as regulate it

Taking a closer look at the responsibilities of many state oil and gas agencies sheds new light on the infrequency of punishments and the minimal fines for the industry. Many state oil and gas agencies have to serve as regulators of the oil and gas industry, but in many cases their top priority is to promote drilling, Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy News reports.

Into which category does your state fall? In many states, agencies have legal obligations to the industry. Wyoming regulators are supposed to "serve" the industry while Pennsylvania's Bureau of Oil and Gas is supposed to "facilitate development," Soraghan reports. Most other oil and gas agencies have mandates or missions declaring development as a goal.

While some regulators believe energy development and regulation can be done safely by the same group, others disagree. Following an explosion at an Encana Corp. well the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission issued a "notice of alleged violation," but it was revoked by higher-ups, Soraghan reports. The commission explained its ruling in a memo saying there were "no injuries to people, nor damage to wellsite equipment," so there was "no need for a hearing, no rule violation." Jim Eubanks, who lives a quarter-mile from the explosion site, insists the commission swept the incident under the rug because at the time five of the seven commissioners were industry representatives.

Following complaints from several landowners, the Colorado General Assembly cut the industry's representation to three out of nine. (Read more) To read a story by Judy Jordan, former oil and gas liaison for Garfield County, on Colorado's Western Slope, about balancing the role of regulator and promoter, click here.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Postal service abandons goal of next-day delivery; new three-day goal likely to hurt rural areas

The U.S. Postal Service plans to end next-day delivery of first-class mail beginning this spring, choosing to focus instead on a commitment to deliver anywhere in the continental U.S. within three days. This move, along with other changes, will save the struggling USPS an estimated $2.1 billion annually, spokesperson David Williams said in a media conference call today. This decision will likely mean longer waits for first-class mail delivery, especially to and from rural areas.

The end of next-day delivery is part of a broad restructuring plan that includes possible closings of 250 processing facilities and elimination of about 28,000 additional jobs, Mark Memmott of National Public Radio reports. Other changes include reducing the current 12-hour guarantee on two-day standard mail to a 4-hour window. During the call, Williams said closures of small town post offices and elimination of Saturday delivery are still being studied. (Read more) For The Associated Press video summary of the proposed changes, click here. For the Postal Service press release, go here.

Midwest farmland values continue to soar, and bankers say the peak hasn't yet been reached

Farmland values continue to climb in the two Federal Reserve Bank districts that contain most of the Midwest, reports Jeff Caldwell of According to Federal Reserve economist David Oppendahl and Omaha branch executive Jason Henderson, land values rose 25 percent in the Chicago and Kansas districts. Caldwell reports that's a one-year record for both regions, and that values have much to do with mother nature, stating land in states hit hard by drought this year did not increase in value. Agriculture bankers say this trend "has yet to peak," the bankers write.

Oppendahl told Caldwell "interest rates on farm operating and real estate loans declined" in the third quarter of 2011, adding the "availability of funds at District banks is at it's highest level in 24 years." Caldwell reports: "Nebraska and Iowa saw the highest year-over-year increases in crop land values at 38 percent (41 percent for irrigated ground) and 31 percent, respectively." Henderson said the limited number of farms for sale during growing season creates strong competition which bids up sale prices at public auctions. Bankers report cash down payments for land averaged 20 percent of the purchase price.

Oppendahl said there will be a lot of "bullish sentiment for farm incomes and land values" in the next year in the Chicago district, and Henderson said weather would be a major factor in how land prices are determined next year, "especially where this year's drought was most severe." They also said the costs of raising next year's crops will rise, creating higher expected operating loan volume. (Read more)

Agricultural irrigation is draining the Great Plains aquifers, which are a finite resource

The aquifers of the Great Plains are being depleted. Researchers from Colorado State University say only 57 percent of current refuge pools for life in the Arikaree River in eastern Colorado will remain over the next 35 years, and those will be isolated on a single-mile stretch of the river, reports Science Daily. This study focused on the Arikaree, but researchers say all 11 headwaters of the Republican River in Nebraska and Kansas "face the same fate." (Map of Republican River Basin, containing the Arikaree and Republican Rivers. Click on map for larger version.)
Regional aquifers were filled by glaciers during the last ice age, researchers say, and can't be replenished with rain and snow. "That water has been there for thousands of years, and it is rapidly being depleted," researcher Jeffrey Falke told Science Daily. "Already, streams that used to run year-round are becoming seasonal, and refuge habitats for native fishes are drying up and becoming increasingly fragmented." Pumping of regional aquifers is almost entirely done for agriculture, with about 90 percent for corn production irrigation, along with alfalfa and wheat. Depletion of the water table affects ground-water dependent grasses that support livestock grazing.

Researchers concluded that a 75 percent reduction in groundwater pumping would be needed to maintain current water-table levels and refuge pools, something that isn't "economically or politically feasible." Dryland streams in the Great Plains provide habitat for several warm-water fish species that have adapted to harsh conditions; but, "increased fragmentation of their habitats may impede their life cycle, limiting the ability of the fish to recolonize," the researchers say. (Read more)

When rural grocery stores close, communities and local businesses suffer, expert tells Senate

When locally-owned rural grocery stores close, communities they served have a hard time replenishing food supplies when roads close or are too dangerous to travel in winter months because "big-box" groceries are usually more than 20 miles away, Kansas State University Research and Extension reports in the Topeka Capital-Journal. The director of K-State's Center for Engagement and Community Development, David Procter, testified before the U.S. Senate's Hunger Caucus last week to "put it in perspective."

Local groceries anchor community businesses, and though the decline of such stores has been gradual, this issue has become key for the center, Procter testified. Since 2006, 82 out of 213 Kansas communities with 2,500 or fewer people have lost their local grocery; but this isn't solely a Kansas problem, Procter said: It's happening across the country and globally in places like Canada, Mexico and Gambia. Procter was a "driving force" in organizing a Rural Grocery Store Summit in 2010, which attracted more than 200 participants from 13 states.

Procter said low prices offered at big-box stores and an increasingly mobile society lure customers away from local stores. Other causes include changes in food distribution, which sometimes require stores to make minimum orders of $10,000 to $12,000 a week; high operational costs for older buildings; limited labor force, and high owner burn-out rate are also factors working against local groceries. Other businesses suffer when local groceries close, along with tyhe health and nutrition of the community, Procter said. (Read more)

A third Rural Grocery Store Summit is planned for June 5-6, 2012. Information about the summit can be found here.

Study shows farmers work long after retirement age, and doctors don't know how to relate

"Farmers' stark commitment to work is borderline obsessive, and researchers are beginning to develop new guidelines to better understand farmers, whose strong cultural and emotional ties to the farm drive their work ethic," reports Karin Pekarchik of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture about a study by the UK College of Nursing's Deborah Reed. Findings show that 40 percent of 1,423 Kentucky and South Carolina farmers aged 50 and over defined health as the "ability to work," causing them to work well after retirement age. Reed told Pekarchik she hopes these results will help medical personnel better understand farming culture so they can better relate to farmers.

"The average Kentucky farmer is 57 – 13 years older than the average worker. Kentucky's farming population mirrors that of the entire United States, making this a nationwide topic," Pekarchik writes. Reed told her most farmers have two jobs and don't list farming as their primary occupation, keeping doctors from screening for things like skin cancer and cataracts, common ailments associated with working outdoors.

Another alarming statistic is that farmers have the highest suicide rates of any occupation, most likely because they're "exposed to unrelenting and multifaceted stress and pressure," Pekarchik writes. The resulting stress from hard physical labor, long work days throughout the year, enduring vagaries of nature and livestock, adverse weather conditions, market fluctuations, government policy changes and family pressure can lead to suicide.

Farmers, even from a young age, should be aware of the physical and mental problems that could ail them later in life, Reed said. She suggests farmers use sunscreen, wear wide-brimmed hats, use hearing protection and wear sturdy shoes and use a walking stick to eliminate falls. (Read more)

Prospect of revived horse-slaughter industry leaves animal-rights groups split and others wondering

The recent reversal of a five-year U.S. horse slaughtering ban, after a study found that it contributed to neglect and abuse, has animal-rights groups split on the issue and leaves some wondering if and when any horse slaughter plants will open. (Casper Star-Tribune photo by Dan Cepeda)

Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor reports the Humane Society of the United States and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals continue a strong anti-slaughter stance, while People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says reopening slaughter houses is a good idea. PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk told Johnson PETA was against the bill that closed horse slaughter houses because "the amount of suffering that it created exceed the amount of suffering it was designed to stop."

According to a Government Accountability Office report, Johnson writes, the domestic slaughter ban did not reduce the number of horses killed for consumption; instead, it led to more inhumane treatment of old, abandoned or neglected horses and greater numbers of horses being shipped to Mexico or Canada for slaughter. While ending the ban may not result in less horses slaughtered, "it does mean the amount of suffering is now reduced again," Newkirk told Johnson. (Read more)

Wyoming Rep. Sue Wallis, a United Horseman member, told Kelsey Dayton of the Casper Star Tribune that regulations require a minimum of 30 to 90 days before slaughterhoues can open. She estimates it will take longer for any to open in Wyoming since it had no such facilities. North Dakota ranch wife Jeri Dobrowski believes reopening plants will create jobs and increase exports, but she wonders if openings will really occur, Gary Truitt of Hoosier Ag Today reports. Federal money for slaughterhouse inspectors has been approved for only a year, and Dobrowski believes that will keep many plants from opening because owners will have no certainty surrounding their investment.