Saturday, December 17, 2011

Administration decides on first mercury rules for coal-fired plants; to be announced next week

"The Obama administration finished crafting tough new rules Friday curbing mercury and other poisons emitted by coal-fired utilities, according to several people briefed on the decision, culminating more than two decades of work to clean up the nation’s dirtiest power plants," Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson report for The Washington Post.

"As part of last-minute negotiations between the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency, the regulations give some flexibility to power plant operators who argued they could not meet the three-year deadline for compliance outlined by the EPA. Several individuals familiar with the details declined to be identified because the agency will not announce the rules until next week."

The new limits on mercury, acid gas and other pollutants "represent one of the most significant public health and environmental measures in years," the Post reports. "The rules will prevent 91 percent of the mercury in coal from entering the air and much of the soot as well: According to EPA estimates, they will prevent 11,000 heart attacks and 120,000 asthma attacks annually by 2016. Frank O’Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, told the Post, “I think this will prove to be the signature environmental accomplishment of the Obama administration.”

Friday, December 16, 2011

Illegal pot farms on public land still an issue

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have been responding to illegal marijuana growing on public land for a long time, but are concerned about recent developments. In Northern California, pot farms have increased violence in once sleepy rural towns, and Mexican nationals have migrated to Ohio national forests to grow pot. Energy and Environment News' April Reese provides a nice round-up of issues surrounding illegal marijuana growing on public lands, mostly national and state forests. (BLM photo: BLM workers clean up a marijuana farm after destroying plants.)

Reese reports federal officials have said illegal marijuana plots "harm native plants and wildlife, contaminate streams and cut off public access." This is particularly true in the West, where David Ferrell, director of Forest Service law enforcement, told Reese there are plenty of "remote sites with thick vegetation cover, good soils and easily accessible water sources." The sophisticated operations often involve upwards of 1,000 plants covering as much as 20 acres, with financial incentives totaling as much as $3,500 per processed plant.

In response, the Forest Service, BLM, the National Park Service and local and state law enforcement have "stepped up efforts to find growing operations in the past five years." Over the past two fiscal years combined, over 7 million plants were eradicated. Volunteers, and sometimes the National Guard, have helped the Forest Service clean up after crops are destroyed, which can cost between $15,000 and $20,000. Last year, $3.5 million was spent for clean-up. Despite efforts, though, officials tell Reese "the extent of the problem continues to place a strain on resources." (Read more)

Hunting grounds near schools make parents uneasy; most states and towns lack protective laws

Two students were shot during basketball tryouts at Harwell Middle School in Edinburg, Texas. Irresponsible hunting or target shooting on leased land may be to blame for the shootings. Many rural schools are near hunting grounds and many state and local governments have little regulations in place to protect students.

In Texas, Harwell and the neighboring elementary school are surrounded by hunting lands, as are Clinton Elementary and Pena Elementary in Penitas, KRGV Channel 5 reports. Mike Cox, spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, told The Associated Press he was unaware of a "specific law or regulation that prohibits hunting close to public buildings, such as schools and hospitals," but it is illegal to "discharge firearms within city limits or along public roads."

In North Carolina, parents in Gastonia raised concerns about gunshots fired near an elementary school but police said the rabbit hunters had valid permits and did not believe they were too close to the school, WSOC Channel 9 reports. A city ordinance says landowners with at least 15 acres "can apply to the chief of police to use shotguns or .22 caliber rifles with shot load ammunition on their property" but "no firearm can be discharged within 500 feet of any occupied home or building." (Read more) Statewide, there are no regulations "prohibiting hunting near schools in unincorporated areas of counties," Brent Ward, a North Carolina wildlife officer, told WRAL-TV. Target shooting is limited to a minimum of 100 yards from occupied buildings. (Read more)

Natural-gas boom may create basic chemical manufacturing renaissance in Appalachia

Officials in Appalachian states are hoping the natural-gas boom will attract more than just controversy to their economically struggling region. Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are offering tax breaks and incentives to "ethane crackers," or the multi-billion dollar plants that start the chain of making ethylene, a basic feedstock for chemical plants, reports Gabriel Nelson of Energy and Environment News.

No ethane cracker has been built in the U.S. since 2001 because natural-gas prices were too high, and most production was sent overseas. Since new deposits, such as those in the Marcellus Shale, have been tapped, crackers are now cheaper in the U.S. than anywhere except the Middle East. The U.S. ethane supply has grown by 25 percent over 10 years, and because it's harder to transport than methane, cracking plants must be located close to drilling sites. Nelson reports if ethane supplies stay at current levels, petrochemical companies will spend over $16 billion on pipelines and crackers.

However, the threat of new gas-industry regulations has companies worried. They've warned anything that makes gas production more expensive will threaten construction of crackers. Nelson reports the industry is lobbying against regulations, including those against hydraulic fracturing, as environmentalists and public health groups are calling for more rules to protect human health and water supplies. (Read more)

New law in W.Va. aims to regulate gas industry while attracting new chemical companies

In response to controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing and the possibility of attracting chemical companies to the Marcellus Shale region of Appalachia, the West Virginia legislature passed the Natural Gas Horizontal Wells Control Act this week. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a press release the bill will "open the door to new job opportunities and reasonable regulations for Marcellus shale development" and protect communities, surface owners and waterways.

Brett Dunlap of the News and Sentinel in Parkersburg, W.Va., reports the bill increases permitting fees "from around $400 to $10,000 for an initial well and $5,000 for each additional well... that should provide the $2.4 million annually the Department of Environmental Protection needs to close a deficit in its oil and gas division while fielding 14 additional well inspectors and support staff." The bill also says wells must be kept 250 feet from a water well, 625 feet from occupied houses and 1,000 feet from a public water supply intake.

The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. writes on the newspaper's watchdog blog, Sustained Outrage, that the governor hoped new legislation would help continue the boom and attract "ethane crackers," or chemical plants that create ethylene from drilling byproducts, to the state. He says, though, the bill is "almost exclusively aimed at pleasing industry and weakening the legislation."

State transportation budget cuts mean 'huge inequities' between urban and rural schools

Many California schools face transportation budget cuts as Gov. Jerry Brown announced a $248 million cut from home-to-school transportation. The state has reimbursed 35 percent of transportation costs, but will reduce it to nearly 17 percent if this proposal goes through, Marc Benjamin of The Fresno Bee reports. California is not the only state considering cuts to school transportation, but what many states fail to realize is the impact is much greater to rural schools than urban.

Sierra Unified, a school in Auberry, Calif., will lose $335 per student if these cuts go through while Burbank Unified in Los Angeles County will lose only $10 per student, Benjamin reports. This creates "huge inequities," Stephen Rhoads of the California Association of School Transportation Officials told Benjamin. Rhoads is working with others to produce a budget that distributes those cuts evenly between districts.

If Brown's proposal becomes law, transportation funding will be cut at the end of January, leaving many rural districts using general funds for transportation. "We are not going to stop transporting kids to schools, John Clements, transportation director for Kings Canyon Unified School District, which transports about 44 percent of its 10,000 students, told Benjamin. "The funding will come out of our reserve in our general fund," taking funds from classrooms. The result may mean larger class sizes, fewer employees, and reduced services for students, Supt. David East told Benjamin. (Read more)

Economic growth in farming region is higher than in urban areas, but gap may only be temporary

Economic "growth in the areas of the region and country tied to agriculture and energy are outpacing urban areas," Creighton University economist Ernie Goss told Steve Jordon of the Omaha World-Herald. The driving factors, at least in the 10 states Goss surveyed, are "global demand for grain and other food commodities, along with consumption of corn to produce ethanol."

The survey of bankers revealed a sharp increase in the farm land price index, marking the 23rd straight month of growth. The farm equipment sales index was also up from November. The economic growth may only be temporary, Goss warns, as Europe's financial problems slow growth in agriculture and energy, making the U.S. dollar stronger compared to other currencies. This may mean lower farm and energy prices for the first half of 2012, Jordan reports.

USDA secretary tries to clarify, defend child farm-labor rules; cites high accident and death rates

For the first time since the U.S. Labor Department proposed new child farm labor regulations, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is speaking out in an attempt to clarify and defend the proposals. It is a counter to the wealth of arguments from the agriculture community, reports Julie Harker of Brownfield Ag News. Vilsack said he wants to clear up "concern and confusion" in rural America about the proposal.

Vilsack writes on the USDA blog that "good old-fashioned farm work" has been "a longtime way of life that has helped make this country strong, and it teaches kids lessons that last a lifetime," but while "only 4 percent of working youth are in the agriculture sector, 40 percent of fatalities of working kids are associated with machines, equipment, or facilities related to agriculture. That’s way too high. We don’t want to blur the line between teaching kids about a good day’s hard work, and putting them in situations more safely handled by adults."

He says the Labor Department is "not proposing any changes to how a son or daughter can help on their family farm," and "there is nothing in the proposed rule that affects the ability of parents and families to assign chores and tasks to their children." He adds the proposed rule respects the structure of farms in rural America, including partnerships and LLC's. He says the department is only trying to protect the safety of children hired to work on farms.

Vilsack said comments about the proposal received by the agency during the extended comment period that ended Dec. 1 "ensured everyone had an opportunity to provide input." The agency wants to "ensure that children of farm families maintain their ability to help with the family farm, while working to prevent unnecessary child injuries or deaths," he says, and adds that in the months ahead, USDA will continue to work with the Department of Labor "to find a common-sense approach to strengthening our agricultural economy and keeping our farm kids safe." (Read more)

Meanwhile, the Labor Department issued a fact sheet on the proposal.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

To protect elk and livestock, U.S. agency considers again shooting wolves from airplanes

Federal agencies that protect recovering wolf populations in the West are now considering killing some of them from planes to protect wildlife and livestock, reports Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times.

Officials have secretly deployed sharpshooters in helicopters to kill wolves in the past, but Idaho officials said this week they would consider redeploying this program to kill up to 75 wolves threatening elk near the Montana border.

A 2006 photo (above) depicting a U.S. Wildlife Services plane decorated with 58 paw-print decals representing each wolf killed by shooters was recently published by Ken Cole on the Wildlife News blog, Murphy reports. He told her there's been a culture within the agency depicting wolves as the enemy, and "putting stickers representing your kills on the side of your plane is a pretty good representation of that." Lyndsay Cole, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told Murphy the stickers "represent wolves lethally removed for confirmed depredation on livestock or livestock protection dogs, with permission from the wolf management agency." They were approved by Idaho Wildlife Services, but were removed in 2009 after officials "recognized that they would be considered offensive by some individuals."

Wildlife management officials say a crucial part of helping wolves, livestock and humans coexist in the West has been removing those known to repeatedly attack sheep, cattle or prized game populations. However, wolf conservation advocates say there's no need to kill wolves from planes, and that the action provides "evidence of a cavalier attitude among federal agents whose aerial operations sometimes leave wolves painfully wounded for days before dying." (Read more)

Nurse practitioners are filling gaps in rural health care created by doctor shortages

Nurse practitioners are playing an increasingly crucial role in rural communities that have no primary care doctors or little access to them, reports Robert Joiner of the St. Louis Beacon. He writes about nurse practitioner Laurie Beach, who owns and operates the Pilot Grove Rural Health Clinic in Pilot Grove, Mo. She sees thousands of patients a day from within a 50-mile radius, and health-care providers in Missouri use her as an example of nurse practitioners' growing role in rural communities.

Even though nurse practitioners have advanced medical training and can perform many of the same tasks as primary care doctors, some patients still don't accept them as a replacement for doctors, probably because of the misguided idea that they are less capable than doctors, Joiner reports. He says they educate their patients and are often more empathetic. They also compliment the work of primary care physicians. (Read more)

Family median income in most rural counties fell during the last three years

The median family income decreased in seven out of 10 rural counties from 2007 to 2010, according to census data, reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder. The national median income last year was over $50,000; only 120 rural counties out of more than 2,000 had higher median incomes. (Yonder map; click for larger version)
Regions that saw large decreases in median income are parts of the West, New England, the Upper Midwest and the Southeast. Most high-income areas were metropolitan, which contained 68 percent of counties in the top quarter in terms of family income. The highest median incomes in rural America were in Virginia, where two rural counties last year saw incomes that exceeded $100,000. The five states with counties having the lowest median family income are South Dakota, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. (Read more)

USDA urges farmers to limit use of fertilizer to protect waters

America's farmland is generally over-fertilized and pollutes waterways with an abundance of nitrogen and phosphorus, NPR's Dan Charles writes on his blog, The Salt. To reduce the amount of agricultural nutrients in waterways, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has drafted the National Nutrient Management Standard, which outlines ways farmers can reduce spreading nutrients outside their fields.

Charles says the rules involve "putting farmland on a sensible diet," in which the land is "fed" only what it needs. Farmers are also instructed to not apply fertilizer, even manure, when crops don't need it, and to try and capture excess nutrients though planting "cover crops" that will trap nitrogen before it reaches waterways.

The nutrient guidelines are not enforceable regulations, though states can make them mandatory, Charles reports. However, the head of  USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Dave White, has said farmers will adopt the practices out of "economic self-interest" because fertilizer is expensive and wasting it costs money. Self-interest can work against a nutrient-reduction solution, though, Charles says, because an experiment at Michigan State University's Kellogg Biological Research Station showed nitrogen-reduction plans require farmers to "scale back their expectations modestly, rather than pursuing the highest yields of the most profitable crop, which is corn." (Read more)

Drilling companies working against local regulation

Increased and intensive natural-gas drilling, often in areas unaccustomed to it, has left local governments wondering how much control they have through zoning laws over companies' actions, reports Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times. Local governments consider drilling an industrial activity, similar to a cement factory or gas station, and think it should be subject to zoning; companies say local regulations on top of state rules are overly burdensome and are hindering potential to provide jobs in tough economic times.

In Pennsylvania, the state legislature is considering a bill that would "sharply limit a community’s right to control where gas companies can operate on private property," giving an advantage to companies and weakening local zoning powers, the Times reports. In New York state, local governments have used zoning laws to enact rules limiting drilling noise, lighting and distance of drilling sites from homes. A spokesman for Range Resources, a Texas company, told Tavernise zoning laws were "like having to get a different driver’s license in every town." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

National report shows state education funding decreases as Medicaid costs increase

An analysis of state spending over recent years shows Medicaid budgets have been increasing steadily while education spending has decreased, reports Michael Cooper of The New York Times. This has implications in rural states that have historically housed a high number of Medicaid-eligible people. The National Association of State Budget Officers analysis says reasons for these budget shifts come from the "lingering economic downturn" and the overall struggling economy. As more people qualified for the program and medical costs rose, more stimulus money was pumped into it, increasing its overall budget. In 2009, Medicaid accounted for 21.9 percent of all state expenditures; this year, the estimate for state Medicaid expenditures is 23.6 percent.

Cooper reports education spending has decreased from 21.5 percent to 20.1 percent over the same period. In 1987, education got the largest amount of state spending, but in 2003 Medicaid became the largest state expenditure for the first time. The margin between the two used to be small, but for the past three years, Medicaid's lead has steadily increased. The report warned that states are likely to face "austere budgets" in coming years because of an uncertain economy, reduced federal aid, costs of the health-care overhaul and pressure to pay for pensions and health care for retired workers. (Read more)

Nationwide, especially in rural areas, food banks struggle to meet increasing demand

Calvary Food Pantry in Auburn, New York, has seen a "25 percent increase in foot traffic compared with previous years," director Nancy Sheffield told Nate Robson of The Citizen, and this food bank is not alone. Food banks all across the country are struggling this holiday season as poor economic conditions and changing demographics have increased demand in many communities.

The number of people needing assistance has increased. Kathleen Stress, chief operating officer for the Food Bank of Central New York, told Robson her 11-county region has seen an increase of 2 percent in the past year, but the need is even greater in rural communities. A Catholic Charities site in Boyes Hot Springs, Calif., had almost 27 percent more people seek assistance a few weeks ago, Kerry Benefield of The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif., reports, and many rural distribution sites' posted hours include the caveat "or until the food runs out."

Where is the additional need coming from? An increasing number of moderate to low-income families and military personnel are seeking assistance, Stress told Robson. Another growing population seeking assistance is senior citizens, Robson reports. Connie Briglin, coordinator of Cato Christian Food Pantry, has seen more elderly seek assistance after the loss of a spouse and the spouse's income. (Read more)

Donations at many food banks have also decreased. In Sonoma County, Calif., donations of food an money are down as much as 30 percent compared to 2010, Benefield reports. The Bay Area Salvation Army in California shows a 20 to 25 percent decrease in food donations, Amy Hollyfield of ABC7 News reports.

Over 1.6 million children are homeless in America; how does your state rank in their care?

One in 45 American children experience homelessness annually, according to a new report from The National Center on Family Homelessness. This is an increase of 38 percent during 2007 to 2010. Alabama is ranked the nation's worst state for well-being of homeless children. "The problem is even worse in rural counties throughout the state, where there are no shelters and fewer agencies to assist homeless families," Joan Wright of Childcare Resources in Birmingham told WIAT News.

Mississippi, Arkansas, Arizona and California finish out the five worst states for well-being of homeless children. Vermont, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Maine were ranked as the five best. To see where your state ranks, click here for an interactive map.

Looking at trends in child homelessness from 2006 to 2010, researchers ranked states based on "the extent of child homelessness, child well-being, risk for homelessness and state policy and planning efforts," the center said in a news release. The recession is considered to be the contributing factor for the increase in homeless children, Ellen L. Bassuk, president and founder of the center and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "There are more homeless children today than after the natural disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

Medicaid cuts blamed for increase in suicides in rural West; rugged lifestyle also a factor

Suicide is increasing in rural America, mostly in Western states like Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico, and mental-health professionals say it's a direct result of Medicaid cuts, the recession and the culture of the West, Alan Farnham of ABC News reports. According to a 2009 report by the Idaho Council on Suicide Prevention, someone commits suicide every 35 hours in the state. The report says suicide is a "major public health issue," and has a devastating effect on families, churches, businesses and schools.

Suicide rates have always been high in rural places, but the most recent national data shows suicide is the second leading cause of death among Idahoans aged 15 to 34. The state ranks sixth on a list of number of suicides per 100,000 people. The top five, in order, are Alaska, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Nevada. Co-chairman of the Suicide Prevention Council, Kathie Garrett, told Farnham the recent struggle with poor economy and unemployment put a lot of stress on people, and to save money, they would skip doctor visits as well as cut back on taking medication. She added Medicaid cuts have reduced the number of mental-health services available, including the closure of mental-health offices, which has a big impact on a state like Idaho, where the closest therapist in some cases is 160 miles away.

Kim Kane, executive director of Idaho's Suicide Prevention Action Network, told Farnham the prevalence of guns in Western states is also a factor in high suicide rates. Last year, 63 percent of Idaho suicides involved a gun; the national average of gun-related suicides is 50 percent. Both she and Garrett told Farnham "the West's pride in rugged individualism can prevent people from seeking help," he reports. Kane said people feel like they should be able to "pull themselves up by their mental bootstraps." Idaho is the only state that does not have a suicide prevention hotline. (Read more)

Arizona officials are working hard to increase Mexican gray wolf numbers

Mexican gray wolves used to roam the rural southwest before humans nearly wiped them out almost 100 years ago. Now, officials hope to restore the Mexican wolf population to at least 100, reports Joanna Nellans of The Daily Courier in Prescott, Ariz. The first wolves reintroduced to the wild were released in 1998, and in 2002 the first wild pup was born to wild parents. Now, at least 50 wolves can be found in east-central Arizona and west-central New Mexico. (Photo by Les Stukenberg, The Daily Courier: Tasai, one of the two Mexican gray wolves at the Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary in Prescott.)

The field team leader for Arizona Game and Fish program, Chris Bagnoli, outlined for Nellans the importance of this particular wolf. They are the smallest and most distinctive subspecies of gray wolves, and were the first to cross the Bering Strait to North America. Though many view the wolf as a "majestic creature that symbolizes freedom and nature," the Game and Fish website says "many people do not feel that wolves should be roaming free in Arizona." That's partly why the Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary highlighted the Mexican wolves' story during their Centennial Zoofest last month. The zoo is also involved in the recovery program.

Nellans reports federal and state officials have struggled with the recovery program. The wolves aren't allowed to roam outside a 9,000-square-mile area, and if they do, officials kill or capture them. They meet the same fate if caught killing livestock. Recent wildfires in Arizona forced wolf packs to move their dens, but most wolf killings are committed by people who illegally shoot them. New Mexico has dropped out of the recovery program, but Arizona Game and Fish Commission wants the wolves de-listed as federally endangered so the state could have more control over recovery efforts, making them more affordable, effective and efficient. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Natural gas companies generally don't tell landowners about potential drilling risks

Natural gas companies reveal the risks of hydraulic fracturing (explosions, leaks and spills) to their shareholders, but not to landowners, according to a report released yesterday by the Environmental Working Group, reports Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times. The report reveals companies that have led the push to drill in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast described in "explicit terms" to shareholders the risks of fracking. However, the companies and the land acquisition companies working for them "did not mention to landowners the same potential safety and environmental risks."

One company, Cabot Oil & Gas, said in a 2008 securities filing of the company's performance about the risks involved with fracking: "Our business involves a variety of operating risks, including: well-site blowouts, cratering and explosions; equipment failures … pollution and other environmental risks." But Craig Sautner and his wife Julie said in the report "they were never told of any risks when they leased about 3.5 acres of their land in Dimock, Pa., to Cabot in 2008." After drilling began, their well-water became contaminated, as well as the water of 18 other Dimock families. Cabot disputed the findings and would not respond to Banerjee for comment.

Jack Norman, chief executive of Elexco Land Services, a property acquisition company, said his company doesn't disclose as much to landowners as it does in securities filings because the actual risk of accidents is low. He told Banerjee companies don't benefit from disclosing risk to landowners: "No one is going to go out there and say something like, 'At one of every 10,000 of our wells, we may have an incident.' No one will do it." Authors of the report say companies "clearly have a double standard" when discussing risk with landowners and shareholders, saying because landowners are not warned of potential risk, they are signing legally binding contracts without understanding their property, health, finances and communities are at risk. (Read more)

Postal Service delays action on office closures until May 15, hoping for more help from Congress

The U.S. Postal Service announced today that it would delay the closing or consolidation of any post office or mail processing facility until May 15, 2012. The service said it was responding to a request from 18 Democratic senators who wrote, "While we may have very different views on how to financially improve the postal service, we all believe that democratically elected members of the Senate and the House have the responsibility to make significant changes to the postal service."

The service will continue public meetings and other steps required for closure of the facilities it has placed under review. "Given the Postal Service’s financial situation and the loss of mail volume, the Postal Service must continue to take all steps necessary to reduce costs and increase revenue," it said in a statement. It said it was delaying action to facilitate help from Congress

The service's solutions to its financial crisis involve things that would have a big impact in rural America, including the closure of many rural post offices and changes to first-class mail delivery. Missouri Rural Crisis Center Program Director Rhonda Perry says these changes will affect rural senior citizens and veterans the most.

She told Julie Harker of Brownfield News that seniors are less likely to pay their bills online and many aren't able to travel long distances to get their mail if their local post office closes. “It is a very serious issue for farmers, for rural families and really, particularly, for senior citizens who often don’t have the ability to travel and to connect in other ways," she said. She added that changes in mail delivery could also mean serious medication delays for veterans in rural areas who are completely dependent on the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Postal Service for receiving all their medications. (Read more)

New study links mountaintop-removal coal mining to long-term damage to water supplies

A new scientific study released today "confirms the pervasive and irreversible impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining here in Appalachia," writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette on his Coal Tattoo blog. "Cumulative Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining on an Appalachian Watershed" appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reveals a direct link between long-term water quality damage and mountaintop removal. The team of Duke University researchers said they compiled results from a single watershed in West Virginia, the Upper Mud River, because "water-quality impacts from other potential sources are largely absent." (Map locates Upper Mud watershed in Central Appalachian coalfield)

Ward writes that previous studies have shown the impact on stream water, biological community structure and ecosystem function from individual mines and adjourning valley fills, but "empirical data on the cumulative impacts of multiple mining operations on larger downstream rivers has been lacking." This study fills that gap by considering both active and reclaimed mines and their impact on water quality both near the sites and many miles upstream. Researchers said in a Duke news release that their results provide evidence that mines reclaimed 20 years ago still affect water quality. They also say this study will help those making strip-mine permit decisions.

Researchers sampled for electrical conductivity, salinity and "concentrations of major ions and trace elements derived from coal or its matrix rock." The Upper Mud flows through the Hobet 21 surface mining complex, one of the largest in Appalachia. According to the news release, researchers found "All conductivity measurements taken downstream of mine discharge outlets exceeded levels known to be harmful to aquatic life ... though, at the two sampling sites upstream of any mines, conductivity levels were within an acceptable range. Concentrations of selenium, a known fish toxin, followed a similar trend ... They also found deformities typical of selenium exposure in fish collected from downstream waters."

Researchers also said: "As eight separate mining-impacted tributaries flowed into the Upper Mud, conductivity and concentrations of selenium, sulfate, magnesium and other inorganic solutes increased proportionately. Nearly 90 percent of the variation in trace elements and salinity could be explained by the amount of upstream surface mining." (Read more) Short-term, paid access to the full text of the study can be found here.

Appalachian commission grant will help create community foundations for local investment

Local non-profit community foundations, like the Community Foundation of Hazard and Perry County in southeastern Kentucky encourage local philanthropy and community development by tapping into local or expatriate wealth. Now, that group, with three other area non-profits, is using a $1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to help 11 other counties establish community foundations as part of the newly created Appalachian Rural Development Philanthropy Initiative.

The 11 counties are Bell, Clay, Elliott, Knott, Knox, Lawrence, Letcher, Lewis, Magoffin, Martin and Whitley. Tom Eblen of the Lexington Herald-Leader writes in his column the initiative's goal in those counties is to "tap into local resources and focus them in meaningful ways," like providing funds for education, the arts, health care, the environment and housing. There are about 700 community foundations across the U.S., mostly in large cities, though some in rural Iowa and Montana have been very successful. Eblen writes the initiative faces a challenge in creating foundations in the 11 selected counties, which are all very poor: Where will the money com from?

He already has the answer: "The non-profit Kentucky Philanthropy Initiative published a study last year that estimated Kentuckians' wealth at $311 billion. The study estimated the amount of that wealth that will transfer from one generation to the next at $72 billion over the next 10 years and $173 billion over the next 20 years. If just 5 percent of that transferring wealth were donated to community foundations, the impact could be huge: $8.7 billion over 20 years. (Read more)

Governor says Nebraska Farmers Union was vital in rerouting Keystone XL pipeline

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman thanked the Nebraska Farmers Union during the organization's state convention over the weekend for playing a major role in the effort to reroute the TransCanada oil sands pipeline away from the state's ecologically fragile Sandhills region. Robert Pore of The Independent in Central Nebraska reports the governor said NFU's input was vital. "You put the pressure on, you kept giving us advice, you kept sharing letters and emails, you showed up at two public hearings in Atkinson and Lincoln with the State Department and three days worth of legislative hearings on this issue," Heineman (Photo by Matt Dixon, The Independent) said during his lunch-time speech at the convention. "That is how we got to where we are today."

Controversy still surrounds the pipeline, as House Republicans introduced a bill last week to renew the Social Security payroll tax cut and extend unemployment benefits, with tacked-on language requiring the administration to issue a work permit within two months to begin building the pipeline. Last month, President Obama said he would reject the tax-cut bill if it contains pipeline language. (Read more)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Newspaper strikes blow against domestic violence with two-part series on victim, monthly feature

In Hickman County, Tenn., one in five calls to the sheriff's office involves domestic assault. This led Editor Bradley Martin of the Hickman County Times to begin searching for a domestic violence victim willing to share her story. On Nov. 21, starting a two-part series, Martin ended his 15-year search and provided readers a glimpse into the severity of domestic violence - quite literally.

The paper reported on the 2007 domestic assault of Shannon Beasley, complete with a striking front page photo of her injuries. In the first part of the series, the Times took a closer look at Beasley's relationship with the accused, the events that led up to the abuse and finally her rescue on March 24, 2007. The second part focused on the resulting trial and Beasley's path to recovery.

Martin said Beasley's attorney approached the paper, saying his client wanted to get the word out about what had happened to her. In January, the Times will start publishing a monthly "Survivor Story" with the assistance of a new coalition known as No Excuse. "The coalition believes it has victims who are ready to stand up, by name and photo, and tell their stories," Martin explained in an email.

Environmentalists object to Ky. settlement with coal company over fraudulent water-pollution data

Five environmental groups that alleged in March that Kentucky coal company Nally & Hamilton Enterprises committed 12,000 violations of the Clean Water Act by submitting fraudulent water-pollution reports are asking a judge to scuttle a proposed settlement in which the company would pay $507,000 in fines. Bill Estep and Beth Musgrave of the Lexington Herald-Leader report representatives from the groups said in a court motion that the settlement is "too small and will not deter further violations" by the company.

The groups, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalachian Voices, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, claim the settlement has other problems, including: "state regulators apparently did not investigate whether Nally & Hamilton's violations resulted from fraud; the agreement does not address whether the company's actions covered up serious pollution discharges; and it does not specify what the company must do to fix problems."

After the groups uncovered the 12,000 reports, which in many cases repeated the same or virtually the same figures from month to month, the state Energy and Environment Cabinet filed an administrative complaint against the company in May. The motion by the environmental groups suggests state regulators negotiated a proposed settlement without including the groups and cabinet Secretary Len Peters signed the settlement ignoring their objections, report Estep and Musgrave. The environmental groups said the state's agreement doesn't explain the reasons for the low settlement, which is less than 1 percent of the total potential penalty.

If Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd sets aside the deal, the groups want to be more involved in negotiating a better settlement, their attorney, Burke Christensen of Richmond, told Estep and Musgrave. Cabinet spokesman Dick Brown told them the groups' motion is "without merit." (Read more)

Rural populations of young adults continue to shrink, leaving towns struggling economically

More people over 65 and fewer people 20 to 44 live in small Great Plains towns than those living in suburban and urban areas, according to a recent Center for Rural Affairs study. People 20 to 44 make up 26 percent of small-town populations, 30 percent of urban areas and 35 percent of suburbs. Conversely, people over 65 make up 19 percent of rural populations, 11 percent of urban places and 16 percent in suburbs.

Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs attributes urban and suburban areas' abilities to retain young people through job creation to the "migration of young, working age adults" from rural areas. Bailey also reports the shift of younger workers to urban and suburban areas has an economic and social impact on rural America. As Jeff Caldwell of writes: "As the younger residents leave small towns for metro areas, so goes the community and business investment that comes along with a larger young working population." Investment will follow young people to urban and suburban areas, Bailey reports, "to create jobs and opportunities and to meet the needs of the expanding population." (Read more)

CO2 emissions rose sharply in 2010; scientists continue to warn against climate change

A recently released scientific report reveals carbon dioxide emissions from burning of fossil fuels jumped 5.9 percent last year, the biggest percentage jump since 2003. The high rate is a "bounce-back" from the 1.4 percent drop in 2009 emissions which was a result of more investment in "green energy" and the recession. Justin Gillis of The New York Times reports the Global Carbon Project, a collaboration of international scientists tracking climate change, said the increase amounts to half a billion tons of extra carbon being pumped into the air, the most since the Industrial Revolution. Researchers fear the "ever-rising emissions" will make it difficult to curb severe climate change in coming decades.

The report says combustion of coal represents more than half the emission growth. The U.S. is the world's second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, following China, where emissions grew 10.4 percent last year. Gillis reports these figures are revealed as delegates from 191 countries met in South Africa for a negotiating session in emissions control effort that's been continuing for two decades with little success. Scientists' increasingly desperate efforts to convince society to curb their carbon habits "have met sharp political resistance in many countries, including the United States, because doing so would entail higher energy costs," Gillis reports.

In developing countries, like China and India, most emissions come from industrial production, while in wealthy countries, individual emissions outweigh those from industry. However, Glen P. Peters, researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research and leader in the recent report, told Gillis wealthy countries have simply out-sourced their emissions. Though scientists say emissions should return to a 3 percent yearly growth rate in coming years, they warn that figure is still "worrisome" and "signifies little progress in limiting greenhouse gases." (Read more)

Following confusion about new immigration law, Alabama police must complete training

Alabama is requiring more than 16,000 law officers to complete special training regarding the state's new immigration law as a result of confusion in trying to enforce the laws, The Associated Press reports. Police chiefs, prosecutors and judges all say the law is hard to understand due to its lengthy, complicated provisions, and the federal court rulings blocking some sections – like the provision requiring public schools check citizenship of students – making it even harder for officers to interpret and administer the law.

Training is supposed to aid officers in interpreting the law and will focus specifically on frequently used sections of the law including "detaining people who lack proper identification, Alan Benefield, head of Alabama's Police Officers' Standards and Training Commission,  told AP. Course materials explain the law "does not authorize state, county or municipal agencies to seek out 'illegals' for deportation" and instead shows officers how they "should operate under the law.

Sometimes officers properly interpret the law, like the officer who arrested a German manager with Mercedes-Benz for not having a driver's license while driving a rental car. The charges were dismissed after the man provided appropriate documentation. In another incident, a Japanese worker for Honda Manufacturing was wrongly cited. He was ticketed at a routine roadblock even though he had a valid passport and international driver's license. The law states passports with valid stamps should be accepted by police as proof someone is in the country legally. "Statehouse Republicans said descriptions of the incident didn't appear to match up with the law itself, which doesn't include a provision for ticketing someone," AP reports. (Read more)