Saturday, January 28, 2012

High Country News is looking for stories of the West

High Country News, a magazine and website about the American West, "is looking for new print and multimedia story ideas and voices," Managing Editor Jodi Peterson writes.

"We're especially interested in stories related to public lands, natural resources and the environment. We also welcome West-specific stories about people, politics, economics, culture and aesthetic values. Politics in particular will be a special area of focus as we head up to the election, as will stories on the West's economy," Peterson writes. "Because we have a long publishing cycle and an 11-state region to cover in a small news space, we want local stories that have significance across the entire region and that are told in ways that go beyond what daily newspapers report. We are committed to deep reporting, thorough investigations and insightful analysis."

The magazine seeks inquiries from "experienced journalists," Peterson writes. "Our ideal stories are timely and news-driven, and include strong storytelling, compelling characters, a clear, jargon-free style, and a dedication to intellectual honesty. We want writers who can view topics with a critical eye and dig deeply into issues. We also would like our writers to be as diverse as the region they cover, and encourage Native American, Hispanic, and other under-represented journalists to send us queries. In particular, we are looking for short proposals for our 'Currents' department in the front of the magazine."

For a description and examples, see Send inquiries to with "story query" in the subject line. For audio or video proposals, use "multimedia story query." The magazine has some specific topics of special interest for multimedia stories on its submissions page.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wash. AG would let local officials record closed sessions, to prevent or resolve questions of legality

One of the biggest bugaboos of covering elected or appointed boards is the "executive session," in which we presume the discussion often goes beyond the limited topics authorized by the state open-meetings law. That is usually hard to prove, but Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna may have a good idea to address the problem.

As part of his 2012 legislative package, "McKenna is asking lawmakers to adopt a bill that would allow government bodies to record executive sessions. It’s not mandatory, it’s permissive," The Olympian reports in an editorial. "Then if a question arises . . . there’s an audio or video recording to settle the question."

The state-capital newspaper noted that earlier bills to require such recordings have been defeated by lobbyists for local governments, but a permissive law would allow local officials to "refute an allegation of an illegal meeting and provide greater accountability for public attorneys that they are not allowing elected officials to hold illegal meetings."

The paper concluded, "We believe that audio or video recordings of executive sessions would also create a psychological barrier for elected officials – to keep them from straying into subjects and having discussions that they should not engage in behind closed doors." We agree, and hope the bill passes. The only law we know of like this is one in Florida that requires a court reporter for closed sessions for discussion of litigation and makes the transcript public at the end of the litigation.

Drought, high hay costs stress Okla. horse rescue

Abandoned horses remain a big problem because people can't afford to feed them. Many are left to wander in the wild. Others are abused, and those are a top priority for Blaze's Tribute Equine Rescue in Jones, Okla. Now the  rescue isn't sure how it will keep horses alive, reports Jamie Oberg of News 9 in Oklahoma City. Owner Natalee Cross said the rescue is housing more than 100 horses, its full capacity, and not only doesn't know where the next hay supply will come from, but also doesn't know how it will pay. (News 9 photo)

Rising hay prices are costing Cross almost $3,000 a week, and she said if prices don't go down, she might have to pay out of her own pocket to buy hay. She said this is the hardest year since she started at the rescue 10 years ago. Extended drought is making owners beg her to take their horses because they can't afford to feed them. She said she has to find homes for horse's she's nursed back to health before she can take more, but most won't take them because they can't afford hay. (Read more)

Insurance company wants to give primary-care docs more money, including payment for prevention

Most rural areas depend on primary-care physicians, and at least one insurance company is willing to increase compensation for them. Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc., an operator of Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance plans, wants to increase payments to primary-care doctors and start reimbursing for preventive care management. WellPoint says this would "boost treatment and save money," reports The Associated Press.

The company said it hopes the measure will "give doctors a chance to do more for patients outside ... of just treating a person when they become sick," including helping those with chronic health problems like diabetes develop exercise plans and making sure they're followed. WellPoint Vice President Jill Hummel said the concept will allow doctors to spend more time with patients, "listening to them and understanding their concerns." The company operates insurance plans in 14 states and enrolls more than 34 million people. It hopes to implement the new payment plan across its primary care network before 2014. (Read more)

Conservation groups still aren't happy with latest version of national forest management plan

The Obama administration provided a new framework the U.S. Forest Service would use to manage national forest land yesterday. Once the regulations are approved, they will update planning procedures that have been in place since 1982 and use latest science and knowledge to create and implement effective land management plans. The rule requires management plans include habitat for plant and animal diversity and conservation, but some conservation groups say the rule weakens national forest wildlife protections, reports Environmental News Service.

Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport, who headed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration, said her organization supports "this historic shift in direction," but remains concerned about the "adequacy" of wildlife conservation in the proposed rule. She said the rule "makes promises that it can't fully deliver." Conversely, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the rule will sustain jobs and income for local communities, take less time, cost less money and provide stronger protections for land and water.

This is the fourth, and seemingly final, attempt to update the rules since 2000. All previous attempts were challenged in court by several environmental and conservation nonprofits, including Center for Biological Diversity, and found to be unlawful. The Forest Service and its parent agency, the Department of Agriculture, considered almost 300,000 public comments on the proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement to develop the final course of action. (Read more)

Feds question mine plan that would create grade and drain for part of King Coal Highway in W.Va.

Consol Energy wants to mine 2,300 acres between Belo and Delbarton in Mingo County, West Virginia, but the Obama administration is questioning the Buffalo Mountain mountaintop-removal mine proposal and pressuring state officials and the company to reduce potential impacts. Part of the company's proposed post-mining land use plan involves construction of the King Coal Highway that would connect four-lane US 119 at Williamson, population 3,400, to Interstate 77 at Bluefield, notes Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette. (Red line on map denotes proposed route)

The Environmental Protection Agency said the mine would be one of the largest ever proposed in Appalachia and would bury 10 miles of streams under 13 separate valley fills if allowed to continue. EPA says the permit includes 159 possible water pollution "outfalls." The agency sent a letter objecting to an Corps of Engineers "dredge-and-fill" permit for the proposed mine issued the day of Obama's inauguration. Consol wants to mine 16 million tons of coal over a 14-year period, and the state Division of Highways said the mine would reduce the cost of the King Coal Highway section from $200 million to less than $90 million.

EPA recently sent a letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection objecting to a specific Clean Water Act pollution discharge permit for the mine. In the letter, it said the DEP hadn't included "adequate pollution monitoring or discharge limits in its proposed water quality permit for the operation." The Federal Highway Administration and state DOH announced this week they would focus a joint study of potential environmental impacts of the King Coal Highway on the Buffalo Mountain mining project. (Read more)

One more time: EPA won't regulate farm dust

It seems the dust hasn't yet settled around fear the Environmental Protection Agency might regulate farm dust to reduce particulate air pollution. Legislators and farmers have worried for some time EPA has plans to do it, even though the agency has repeatedly said it does not. Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey met with regional EPA officials in Kansas last week and was reassured. "We certainly got that reiterated that they are absolutely not going to regulate farm dust. They have no plans to do it," he told Julie Harker of Brownfield Ag News. He also said it won't happen in a "back door way," such as through a lawsuit.

The speculation may stem from dust regulations EPA enforces in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Pheonix. The agency has enforced dust regulation there since 1996 as part of overall efforts to limit particulates. After major dust storms in the city last year, EPA found the county "had failed to limit dust to currently allowable levels." Some legislators say dust storms there are natural because of its desert location. They maintain farms are irrigated and dust storms are beyond legislation.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Rural school threatened with closure suspends sports so it can focus on academics, improve scores

The Premont Independent School District, in a rural town of 2,700 in South Texas, is among many rural schools struggling with outdated buildings, budget deficits, dwindling student populations and staffing shortages. Now Premont is facing closure by the Texas Education Agency for failing to "meet the state's criteria" and "certain adequate yearly progress requirements since 2007 under the federal No Child Left Behind program," Christopher Sherman of The Associated Press reports. But in an attempt to save the school and the community, Superintendent Ernest Singleton is taking drastic measures by cutting athletics to focus on academics. (Photo by Michael Zamora, Corpus Christi Caller-Times)

All sports at the school have postponed until at least the next basketball season as Singleton shifts the focus to extra tutoring and test preparation. Singleton told Sherman it was a tough decision in a community that values high school sports so much, but "because we're so far behind with student performance I wanted an environment that was academic only."

Singleton estimates the decision to end sports programs will also save the school about $50,000 in the spring and $100,000 in the fall. The money can be used to update facilities, attract qualified teachers and pay off its $400,000 line of credit, Sherman reports.

The community would lose its largest employer, with 90 jobs, if the school is forced to close. Frank Davila, a Jim Wells County constable and school security officer told Sherman, if "the school shuts down in this town, the town dies. This is all we have." The nearest school district is 35 miles away. (Wikipedia map locates Premont)

Not everyone agrees with the decision to stop athletics. Patricia Bunch, 36, mother of three in Premont schools, "disagrees with the decision because sports helps students stay healthy and keep out of trouble," Sherman reports. Premont student Cedric de la Garza, 15, told Sherman, "Staying eligible for sports is what motivates many students to pass their classes." (Read more)

World's longest fire-truck parade staged in Okla.

Here's a story for anyone who loves a parade: Firefighters who assembled for Oklahoma State University training sessions put together the world's longest fire-truck parade, 220 of them, on Friday, Jan. 21, beating a 159-truck parade in Switzerland that is in the Guinness Book of World Records.

“Seeing fire trucks lined up for three and a half miles made all the hard work worth the effort,” said Donnie Allen, fire chief of Atoka, where the events were held. “The streets of Atoka were full of supporters, and when truck 160 (the one that broke the record) crossed the end of the parade line the roar was equal to that of the winning touchdown at a Super Bowl.” For the rest of the OSU press release, via the Bixby Bulletin, click here.

USDA's new school lunch rules are not as broad as first written, but will make meals healthier

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released new, finalized requirements that will make school lunch a healthier meal for students.

The guidelines will mean:
• Students will be given both fruit and vegetables every school day.
• More foods will be made with whole grains.
• Students will be offered only fat-free or low-fat milk.
• Calories will be limited by portion size, based on the age of children being served.
• There will be less saturated fat and trans-fats in the food served.
• The amount of sodium will decrease gradually over the next 10 years.

Though the changes represent the first school-lunch overhaul in 15 years, they are not as comprehensive as the Obama administration initially wanted them to be. A bill passed late last year "would require the department to allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now," reports Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press. "The initial draft of the department's guidelines, released a year ago, would have prevented that." Congress also kept USDA from limiting potatoes to two servings a week. Potato farmers and frozen-pizza companies lobbied hard against those proposals, some conservatives said the government shouldn't be telling children what to eat, and some school districts said the changes were too broad and too expensive.

Some of the changes will be incorporated by September, and others will be phased in. The changes affect lunches that are subsidized by the federal government in the National School Lunch Program, which serves 32 million children. (Read more)

The changes are aimed in part at curbing childhood obesity. That has also been the target of measure to limit junk food in schools, which have been called into question. A recent study of almost 20,000 students found no link between junk food at school and weight gain in children. "The researchers examined the children's weight and found that in the eighth grade, 35.5 percent of kids in schools with junk food were overweight while 34.8 percent of those in schools without it were overweight — a statistically insignificant increase," reports Benjamin Radford of Discovery News. (Read more)

USDA issues new plant hardiness zone map, corroborating evidence of climate change

Five years ago, the Arbor Day Foundation changed its plant-hardiness zones because of warmer winters. Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has followed suit, but "made clear that it doesn't ascribe the trend to climate change," reports Bart Ziegler of The Wall Street Journal. "The 30 years of weather data used to create the map weren't sufficient to smooth out weather cycles and determine if there is any underlying climate change," according to USDA spokesman Kim Kaplan.

Also, Ziegler writes, "The agency said the methodology used to build the new map was more sophisticated than that for the 1990 version, so the maps aren't directly comparable. The new map relies on data from 8,000 weather stations and also takes into account topography, prevailing wind, elevation, proximity to large water bodies and other factors not used to create the 1990 map." The map is based on the average low temperature.

However, Cornell University professor David Wolfe, who studies climate change, said "doesn't prove climate change" by itself, but corroborates other evidence, "including shifts in animal migration patterns, changes in snow cover and other temperature readings," Ziegler writes. For the USDA press release, with a link to an interactive map that shows climate zones at the county level, click here.

Only 14% of Iowa farmers lack Internet access, but one-fifth of those who do choose not to use it

Seventy percent of the 1,276 Iowa farmers participating in the 2011 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll said they use the Internet to get farm-related information. Weather was the most popular type of information, with 84 percent of farmers saying they check it online. Market information was second at 78 percent, while general agricultural news drew 75 percent and information about crop production 68 percent, J. Gordon Arbuckle, Iowa State University extension sociologist and co-director of the study, told Iowa Farmer Today.

Of those with Internet service, 60 percent said they have high-speed access, with 27 percent of those using digital subscriber lines, 14 percent on satellite, 13 percent with a wireless/cell phone service, 12 percent using cable television and 12 percent a standard phone line. Only 14 percent of those surveyed reported no access to high-speed Internet and 21 percent of those who had it available said they chose not to use it, Arbuckle told Iowa Farmer Today.

The average age of the farmers surveyed was 65, and 51 percent earned more than half their income farming. (Read more)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

W.Va. post office, closed three years ago, reopens as contract unit after community fights

The U.S. Postal Service says many rural post offices are in danger of closing because of its budget woes, but communities fighting to keep their offices open might want to pay attention to Hacker Valley, W.Va., where residents rallied to reopen their post office after it closed in 2009. They celebrated winning that fight this week in a ceremony complete with a "ribbon-cutting" of USPS packing tape, reports Rick Steelhammer of The Charleston Gazette. (Gazette photo: First customer at reopened office, Retha Casto, hands letter to its contractor, Cindy Miller)

The Hacker Valley Post Office closed under an emergency suspension order after its lease expired. The Postal Service told community members at a hearing that a survey revealed no suitable replacement sites, and one couldn't be built because of a USPS building freeze. Residents first heard of the closure at the hearing, but later learned the agency knew of closure plans several years before, which should have "given the agency adequate time to find an alternative site," they said.

Dozens of residents wrote letters to the Postal Regulatory Commission about "hardships" the community faced because of the closure, and asked it be investigated. The Commission concluded "the Postal Service is using its suspension authority to avoid the explicit congressional instructions to hear and consider the concerns of patrons before closing post offices." The Hacker Valley closing led to investigation of more than 400 closures of small post offices to make sure USPS hadn't illegally closed them.

The Postal Service announced last year it would allow a contract postal unit in Hacker Valley, 20 miles north of the county seat of Webster Springs. (MapQuest image) Contract units have no salaried postmaster, but offer all postal services except bulk mailing and passport applications. The CPU costs less than half to operate as the old post office. "I would hate to see any postmasters lose their jobs, but it seems like this approach is worth looking at in rural areas with bottom-line problems," said Renee Anderson, a member of the Hacker Valley Post Office Committee. The Webster County school board allowed the CPU to operate in the former Hacker Valley Elementary School cafeteria. (Read more)

Studies about health impacts of surface mining won't be allowed in challenge to new permit

U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers of West Virginia won't allow citizen and environmental groups to argue the Army Corps of Engineers "wrongly failed to consider" scientific evidence linking health problems, including cancer and birth defects, to mountaintop-removal coal mining, reports The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. The groups wanted to present testimony about studies conducted by Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University in permit hearings for Alpha Natural Resources' proposed Reylas mine in Logan County.

Ward says Chambers cited the Federal Rules of Procedure and a U.S. Supreme Court decision that "says lawsuits like this one should generally be allowed to be amended or supplemented unless the proposed amendment would be 'futile'." He made two points in his decision: the Corps had already issued the permit, so any review of it was "over and done with," even though mining hasn't started; and, if the groups had been allowed to put the studies in the permit review, they still couldn't prove the Corps' failure to consider them "was arbitrary and capricious." He also said even if he'd let the studies be considered, the Corps didn't have enough time to review them.

Though some Hendryx studies were published after the Corps' permit review, several others raising the same questions were published before the permit was issued in March 2011, Ward writes. More than a dozen studies by Hendryx and others came out in 2008-10. "It sure would have been interesting to see Corps officials, who concluded 'no human health effects are anticipated as a result of the proposed project,' regularly monitor major public health journals or make it a point to consult with scientists who do follow such things," Ward writes on his Coal Tattoo blog. He also points out the decision was made on the heels of a state Department of Environmental Protection study concluding that drinking water is safe in the community nearest the proposed mine, and a report (see next item) from the Kentucky Environmental Foundation proclaiming "people in Kentucky are sick from coal production." (Read more)

Ky. environmental group wants state's leaders to consider health impacts of coal mining

Representatives of the Kentucky Environmental Federation say the state's leaders should consider the health impacts associated with coal when they "craft the state's energy policy," John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. The organization released a 44-page health-impact assessment on coal yesterday, citing "published, peer-reviewed scientific studies ... that document health risks" associated with pollution from mountaintop-removal coal mining, mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and toxic heavy metals found in coal-slurry ponds.

KEF Executive Director Elizabeth Crowe said requiring health impact statements before passing legislation about coal would be no different than requiring an environmental impact statement. "Unfortunately, many of Kentucky's elected officials seem concerned about protecting the image and profits of the coal industry with little if any time donated to consideration about the impact on public health," she said. The group endorses House Bill 167, which would encourage energy efficiency and use of renewable energy by utilities. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisvill said she doesn't expect it to get a vote, and that House leaders are unlikely to support "a measure critical of coal." (Read more)

President seeks middle ground on energy issues

Energy was a common theme in the 2012 State of the Union address, and is an issue that affects mostly rural communities, because that's where extractive industries do most of their extracting. David Worthington of Smart Planet says the president mentioned energy at least 18 times during the hour-long speech. Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post says Obama was seeking "middle ground" on energy issues by calling for an increase in natural gas and domestic oil production as well as investing more in renewable energy. (Smart Planet photo)

Among the proposals Obama made were: opening more land for oil and gas exploration, investing in renewable energy sources, making drilling companies reveal chemicals used in drilling, providing more money for public research to advance energy production, developing clean energy on public lands, and wasting less energy to conserve more.

Steve Hargreaves of CNN Money reported domestic energy production has increased during Obama's term. Oil production is up 14 percent and gas is up by 10 percent from 2008. The administration has approved new drilling leases off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico. In the speech, Obama called for the end of some oil-industry tax breaks, and for greater investment in wind and solar. Production from both has almost tripled since 2008, though both remain a small part of overall energy production. Renewable projects flourished largely because of economic-stimulus grants, which ran out last year. Renewables promoters want industry tax credits extended, and the president in his speech called for such credits to be passed to "create these jobs." (Read more)

Cleaning up, clarifying Obama's 'spilled milk' joke

President Obama didn't have too much to say about rural America in last night's State of the Union address, but he did attempt a farm joke while trying to debunk the notion that he over-regulates. "We got rid of one rule from 40 years ago that could have forced some dairy farmers to spend $10,000 a year proving that they could contain a spill, because milk was somehow classified as an oil. With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk." The quip received much attention, with most thinking it was only "2 percent funny." It may also need some clarification.

The Environmental Protection Agency monitors oil storage under section 311 of the Clean Water Act. Facilities that store oil have to prepare Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure plans for EPA review. Under the 1973 SPCC rule, edible oils, including vegetable and animal fats, could have been considered oils that required regulation. Because of milk's butterfat content, it was included in the SPCC rule, and the milk industry saw a potential threat. EPA announced in February 2009 it would remove milk and dairy farms from the spill rules. The change took effect in April 2011. Obama's statement was true, says, in which the Tampa Bay Times checks politicians' speeches and advertising for accuracy, but added, "We’re not addressing Obama’s projection of costs of $10,000 to some farmers." (Read more)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Small movie theaters say they may have to go dark because they lack money to go digital

The movie industry has decided to completely switch from traditional 35-millimeter film prints to digital files in the next year, causing problems for small, locally owned and often historic theaters that can't afford to buy new digital projectors. The switch is estimated to cost theaters $65,000 to $100,000 per projector. Theaters say they only make money on concessions, and often small theaters that draw small crowds make very small profits and can't afford to make the digital upgrades.

Kevin Bonham of the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota rounds up what theater owners in the Red River Valley think about the studios' mandate, with some saying they are going through a "soul-searching process." In Crookston, S.D., Bob Moore, owner of Moore Family Theaters, which owns the local Grand (Herald photo) and cinemas in three other towns, said he's unsure about the future. He's already made other improvements to screens and sound systems, but making the digital conversion seems like too much to bear. City officials and community groups in Grafton and Park River are thinking about fund-raisers and government grants to save the communities' theaters.

The story of The Roxy Theater in Langdon, N.D. could be an example, writes Bonham. The Northern Lights Arts Council bought the 1930s theater and raised more than $60,000 to renovate it in the 1990s. When the digital switch was announced, the council raised almost $85,000 for a digital projector. Donations came from many sources in the 1,800-plus-population town, including local businesses and farmers. (Read more)

Chris and Tammy Ball, owners of the Towne Cinema in West Liberty, Ky., are attempting a fundraiser to replace the 35mm projector with a digital one because they have a "desire to keep the long-running theater open," reports the Licking Valley Courier of West Liberty. If they don't raise almost $85,000, the theater may have to close. The Balls wrote a letter to the community via the newspaper asking for help. "Instead of throwing our resources into fighting a losing battle (an online petition has started to keep 35mm film), we are putting out efforts into upgrading our little ol' theater into the digital age," they said. They say other local businesses will suffer because people will have to drive a half hour or more to other towns see a movie if the theater closes.

White House aides will take questions on rural issues Thur. and Fri., say they were always going to

The White House has decided to take Twitter questions about rural and Native American issues Thursday and Friday during events playing off of tonight's State of the Union address. Those issues had been left off the list for those days, as the Daily Yonder's Bill Bishop pointed out yesterday afternoon. Shortly after his write-up about the snub, he wrote another reporting that Doug McKalip, a senior policy adviser for rural issues, sent him an email saying the issues had been on the schedule all along. "There have been many messages distributed by the executive branch today regarding the office hours and, unfortunately, not all of them have the 'complete listings'," he told Bishop.

In any event, Bishop says McKalip will answer questions about rural issues at 10 a.m. Friday, and Kimberly Teehee, senior policy adviser for Native American affairs, will discuss Indian issues at 3 p.m. Thursday. A full schedule of topics can be found here, with explanations of how to participate.

UPDATE, Jan. 27: For the Yonder's report on Friday's exchanges, click here.

New limits on mercury in air may also help animals, which have been affected more than we thought

The Environmental Protection Agency's new rules limiting power-plant air pollution will affect human and animal health, according to researchers at the Biodiversity Research Institute. The limits will likely have a positive impact on a "broad array" of wildlife affected by mercury, reports Anthony DePalma of The New York Times. Researchers found that methyl mercury, the heavy metal's most toxic form, is widespread in forests, mountaintops, bogs and marshes in Northeastern states where species were thought to be at low risk for mercury contamination. The region was once drenched with acid rain from coal-fired plants in the Midwest.

Researchers said the highest levels of mercury were in marshes and beaver ponds that go through wet and dry cycles. Songbirds and bats suffer neurological disorders from mercury just as humans do, and some feel the effects at much lower levels than previously thought. Birds with only 0.7 parts per million of mercury in their system showed a 10 percent reduction of successfully hatched eggs. Contaminated birds were also more likely to abandon nests and display abnormal feeding behavior, and pass the effects on to chicks. Rutgers University behavioral ecologist Joanna Burger said it's "incredibly important" that someone follow the phenomenon: "The birds not only act as sentinels to what is happening in nature, but the results of these studies propose hypotheses for effects that have not yet been identified for people." (Read more)

Feds cut Marcellus gas estimates by almost 3/4

New official estimates "severely cut" the amount of natural gas believed to be in the Marcellus Shale under several Appalachian states, but the gas boom will continue, reports Erich Schwartzel of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The U.S. Department of Energy estimated 410 trillion cubic feet of gas last year, but now is guessing 141 trillion cubic feet. Researchers were able to reach the estimate because of drilling doubled in 2011, providing much more data.

Industry representatives say the estimates are premature and "as fickle as Goldilocks." Its lobbying adversary, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the estimate "underscores the critical and growing role that American natural gas will continue to play in meeting our nation's growing energy needs for decades to come." Spokesman Travis Windle said production continues to increase because of technological developments. The Energy Department estimates production will increase from 5 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to 13.6 tcf in 2035. (Read more)

More and more people burned by 'shake-and-bake' meth labs, overwhelming burn units

Methamphetamine makers have been mixing the volatile chemical ingredients in two-liter bottles, also known as the "shake-and-bake" approach, for several years. The slightest mistake in brewing, though, can cause an explosion, burning flesh or causing blindness or death. The number getting burned has increased sharply, flooding hospital burn units with victims. Most are uninsured, and because treating one patient for a day can cost thousands of dollars, and some wards are struggling to stay open, reports Jim Salter of The Associated Press.

The shake-and-bake approach is popular mostly because it's cheaper, but also because it's portable, easy to conceal and can yield meth in minutes rather than hours. Larger, non-portable meth labs also explode, but people can escape those fires. Shake-and-bake labs are harder to avoid because makers hold the bottle close to the body, causing burns on the face down to the waist if they explode. "You're holding a flame-thrower in your hands," said Jason Grellner of the Franklin County, Missouri, sheriff's department.

In the country's most active meth-making states, almost a third of burn patients were hurt while doing shake-and-bake. It's overwhelming hospitals and has been a major reason seven U.S. burn units have closed in the last six years. Salter reports it's impossible to know the exact number of people burned while making shake-and-bake meth, because some avoid treatment and no one keeps track of those who do. But hospitals in the most active meth-making areas report a rise in burn patients linked to meth production. (Read more)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Advocates ask Obama to remember rural in speech

Candidate Obama at forum
of League of Rural Voters
in Ames, Iowa, fall 2007
When President Obama, trying to channel Teddy Roosevelt, went to Osawatomie, Kan., in December and gave a speech about the middle class, "Some of the rural residents and surrounding farmers found it odd that he didn’t mention farming or U.S agriculture, one of the brightest spots in the economy, or the importance of helping small towns through rural development. Expect that to change in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night," writes Sara Wyant of the Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse.

Wyant notes that Obama "had a very organized rural campaign strategy" in 2008, says "The Obama campaign will need every vote it can find in rural swing states" this year, and notes that almost 30 rural organizations sent him a letter asking him to include rural development in the speech.

"As you prepare for your upcoming State of the Union address, we ask you to remember the roughly 50 million Americans who live in rural areas," the letter said, suggesting ways the organizations think rural issues could be addressed, including reauthorizing the Farm Bill in a way that "revitalizes the rural communities that form the backbone of our heartland," and developing a "strong and robust" Rural Development section of the bill that would, among other things, extend broadband services and provide entrepreneurs with needed credit.

The organizations thanked the president for creating the White House Rural Council, which to some observers appeared to be the fist step in a rural re-election strategy, but reminded him, "Rural communities across America are struggling to rebuild in the wake of closed factories, empty Main streets, and record unemployment that exceeds the national average." (Read more)

Head of GIPSA to resign; vow to protect farmers from meatpackers largely foundered

The forthcoming resignation of J. Dudley Butler, head of the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration, "is big news," Bill Bishop of The Daily Yonder writes, because he is the last of three anti-trust officials who promised to "investigate and break up monopolies in the food business" to leave the agency. Investigations and Department of Agriculture hearings were held in many places, but the Justice Department filed no anti-trust lawsuits. (Yonder photo)

Butler was appointed to GIPSA by President Obama in his administration's early days. "He was a Southerner and a lawyer who had earned the trust of livestock raisers — and the enmity of the meat companies — by representing farmers in lawsuits aimed at companies such as Tyson Foods," Bishop writes. Butler promised ranchers and farmers he would "get out in the countryside" to better understand the "imbalance of power" they faced. At the Organization for Competitive Markets meeting, he said he would take testimony from hog, poultry and cattle raisers and "protect them if meat buyers objected."

He proposed regulations in 2010 that would have given farmers and ranchers more power when dealing with large meat-processing companies. The reforms would have made it easier to sue meat packers and provided poultry raisers more protections and transparency in dealings with meatpackers. The administration collected more than 60,000 comments during an extended 18-month comment period that allowed opposition against the regulations to grow. Last November, Congress prevented USDA from funding the proposed rules, and USDA only adopted a small portion of the regulations.

Fred Stokes, president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, told Bishop that Butler's proposed rules "raised our hopes and expectations and then let us down. Corporate influence and politics have prevailed. Independent family farmers and ranchers remain alone and unprotected." Bill Bullard, head of the cattlemen's organization R-CALF, said Butler followed through on his promise to protect independent farmers and ranchers, but the clout of the meatpacking industry "proved too great," forcing the administration to lose resolve. (Read more)

Fla. prescription pill pipeline starting to dry up

Attorneys general from Florida and Kentucky say the prescription pill pipeline between the two states is beginning to close, reports Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. They credit new programs and rules in Florida, but Kentucky AG Jack Conway says more work is needed "to attack the epidemic of prescription drug abuse in Kentucky." The pipeline has also supplied Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.

Florida became the epicenter of the prescription drug trade to the Appalachian states because of lax regulation of pain clinics and tracking prescription drugs, Estep reports. People from the region traveled to Florida, stocked up on drugs, then returned home to sell them. In 2010, a police raid uncovered 1,400 files in a Florida doctor's office, and most were on Eastern Kentuckians. Police estimated that 60 percent of pills illegally sold in Kentucky were prescribed in Florida.

Florida officials have increased monitoring of prescription pills, boosted enforcement, required pain clinics to register with the state, started a prescription monitoring system and barred many clinics from dispensing pills. The results have been significant, Florida AG Pam Bondi said at a substance-abuse conference in Lexington. In 2010, 98 of the top 100 oxycodone prescribers were in Florida; only 11 are now. Registered pain clinics in the state have dropped from 943 to 579. (Read more)

EPA to replace fracking-affected water in Pa. town

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week it will bring tanks of drinking water to four homes in Dimock, Pa., that have likely been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing in natural-gas drilling. People in the township have complained of water troubles since April 2009, when some wells were blown up and tap water caught fire, reports Abraham Lustgarten of ProPublica. Lawsuits were filed and state investigations conducted, but the water problem was never resolved.

EPA reviewed water-well data in Dimock and found "dangerous levels" of arsenic, glycols and barium, known carcinogens. The agency plans to test water supplies in 60 more homes, "apparently concerned that contamination may be more widespread," Lustgarten writes. Pennsylvania's top environmental regulator has called EPA's understanding of the Dimock situation  "rudimentary," but state agencies haven't conducted studies of the same scope EPA is planning. (Wikipedia maps)

Environmental groups are praising the decision while callingon EPA to "address water contamination concerns in other communities across the country." The agency concluded in December that fracking was likely the cause of groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyo. It is conducting a multi-year, national study about the impacts of fracking on water supplies. (Read more)

Ky. bill could keep Amish, non-Amish drivers safe

Proposed legislation could relieve the unhappiness of motorists, police and judges with a segment of Kentucky's Amish population, which refuses to place reflective orange triangles on their buggies as state law mandates for slow-moving vehicles. Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, thinks he has a solution in Senate Bill 75, which would "increase visibility of buggies and not offend the Amish religious beliefs," reports Tom Berry of the Murray Ledger & Times.

UPDATE, Jan. 24: A similar bill received a good reception in a House committee, reports Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Men of an Amish sect in Graves, Warren and other counties have been cited for refusing to post orange safety triangles on their buggies and chosen to serve jail time rather than pay fines. In Graves County, nine men appealed 2008 misdemeanor convictions last June, but the state Court of Appeals said "religious practices can't supersede the rights and safety of the public at large." The men have appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Winters' bill would allow buggies to have silver reflective tape on the back and sides instead of an orange triangle, which the strict Old Order Swartzentruber sect says would violate their precepts against bright colors and their belief that man-made symbols should not be responsible for their safety. Winters said the tape would increase "all-around visibility, particularly when illuminated by vehicle headlights." The bill would also require mounted lanterns on both sides of buggies, with the left one higher so drivers can "tell if they are in the correct lane and pass on the left 'high-beam' side." (Read more)