Friday, October 12, 2012

4 states have Census count inmates of rural prisons where they lived when convicted; to what effect?

For a myriad of reasons, prisons are more often based in rural areas than in urban settings. And for another set of reasons, those inmates in those prisons have typically been counted by the Census Bureau at their incarceration addresses rather than their last known home addresses. Maybe that shouldn't matter much in elections, because most prisoners can't vote, but some urban lawmakers say it "gives rural areas with prisons more representation than they deserve," Maggie Clark reports for Stateline, the news service of the Pew Center on the States.

This is more relevant than ever since the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the right of states "to adjust census data for redistricting purposes, which could encourage more of them to change their count for the 2020 census," Clark notes. Maryland, New York, Delaware and California have passed laws since 2010 to count prisoners at their last known addresses.

Some wonder if the heavy administrative workload of reworking the system is worth the effort. Some insist that prisoner redistricting will have limited political effect. But others believe that the point is that people should be counted accurately. “Even marginal impact is justice to the individuals in question,” says Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert and associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Much like every vote counts even when single votes rarely decide elections, every bit of representation counts even when people don’t feel the change in boundaries.” (Read more)

Starting Monday, oil and gas frackers will have to tell EPA where they are doing it

Oil and gas companies will have to notify the Environmental Protection Agency by email before using hydraulic fracturing on wells, a development that has caught many in the industry by surprise.  "The notification requirement is a little-known aspect of air rules for hydraulic fracturing finalized earlier this year by the agency," Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy News reports. "The hard-fought and better-known aspects of the rule don't kick in until January 2015. But the email notice requirement starts Monday."

The agency and the industry it oversees are already suspicious of one another and this new development has only fed the ill will. "I've heard people say it's the federal government trying to get their hooks into hydraulic fracturing any way they can," said Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association. Briggs said that his group "went through rulemaking, and it was something everybody missed." Briggs said. Soraghan reports that when he inquired at EPA about the requirement, an agency spokeswoman "sent a fact sheet about the air rules that includes details about the notification requirement. But the fact sheet does not include the date the notification requirement goes into effect. It does, though, include the 2015 implementation date for other provisions of the rules. It states that drillers should include geographic coordinates of the well being fracked."

The industry wants to be allowed to go through only state agencies, the procedure to which it is accustomed. (Read more)

Central Kentucky's few remaining small tobacco farmers having difficulty finding harvest labor

The good news for some Kentucky tobacco-growing counties is that this year's crop is one of the better they've seen in a while. The bad news is that the migrant labor that was once abundant in those parts isn't as available as before. Leslie Moore of the Central Kentucky News-Journal reports that in Taylor County, "finding workers to cut and house this season’s predicted 2,500 pounds of tobacco has been a labor in itself."  (Moore photo)

Pat Hardesty, the county extension agent for agriculture, told Moore the number of migrant workers who help with the harvest has dwindled because there are simply not enough small farms now in the area to keep them employed for long. “Some of our smaller producers have been waiting on crews or they’ve been trying to get local help, which is very difficult,” Hardesty said. “That’s why the migrants are here, because we can’t get enough local labor to get the crop in.” He said migrant workers aren't taking jobs away from Americans: “I promise you, if a tobacco producer here in Taylor County could get local, dependable help, there wouldn’t be migrants here.” Local farmer Aaron Newcome agreed that finding steady local help this year has been difficult. On any given day, he told Moore he has no idea how many workers will show up or how long they will stay.

As a killing frost loomed, Hardesty explained to Moore that speed is of the essence. If frost hits tobacco, the crop's quality is reduced and acres of it can be wasted.

News-Journal stories are behind a paywall. To get a 30-day free trial subscription, go here.

Proposed monster wind farm in Wyoming, which could power 1 million homes, gets federal approval

Potentially the largest wind farm in the U.S. was approved this week. Wyoming's Chokeberry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project could eventually provide electricity to 1 million homes, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, when as many as 1,000 turbines are up and running. The project is set to begin groundwork next year. The Associated Press reports that turbines could go up over a three-year period within an area covering 350 square miles south of Rawlins in south-central Wyoming. Most of that area is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. (Photo: Site of the future wind farm)

The officials in Carbon County, where the project is based, conditionally approved the wind farm after hearing public comment. The matter now goes to a state board for review, Jeremy Fugleberg of the Casper Star-Tribune reports. Commissioner Leo Chapman credited the developer, a subsidiary of Denver-based Anschutz Corp., for its work to study the birds at risk in the project area and its willingness to answer any questions thrown its way for the unanimous approval by the council and for the community's mostly favorable feeling toward the project. Chapman said such work and openness -- "things sometimes not shown by other wind project developers in the county --  helped the commissioners to approve the project." See also The Wyoming News report, here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Va. not getting full story about coal's influence on presidential race in the state, media critic writes

Coal is at the center of this year's presidential election, with both camps touting their love of the industry and the central Appalachian region where the Obama administration's co-called "war on coal" seems to rage the fiercest. However, news outlets haven't kept up with coverage of just how big a role coal is playing in the race, Tharon Giddens of the Columbia Journalism Review reports from Virginia, like Ohio a swing state where coal can swing votes.

Both candidates have used messages about coal. Mitt Romney ran two ads criticizing President Obama's alleged over-regulation of the industry the day after Alpha Natural Resources announced mine closures and layoffs. He also made a stop in Abingdon in southwestern Virginia, near the coalfield, last week. Obama continuously touts his advocacy for "clean coal" as part of his energy strategy.

"Coal has recently moved to the center of the message war in this swing state," Giddens reports. "The political story around coal in Virginia is rich -- but most of the coverage to date has been less so, and not only because ... most news outlets here aren't doing enough to fact check the ads on the airwaves." Giddens writes that they have largely failed to recognize that while Obama's didn't do well in coal country in 2008, in a tight race, every vote counts. "Coal miners are an eye-catching stand-in for the white working class," and both campaigns are trying to target that demographic, he writes. There's been very little push-back by reporters against "the narrative about regulations forcing layoffs at Alpha," when industry experts say the industry's layoffs are stem mainly from low demand, caused by cheap natural gas and a warm winter, which left big stockpiles of coal.

"The problem is that the context, perspective and expertise on display in some of the stronger opinion pieces has been mostly lacking in the political reporting on coal, whether it’s being done in southwestern Virginia or the state’s metropolitan centers," Giddens reports. "Even setting aside environmental concerns, as the candidates have mostly done while they present themselves as friends to coal, the news coverage hasn’t done enough to dig into the campaigns’ messages, explore coal’s influence on the race, or use this opportunity to explore the story of a changing industry and region." (Read more)

Ohio Democrats allege Murray and his coal company illegally forced employees to donate to Republicans

The Ohio Democratic Party asked federal and state prosecutors Monday to investigate whether the CEO of the largest privately owned coal company in the U.S. illegally coerced employees to contribute to Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates, Jim Provance of the Toledo Blade reports. ODP Chairman Chris Redfern asked that Murray Energy Corp. and Robert Murray, left, be investigated for extortion, money laundering and racketeering.

The complaint claims Murray contributed $720,000 to Ohio candidates and millions to federal candidates through the company's political action committee, including Romney, U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel and Gov. John Kasich. The Blade said it could not reach Murray Energy's attorney for comment. The complaint also alleges Murray and the company forced employees to contribute to the company's political action committee through automatic payroll deductions and required attendance at fundraisers.

Murray hosted a rally for Romney on Aug. 14 at his company's Century Mine in Beallsville in southeast Ohio. Romney was surrounded by miners as he spoke. Some of those miners later told a West Virginia radio talk show host that Murray closed the mine for the day and required miners to attend the rally without pay. The company said there was no requirement. (Read more)

California poultry company files for bankruptcy; will be eighth poultry firm to fold in the last year

Zacky Farms LLC, a California poultry company that dates to the 1920s, filed for bankruptcy this week. High feed costs following this summer's oppressive drought led to the decision, P.J. Huffstutter of Reuters reports. The company employs about 1,500 people in southern California, and listed between $50 and $100 million in assets, with debts in the same range.

The bankruptcy filing showed that the company's largest unsecured creditors are feed company Western Milling, to whom Zacky Farms owes about $6.6 million, and poultry company Foster Farms LLC, which is owed about $1.2 million. "Zacky Farms will be the eighth poultry firm to be sold, entered into Chapter 11 bankruptcy or shut down altogether since 2011, according to data from trade group National Chicken Council," Huffstutter reports. (Read more)

Huffstutter advises in an email that Zacky's is ranks about among poultry companies in revenue, and about 10th among turkey packers.

Lots of money spent on agriculture research, but not very much on rural community development

The amount spent on agricultural biotechnology research has exploded over the past 30 years, but very little is spent on understanding how rural people and communities can survive, according to new research from the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

"We spend billions of dollars trying to understand how crops and animals live, but only a smidgen on how humans and their communities can grow and develop," Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder writes. It's understandable, he writes, that private businesses invest money in research and development that will earn high private returns, according to the economists who wrote the report, at least. However, a 2001 survey found that three-quarters of private crop breeding investments went to just three commodities: corn, soybeans and cotton, Bishop reports.

From 1980 to 2010, research spending by seed and biotech companies increased to more than $2 billion from $100 million. There was no increase in spending on social and community development research. "And that may be one reason why we know a heck of a lot about how to grow corn in a drought but not so much about how to develop rural communities that thrive," Bishop writes. "No wonder we have bountiful harvests and troubled towns." (Read more)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New school-lunch rules produce complaints, more trash, efforts to repeal them

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the Obama administration's effort to mandate more fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains into the diets of school children, has some uphill climbing to do and it's not just the kids who are complaining. Though, admittedly, they were the first. Sarah Gonzales of Agri-Pulse took a look at some rural school districts trying to implement the law in advance of the law's implementation deadline, to see how the new science-based standards were working in real lunchrooms. What she found were complaints from student athletes who thought they needed more calories and more options, and substantial increases of good food thrown in the garbage. They also got this parody of "The Hunger Games" from some ingenious Kansas kids:

Dawn Matthews, director of food service for the rural Camdenton school district in Missouri, serves 3,200 school lunches every school day to kids in every grade level from K-12. The new standards, drawn from recommendations from an independent panel of doctors, nutritionists and other experts, require better nutrition and allow schools to serve between 550-650 calories for students in K-5, 600-700 calories of students for 6th through 8th grades, and 750-850 for high school lunches. Agri-Pulse reporters explain that a daily lunch costs $2.10, but almost 60 percent of the meals are offered for free for a reduced price in this rural district. Matthews notes that participation in the program is dropping with the new menu in place.

Urban kids don't like the lunches, either, reports Vivian Yee of The New York Times. (NYT photo by Librado Romero: A Manhattan school where seventh-graders called vegetables "gross.") Even before the deadline for the act to be put into effect, Gonzales notes, Reps. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kans., and Steve King, R-Iowa, introduced the No Hungry Kids Act last month to repeal the new school guidelines. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture also issued a recent policy statement saying the initial law was "well-intentioned, but falls short of providing a comprehensive policy for educating students in healthy living."

The results of the first few months of trial -- especially the waste -- have been "disheartening," said food director Matthews. It is also early. "I think it's going to evolve over time," said the chairman of Florida's Lake County School Board, Roseanne Brandeburg. "If you're in elementary school, and this is what you're going to be served, you're going to get used to it."

Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but free trials are offered on its website.

All journalists should take apart those misleading political ads; here's another tool to help you do it

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

With less than a month until the hugely important Election Day for federal, state and local offices, the airwaves are being clogged with commercials from campaigns, party committees, so-called "super PACs" and other outside players, and most of them are playing fast and loose with the truth.

Pointing out lies and misrepresentations is the duty of journalists, including rural journalists. You may think that you need to stick to local coverage, but you should should remember that many if not most of your audience has no easy access to daily newspapers that pick apart the ads for federal and state office -- and that there and many sources from which to glean facts and analysis about ads that are running on your local airwaves. The voters you serve deserve the best possible information, and you are the only source for many of them to get it. Please do not forsake this responsibility.

Previously, we have noted the services, and The Washington Post's Fact Checker column, which we have found reliable, with only very rare and minor errors. In addition to fact-checking, now there is a service that can help you track the volume and sponsors of ads: Political Ad Sleuth, a searchable database of political ad buys across the nation, as well as a crowd-sourced research tool for journalists. The site has data on where presidential, congressional and issue ads are running and who is paying for them.

The site is based on online ad files from the Federal Communications Commission, which cover the top 50 media markets, plus files uploaded by volunteers in smaller markets. If you are in such a market, you can become one of those volunteers and return the favor. Learn how you can help here.
A tutorial about political ad files and the site itself is here. To contact the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which operates the site, click here.

National Science Foundation funds U. of Montana's rural environmental reporting initiative

University of Montana (Brooke Andrus)
The National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Montana’s School of Journalism $250,000 to improve the quality and quantity of environmental science news as it affects Montana's most rural communities. Martin Kidston of The Missoulian reports that this type of reporting is needed at a time when access to local news has decreased and when "the debates surrounding key environmental issues facing the West often take place in a vacuum, where choices are shaped by one’s political orientation and the opinions generated by the local rumor mill."

Alison Perkins, adjunct journalism instructor at UM, told Kidston that "the grant will help develop a model for reporting environmental science news, using student reporters who are studying environmental science and natural resource journalism at the graduate level as writers. 'I think there’s a climate that’s not really open to environmental stories because there’s the fear that they come from an advocacy position,' said Perkins."

The new program, dubbed Science Source, will be modeled after The Associated Press, working with editors in print, radio, online and television to identify and produce stories that fit the media’s specific needs and that reach the largest audience possible. (Read more)

Farmers, energy firms hike bids to delist endangered species and protect them with voluntary agreements

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeing increased interest in agreements to remove certain species from endangered lists, which would absolves the federal government from protecting them, in the wake of its decision to remove the dunes sagebrush lizard from the list this summer.

If a species is removed, its protection falls to voluntary state-led conservation agreements, and landowners don't have to follow federal protection policies. Voluntary agreements "have been a long time in the making," Allison Winter of Energy and Environment News reports. The Endangered Species Act has been shrouded in controversy since its 1973 enactment, she writes, even though environmentalists say its one of the most effective laws for protecting species. Critics of the act say it's become too cumbersome and restrictive on development. Voluntary agreements began during the Clinton administration, and more than 70 landowners have enrolled 1.1 million acres in conservation agreements, providing habitat for 41 species.

Ranchers, farmers, wind-energy companies and oil and gas companies are increasing requests for such agreements so they can increase development on previously protected land, and the FWS is trying to determine how to streamline the review process, Winter reports. The agency plans to issue final listing decisions for 251 species, and initial findings on hundreds of other species, as part of a legal settlement with environmental groups. Two high-profile candidates are the greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken, the status of which could affect development across the West, Winter reports.

The swing state vote based on rural unemployment numbers requires state-by-state analysis

The bundle of swing states -- Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida -- include quite a few rural voters. And if, as they tell us, the presidential election will be decided by those states, it might just be a matter of who has jobs there and who doesn't. But you have to look at each state, notes Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder, because the picture is different every time you cross a state line. "You can see why Obama feels more confident in Iowa, which is doing relatively well. And the President is running behind in North Carolina, in part, no doubt, to the rotten unemployment figures in the state's rural and exurban counties," Bishop writes. "Southern Virginia is doing poorly — and we've seen a lot of attention there from both campaigns. Mitt Romney has been talking about coal and mining jobs, an appeal that must resonate in southern Ohio and southwestern Virginia. Romney has been making similar arguments in rural Colorado, which shows signs of a weak economy. Rural Florida is not doing particularly well, but we haven't seen a response aimed at these rural counties as of yet."

Feds pick preliminary route for major power line

A proposed electrical transmission line that would cross 1,100 miles from Wyoming into Idaho and provide improved electricity to the southern parts of those states and beyond has received federal approval for its latest route. The Bureau of Land Management has chosen the route because it largely avoids wildlife habitats, national trails and archeaologically and culturally significant areas. When built, the Gateway West Transmission Line Project will be the first major transmission line constructed in the region decades. (Gateway West map: Preferred route, with alternatives; for interactive version, click here)
Gateway West tried to keep the preferred route on federal land as much as possible to avoid potential right-of-way easements across privately owned land and reduce concerns about obstructed views from residents in nearby areas, Scott Streater of Energy and Environment News reports. If completed in 2018, the joint project of Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power will stretch from Glenrock, Wyo., to a substation 30 miles southwest of Boise. It will carry mostly wind-generated electricity to load centers across the West.

Environmentalists, local government leaders and private landowners have voiced concerns about the project since it was proposed five years ago. Concerns have ranged from damage to historic trails, raptor nests and U.S. Air Force safety. BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorny said the preferred route is partly based on suggestions from more than 2,600 public comments submitted after a draft environmental impact statement was released last year. The BLM continues to study alternate routes for the line's 10 segments. A final route will be chosen after another EIS and public comment period are conducted by the end of the year. A final decision about the project will be made next year, Gorny said. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Romney releases rural platform, criticizes Congress and Obama for lack of new Farm Bill

Mitt Romney released his rural platform today. "Like President Obama, the Republican's rural policy is all about agriculture," says the Daily Yonder. "Of course, most people in rural America have little to do with farming, but in a campaign short on substance, we'll take what we can get." (Des Moines Register photo)

The Yonder notes that the platform criticizes Congress for failing to pass a Farm Bill before recessing for the election season. That has created some heat for Republican members of the House from rural areas. In an appearance in Iowa yesterday, Romney also blamed Obama, saying "The president has to exert the kind of presidential leadership it takes to get the House and Senate together and actually pass a farm bill.”

The four main points of the platform, which is available here, are:

  • Implement effective tax policies to support family farms and strong agribusiness;
  • Pursue trade policies that expand upon the success of the agriculture sector, not limit it;
  • Create a regulatory environment that is commonsense and cost-effective; and
  • Achieve energy independence on this continent by 2020.
  • As dams crumble, states can't keep up with inspections and repairs; look up your local dams

    "The number of deficient dams in the U.S. — those with structural or hydraulic issues that increase the risk of failure — is rising dramatically, outpacing the rate at which they can be fixed. But as austerity continues across governments, funds for inspection and upkeep are static or shrinking in most states," Jim Malewitz of Stateline reports. Last year, there were just 422 full-time state employees overseeing more than 87,000 dams in the entire country. Of those dams, 11,388 were listed as "high-hazard," which means they are likely to fail and cause deaths. Many dams exist in rural areas, where rivers have been dammed to create water supplies for urban areas. (Interior Department photo: employees inspect leaking dam)

    There's little help on the way from state legislatures, and dam safety advocates hope federal legislators will pick up the slack. When it returns after the election the U.S. Senate will be asked to reauthorize the 2006 National Dam Safety Act, an annual $14 million program that expired a year ago. That program helped states retain staff, educate dam owners and buy essential equipment.

    Most dams were built before 1970, including more than 2,000 that are more than 100 years old, and are very prone to damage that could cause failure. State dam inspectors have a hard time keeping up. Alabama doesn't have a safety program, leaving its more than 2,000 dams un-inspected. South Carolina employs fewer than two full time-equivalent workers to oversee its 2,380 dams.

    With so many dams to inspect, states classify them by estimated hazard, but changing demographics can lead to faulty classifications. "Suburban development has pushed into rural areas where engineers long ago planned dam construction with only agriculture in mind," Malewitz explains. "Those dams were considered low-hazard; failure meant only flooded land -- not inundated homes or businesses or threatened lives." (Read more)

    To look up dams in your area on the Corps' National Inventory of Dams, click here.

    Good pay, independent culture, dislike of Obama make Appalachian coal miners 'proud to be scabs'

    "As recently as the 1980s, plenty of coalfield residents thought Big Coal was the problem. But these days, in . . . Central Appalachia — southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky and eastern Tennessee — coal mining is overwhelmingly popular, despite well-documented risks to workers’ health and community safety," reports Gabriel Schwartzman of In These Times, a liberal, labor-oriented managzine. (Photo by Schwartzman: Supervisory miner gets coffee before work)

    Schwartzman spent this summer in the region trying to determine why the previous Democratic and union stronghold has turned so sharply to the right, and doesn't mince words in presenting his conclusion: "At $108,000 a year, nothing in Appalachia compares to miners' wages," he writes. Those wage increases are linked to increased mechanization and smaller workforces, and have changed the political and financial nature of that workforce, he reports. One miner in Pike County, Kentucky, told him he would lose everything if "coal was shut down" because no job in the region could pay him as much.

    The union battles for higher wages, better safety and benefits of 30 years ago were largely lost, ultimately ending with the United Mine Workers of America abandoning strikes, Schwartzman writes. Companies raised wages without unions, but cut many jobs with increased mechanization. A major unionized company in the region, Patriot Coal, is now bankrupt and unable to pay miners' pensions.

    Miners with jobs told Schwartzman the non-union life is good. "We are scabs. We're proud to be scabs," one surface miner at Camp Branch mine in West Virginia told him. They are loyal to their companies, and that loyalty extends to families, friends and businesses supported by coal miners, Schwartzman reports. But an Energy Information Administration forecast of a 58 percent decline in Central Appalachian coal production by 2035 is reason for many to worry. Though the current decline is being caused mainly by competition from cheap natural gas and the decreased viability of Appalachian coal, miners tend to believe increased environmental regulation is the cause.

    Schwartzman reports intimidation and threats received by those who advocate for safer mining practices or oppose mountaintop-removal mining. "Social media is used as a mobilizing tool against 'tree huggers,'" Schwartzman reports. "Aside from calling rallies and protests, post like this August 6 one appear regularly on Citizens for Coal's Facebook page: 'Just saw a post saying tree hugger in Gilbert eating at Wallys restaurant.'"

    Many miners expressed to Schwartzman the need to vote out President Obama, even though his administration increased mine safety inspections, probably reducing miner injuries; increased health care for black-lung victims, and increased investments in clean-coal technology. Schwartzman writes that coal companies stir up anti-Obama rhetoric, but the Christian right and the National Rifle Association also play a role. "Those forces play upon values of autonomy and independence that run deep here," Schwartzman writes. "For 150 years, these values have helped Appalachians survive outsiders exploiting their mountain resources. Now those values have become aligned with out-of-state coal companies against environmentalists and liberals." (Read more)

    Neither party has supported policies that will help the coal miner, Betty Dotson-Lewis writes for the Daily Yonder.

    Walmart, American Express to offer yet another option to people without bank accounts

    American Express and Walmart have teamed up to launch a card-based banking system aimed at low-income customers who don't have bank accounts or only limited accounts, many of whom live in rural areas. The system, known as Bluebird, will allow for check deposits and payments by smartphone, has no minimum balance or monthly fees, and is Walmart's latest "foray into financial services," Barney Jopson and Tom Braithwaite of The Financial Times report. Customers will be able to make deposits at Walmart cash registers, and won't have to pay for overdrafts.

    The announcement caused a 20 percent drop in shares of Green Dot, a card-based banking company that has already partnered with Walmart. American Express would not comment to The Financial Times about its investment in the program or how it would make a profit from it. Walmart previously tried to enter the banking world by acquiring a banking license in 2007, but failed. Its efforts have "triggered fierce opposition from some U.S. lawmakers and community banks wary of its power," Jopson and Braithwaite report. (Read more)

    Drought lowers Great Lakes levels, stifles shipping

    The severe drought in the Midwest has lowered levels in the Mississippi River and in Lakes Michigan and Huron, stifling the shipping industry that depends on them. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the lakes are down almost a foot from last year, and in the next few months could break a record low set in 1964. (Associated Press photo: Freighter passes port re-opened after dredging)

    Water levels near ports on the lakes determine how much coal, iron, grain and other cargo can be shipped, Joe Barrett and Caroline Porter of The Wall Street Journal report. "This is very much an industry where inches count," Lake Carriers' Association Vice President Glen Nekvasil said. He told Barrett and Porter that lower lake levels means ships are carrying about 1,200 to 1,500 fewer tons per load, a loss that is very hard to recover.

    Low water also highlights the need for more dredging of ports to keep them clear of sediment, the reporters write. The Corps of Engineers has identified at least $200 million worth of dredging needs in the lakes' channels and harbors. (Read more)

    Bees develop proteins that fight colony collapse

    Bees have evolved proteins that help them fight an insect known to contribute to colony collapse disorder, concludes research published in Genome Biology. The Varroa mite sucks the blood of bees, weakening their immune systems and contributing to deaths of entire hives. (Science Daily photo by Queenie Chan)

    The proteins prompt removal of diseased bee larvae and reproductive mites, Science Daily reports. After researchers scanned 1,200 proteins, they found several associated with this behavior. A protein involved in blood clotting was unused in damaged larvae, and this appeared to spur the adult bees' removal of them.

    "Bee keepers have previously focused on selecting bees with traits such as enhanced honey production, gentleness and winter survival," University of British Columbia lead researcher Leonard Foster said. "We have found a set of proteins which could be used to select colonies on their ability to resist Varroa mite infestation and can be used to find individuals with increased hygienic behavior. Given the increasing resistance of Varroa to available drugs this would provide a natural way of ensuring honey farming and potentially survival of the species." (Read more)

    Monday, October 08, 2012

    Did a pastor in your area endorse a candidate from the pulpit Sunday? It's a national story

    In a move that could put their tax-exempt status at risk and result in fines, an estimated 1,500 pastors nationwide endorsed presidential candidates Sunday. The move was a challenge to the law prohibiting political endorsements by religious and other tax-exempt organizations, policed by the Internal Revenue Service. (Bloomberg News photo)

    The goal of "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" was "to defy this rule and prompt the IRS to take action against a church that could become the basis for a court case to test whether the amendment infringes on constitutional rights to free religious and political speech," reported Jennifer Hawes of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. The event was first organized four years ago by the Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom. All participants pledged to film their sermons and send them to the IRS.

    Rev. Steven Baines, religious outreach director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Hawes the political action "opens the door to politicizing our pulpits." The risk is that churches and pastors could become political fronts, he said. "They have freedom of speech. They can preach about their values, and we encourage pastors to preach about their values. But they cannot relate those to a particular candidate or party."

    Participating pastors said they were taking part because their messages shouldn't be filtered through the IRS. But the average voter doesn't want pastors politicizing their sermons, according to a decade's worth of Pew Research Center polls, Hawes reported. In a July survey, 66 percent of people polled said churches and other places of worship should not endorse candidates. Even 90 percent of Protestant pastors polled in a May LifeWay survey said they shouldn't endorse from the pulpit. (Read more)

    Presidential candidates don't focus on rural issues

    "As they campaign, presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney pretty much ignore rural-specific issues," even though they have plenty of opportunity to focus on those issues, Don Davis of the Grand Forks Herald reports, noting that some major swing states that are frequent stops on campaign trails are "heavy on agriculture."

    The House Agriculture Committee ranking Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, told Davis that the gist of each candidate's stance on agriculture is this: Mitt Romney favors fewer regulations, as do many rural residents; Obama is better at supporting the Farm Bill, which includes disaster relief for farmers and funding for rural development projects. University of North Dakota economics professor David Flynn told Davis rural people are "'forced' to back the candidate of their favorite parties ... because neither delivers enough information for them to make good decisions."

    "Neither candidate is laying out any specifics regarding rural-specific policies, even the consequences of other policy ideas such as energy on rural economies," Flynn said. "There is no attention being paid to it. At some level, it is a disservice." Ed Schafer, former agriculture secretary and a member of Romney's Agriculture Advisory Team, said the candidates miss an opportunity to talk about the strength of U.S. farming when they don't focus on rural issues. Obama focuses on renewable energy when talking farm issues, but other parts of the farm-sector "can't get an ear anywhere," Schafer said.

    "Rural America is not on the front burner for one main reason: votes," Davis writes. Center for Rural Strategies President Dee Davis said the issues facing rural America are complex and not easy to solve, and candidates know they get most of their votes from urban areas. (Read more)

    Wind farm in Eastern Washington could revitalize rural community, be example to others

    The small farming town of Oakesdale, Wash., just south of Spokane, population 420, looks much like other small towns and rural communities across the country: boarded-up storefronts, empty restaurants, few opportunities. Now city officials hope a $200 million wind farm just west of town will provide a boost to the local economy, Kaitlin Gillespie of The Spokesman-Review reports. (S-R photo by Derek Harrison)

    First Wind, a Boston-based energy company, owns the Palouse Wind Project, a 58-turbine facility that will supply power to about 30,000 people. The four-year project is expected to be completed by Thanksgiving, though 37 turbines will be producing power by the end of next week. The project is "blowing in more than renewable energy," Gillespie writes. It's bringing business and tax revenue to Whitman County. The wind farm will generate $790,000 a year in property taxes, for a total of $13.8 million over its 30-year lifespan. The project created more than 100 jobs during construction and will provide 10 permanent positions. (Read more)

    Feds pencil another non-Appalachian county into their efforts to fight drug traffic in the region

    When the Appalachian Regional Commission was created in 1965, it included for political and other reasons many counties that were not part of the poor, mountainous region but resembled it economically. Since then, Congress has added several such counties to the officially recognized region to make them eligible for ARC help. Some truly Appalachian counties grumbled that the pool of money was being diluted, and they are doing likewise now that the Obama administration has placed Kentucky's central crossroads town in the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, "a jurisdiction set up to fight the drug trade in the mountains," reports Roger Alford of The Associated Press, who once reported for the wire service from Eastern Kentucky.

    "This is a place of rolling countryside, cattle farms and cropland," Alford writes."That's why some eyebrows arched when the Obama administration penciled Hardin County into Appalachia." (Wikipedia map locates Elizabethtown in Hardin County; map below shows the ARC territory, which is not affected by the anti-drug jurisdiction's boundaries.)
    The Office of National Drug Control Policy said it added Hardin County at the request of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader. McConnell told the AP, "The argument I made is that, even though this is not technically an Appalachian county, it's not too far away from Appalachia and it's right here with two interstates going north and south and east and west, and clearly is a transit point" for drugs. Louisville and Bowling Green, metropolitanm areas north and south of Elizabethtown on Interstate 65, had already been added to the area. At the same time it added Hardin County, the drug office also added Brooke, Hancock, Marshall and Ohio counties in northern West Virginia.

    Some Central Appalachian political leaders say adding western counties to the list will make it harder for federal money to reach eastern counties that need it more. "Bringing on more counties only makes our situation less hopeful," Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop told Alford. (Read more)

    Physicians for Social Responsibility say 'each step of the coal life cycle impacts human health'

    A new report released this week analyzes the human health impacts of coal, with a specific focus on the cumulative impacts of air pollution from burning coal on the respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems. The Physicians for Social Responsibility study, "Coal's Assault on Human Health," concluded that "each step of the coal life cycle -- mining, transportation, washing, combustion and disposing of post-combustion waste -- impacts human health."

    Researchers found that mining of coal contributes to heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic respiratory diseases, four of the five leading causes of death in the U.S. In particular, burning coal contributes to diseases affecting large portions of the U.S., including asthma, lung cancer, heart disease and stroke. It also impairs lung development, increases heart-attack risk and hinders intellectual development. The report adds to previous correlation studies suggesting possible links between mountaintop mining and increased rates of disease in Appalachia by University of West Virginia public-health professor Michael Hendryx.

    Physicians for Social Responsibility makes several recommendations, including reducing carbon dioxide emissions "as deeply and as swiftly as possible," ending construction of new coal-fired power plants, reduction of fossil fuel use and the development of renewable energy sources. (Read more)

    Rural unemployment drops, but number of jobs doesn't change

    The unemployment rate in rural and exurban counties dropped slightly in August, the Daily Yonder reports. It fell to 7.99 percent in rural counties and 7.6 in exurban, which are counties within metropolitan areas, but with half the residents living in rural settings, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The rural rate in July was 8.4 percent, and 8 percent in exurban. Almost nine out of 10 rural counties reported lower unemployment rates this year. (Yonder map shows rural, exurban unemployment change from Aug. 2011 to Aug. 2012; Blue counties had a decrease, orange had an increase.)
    "Just because unemployment rates are lower, however, doesn't mean that there's been a boom in rural employment," Yonder Co-Editor Bill Bishop reports. There are slightly fewer people employed in rural counties this August than last August. The number of jobs in rural counties has decreased by almost 3,200 over the past year, according to the BLS. Bishop writes the rural unemployment rate has dropped because the workforce has dropped by almost 230,000 people. The workforce in exurban and urban counties increased during that period.

    Four of the 10 rural counties with the largest unemployment increases over the last year were Appalachian coal-producing counties in Kentucky, where coal companies have laid off miners due to power-plant competition from natural gas. West Virginia's Boone County had the greatest unemployment increase. The rest of the top counties with the largest unemployment increases come from Nebraska, Louisiana and Colorado. Almost half the 50 counties with the largest declines in unemployment rates were in Mississippi. (Read more)

    Seminar will train journalists to analyze teacher readiness, registration ends Oct. 11

    The National Education Writers Association is hosting an intensive day-long seminar to teach journalists how to analyze career readiness of teachers. The pressures of accountability increases the scrutiny faced by education colleges, and the seminar, "Ready to Teach: Rethinking Routes to the Classroom," will guide journalists through examination of "the growing efforts to revamp how aspiring educators are prepared for the classroom and how teacher-preparation programs are held accountable for results," NEWA says on its website.

    The seminar will offer lessons on how to analyze federal education-school and teacher certification data, information about how schools are trying to reform and alternative programs designed to replace them, insights into the debate over new ways to evaluate teacher prep programs, perspectives from teachers about how ready they were for the classroom and tips from reporters who have successfully covered the topic.

    The seminar will be Oct. 27 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the University of Minnesota's McNamara Alumni Center, and registration ends Oct.11. A tentative agenda can be found here. To RSVP, click here.

    Sunday, October 07, 2012

    Ex-ABC reporter gets that 'too close for comfort' feeling in writing about journalism in her community

    By Al Cross
    Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

    CHARLESTON, S.C. – A former network correspondent who wrote an admiring book about small-town newspapers, told their main national meeting this weekend that she has faith in the future of community journalism and had experienced its fundamental challenge – in writing about a Colorado community where she has a home.

    Judy Muller spoke to the annual convention of the National Newspaper Association because she is the author of Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns. She started her career at a weekly paper in New Jersey, but writing the book after leaving ABC News and joining the journalism faculty at the University of Southern California gave her a much greater appreciation of “that too-close-for-comfort feeling” that her audience knows well.

    But not as great as the appreciation she gained when she wrote about how local media in and around Norwood, Colo., where she has a home, handled a sensational bullying case at a high school where “the average graduating class is about 12,” and which had “torn the town apart,” she told the editors and publishers, who mainly run weeklies.

    "I have been aware the whole time of how concerned I am about how the local editor there will react -- the article is somewhat critical of her coverage -- but she is a friend,” Muller said. "And the piece is not a flattering picture of the local school, and yet I hope more young families will move to the community -- after all, I have a home there, and property values are important."

    But in reporting the story, which she has sold to The Atlantic magazine, being local worked to Muller’s advantage.  Parents of two boys charged in the case gave her exclusive interviews because, as they said, “You live up there on Deer Mesa and you gave the commencement address last year.”

    And, for first time in her career, Muller sent interviewees their quotes in context, to show them how they would appear in the story. Asked what she would have done if the people decided they didn't want to be quoted at all, Muller simply said she would have talked them into it.         

    The trust required in such situations takes time to develop, and that’s why, the national network of online local news sites, “won’t get much cooperation,” Muller said.

    Some weeklies are reluctant to embrace the digital world, but some noted for their good journalism are using social media to make sure they maintain the local-news franchise that is the secret to their status as the healthiest part of the newspaper business.

    Muller said her friend Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle is using all sorts of social media, which appeals to younger people. She quoted Brown: "Those who may have viewed the paper as too staid or serious are finding that it is much more friendly and approachable."

    Meanwhile, though, the paper has also expanded its efforts in a more traditional way, cultivating two non-staff columnists whom Laurie says have developed their own followings.

    Muller sees a good future for printed community papers, because they provide local news, often of deep personal interest worth clipping, that is unavailable anywhere else. "They have a captive audience,” she said. “As long as there are refrigerator magnets there will be weekly newspapers."

    But Muller concluded with exhortations about the most important reason for community newspapers: covering local officials and holding them accountable. "Try to remember why you got into it in the first place,” she said. “It's more important now than ever."