Friday, June 21, 2013

Underground longwall coal mining blamed for damaging Pennsylvania streams, one beyond repair

Consol Energy's use of longwall mining, an underground coal-extraction method, has permanently damaged six streams in Pennsylvania, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, Kristen Lombardi reports for The Center for Public Integrity. "Longwall mines involve hulking steel shearers that slice off entire coal seams hundreds of feet below ground, and leave in their wake caverns up to five feet tall. The consequent shock waves cause severe damage to structures, disrupt wildlife and deplete water resources." (Photo by Steven Sunshine: A damahged stream in western Pennsylvania)

All six of streams suffered loss of flow, Lombardi reports. Consol, which refers to itself on its website as the largest U.S. underground coal producer, has been unsuccessfully trying to repair one stream for five years. In December the DEP sent the company a letter to saying it "has not been restored to conditions that existed prior to undermining," Lombardi reports. They called further remediation attempts futile, and demanded the company compensate "for the loss of Commonwealth resources."

The DEP also sent another notice to Consol about five other streams that had “not recovered from the effects of underground mining,” and “now requires Consol to perform compensatory mitigation or enhancement measures.” Lombardi reports. Consol has appealed the rulings. (Read more)

Jail gardens save money, help reform prisoners

Across the country, jails are giving inmates an opportunity to get outside, be productive, and become better citizens, while filling a need at the jail and in the community. Gardens planted and maintained by prisoners are cropping up in many rural areas, with the programs saving state's thousands of dollars by providing the prisoners, and the community, with locally produced foods.

The Montgomery County Regional Jail's program planted five acres of vegetables this spring, one acre at the jail and the other four on city property in the 1,500-town of Jeffersonville in Central Kentucky, Tom Marshall reports for the Mount Sterling Advocate. Jailer Eric Jones said last year's crop saved the jail about $8,000 in food costs, and he expects this year's savings to be $80,000. “It’s a benefit to the inmates, it’s a benefit to the community and a benefit to our budget,” Jones said. “I think this is going to be a huge success.”

Pennington County Jail in rural South Dakota has a similar program. The jail, located in Box Elder, with a population of 8,000, is just outside Rapid City. The county leases the plot, the city provides water, and compost was donated by the city of Rapid City, Andrea Cook reports in the Rapid City Journal. Sheriff Kevin Thom told Cook the garden costs about $5,000 to maintain, but as it continues to expand, "it should provide enough vegetables to supply some fresh produce for the jail's kitchen." (Journal photo by Benjamin Brayfield: Inmate Shayne Nelson tends the garden)

The Huntington County Jail, located in the 17,000-population town of Huntington, Ind., 25 miles outside Fort Wayne, is in its second year of its program, which officials said they hope helps prisoners from becoming repeat offenders, reports NewsChannel 15 in Fort Wayne. "Sheriff Terry Stoffel says the garden is virtually no cost to his department, and it even saved them money last year after the garden yielded two to three months worth of produce."

Heather Heath, an inmate who is incarcerated for theft, told NewsChanel 15, "It just makes you remember that there is a world out here and it makes you really want to do better and to actually change and come back out into the world and do things like gardening. It kind of gives you a new perspective on life."

Defeat of Farm Bill in House raises concern that immigration bill could suffer the same fate

With the Farm Bill failing to pass the House,  attention in Congress now turns to the immigration bill, which could suffer a similar fate because of the ardent conservatism of a majority of Republican House members. Both bills are important for agricultural interests, many of which rely heavily on immigrant labor.

"Every bill that passes the House is too liberal for someone and too conservative for someone else. But majorities nevertheless emerge out of party loyalty and strategic trust. That was what was supposed to happen here, too," Ezra Klein writes for The Washington Post. "The fact that House Republicans were relying on Democratic votes to pass a bill that slashes food stamps and was certain to be vetoed by a Democratic president tells you about what you need to know about the desperation inside the [House] Republican conference on this one. Will immigration go the same way? Perhaps. But it’s not a sure thing, either. There’s not going to be an immigration bill that all House Republicans are happy with. And they’re not going to pass an immigration bill because [Speaker John] Boehner begs and pleads."

Klein adds, "The prospects of immigration have always relied on the theory that it’s a unicorn — that Republicans see a strategic need to pass it, or let it pass, that they don’t see for virtually anything else in government. Or, to put it differently, the idea is that immigration reform is an exception to the precise rules that doomed the Farm Bill. Whether that’s true remains to be seen. But the Farm Bill’s failure doesn’t prove it false." (Read more)

Manchin responds to NRA ads with his own, urging gun lobby to support wider background checks

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has responded to National Rifle Association television advertisements urging him not to support gun restrictions with his own TV spots in which he asks the NRA to support background checks. Manchin, whose term doesn't expire until 2018, spent $100,000 of campaign funds on the ads, which began running Thursday in West Virginia, and will continue to air for one week, Dave Boucher reports for the Charleston Daily Mail.

Manchin co-wrote the gun-control bill requiring stronger background checks that failed to get the required three-fifths majority in the Senate. He blamed the NRA for telling senators it would use their vote in rating them. The gun lobby responded with TV ads questioning the lifetime NRA member's commitment to protecting the Second Amendment, Daniel Strauss reports for The Hill. The NRA ads cost $100,000, and were scheduled to run for two weeks in West Virginia.

In his ad, Manchin says, "I'm a lifetime NRA member, but I don't walk in lockstep with the NRA's Washington leadership, this administration or any special interest group. . . . Call the NRA, and tell them to support criminal background checks." Manchin said he's not afraid to risk losing his seat in continuing to fight for the measure, but did not say if or when he would try to reintroduce background-check expansions, Boucher reports.

Moving to rural towns can be a way to retire earlier at a lower cost of living

Tim McLaughlin, a journalist for Reuters, writes how his parents retired early, moving in their 50s from suburban St. Louis to rural Mountain View, Mo. (Google map), where they enjoyed a higher quality of life at a lower cost of living. When they first moved, he said he thought they were insane, "but the passage of time and my fast approach to 50 has given me a new perspective on my parents' retirement insanity," he writes. "They downshifted into a slow-paced lifestyle while slashing their overhead costs by more than half."

Mountain View is on the Ozark Plateau, which is not really mountainous, but scenic. McLaughlin's late father enjoyed the town on US 60 because of the recreational activities, such as fishing and hunting, while his mother has served on the library board and been active in church and clubs, he writes. "In her 70s, she isn't bagging groceries for minimum wage to make ends meet. Her lifestyle is modest, but comfortable. There's no mortgage to worry about and her chief hobbies -- reading books from the library and tending to her many perennial beds -- are easy on the pocketbook." (Reuters photo by Mike Blake: A retired couple visiting La Jolla, Calif.)

McLaughlin, who lives in Boston, said he pays nearly $7,000 each year in real estate taxes for a modest house, while his mom pays $600 for two-bedroom home on 40 acres. One of her neighbors is asking $190,000 for a nine-acre hobby farm that comes with a three-bedroom house, separate garage and barn, a chicken coop and a pond stocked with fish, he writes.

Rural living isn't for everyone, he writes. "But if you grew up in the city and dreamed of fly fishing and watching bird dogs hunt for quail, like my dad did, then places like Mountain View make perfect sense." (Read more)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Farm Bill defeated in House; food-stamp cuts spell doom for traditional rural-urban alliance

The old rural-urban alliance that married farm and nutrition programs failed to get a Farm Bill through the House this afternoon. The bill lost 195-234, with food stamps apparently the main issue amogn both parties. Among Republicans, 62 voted against the bill; many thought its $2 billion annual cut in food stamps wasn't enough. For all but a few Democrats, it was too much, For the roll call, click here.

The House seemed ready to pass the bill this afternoon "after the Agriculture Committee leadership agreed to a sweeping en bloc amendment Wednesday night to greatly shorten the time of debate" and protect the bill from weekend lobbying, David Rogers reports for Politico. The amendment passed 217-208, clearing the decks for votes on more controversial amendments and final passage or defeat.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Tex., agreed to let his "divisive food-stamp amendment" fail on a voice vote to help attract Democratic votes needed to pass the bill, Rogers writes. The House later rejected an amendment by Rep. Mike Huelskamp, R-Kan., to impose certain work requirements on food-stamp recipients, but then voted 227-198 for an amendment by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., to allow states to set their own work requirements. That may have doomed the bill, which drew only 24 Democratic votes. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, ranking Democrat on the agriculture panel, told Rogers the amendment was "the last straw. . . . I had a bunch of people come up to me and say, ‘I was with you but this is it. I’m done.’” Peterson had expected 40 Democrats to vote for the bill.

Some Democrats abandoned the bill because the House voted with Speaker John Boehner and milk processors to deleted the dairy market stabilization section of the bill. Rogers writes that the battle "may be best described as the well-connected vs. the well-heeled. Politically influential milk co-ops like Dairy Farmers of America dominate one side; Kraft Foods, Dean Foods and Nestle, the Swiss international company, are on the other." (Read more)

So what happens now? "House Republicans will either have to start over — or, possibly, go to conference without a bill and try to negotiate something with the Senate," writes Brad Plumer of The Washington Post. "This is basically what happened when the House failed to pass a highway bill last year. House lawmakers would still have to approve whatever bill comes out of conference."

"One big question is whether the committee will shed some of its insularity and embrace more reforms as a way to win back Democrats angered by the food-stamp cuts," Rogers writes. "A proposed $50,000 cap per farmer on crop-insurance premium subsidies failed only narrowly and is too severe for Peterson and Lucas to accept, but some cut in the 62 percent subsidy rate is doable without jeopardizing the larger program." (Read more)

Obama preparing regulations limiting carbon dioxide on existing power plants

President Obama is preparing regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, which are responsible for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, reports John Broder for The New York Times. "The move would be the most consequential climate policy step he could take and one likely to provoke legal challenges from Republicans and some industries." In 2007, the Supreme Court gave all decisions on existing power plants to the executive branch; so far the administration has targeted only new plants for greenhouse-gas limits.

Republicans have criticized Obama’s climate policy "as government overreach that is holding back the economy," reports Broder. Some Democrats have expressed concern "that tough new standards on power plants could slow job growth and raise energy costs, particularly in places like the industrial Midwest that depend on cheap power from coal."

Obama, though, said in a speech Wednesday that the U.S. and the world had a moral imperative to take “bold action” to slow the warming of the planet. “The grim alternative affects all nations — more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise,” Obama said. “This is the global threat of our time.” 

Rules applying to power plants can take years to complete, so if Obama hopes to have a new set of greenhouse-gas standards for utilities in place before he leaves office, he needs to begin before the end of the year, reports Broder. The president is expected to announce his plans, which also include new initiatives on renewable power and energy efficiency, within the next few weeks. (Read more)

Coal company opens state-of-the-art training facility to train employees for disasters

An academy that teaches coal miners how to avoid injury and death in any disaster, through controlled crises, is believed to be the first of its kind in the world, reports Vicki Smith of The Associated Press. The Running Right Leadership Academy, a $23 million 10-acre training complex, officially opened today in Julian, W.Va. (AP photo by Steve Helber: Keith Hainer operates a virtual welding simulator)

Alpha Natural Resources, which runs 55 mines and 18 preparation plants in West Virginia, and about 45 mines and seven load-out facilities in Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, created the academy in response to the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2012 that claimed the lives of 29 miners. As part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Alpha agreed to invest $80 million in safety training and state-of-the-art safety equipment. The mine was owned by Massey Energy, which Alpha bought.

Cheryl Stapleton, Alpha's director of learning and development, told Smith that the goal is to prepare every employee for a crisis “so they’re not experiencing it for the very first time when it happens. . . . You need to know how to operate safely, but productively and efficiently. In today’s economic challenges, we think that’s what’s going to be necessary to really drive this business forward.”

The center includes a 96,000-square foot simulation coal mine, where instructors can create various environments, such as fire, floods, roof fails and worker injuries. There are also virtual simulators "to learn welding and how to run the continuous mining machine or drive the over-sized dump trucks at surface mines," Smith reports. "From nearby computer monitors and keyboards, instructors throw out hazards the operators will eventually encounter." The facility is now only open to Alpha employees, but eventually other companies will be able to use it. (Read more)

California man turning old Kansas limestone mine into doomsday survival shelter

Californian Robert Vicino is preparing for the end of the world by making plans to turn a limestone cave in rural Kansas into a survival shelter. The cave is a former Army storage facility on the southeast edge of Atchison, about 50 miles northwest of Kansas City, Mo., reports Bill Draper for The Associated Press. The caverns, which are 100 to 150 feet below the surface, and have a constant temperature, were created by limestone mining operations that started in the late 1880s. (AP photo by Orlin Wagner)

Investor Coby Cullins bought the property for $510,000 and leased the 45-acre west cave to Vicino, who plans to call it Vivos Shelter and Resort, reports Draper. Cullins is marketing the 25-acre eastern cave to local businesses. Vicino's shelter will "have enough space for more than 1,000 RVs and up to about 5,000 people." The shelter, though, will be members only, and will require a steep fee to occupy. Vicino also owns other shelters, including one in Indiana, but won't say where "because he fears there would be anarchy in the event of a world-changing catastrophe." (Read more)

Maine governor refuses to talk to newspaper chain after it publishes unfavorable stories

UPDATE June 25: LePage made news again last week, saying during a live televised interview Thursday that Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson (D-Allagash) "claims to be for the people, but he's the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline." LePage later said, "Dammit, that comment is not politically correct. But we've got to understand who this man is. This man is a bad person. He not only doesn't have a brain, he has a black heart. And so does the leadership" in the Legislature. LePage also appeared to mock Jackson's rural background and his profession as a logger, saying he "ought to go back in the woods and cut trees and let somebody with a brain come down here and do some work." (Read more)

Maine, which has the highest percentage of rural population in the country, could have a hard time getting information from its governor and his administration in the state's major newspapers. Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who has always had a rocky relationship with the news media, has responded to a series of unfavorable stories about his top environmental regulator by saying he will no longer speak to the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel, all part of MaineToday Media Inc., Steve Mistler reports for the Herald.

LePage spokesperson Adrienne Bennett told Mistler the administration would no longer participate in stories reported by the three newspapers, saying they "had made it clear that it opposed this administration." She said the papers could get responses from the administration from The Associated Press or through document requests using the Freedom of Access Act.

This isn't LePage's first run-in with newspapers, notes Mistler. In February, during a reading with schoolchildren, he said, "My greatest fear in the state of Maine: newspapers. I'm not a fan of newspapers." In 2012 he told junior high students that reading newspapers in Maine is "like paying somebody to tell you lies." LePage also said he'd like to punch a reporter during a taped interview, blasted the press in in his 2011 inauguration speech, and once stormed out of a news conference when he didn't like the line of questioning. (Read more)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Farm Bill debate begins, amid worries of 'circular firing squad' among traditional supporters

The full House is debating its version of the Farm Bill, but the Rules Committee's decision last night to allow 103 amendments to be considered was expected to push a final vote on the bill into next week, perhaps threatening the tenuous coalition needed to pass the bill and start a conference with the Senate to work out differences in the two versions.

"Most will have just 10 minutes for debate, but as a practical matter, the leadership would have to show a lot more flexibility about the floor schedule to finish the farm bill this week," David Rogers writes for Politico. "The sudden shift upset top members of the House Agriculture Committee, fearful of leaving the giant bill exposed over the weekend. But Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told Politico he was confident still of winning passage."

Still, supporters of the bill "are increasingly worried that the House floor debate . . . will look more like a circular firing squad, with traditional supporters lining up to attack each other in ways that could lead to defeat of the overall bill," Sara Wyant writes for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

Farm and nutrition interests, who have historically been allies pushing for farm bill passage, are at odds over the $20.5 billion in food-stamp cuts over the next 10 years," Wyant writes. "For some conservative GOP lawmakers, the cuts contained in H.R. 1947, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, aren’t nearly enough. But for many Democrats, whose votes will be needed to pass the bill, they remain adamantly opposed to reductions they say will bump 2 million Americans and 200,000 hungry children out of food and nutrition programs." (Read more)

However, the prospect of a fight between Midwestern and Southern Republicans faded as "Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) pulled down his amendment challenging a new price-loss program important to Southern crops," Rogers reports. "Environmental groups felt the same twinge as Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) faded in a fight over toughening conservation requirements for farmers benefiting from crop insurance. In both cases, Gibbs and Thompson’s offices said the lawmakers were looking forward to making their cases in conference with the Senate."

UPDATE: Rogers notes that most of the more controversial amendments, such as those on the dairy program, the sugar program and "Republican proposals to add work requirements for those receiving food stamps" will be delayed until next week. However, Lucas told The Hill that quick action on about 40 amendments gave him hope that the bill could pass Thursday.

Obama ignores many rural states, a political risk

President Obama has never or rarely visited some states that didn't support him in either election, an absence that is leading to growing dissent among voters and a lack of support by representatives and senators from those states, reports John Harwood of The New York Times.

As president, Obama has never been to several red states -- North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Idaho, South Carolina and Utah -- and has only once traveled to Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Tennessee and Wyoming, reports Harwood. Obama lost all those states in 2008 and 2012. In contrast, Obama has visited the swing states of Ohio 39 times, Florida 30 times, Colorado 19 times, Iowa 18 times and Nevada 17 times. He won all those states in both elections.

David Axelrod, who has advised Obama from the start of his career, told Harwood, “A lot of where the president goes has to do with where he can influence the public to influence the people in Congress who are potential votes. It’d be great for him, if he had the time, to barnstorm the red states and meet people. I don’t know how fundamentally that would change things.”

Some disagree. Matthew Dowd, who was George W. Bush's campaign strategist, met with Obama in 2008 when he was running for president, telling him “I hope you’re going to be the president of the country, not just leader of your party,” reports Harwood. Dowd said Obama’s engagement with adversaries in and out of Washington has been too narrowly focused, “about a transaction and not about a relationship.”

Among those who has said Obama needs to travel more in red states is Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog and is based at the University of Kentucky. He told Harwood that in remaining a stranger, Obama has allowed negative sentiment toward his presidency to deepen and harden. He said Obama should remember, “You’re president of the whole country.” (Read more)

New York Times: EPA seems shy of factory-farm regs

According to its own studies, the Environmental Protection Agency says agricultural runoff is the leading cause of impaired water quality, with factory farms creating between 500 million and 1 billion tons of manure, three times as much waste as humans produce in the U.S. Yet, EPA continues to fail to restrict runoff from manure lagoons and feedlots, even withdrawing rules that would greatly benefit the quality of water, opines The New York Times. (Photo from Food and Water Watch)

Last year EPA withdrew a rule to gather basic information from factory farms, and another that would have expanded the number of farms required to have a national pollution discharge permit, the Times editorial says. Fewer than 60 percent of farms are currently required to have a permit. And last week the EPA "announced that promised new regulations governing feedlot discharges nationally would not be forthcoming."

"Right now, the patchwork of regulations — which assume a great deal of self-policing — suits the factory farm industry all too well," the editorial says. "So does the EPA.’s inability to gather even the most basic information about those farms. The industry believes that the less consumers know, the better. President Obama’s nominee to lead the EPA, Gina McCarthy, is still awaiting Senate confirmation. If and when she gets the job, she should make it an early priority to get the data she needs to shed light on — and forcefully regulate — an industry that thrives on ignorance." (Read more)

Journalists invited to free workshop in Ohio about harmful algae in lakes

The Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources is hosting a one-day workshop July 29 at Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio, with the main focus being the current state of Lake Erie and other lakes around the nation. According to a news release, this year is expected to be another bad year for harmful algal blooms -- a rapid increase in the population of algae in an aquatic system.

Journalists participating in the event "will hear from scientists, policy makers, industry representatives, and others about new modeling efforts and phosphorus reductions programs in the Maumee River, the state of the fishery, and Ohio's response to the Phosphorus Task Force's summer report," states the release.

The event is free and open all journalists. Space is limited to 40 participants. To register click here. For more information call 406-273-1906, or email Contact@INJR.org.

Community development block grants, key to many small-town projects, face 40 percent cut in House

House Republicans have proposed a $44.1 billion transportation and housing bill that would cut about 40 percent of the money for community development block grants, which support economic development, housing and infrastructure in many rural towns. President Obama had asked for $2.79 million for the 2014 fiscal year, David Rogers reports for Poiltico. The bill would give the program $1.6 billion; it received $2.7 million in 1975, when Republican President Gerald Ford started it, Rogers notes.

"CDBG’s fall is the most striking example yet of what’s become a genuinely historic rollback of domestic discretionary spending," Rogers writes. "The first across-the-board cuts ordered in March under sequestration brought appropriations down to $984 billion. A second round, this winter could take discretionary spending down to $967 billion. And in the midst of this, House Republicans are proposing to shift about $54 billion from domestic programs to defense-related spending."

The $24.9 billion provided in the bill for public and Indian housing is $953 million below what Congress had approved a few months ago, and is a $2.8 billion, or a 10 percent cut, from Obama’s 2014 request, reports Rogers. "When the Senate Appropriations Committee meets Thursday morning, Democrats are expected to go in the opposite direction, approving a discretionary spending target of $1.058 trillion for the coming year." (Read more)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Weekly paper serving community devastated by Colorado's largest fire keeps on publishing, for now

"Nothing stops the Black Forest News," not even a Colorado-record forest fire that burned the editor's home and those of hundreds of her neighbors, reports Jesse Paul of the Colorado Springs Gazette.

"Three days after she lost everything, Judy von Ahlefeldt's newspaper rolled off the presses like it has for the last 53 years," Paul writes. "Gone was her home of 43 years, her beloved mustang, Monty, and years of research on Black Forest. . . . Von Ahlefeldt, 70, knows everything about Black Forest."

Much of that is in her newspaper archives, so when she got an early warning and saw that the fire might reach her, she gathered them up "instead of family photos, a work-in-progress dissertation on the Palmer Divide or countless irreplaceable possessions," Paul reports. "They can't be replaced, but everybody that lost a house lost those things," she told him.

"Von Ahlefeldt is the owner, publisher, reporter, designer, editor, advertising representative, and photographer . . . a community-based, one-woman news organization, informing a few hundred readers each week on the happenings of the forest," Paul writes. She has lived there since 1970 and owned the weekly paper since 1997, and wonders if the fire, which made the paper two days late, is the beginning of the end. ""For the time being, I'm going to keep it going," she told Paul. "I don't know for sure what's going to happen. I don't want to see the paper go, but there are things I need time for." (Read more)

Farmland prices are declining in two key states, but don't seem to be heading for a collapse

After years of growth, farmland prices appear to have hit a peak, and could be heading for a decline, but not a bust, according to economists and farm realtors. "It's not a collapse, it's just a maturing," Purdue University economist Chris Hurt told attendees during a recent online webinar, reports Marcia Zarley Taylor of DTN The Progressive Farmer. "In other boom-bust cycles we've seen a demand collapse. We're not talking about that now, and that's giving us the prospect of a soft landing."

Click on image for larger version
Since 2007, Iowa has had four years of 20 percent to 30 percent land appreciation, but could be 10 percent this year, Taylor reports. In Indiana (right), a typical corn-soybean operator made profits of $357 an acre in 2011, but that number is expected to drop to $267 this year, the sort of drop that depresses land prices. Hurt says the main reasons are that "big growth in ethanol is flattening out, China's appetite for U.S. soybeans is waning as South Americans expand acreage, and the value of the dollar is suddenly gaining steam, making exports more expensive overseas."

Another factor is declining interest rates, writes Taylor. "If 10-year Treasuries inch up from an average of 2.9 percent in 2013 to 3.65 percent in 2016, Hurt estimates Indiana land values could slide about $1,000 an acre. That's from a starting point of about $7,313 at mid-year 2013." (Read more)

Rural places get federal arts grants for design workshops to help improve quality of life

Organizations in rural communities in Kentucky, Florida, Texas and New York were chosen by the Citizens' Institute on Rural Design to host design workshops. "Workshops bring together local leaders, non-profits, community organizations, and citizens with a team of specialists in design, planning, and creative place-making to address design challenges identified by the community," states a release from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Winners were chosen from 30 applicants. Organizations receive "$7,000 to support the workshop, in-kind design expertise and technical assistance valued at $35,000, and additional training through webinars, conference calls, and web-based resources," according to the release. Workshops dates have yet to be announced.

The Central Appalachia Institute for Research and Development, Inc., based in Pikeville, Ky., "will integrate arts and culture into existing community plans, raising awareness about the potential of artisans and craft industries to serve as an economic engine" for Appalachian Kentucky, according to the release.

Two workshops will focus on the role design can play in revitalizing declining downtowns. The Rochester Regional Community Design Center "will focus on physical improvements and economic development strategies" in Lima, N.Y., and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Suwannee County Extension will focus on redevelopment and rebuilding after a natural disaster, focusing on recent flooding in Live Oak, Fla.

The City of Seguin, Tex., will host a workshop "centered around the design and public health benefits of a new waterfront trail for a low-income community suffering from high rates of obesity and limited options for walking, biking, or transit."

Rural movie theater offers 'sensory-friendly' screenings for children with disabilities

Some children with autism or other disabilities might never get to experience seeing a movie on the big screen, because they have trouble sitting still for that long, or might not be able to adjust to sitting in the dark surrounded by loud noises. But an independently owned theater in rural West Plains, Mo., has decided to do something about it, offering a sensory-friendly experience for movie goers, reports Jennifer Davidson of KSMU Radio in Springfield.
 
During sensory-friendly shows, the Glass Sword Cinema leaves the lights on, sets the sound lower than normal, and "the audience is free to express themselves however they want," Clint Corman, the theater's technical manager, told Davidson. "They can sing along. They can clap. They can dance. There’s not going to be any judgment from people.”

West Plains, with a population of 12,000, might be the only theater in Southern Missouri that offers sensory-friendly shows. Melissa Davenport, of the Burrell Autism Center in Springfield, said she was unaware of any sensory-friendly showings in the 160,000-population Springfield area, reports Davidson. One theater said they would consider it if enough parents asked for the special showings. But at the Glass Sword, "the owners didn’t take a market sample before making their decision...they just did it," reports Davidson. "In doing so, it’s kind of become 'The little theater that could.'" (Read more)

Napolitano: Immigration reform will make U.S. safer, while boosting economy

Comprehensive immigration reform will increase border security, bolster the country's economy, and is great for rural America, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a media call Tuesday. She said the bill will boost small businesses and agriculture, where it will put an end to worker shortages; will protect American workers; and is key to deterring illegal migration.

She said the current system is broken, saying "When you fix it, and do it the right way, it is an overall comprehensive agreement that moves us on a path well-suited for rural America in the 21st Century."

The bill will increase the number of agents and technology available at borders, making borders even safer, said Napolitano, who called border cities some of the safest in the country. It will also provide a better verification system, allowing officials to ascertain who has overstayed their visas, while creating a system to better monitor employers and employees. Increasing border security is one of the main issues Republicans are pushing for with the bill.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who introduced Napolitano, said 700,000 of the 1.1 million agriculture workers are not properly documented. He said that without the bill, the U.S. stands to lose agriculture jobs to other countries. Also, he said, immigrants are twice as likely to start a small business, so passing the bill will fill jobs and create more taxpayers, which will help reduce the federal deficit. "It's important for this country to get this done this year, especially for rural American and the farming community," he said.

Only one question from a journalist was allowed on the conference call, which started 10 to 15 minutes late.

Writer explains how Affordable Care Act will affect rural Americans

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act takes full effect next year, it will have a major impact on rural Americans. Steph Larsen, assistant director of organizing for the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs, said she has received a large number of emails from people who say they are confused about the act. In response, she answers a few questions in the Daily Yonder in an attempt to make the act easier to understand (Map by FamiliesUSA)

"Rural Americans have been hit hard by a campaign of fear and misinformation by the detractors of the Affordable Care Act," writes Larsen. "Because of the rampant misinformation, a lot of rural people are understandably confused. If rural folks can get beyond this misinformation and educate themselves with accurate information, it will result in more rural people having comprehensive, affordable health insurance and greater access to health care. This will result in stronger rural health care infrastructure and healthier rural Americans. And that’s good for all of us." (Read more)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Tenn., other states have many stockpiles of chemical that led to deadly explosion in West, Tex.

We reported May 23 that at least 800,000 Americans in the U.S. live within a mile of fertilizer storage sites that house ammonium nitrate, like the one that exploded in West, Tex., killing 14 and injured more than 200 others. But which towns, and states, are most at risk? DTN The Progressive Farmer decided to delve a little deeper, and so far has received information from 17 states -- Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Oregon, Kansas, Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Wisconsin and Georgia.

Many of the stockpiles are found in small cities and towns, with the majority stored in the south and southwest, reports Todd Neeley of DTN. The largest number reported are stored in Tennessee, which has 86 locations. Twenty-four of those locations "stored between 499 tons and 4,999 tons -- about 18 to 147 times the amount of AN that ignited in West."
   
Texas has 70 sites that "have the potential to hold a total maximum daily amount between 55,960 tons and 309,604 tons, or an average of 799 tons to 4,423 tons of AN per facility," reports Neeley. Illinois has the most sites in the Midwest, with 29. Georgia has 28, Kentucky 22, Kansas 20, Oregon 14, and Indiana 12. Some states provided incomplete data, or reported having no locations. DTN's report did not include the names of towns where ammonium nitrate is stored. We suggest you check with your state agencies. (Read more)

Coal industry's not alone in banking on Pacific coal exports; so are members of the Crow Nation

One American Indian tribe's future could hinge on a major coal company's ability to export its coal. The Crow Nation owns a deposit of up to 1.4 billion tons, more coal than the U.S. produces in a year, but its partner, Cloud Peak Energy, needs to win battles with environmentalists to have six export terminals built in the Pacific Northwest for the deposit to be mined, reports Clifford Krauss for The New York Times. (NYT photo by Kevin Moloney: Half the Crow are unemployed)

"Cloud Peak Energy and the Crow signed an initial agreement in January to develop three enormous coal deposits that are both low in sulfur and produce an abundance of heat when burned — exactly what Asian buyers are seeking," reports Krauss. The tribe could earn $10 million over the next five years, and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars more in royalties and other payments, if the agreements is approved by the Interior Department.

Former Crow chairman Cedric Black Eagle, who began contract negotiations with Cloud Peak, told Krauss, “We understand the issue of global warming, but at the same time, because of the economy of the tribe, we are dependent on coal."

"Environmental groups have made the terminals a central focus in their campaign against the coal industry," reports Krauss. As a result, investors have dropped out of the three of the proposed six terminals. Environmental groups filed suit in a federal court in Seattle against Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway and several coal companies "saying coal dust escaping from trains has polluted rivers and lakes in Washington. The new export terminals, they say, would only bring more trains carrying coal to the ports and increase the amount of dust." (Read more)

Appalachian Regional Commission creates new development bank to fund small-business loans

The federal Appalachian Regional Commission is creating a bank that will provide funds to lenders in the region who make loans to small businesses that will foster economic development. Appalachian Community Capital will get $42 million and "is expected to leverage $233 million in private bank capital and help create 2,200 jobs," an ARC press release said. The agency said it will chip in $3.45 million in equity and operating support, will help raise 39 million in debt and equity. The project was announced at the closing session of the Clinton Global Initiative in Chicago. CGI "considers the ACC initiative vital to economic development efforts in Appalachia," the release said.

U.S. banks "have instituted tighter credit requirements for small-business lending, reduced their appetite for risk, and become more sensitive to concentrated credit exposures. When combined with a challenging economic environment, these conditions have left many financially sound businesses seeking new sources of capital," ARC said. "For growing businesses in Appalachia, finding capital is even more difficult, as a number of systemic factors have limited the sources of available capital. According to recent studies, Appalachian small businesses receive only 82 percent of the loans of their comparable counterparts nationally, while businesses in Appalachia's economically distressed counties receive less than 60 percent of the loans of their national counterparts."

The bank will be a valuable resource for Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., a venture-capital firm that focuses on southeastern Kentucky. “There’s a stigma in Appalachia that says, ‘You’re profoundly rural, you’re profoundly uneducated and you’re remote, and we’re not going to spend the time to get in there and provide you the financing,’” said Ray Moncrief, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the firm, told Vicki Smith of The Associated Press, who noted how KHIC's helped Mike Hurley of London, Ky., convert his metal-stamping business "into a top-tier supplier of satellite dishes." (Read more)

West Virginia activist's struggle with coal industry became a book, and now a movie

A West Virginia woman's journey to push for stricter, safer coal-mining laws was first turned into a book, and now the story of Trish Bragg is being made into a movie, with parts of filming recently taking place in the community of Pie in Mingo County, reports Julia Roberts Goad of the Gilbert Times, a weekly in the southern part of the state near the Kentucky border. (Charleston Gazette photo by Brian Ferguson: Bragg at a public hearing on mountaintop removal in 1998)

Bragg's story was first told in Penny Loeb's book Moving Mountains, which "chronicles the struggle the Pie community has faced since the wells that supplied water to homes ran dry as a result of underground mining," reports Goad. Now, the book is being turned into a movie about "the struggle to find the balance of making a living from coal mining and the responsibility of the coal companies to extract coal while doing as little damage as possible to the land and the people the industry supports."

Author Penny Loeb (Goad photo)
Bragg told Goad, “I am not against coal mining. I was never against mining, I just think it should be done responsibly.” Bragg's journey into the world of coal mining began in 1976 when she moved to West Virginia from North Carolina. In 1994, when her neighbors began losing the source of their water, Bragg began to educate herself "about the state Department of Environmental Protection, mining laws, environmental groups and community activism." (Read more)

N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, a spawn of politics, hits snags under new Republican rule

Click on image for larger version
The North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center is controlled by politicians, has claimed to create jobs that don't exist, and has spent millions of taxpayer dollars to support big businesses such as Wal-Mart and chain restaurants, reports J. Andrew Curliss in a two-part series in the Raleigh News & Observer. (Curliss photos)

While the center is designed for grants to generate jobs, in its files "Other stories emerge: Legislators influencing where the money goes. People and businesses from across the political landscape getting in on the deals. Political money men benefiting from taxpayer cash, spent with little notice or scrutiny," reports Curliss, who details several examples of politicians receiving grants for businesses they own.

Republicans, in full control of state government for the first time since Reconstruction, want to reduce the center's funding. Billy Ray Hall, who heads the agency, told Curliss, “I eat, sleep and breathe rural North Carolina. Rural North Carolina, I think, deserves the respect of trying to chart their path. They deserve the value of giving them as much as you can to help them make good decisions. And I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do. That’s what the Rural Center’s been trying to do. And we’ve been trying to do it smart.” But Hall may have drawn more Republican ire by reminding new state Budget Director Art Pope, a leading critic, that a center grant had helped his family's discount-store business, which Pope denied but then admitted.

Hall claims the center has created 19,911 jobs in the past five years, but the newspaper found more than 950 jobs from projects that had yet to begin, writes Curliss. Even jobs the center claims to have created are sometimes suspicious, such as a $350,000 water-well grant that would help generate jobs at a new restaurant that had already hired employees. The center’s communications director, Garnet Bass, said in an email message: “I suppose you could argue about whether we’re prematurely saying some of the jobs have been created. ... We think we’re providing the most accurate picture possible for the value of the state investment. It may not be perfect, but we haven’t heard of a better way.”

The center has replied to the stories, in a comment to this blog post.
Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/06/16/2967240/politicians-powerful-touch-nc.html#storylink=cpy

Midwest-South conflict among Republicans could derail Farm Bill; Obama issues strategic veto threat

UPDATE, 6:55 p.m.: "The White House warned Monday that it would veto the House farm bill as it now stands and signaled strongly that the fastest path to some compromise this summer would be by taking savings from crop insurance to offset Republican-backed cuts from food stamps, Rogers reports. "The most severe of the food-stamp savings would come from re-imposing tighter income limits and an outdated asset test that could force more than two million beneficiaries off the rolls. The estimated savings are $11.5 billion over the next 10 years, and the administration made note that its own crop insurance reforms could save an almost equal sum, $11.7 billion. . . . The administration’s statement seemed designed to serve two purposes: put down a veto marker that will give liberal Democrats some comfort but at the same time try to keep the process moving into conference with the Senate."

As the House version of the Farm Bill heads to the floor Tuesday, corn and soybean lobbies are "backing a Midwest floor challenge to the new price-loss program crafted by the House Agriculture Committee, which is already struggling to win what’s expected to be a close vote on final passage," David Rogers reports for Politico. "Adding salt to the wound was Friday’s release of a paid-for academic paper commissioned by the Environmental Working Group but also rooted in the Midwest and highly critical of the same price-loss program — most important to Southern producers," especially of rice and peanuts.

Rogers writes that the current state of play illustrates "a destructive South-Midwest divide among Republicans and the outsize impact of a small stable of academics hired to punch holes in the current system.  Corn and soybeans are plainly hoping to increase their leverage going into conference with the Senate," which has passed its version. "But in doing so, they could make it harder for [Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank] Lucas to get there in the first place."

The Midwest-oriented amendment would change how target prices are set "and what acreage will be used to calculate payments if markets collapse," Rogers reports. "Left out of the corn-and-beans letter is any mention of the fact that the same two commodities stand to gain richly from a far more expensive 'shallow-loss' subsidy program in the Senate bill. With much of agriculture holding hands just to get across the House floor, the hardball tactics are risky. . . . If the Farm Bill collapses, it’s very unlikely that Congress will again approve a broad extension of current law as it did last winter.
Crop insurance and nutrition programs would survive because of separate authorizations. But there’s broad consensus that commodity programs could be lost given the appetite for spending reductions."

House passage of the bill is in doubt partly because "More than half of the current representatives have never cast a vote on a farm bill," Agri-Pulse reportsAmendments must be filed by Monday, so the Rules Committee can set terms for debate. Wednesday and Thursday, look for "a series of knockdown fights," Rogers writes.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Kentucky county exemplifies decline of coal industry in Central Appalachia

The grim prospects for the coal industry in Central Appalachia are illustrated by the Kentucky county that was the state's most dependent on coal -- until last year, when the county lost 63 percent of its coal jobs and 45 percent of its coal production. Bill Estep and John Cheves of the Lexington Herald Leader looked at Knott County for the second major installment of their series, "50 Years of Night," marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harry Caudill's book on the region, Night Comes to the Cumberlands.

"There were only 330 people employed at coal mines by the end of the year, down from more than 1,300 a decade before, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet," the reporters write. The county clerk says people blame President Obama's "War on Coal," but "The chief force behind the coal industry's precipitous slide in Eastern Kentucky was very cheap natural gas, which enticed utilities to switch from coal to gas, analysts said. . . . Analysts project that coal production in Eastern Kentucky and throughout Central Appalachia will continue a steep slide in the next few years regardless of the mix of environmental rules, said Sean O'Leary, an analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy." (Read more)


Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2013/06/16/2679110/in-eastern-kentucky-coal-mines.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2013/06/16/2679110/in-eastern-kentucky-coal-mines.html#storylink=cpy