Friday, August 02, 2013

Democratic state legislator finally gets meeting with Obama official on coal, hopes for one in Appalachia

A state legislator from Eastern Kentucky says she refused to vote as a Democratic convention delegate for President Obama last year because she could not speak to anyone from his administration about coal, but has now met with a key official and hopes to continue the dialogue -- this time in the Central Appalachian coalfield.

"Such a meeting, where the protest signs are left at the door, could and should provide greater clarity for both sides," Rep. Leslie Combs of Pikeville, left, wrote in an op-ed distributed to Kentucky news outlets. She began, "During the past five years, we have seen the verbal fighting over coal reach ever-greater heights, and the louder both sides have become, the less each seems to hear the other. Although I have been part of more than a few heated debates – that’s the nature of politics – I have found that, ultimately, diplomacy usually gets me closer to my goal than simply trying to run over the opposition."

Combs said that during the delegate selection process, "I made it clear from the beginning that I could not cast a supporting vote if I did not get to speak with someone from the president’s administration about coal. When that did not happen, I stepped aside – not as a party protest, but to uphold a promise I had made to my constituents." But this year, she got a meeting in Atlanta with Gwen Keys Fleming, who was the regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency and "is now in a more high-profile role as the federal agency’s chief of staff. My hope is that we can continue this dialogue in the months ahead, either in Eastern Kentucky or West Virginia."

Combs concluded, "I believe the time has come to focus less on placing blame and focus more on how coal-mining regions can move forward. We need to be talking about the new reality of less mining because we’ve known since 1992 this day was coming." (Read more)

In response to explosion at fertilizer plant, Obama orders review of all chemical facilities

"Less than four months after a fertilizer plant explosion leveled the town of West, Tex., President Obama ordered federal agencies Thursday to review safety rules at chemical facilities nationwide," David Jackson reports for USA Today. In an executive order, Obama wrote: "Chemicals, and the facilities where they are manufactured, stored, distributed, and used, are essential to today's economy. Past and recent tragedies have reminded us, however, that the handling and storage of chemicals are not without risk." (Texas Tribune photo by David Bowser: Amarillo facility, near residences, houses ammonium nitrate)

The explosion in West, where 2,400 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate was being stored, killed 15 people, injured more than 200, damaged or destroyed at least 150 buildings, and caused $100 million in property damage. At least 800,000 people live within one mile of sites that store similar chemicals, and many small towns and cities, especially in the south and southwest, have large stockpiles of ammonium nitrate.

"The executive order also calls for better coordination among federal, state and local agencies in the regulation of chemical plants," Jackson reports. Obama wrote: "The federal government has developed and implemented numerous programs aimed at reducing the safety risks and security risks associated with hazardous chemicals. However, additional measures can be taken by executive departments and agencies with regulatory authority to further improve chemical facility safety and security in coordination with owners and operators."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement: "As I told the president, the EPA has not updated its alert since 1997, and the best practices recommended by other federal agencies such as OSHA are not being uniformly followed. This progress shows that when we use our mandated oversight role to solve serious problems facing the American people -- and the President agrees with our solutions -- we can move forward without changing laws to protect our families and communities." (Read more)

Small-town police stations load up on free military gear they don't need, and aren't closely monitored

Small-town police stations are beefing up their military supplies using a free-for-all program through "the National Defense Authorization Act that permits the transfer to law-enforcement agencies of military property no longer needed" by the Department of Defense, Michael Kunzelman reports for The Associated Press. "a disproportionate share of the $4.2 billion worth of property distributed since 1990 has been obtained by police departments and sheriff's offices in rural areas with few officers and little crime." (Dayton Daily News photo: Englewood, Ohio Police Officer Doug Hacker with M-16 rifles received though the program)

Nearly 13,000 agencies, in all states and four U.S. territories, participate in the program. In the 2012 fiscal year a record $546 million worth of property was transferred. But the program is rarely monitored, and requests are being granted for millions of dollars worth of supplies that police stations can't use, such as scuba equipment in areas with no water, and helicopter parts for stations that don't have a helicopter.

"Staffing shortages and budget constraints have made it difficult for federal and state program officials to keep track of all of the property and to prevent police forces from obtaining excessive amounts of used military equipment and other Defense Department-transferred property," Kunzelman writes. Participants are expected to take only what they need. But that hasn't been the case.

Rising Star, Tex., which only has one full-time officer and 835 residents, acquired more than $3.2 million worth of property, including nine televisions, 11 computers, three deep-fat fryers, two meat slicers, 22 large space heaters, a pool table, 25 sleeping bags, and playground equipment,  Kunzelman reports. Morven, Ga., a town of 700, has received $4 million worth of property, including a decontamination machine missing most of its parts, 20 blankets, 10 two-man combat tents, a hammock, four demagnetizers, two leg curl machines, a shoulder press, a leg press, two treadmills, 20 red gym shorts, 20 fitted bed sheets, 50 flat bed sheets, 355 sandbags and a shipment of bayonets.

The property is not to be used for personal purposes, and can't be sold or given away without permission, Kunzelman writes. The Defense Logistics Agency in Battle Creek, Mich., oversees use of the equipment, and sometimes suspends recipients for improper use, but "Many state program coordinators say they have the staff and funding to conduct only a handful of on-site inspections annually — if at all." The Defense Department is required to conduct program compliance reviews of each state program every two years, but many states have often gone much longer without one. (Read more)

Most of nation's persistently poor are in rural South

Eighty-five percent of the nation's most consistently poor counties are in rural areas, and most of those counties are in the South, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, which defines persistent-poverty counties "as being persistently poor if 20 percent or more of their populations were living in poverty over the last 30 years." Data was used from the 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses and the 2007-11 American Community Survey, the Census Bureau's constant polling operation. 

Of the 353 persistently poor counties, 301 are rural, and 252 are in the South, where 26 percent of the population is persistently poor. "There are no non-metro persistent-poverty counties in the Northeast, 29 non-metro persistent-poverty counties in the Midwest, and 20 in the West," ERS says. (Read more) For the state-by-state and county-by-county data of the percentage of total population living in poverty in 2011, click here.

Settlement with shale-gas firm includes gag order for kids; company says it doesn't apply to them

In what legal scholars and lawyers are calling a first, and some questioning whether it's legal, the non-disclosure agreement prohibiting Chris and Stephanie Hallowich from talking about the 2011 settlement of their high-profile Marcellus Shale damage case in Washington County, Pennsylvaniam includes a gag order for the couple's two children, who were 7 and 10 at the time, Don Hopey reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Post-Gazette photo by Pam Panchak: The Hallowich family in 2010 near their home)

"The Hallowichs, who had been longtime critics of shale-gas drilling, claimed that Marcellus Shale gas development -- including four wells, gas compressor stations and a 3-acre water impoundment -- adjacent to their 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, Washington County, damaged their property value and their health," Hopey reports. "They said air and water contaminants caused them to experience burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and earaches, and contaminated their water supply." They were awarded $750,000 in the settlement with Range Resources Corporation.

In a hearing transcript obtained by the Post-Gazette, Peter Villari, lawyer for the Hallowichs, said that "in 30 years of practicing law he never had seen a nondisclosure agreement that included minor children, and although he advised the Hallowichs to accept the settlement, he questioned if the children's First Amendment rights could be restricted by such an agreement," Hopey reports. Even the judge who presided over the case isn't sure if the gag order can be upheld, saying in the transcript, "That's a law-school question, I guess."

The attorney for Range Resources, out of Fort Worth, is quoted in the transcript as saying, "I guess our position is it does apply to the whole family. We would certainly enforce it." A Range spokesperson told Hopey that the statement is "not something we agree with" and added "We don't believe the settlement applies to children." (Read more)

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Study says more shale drilling could benefit economy; insurance companies fear risks

"Increased oil and gas production ranks at the top of the list of things analysts say the country can do to boost the sluggish post-recession recovery," according to a report by McKinsey Global Institute entitled "Game Changers: Five Opportunities for U.S. Growth and Renewal," Nathanial Gronewold reports for Environment and Energy News. The report suggests "that hundreds of billions of dollars could be added to the economy from shale oil and gas by 2020, and that the oil and gas industry could contribute substantially to the gross domestic product over the next seven years." (Marcellus Shale Project Documentary photo by Scott Goldsmith: Drilling site in Washington County in Pennsylvania)

The report says that "if allowed to proceed unimpeded and encouraged, oil and gas drilling and production growth could add $380 billion to $690 billion to the overall economy," Gronewold reports.
"A high volume of hydrocarbon production and other economic activities associated with it could contribute as much as 3.7 percent to national GDP by 2020."

"The report argues that the direct benefit to the oil and gas industry from shale exploitation could range from $115 billion to $225 billion by 2020, with the rest of the economic boost coming from an expected surge in manufacturing stemming from huge new reserves," Gronewold reports. "It lists petrochemicals, steel, paper and glass as industries most likely to experience a boost from expanded shale energy production. McKinsey estimates that as much as $1.4 trillion in new investments may be needed to realize shale's full potential -- investment that will come almost entirely from private sources, thus not burdening local or national public sector budgets." (Read more)

But safety concerns still linger, and some major insurance companies, concerned about potential hazards, "remain unwilling to take on fracking and well drilling risks in shale plays until operating, regulatory and legal liability issues become clearer," Peter Behr reports for E&E News. "Insurance providers want a clearer picture of the potential hazards of deep well hydraulic fracturing in U.S. shale plays as they weigh the costs of covering the risks -- or consider whether to provide insurance at all, industry officials and experts say."

Attorney Earl Hagström told Behr, "Environmental risk has been around for a long time. Insurance companies know how to deal with it. But there are a lot of unknowns (in shale gas operations), and a lot of conflicting information. If something goes wrong, how big a problem is it? It is an unresolved issue that will have to play out over the next few years, maybe longer. The insurers and the re-insurers are reticent to participate if they can't understand the risk. If they can't understand the risk, they can't price it."

Seth Chandler, a University of Houston law professor, told Behr "some operators or subcontractors may be going without drilling and fracking coverage. Standard liability insurance policies don't cover the fracking issues. If you frack and you don't have liability insurance that covers you, you're betting that nothing bad is going to happen. And if you believe the frackers, nothing does happen." (Read more)

Chemical company breaks new ground, creates fuel from waste

Chemical company INEOS Bio "announced Wednesday that it had produced commercial quantities of ethanol from wood waste and other nonfood vegetative matter," Matthew Wald reports for The New York Times. So far, only a small amount has been produced, but "if ethanol can be produced at reasonable cost from abundant nonfood sources, like yard trimmings or household trash, it could displace fuel made from oil, and that oil, and its carbon, could stay in the ground, reducing the amount greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, experts say." 

"The Department of Energy hailed the development as the first of a kind," Wald reports. Energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, said in a statement: “Unlocking the potential for the responsible development of all of America’s rich energy resources is a critical part of our all-of-the-above energy strategy.” 

Using methane gas from a nearby landfill, "The process begins with wastes — wood and vegetative matter for now, municipal garbage later — and cooks it into a gas of carbon monoxide and hydrogen," Wald reports. "Bacteria eat the gas and excrete alcohol, which is then distilled. Successful production would eliminate some of the 'food versus fuel' debate in the manufacturing of ethanol, which comes from corn." Peter Williams, chief executive of INEOS, told Wald, "Biomass gasification has not been done like this before, nor has the fermentation." (Read more)

Arkansas school district arming employees with concealed weapons

A small school district in Arkansas is arming its employees. More than 20 teachers, administrators and other school employees in the 9,000-population town of Clarksville, Ark. will be carrying concealed weapons when the 2013-14 school year begins, "making use of a little-known Arkansas law that allows licensed, armed security guards on campus," The Associated Press reports. The state Department of Education said no school district had ever used the law to arm teachers on the job, although one district has long kept guns locked in case of an emergency. (AP photo by Danny Johnston: A student loads blank ammunition into one of two starter pistols being used for training exercises at Clarksville High School in Clarksville)

Clarksville Public Schools superintendent David Hopkins said, "The plan we've been given in the past is 'Well, lock your doors, turn off your lights and hope for the best. That's not a plan." Hopkins said he received a flurry of calls after the Newton, Conn. shootings, and thought school officials could protect students better than hiring someone from outside. Hopkins said,  "We're not tying our money up in a guard 24/7 that we won't have to have unless something happens. We've got these people who are already hired and using them in other areas. Hopefully we'll never have to use them as a security guard."

Participants in the program underwent 53 hours of training, and "are given a one-time $1,100 stipend to purchase a handgun and holster," the AP reports. The cost to the district for ammunition and training is about $50,000, Hopkins said. Training includes role-playing, where students pretend to be armed intruders, or hostages, and employees responded with guns at the ready.

Jon Hodoway, director of training for Nighthawk Custom Training Academy, the company conducting the training exercises, said teachers are "going to respond to one thing and one thing alone, and that's someone is in the building either actively or attempting to kill people. That's it. They're not going to enforce the law. They're not going to make traffic stops. If somebody is outside acting the fool, they're going to call the police."

Signs will be posted at schools alerting of armed guards, but the identities of employees with concealed weapons will not be announced. Ohio teachers took a similar course, which was considered the first of its kind, earlier this year, A rural Oregon school has tested readiness of teachers by having drills were an armed gunman attacks, while the Arizona Senate passed a bill in March allowing some rural staff members to carry guns.

N.M. horse slaughter plants claims it was the victim of arson, but still plans to open Monday

UPDATE, Aug. 5: A federal judge on Friday temporarily halted plans by companies in New Mexico and Iowa to start slaughtering horses. U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo issued a restraining order in a lawsuit brought by The Humane Society of the United States and other groups in a case that has sparked an emotional national debate about how best to deal with the tens of thousands of wild, unwanted and abandoned horses across the country. (Read more)

The lawyer for a horse slaughter plant in New Mexico said Valley Meat Co. was the victim of a weekend fire that is suspected to be arson, the El Paso Times reports. Lawyer A. Blair Dunn told the paper, "no major damage" was done to the plant, and referred to the fire as "an act of domestic terrorism." Dunn said plant owner Rick De Los Santos, citing safety concerns, will not appear Friday at a federal hearing for a lawsuit filed by animal protection groups to block the opening of the plant. Unless a judge issues a temporary restraining order Friday, the plant is expected to open Monday.

Dunn told Emily Younger, of KRQE News 13 in Albuquerque, the fire targeted the plant's electrical refrigeration system. “It did do some damage to the those refrigeration units which are a life blood and a critical component for the operation of the plant." He said one unit provides electricity to the entire plant and without it, the horse slaughterhouse can't function. “Very clearly someone knew what they were up to and tried to set a fire to disable those and potentially destroy the plant." Maintenance crews are expected to be able to replace the damaged refrigeration units in time for the plant to open Monday, Dunn said. (Read more)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rural Americans are getting more education but still lag behind metro areas, especially in college degrees

Rural Americans are increasingly finishing high school and pursuing college degrees, but still significantly trail metro areas in earning degrees, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, which did a data comparison of people ages 25 and older between the 2000 Census and the 2007-11 American Community Survey, the Census Bureau's constant polling operation, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

In 2000, 23.5 percent of rural Americans didn't have a high-school diploma. That dropped to 17.5 percent in 2010 and 17 percent in 2011, and the number with a high school diploma or equivalent rose from 35.9 percent to 37 percent in 2011.

Rural residents with at least a two-year degree went from 25.5 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2011. Those with a bachelor's degree or higher went from 15.1 percent in 2000 to 17.5 percent in 2010, but dropped to 17 percent in 2011.

In metropolitan areas, only 14 percent have less than a high school diploma, 27 percent have a diploma or equivalent, 29 percent have some sort of degree, and 30 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free trial here.

Massachusetts has the highest rate of college degrees for rural residents 25 and older at 42.3 percent, according to the Economic Research Service. They were followed by Vermont with 31.3 percent and New Hampshire at 30.4 percent. The lowest rate was in Tennessee, at 13.4 percent, followed by Louisiana and Kentucky at 13.7, percent and Arkansas and West Virginia at 13.8 percent. For a state-by-state and county-by-county list of college graduates click here.

Ohio gives firm tax credit to move within state

Most state economic incentives are designed to bring jobs into a state, not move them within it. But in Ohio, the state is granting a deck-and-fencing materials company a 50 percent tax credit to leave the capital of Columbus for the rural town of Wilmington, pop. 12,500, between Columbus and Cincinnati, Joe Vardon and Dan Gearino report for The Columbus Dispatch.

The tax credit will only be given if the Wilmington site creates 85 new positions, in addition to any transfers from the Columbus facility. Sixty-five full-time employees worked in Columbus, and seven have accepted positions in Wilmington. A company spokesperson said there is room in Wilmington for all 65 employees.

"The state does not divulge how much the credit is worth to the company, which also received an undisclosed grant from JobsOhio," the Dispatch reports. Laura Jones, JobsOhio spokeswoman, told the paper that TimberTech, which was sold last year to CPG International, a company based in Scranton, Pa., "made it very clear to us that they were consolidating the jobs in Columbus and they were going to be leaving Columbus one way or the other. When the alternative is losing jobs to another state, we are always going to look at all options and do what is feasible to keep them in Ohio. … That’s a positive for Ohio.”

When Republican Gov. John Kasich announced the opening of the Wilmington site, he didn't mention the one in Columbus would be closing, the Dispatch notes. Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Matt McGrath told the paper, "It’s outrageous that Gov. Kasich and (JobsOhio chief) John Minor would stand on stage and heap praise — and tax breaks — on a company that was in the process of closing its Columbus plant and laying off dozens of workers, thereby encouraging other companies to force Ohio towns into competing for jobs that already exist." It's not the first time Kasich has been involved in offering a state-sponsored tax credit to a business. In 2011, Bob Evans received one for moving its headquarters. (Read more)

Immigration reform advocates stress its potential benefits to agriculture and rural areas

Advocates of immigration reform are emphasizing its importance to agriculture and rural areas in an effort to revive the Senate-passed bill that is languishing in the Republican-controlled House, where GOP leaders say they want to pass it in several bills, starting with border security. (Associated Press photo by David Goldman: A worker empties Vidailia onions into a truck near Lyons, Ga.)

"Failure to act on immigration reform 'is not an option'," more than 400 business and agricultural groups wrote Tuesday to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi," Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. They wrote, "Reform of an outdated, broken immigration system is essential if we are to achieve a fully revitalized economy that provides rewarding and lasting jobs and opportunities for all Americans." 

The business groups argued that reform would help stimulate the economy. There are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., many of whom work in agriculture and small businesses. About 70 percent of U.S. farmworkers are thought to be in the country illegally.

The White House also emphasized agriculture and rural America in a report saying the current immigration system "fails to support a predictable and stable workforce. Moreover, there continues to be insufficient U.S.-born workers to fill labor needs. . . . To this end, the president urges the House of Representatives to take action and move the Senate bill or similar comprehensive legislation forward, and stands willing to work with all parties to make sure that commonsense immigration reform becomes a reality as soon as possible."

More than 100 Republican donors have also weighed in, sending a letter to GOP members of Congress Tuesday "urging them to support an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws," Ashley Parker reports for The New York Times. They wrote, “To fix our immigration system we need meaningful reforms that will (1) secure our borders, (2) provide a legal way for U.S.-based companies to hire the workers they need while making it impossible to hire workers here illegally, and (3) take control of our undocumented immigration problem by providing a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants who pay penalties and back taxes, pass criminal background checks, and go to the back of the line." (Read more)

Study finds 'home cooking' in Appalachian teaching, some of it not so good

Researchers at the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas, and Tennessee State University analyzed data in Appalachian regions in Kentucky from 1987 to 2005 "to access the degree to which highly credentialed teachers can be recruited and retained by less-advantaged rural districts," the Journalist's Resource reports.

The study, published in The American Review of Public Administration, found some alarming data, such as that "teachers who at some point fail a certification exam -- regardless of where they come from -- are more likely to be employed in Appalachia."

The study found that teachers educated in Appalachia tend to stay there, although those who scored higher on tests were more likely to get their first job outside of the region, and “the odds of an otherwise average teacher that attended a college or university in Appalachia obtaining first employment in an Appalachian district of average characteristics are well over three times that of her non-Appalachian counterpart."

The study found that "teacher labor markets are highly regionalized and segmented across states," which suggests "that mobility among teachers is limited, and it raises profound questions about how isolated school districts can ever improve the learning experience for students," the Journalist's Resource reports.(Read more) The map below shows that teachers' colleges in Kentucky, where almost half the counties are Appalachian, account for more than half the teachers in the counties near them. (Click on image for larger version)

Too much rain in South costing farmers billions; consumers could feel effect in higher prices

One year after suffering a drought, the South has now seen too much rain, which could cost farmers billions of dollars in reduced crop yields, and lead to higher prices for consumers. Through June, Georgia's rainfall was 34 percent above normal, South Carolina and North Carolina were about 25 percent above normal, and Alabama’s rainfall was 22 percent high. The rain has hurt the yield or quality of crops such as peaches, tobacco, and watermelon, and there is fear it will hamper pecans and peanuts, Kim Severson reports for The New York Times. (Times photo by Grant Blankenship: A Georgia watermelon farm that typically yields 60,000 pounds of melons per acre had less than 30,000 an acre this year)

 "Day after day, the rains have come to a part of the country that relies on the hot summer sun for everything from backyard tomato sandwiches to billions of dollars in commercial row crops, fruit and peanuts," Severson writes. "Although the total cost to farmers has yet to be tallied, agricultural officials in several states in the Deep South predict severe losses this year that could be in the billions of dollars." 

Peaches in Georgia are too big and misshapen, and aren't sweet enough, tomatoes in Tennessee are splitting, tobacco in North Carolina is drowning, some watermelon farmers have lost half their crops, and wheat is sprouting too soon, Severson writes. "Mold is growing on ears of corn, and in some fields entire stalks have toppled. Late blight, a funguslike pathogen, is creeping into tomato fields early and with unusual vigor." (Read more)

With forecasts calling for more rain, and a drought in the West. "That could mean higher prices at the grocery store for staples such as melons, tomatoes and cucumbers," Janet Shamlian reports for NBC News. Bernard Weinstein, an agricultural economist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, told Shamlian, “I would expect to see average prices for fruits and vegetables maybe 10 percent higher this fall than they were in the spring or where they are right now just because there’s going to be less supply available.”

Bad harvests could affect entire rural communities. Georgia farmer Duke Lane told Shamlian, "We were picking in water for most of the summer. And so that’s a problem for the peaches — not being picked in the proper time. It’s gonna hurt cause you know money that’s made here rolls over to the community about seven times. That money’s going to be missed.” (Read more)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Contraceptive darts control wild horse population in about half of Western management areas

Josie, a wild mare in Colorado, bore eight foals
in eight years, but over the past decade has been
shot with at least five darts (Photo submitted to E&E)
The wild horse population n the Western U.S. is being controlled one horse at a time through $25 contraceptive darts, but the hard part is tracking down the horses through vast, difficult ranges, Phil Taylor reports for Environment & Energy News. There are about 40,000 wild horses on public land in the West, and the Bureau of Land Management has corralled more than 100,000 in the past 10 years, placing about half in government-funded holding facilities.

Wild horse populations grow 20 percent annually, and experts say the only sustainable solution is an aggressive expansion of fertility control, Taylor writes. Holly Hazard, of the Humane Society of the United States, told Taylor, "We can't gather our way out of it. We can't adopt our way out of it."

"BLM officials are cautiously optimistic that the fertility control program can be expanded to more of the agency's 179 herd management areas, which cover nearly 27 million acres," Taylor writes. "Over the past decade, contraceptive darts have been used on 5,400 wild-horse mares in 87 herd management areas" in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah. Since 2002, when groups first "began darting the herd's mares, reproduction has dropped to more than a dozen foals per year -- less than 10 percent of the herd's 150 horses."

Mares "are darted with the drug porcine zona pellucida, a vaccine derived from pig eggs that changes the shape of receptors on mares' eggs, forcing them to reject sperm. It's about 95 percent effective over the first year," Taylor writes. "The drug, which is also used on elephants and wild deer, is widely supported by animal-rights advocates because it causes very few behavioral changes." (Read more)

Farm policy writer says GOP leader is delaying Farm Bill for use in talks on budget and debt ceiling

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. 
"House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has been instrumental this month in dividing the Farm Bill, stalling the naming of conferees and taking an active role in finding some sort of nutrition sweet spot for his caucus to 'eventually' come to terms on cuts to programs such as food stamps," Chris Clayton writes for DTN The Progressive Farmer. "In the process, he's completely undermined more than two years of work by one of his own chairmen, Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas." 

"Nutrition programs, and the final conference talks on the farm bill, are going to be held hostage this fall for the debt-ceiling debate," Clayton predicts. "Only in the 11th hour, when it looks like those debt-ceiling talks are moving to the brink of another government shutdown, will Cantor decide it's time to advance his pawn. Official conference talks on the farm bill won't happen until the latest debt-ceiling deal determines just what the dollar figure is going to be on nutrition spending."

"Right now, everyone knows the White House and Senate Democrats aren't going to accept the level of cuts the House GOP wants for nutrition programs," Clayton writes. "Thus, there is no point trying to advance a bill if House leaders want to go beyond the $20.5 billion in cuts to food stamps, not negotiate down from that level." (Read more)

Improper payments to dead farmers persist, but are way down; 2 USDA agencies lack preventives

You may already be reading stories about a Government Accountability Office audit saying the Department of Agriculture paid $32 million in crop insurance and conservation aid to dead farmers. That's a lot less than the $1.1 billion that a 2007 GAO audit found had been paid out in six years, most of which was probably paid to estates that were still operating the farms, but that point is not being emphasized in the stories we've seen, or in the audit.

The reason for the sharp decline appears to be a change in USDA policy, which the study mentions only in a footnote: "USDA officials said that since 2009, the agency has assigned payments on behalf of an estate directly to the estate’s heirs, eliminating incentives for heirs to keep an estate open 
to receive payments in excess of their own payment limits."

The $32 million was paid by USDA's Risk Management Agency, which administers crop insurance, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The RMA "does not have procedures in place consistent with federal internal control standards to prevent potentially improper subsidies on behalf of deceased individuals," and NRCS "does not have procedures to prevent potentially improper payments to deceased individuals," the GAO said. It said the agencies need to do more to prevent such payments.

NRCS allows "an executor or other representative to act on his or her behalf to transfer the contract to an eligible successor or to complete the contracted activities," the audit said. It paraphrased NRCS as saying "not all conservation payments to deceased individuals are improper because they may have been made for work performed before the individuals died, or they were associated with easement contracts that became part of the deceased individuals’ estates and remained linked to their Social Security numbers."

USDA's Farm Service Agency, which handles crop subsidies, does have procedures in place to prevent improper payments to the deceased, but a random sample taken by GAO showed "9 percent did not have sufficient support to be coded as proper." A footnote says the error margin means the percentage could be as low as 4 or as high as 16. To read the audit, click here.

College in town of 16,000 gets $250 million gift, says it's the largest ever to a liberal-arts school

"A tiny liberal-arts school in rural Kentucky that hosted vice-presidential debates in 2000 and 2012 announced a $250 million donation Tuesday, one of the largest single gifts in higher-education history," Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press.

"Centre College ... officials said [it] is the largest gift ever to a private liberal-arts college in the United States," Linda Blackford writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Centre, in the Central Kentucky town of Danville (Wikipedia map), has an enrollment of about 1,350.

"The gift, which the college announced this morning at a press conference, is in the form of stock in Universal Computer Systems Holding Inc. (Reynolds and Reynolds) from the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust, the Advocate-Messenger of Danville reports. "It will be used to establish the Brockman Scholars Program in Leadership and Entrepreneurship."

"Each year, 40 Brockman Scholars will receive full scholarships, including tuition, room and board, fees, and stipends to study abroad, Centre President John Roush said. . . . Robert 'Bob' Brockman, the chairman and CEO of Reynolds and Reynolds, is a Centre alumnus and the former chairman of Centre's board of trustees. The trust is named for his father, who died in 1986. . . . Roush said Bob Brockman remains chairman of Reynolds and Reynolds and is confident the company's stock will retain its value," Blackford reports.
Read more here:

Are Internet providers trying to fool Americans into believing broadband is readily available?

Internet providers claim broadband service is readily available across America, when many rural areas still lack access to high-speed Internet, Susan Crawford writes for Salon. "There is a divide between Americans who have a wire at home and those that don’t, a divide between affluent Americans who will be able to pay for cable’s high-capacity (yet still second-class) high-speed connections and those who won’t, and a divide between America as a nation and those countries that have prioritized symmetric fiber access as a widely-available, reasonably-priced utility. All of these divides cast shadows over our nation’s future."

Many companies have switched exclusively to wireless, and have no desire to change anything, she writes. "Because the existing incumbents (i.e., Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, AT&T) are doing very well in their separate worlds, they have no incentive to allow for any loose talk about changing the status quo. Hence, op-eds in mainstream media claiming that the U.S. is doing much better than everybody thinks. America has a series of regional cable monopolies controlling the pricing and capacity of fixed high-speed Internet access (and every other form of data reaching Americans)."

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times: "More than 80 percent of American households live in areas that offer access to broadband networks capable of delivering data with speeds in excess of 100 megabits per second. Almost everyone in the country has several competitive choices for high-speed broadband service (with wireline, satellite and wireless options)."

Crawford said McAdam missed the point. "Northern European and Asian countries are upgrading to advanced fiber Internet access connections to homes and businesses," she writes. "The availability of very-high-capacity, inexpensive communications facilities in those countries will trigger direct and indirect economic and social benefits for their citizens, in the form of increased productivity and new ways of making a living. Here in America, we have no national plans for such an upgrade."

She concludes, "If we had a stagnant market in the U.S. we would be seeing high margins for leading companies that are not losing market share to competitors—and we are. We would be seeing that we are paying more for the same product than people in other countries are—and we are seeing that." (Read more)

Apply by Aug. 12 for 5-day Poynter-IRE workshop on investigating local government at little expense

Al Tompkins
The title of this year's Poynter Institute and Investigative Reporters and Editors Workshop, scheduled for Sept. 16-20 in St. Petersburg, Fla., is "Investigating Local Government on a Shoestring Budget." It will be "an intensive, practical hands-on workshop to teach journalists how to investigate and report on their local governments ... especially focused toward newsrooms that do not have big budgets or staffs to produce exhaustive projects," the Poynter Institute says.

Participants will get hands-on training in how to use spreadsheets and databases, how to use open-government laws and hidden documents, 10 tools to tell the story beyond newspaper pages or the TV screen, and ethical decision-making. The workshop will also focus on examining stories of significance with the help of the journalists who did them, closely examining the records, the methods, and the results that the best investigations produce, and creating solid story ideas.

Mark Horvit
Workshop faculty include: Al Tompkins, senior faculty broadcast and online at Poynter; Mark Horvit, executive director of IRE; Jaimi Dowdell, training director for IRE; John Maines, computer-assisted reporting editor at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel; Kris Hundley, investigative reporter at the Tampa Bay Times; and Nancy Amons, investigative reporter at WSMV in Nashville. More faculty members are expected to be added.

Cost of the workshop is $300, very low for five days of programming thanks to a grant from the Buck Foundation. The deadline to apply is Aug. 12. For more information or to apply click here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Sinclair, whose TV stations reach a lot of rural America, buys into D.C. and a cable news channel

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns or manages with allied companies 149 U.S. television stations, mostly in small and medium-sized markets, is buying seven stations owned by Allbritton Communications, "including WJLA, the coveted ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C.," Brian Stelter reports for The New York Times. "Along with the seven stations, Sinclair will take control of NewsChannel 8, Allbritton’s local cable news channel in Washington. Sinclair said that it would explore the rollout of a national cable news channel using NewsChannel 8 as its core."

"The other six stations, all affiliates of ABC, are much smaller," Stelter notes. They are in Birmingham (the 42nd largest market), Harrisburg, Pa. (43rd), Little Rock (56th), Tulsa (59th), Roanoke (68th) and Charleston, S.C. (98th). Washington is the eighth largest market.

"With the addition of the Allbritton stations, Sinclair estimated that it would reach 38.2 percent of households in the United States. Public-interest groups might object to the deal, partly because it furthers a consolidation trend and partly because Sinclair’s newscasts have been accused in the past of showing bias toward Republican and conservative causes." (Read more) "Think of it as a mini-Fox News," which does some good work but has an ownership that is plainly biased, writes David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun, in Sinclair's hometown. He also says talk of a cable news channel is premature.

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers inaugurates a very rural president

A lawyer from a town of less than 2,500 and a county of 17,000 is the new president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Jerry J. Cox of Mount Vernon, Ky., took office July 27 at the group's annual meeting in San Francisco. The 55-year-old group provided The Rural Blog addresses for its last 25 presidents; none were rural.

Cox is a sole practitioner who has been a lawyer for more than 40 years and "has published and lectured extensively on criminal law issues," the group said in a news release. He received the Nelson Mandela Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, which supervises public defenders, and has served on many state and national committees. He is a 1968 law graduate of the University of Kentucky and a 1965 graduate of Berea College, a few miles north of Mount Vernon. (Photo by Bud Kraft)

Cox told the gathering, “We must expand our advocacy and our commitment to elevate the advocacy of the defense bar on behalf of our returning veterans,” and also said he would continue NACDL’s efforts to address racial disparities in criminal justice and proper support for public defenders. “No person should ever stand before a court when liberty is at stake or when a conviction may be entered without the assistance of a fully qualified, adequately resourced lawyer.” (Read more)

EPA bigwigs say water is safe to drink, but internal reports note methane and mineral pollution

Over the past year, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency have declared that drinking water in suspect wells is safe, despite being warned that "several wells had been contaminated with methane and substances such as manganese and arsenic, most likely because of local natural-gas production," and that further testing was needed, according to an internal EPA PowerPoint presentation obtained by Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times. (Times photo by Caroline Cole: A natural gas well near Dimock, Pa.)

The presentation was based on data collected over four and a half years at 11 wells around Dimock, Pa., where the EPA closed an investigation into groundwater pollution, saying the level of contamination was below federal safety triggers. The presentation found that "methane and other gases released during drilling (including air from the drilling) apparently cause significant damage to the water quality," and "Methane is at significantly higher concentrations in the aquifers after gas drilling and perhaps as a result of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and other gas-well work," Banerjee reports.

EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson told Banerjee, "This presentation represents one (on-scene coordinator's) thoughts regarding 12 samples and was not shared with the public because it was a preliminary evaluation that requires additional assessment in order to ascertain its quality and validity. The sampling and an evaluation of the particular circumstances at each home did not indicate levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action." The presentation isn't the only one to raise concerns about drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation; a Duke University study that looked at 141 private water wells near natural gas production found methane in 82 percent of the samples.

"The presentation provides charts for nine of the 11 Dimock-area wells, tracking natural-gas production work in the area and the concentration of methane and metals over a four- to five-year period, depending on the well," Banerjee reports. "Some wells underwent a 'short-term disruption,' or a rise in methane in the water six to eight months after nearby gas development activity. Over two or three years, the concentration of methane fell. Four other wells experienced long-term disruption to their water quality. In those instances, methane levels did not fall over time but remained high after an initial increase or began to climb after a period of decline. The presence of metals such as manganese and arsenic also rose over time in some of those wells."

Dimock isn't the only area where scientists have concerns. "In March 2012, the EPA closed an investigation of methane in drinking water in Parker County, Texas, although the geologist hired by the regulator confirmed that the methane was from gas production," Banerjee reports. "In late June, the EPA dropped a study of possible contamination of drinking water in Pavillion, Wyo., despite its earlier findings of carcinogens, hydrocarbons and other contaminants in the water."

Kate Sinding of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, told Banerjee, "We don't know what's going on, but certainly the fact that there's been such a distinct withdrawal from three high-profile cases raises questions about whether the EPA is caving to pressure from industry or antagonistic members of Congress." Or, perhaps, looking over its shoulder at the White House, which looks favorably on the natural-gas boom. (Read more)

Census offers fresh data by congressional district

My Congressional District is a new tool that provides access to updated U.S. Census Bureau statistics from the American Community Survey, the bureau's ongoing survey of the American population.

Users can search by district for data on age, race, ethnicity, the number of residents born in the U.S. or the state, the ancestry of the district's population, the number of veterans and disabled, and where residents lived one year ago -- a very good tool to track migration.

To use the tool, type in the name of a state, and the district number (a map shows how each state's districts are broken up), then scroll through the available statistics. To use the tool click here.

Newspapers large and small inform readers (and even non-subscribers) about health-care reform

In about two months, states and the federal government will open online marketplaces for health insurance, which will also offer subsidies based on income – and the opportunity for the poor to enroll in the Medicaid program in states that have expanded it above the poverty level. By March 31, almost all Americans will be required to have health insurance or pay a penalty.

These steps will implement the health-reform law that Congress passed in 2010 and that even the White House calls Obamacare. It will be one of the most complex and challenging changes in American society since World War II, and newspapers are starting to help their readers get ready for it.

But such reporting is not, and should not be, solely the province of metropolitan newspapers. Last week the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., published a 10-page special section on health-care reform. The front page had an overall story on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, based on information gathered at a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce informational meeting, and a sidebar on the penalties and subsidies, with a box on each. Inside were several other stories, mainly from Kentucky Health News, and lots of ads from health-care providers.

The really special thing about the special section was that Editor and Publisher Sharon Burton sent the edition containing it to every household in Adair County, using the postal regulation that allows newspapers to send 10 percent of their annual circulation to non-subscribers at subscriber rates. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues has long urged local newspapers to do this with their health sections, because there is a big overlap among people who most need such information and people who do not subscribe to their local newspaper. Newspapers can sell enough ads to cover the extra printing and postage costs, or even sell a sponsorship for the additional circulation.

"Information about health care reform has come in bits and pieces and most of us probably really don't understand it with any depth," Burton told us in an email. "I jumped at the opportunity to attend the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Health Care Reform Summit because the agenda looked excellent and it has been difficult to get a good overview of how health care reform will impact our local businesses and individuals. We originally planned a total-market issue in June but had to delay it until July. We decided to delay the health care reform section as well so that it could go to everyone. We've had numerous compliments from readers who had said it was the best compilation of information they have seen in one place."

To download the Community Voice's health-care reform section, as a PDF of approximately 10 MB, click here.The section is business-oriented, because Burton got much of her information at a Chamber of Commerce seminar. Broader sources include, the main federal site on the topic; the Kaiser Family Foundation, at; and the state agencies running the insurance exchanges. One good thrice-weekly publisher, Willie Sawyers of The Sentinel-Echo in London, Ky., reports good results from a special health section of 11 half-page units and alternate covers, prepared by Green Shoot Media, which specializes in special sections.

Most Kansas counties are now in program offering incentives to draw out-of-staters to rural places

A Kansas program designed to boost rural populations by giving tax incentives and help repaying student loans to people moving in from out of state will add 23 more counties to the program in 2014, bringing the total number of counties to 73 of the state's 105 counties. The Rural Opportunity Zones program had been focused on the western part of the state, but will now add more counties in other parts of Kansas, Brent Wistrom reports for The Wichita Eagle. (Photo by Fort Scott Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Center: Fort Scott, Kansas)

"The program abates income taxes for up to five years for anyone who lived outside of Kansas for more than five years, hasn't earned more than $10,000 in Kansas-based income for five years and moves into an opportunity zone county," Wistrom reports. "Eighty-three taxpayers have claimed the Rural Opportunity Zone tax credit on their 2012 tax returns, with $234,000 in credit claimed."

Wistrom adds, "In many of the counties, people can also get up to $15,000 worth of student loans repaid if they recently moved into a rural county, got a degree and have remaining student loan debt." At least 864 people from 39 states have applied for the student-loan repayment; 510 have been approved, while 125 more are pending. (Read more)

Sparsely populated counties, such as Clay, population 8,500, are pleased to be included in the program. "Clay County commissioners are considering signing on for the student-loan program, which requires the county to match any loan repayment with the state of Kansas," reports the Clay Center Dispatch.  Economic Development Group director Lori Huber told the Dispatch, “I think it’s a great opportunity. And I’m glad Clay County is now being able to be included in it.”

Bourbon County, pop. 15,000, and Grant County, pop. 8,000, were among those added. Grant County Economic Development Director Bob Dale said in a press release, "Grant County commissioners enthusiastically passed the resolution to participate in the student-loan repayment option at their first opportunity, and here at Economic Development we already have a ROZ inquiry that looks promising to bring us a new restaurant. It is a great program for rural Kansas," Laurie Sisk reports for The Fort Scott Tribune. (Counties with stars have signed up for the Student Loan Repayment Program.)

USDA to hold discussions in each state on how to bring broadband to rural communities

One goal of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program is to bring broadband access to more rural subscribers. To do that, officials will have a series of regional discussions in every state with stakeholders to address broadband infrastructure needs in rural communities, Tom Steever reports for Brownfield.

USDA official Doug O'Brien
Doug O’Brien, acting agriculture undersecretary for the program, told Steever that the agency wants “to determine if there are certain action points that the group needs to accomplish to make sure that the state and regions in the state make the most of this new asset."

"For many years, USDA has been putting resources into getting broadband services into rural areas," Steever writes. O'Brien said the next step is to determine how Internet services will be used. He told Steever, “What we’ve been doing at USDA is not only helping to finance broadband, but more and more we’re helping to convene and bring people together and educate about the opportunities once a small business or hospital or school adopts that Internet.” (Read more; to listen to the interview click here)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

If a big newspaper has little local-news competition from television, it can be a community newspaper

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

When my former assistant Amy Wilson told me last year she was headed back to the Orange County Register, and informed me of the goings-on there, I said, "It sounds like America's largest community newspaper." A few days ago Rory Carroll of The Guardian wrote in his report on the Register, "Staff call it America's biggest community newspaper."  The reasons Rory suggested were different than mine, but they are complementary, and all may be necessary for our near-identical appellations to be true -- and for Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz, owners of the Register for one year now, to be successful.

The staff's description of the paper was embedded in this Guardian passage: " . . . the key is local news, especially topics such as faith, schools, sports, food and crime. It has about 30 photographers, including trainees. . . . It runs 175 weekly reports, with colour photos, of high school sports – everything, girls and boys, football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis. A separate section covers high school arts. The paper also offered full subscribers a 'golden envelope' allowing them to donate $100 of advertising to their favourite charity."

My description of the Register (circulation 130,000, Sundays 300,000) is based not only on its local focus, but its strong grip on the local-news franchise in Orange County, a market of 4 million people that gets scant coverage from the Los Angeles TV stations and, probably, the Los Angeles Times. If people in Orange County want a lot of news about Orange County, they pretty much have to read the Register, one of its 28 geographic-based weeklies or, soon, the new daily paper that Kushner and Spitz are planning in Long Beach.

The Register's circumstances probably mean that its bold experiment (doubling the size of its news staff to 360, for example) can't be replicated at most metropolitan papers, but it does demonstrate that market-to-market differences provide opportunities for experimentation and exploitation -- and that the skills of community and rural journalism can serve large newspapers, too. For the rest of Rory's story, click here.

Longtime rural hospital boss urges doctors not to resist recruitment of more local colleagues

With the rural doctor shortage about to be exacerbated by federally subsidized health insurance and some states' expansion of Medicaid, there will be more competition than ever to recruit physicians, especially to rural communities. Some doctors resist such recruitment, but they are short-sighted, writes Stephen Meredith, former chief executive officer of Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center in Leitchfield, Ky.

Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center
"When I became CEO of TLRMC in 1983 our local hospital had seven doctors on its medical staff, so the first order of business was the recruitment of additional physicians, or so I thought. When this idea was presented to the collective medical staff it with was met with a resounding 'NO.' The medical staff’s concern was recruitment would hurt them financially by further 'dividing the pie' of a finite number of patients," Meredith writes for The Record in Leitchfield.

But many more doctors were recruited (now more than 30), and the old doctors realized it was a good thing, Meredith writes: "Two of the more vocal physicians against recruitment later acknowledged the addition of more physicians, especially specialists, made their own practices even busier than before. In defense of these men, they were so busy seeing patients in their practices, they had to believe they were seeing everyone who possibly needed medical care. However, they had no idea how many people were leaving our community for health care because of the shortage of physicians."

The phenomenon extends to other lines of work, Meredith notes: "What occurred within our medical community was recognized and theorized by John Nash as the theory of economic equilibrium for which he won the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics. His theory, in essence, is when we all work together for everyone’s mutual benefit rather than just our own, in the long-run, everyone benefits by expanding the 'size of the pie.' No one wins when it comes at the expense of others, but everyone wins when we take a broader view of our community and purposefully commit to pursuing initiatives which leave no one behind. After all, we are all in this together." (Read more)