Saturday, August 25, 2007

Kentucky passes synfuel incentives for coal industry, amid warning of a reckoning

The Kentucky General Assembly this week passed new incentives for plants to make synthetic fuel from coal, over objections of Appalachian residents who said the bill, among other things, would lead to more strip mining of coal through mountaintop removal. But their pleas did find some receptive ears, writes Ronnie Ellis, the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. correspondent in the state capital of Frankfort.

"Tom Fitzgerald of the Kentucky Resources Council . . . warns a day of reckoning is coming when mandated reductions in carbon emissions which are warming our planet will dramatically increase the costs of coal-generated electricity. Lawmakers respect Fitzgerald, courteously listen to him, and then vote against his counsel. At least they listen. And this week, it appeared others got through to lawmakers about the devastation of coal mining. Members of the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth were eloquent and moving in their condemnation of coal and its effects on their lives and the environment – eloquent enough that several lawmakers asked to go and see for themselves."

Ellis gives the pro-industry arguments from coalfield legislators, and sums up with a song lyric from a friend: "As a flatlander who has never depended on the livelihood provided by coal mining nor lived near its destruction, I don’t possess any answers. There seems a high price for coal but its backers promise a high return. Still, the debate this week reminded me of a lyric in a song Mitch Jayne wrote for The Dillards: 'Promises are words for things they never do. Mountains are promises come true.'" (Read more)

Friday, August 24, 2007

In face of immigration crackdowns, farmers turn to inmates for labor in Southwest

For $2 an hour, low-security inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes harvest watermelons in Arizona, where farmers have been using prison labor for almost 20 years. The demand for the inmate workforce is growing as state and federal governments crack down on the use of undocumented workers, writes Nicole Hill of The Christian Science Monitor (who took the photo).

Hill reports that a similar program has begun in Colorado, another is being considered in Iowa, and the Arizona program has never been more in demand, especially since farmers there face state fines for employing undocumented workers. The program allows cleared prisoners — about 3,300 of the state’s 37,000 prisoners — to work on private land for a minimum of $2 per hour, Hill writes. The requests for labor far outnumber the ability of the Arizona Department of Corrections to fill them, Hill writes, so “the ADC is considering innovative solutions – including satellite prisons.”

The program has detractors, such as the United Farm Workers of America and the Western Growers Association. Hill reports that the UFWA sees a food-safety concern in the use of prison labor, while the WGA says the situation points to an even greater need for a “legal, stable workforce.” (Read more)

Coal operator Murray has a history of conflict with regulators

Robert E. Murray has become a household name since the accident at his Murray Energy Co.’s Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah on Aug. 6, and with that recognition has come increased scrutiny from major newspapers. We hope smaller newspapers and broadcast stations in or near the coalfields do likewise.

In The New York Times, Susan Saulny and Carolyn Marshall explore Murray’s record as a mine owner, and they found a history of “run-ins” with government and others over climate change, labor disputes and safety.

The article points to a 2003 conviction of one of Murray’s companies, Ken American Resources, in Western Kentucky. In addition to the company, the federal court jury “four current or former employees on charges of conspiracy, lying and violating safety laws pertaining to dust levels at a mine in western Kentucky from 1996 to 2000.” Saulny and Marshall write that the employees “faced fines of up to $1.4 million, but the company appealed and paid roughly $300,000.”

The article also disputes Murray’s claim that none of his miners ever died in an accident, by highlighting the case of Thomas M. Ciszewski, who bled to death in the Powhatan No. 6 mine in Alledonia, Ohio. Murray’s Ohio Valley Coal Co. was fined $15,000 since there “was not adequate first aid” to treat Ciszewski after his arm was cut off by a conveyor belt. (Read more)

In the Los Angeles Times, Jon Harmon examines the public relations maneuvers of Murray after the accident. (Read more)

Meanwhile, miners also die at surface mines. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has fined Tri-Star Mining $180,000 for violations that contributed to an accident in Barton, Md., on April 17 that resulted in the death of two employees, according to an MSHA release. The two miners were trapped under about 93,000 tons of rock and material when a highwall collapsed in the pit where they were working, an accident that could have been prevented, the agency said.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

New rule aimed at removing legal barriers to mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal

Mountaintop removal — the practice of using explosives to blast away the tops of mountains to expose coal for strip mining — has been used controversially in Central Appalachia "under a cloud of legal and regulatory confusion" for decades, and now has found the support of the White House, reports The New York Times.

The Bush administration will approve a new regulation that will allow mountaintop removal to continue and expand, in an effort to encourage mining companies to increase output to meet increased demand, reports John M. Broder. The new rule, drafted by the Office of Surface Mining in the Interior Department, would require only “that mine operators minimize the debris and cause the least environmental harm, although those terms are not clearly defined and to some extent merely restate existing law,” Broder writes.

That “environmental harm” is at the forefront of the mountaintop-removal debate, since the mining generates tons of waste that must be deposited somewhere, usually in valleys and headwater streams near mines. The new rule limits the protection of these areas from dumping. “Environmental activists say the rule change will lead to accelerated pillage of vast tracts and the obliteration of hundreds of miles of streams in central Appalachia," Broder writes.

Broder's story is a good summary of a complex issue, but he slips on at least one point, saying that the environmental impact statement for the rule says that under it, "another 724 river miles will be buried by 2018." The streams that are buried don't come close to being rivers. (Read more)

Likewise, an otherwise good graphic with the story says, "Coal companies are supposed to reclaim land, but native trees have trouble growing on disturbed topsoil." That implies that only restoration of forest would accomplish reclamation. The law requires only "vegetative cover," and that typically is grass -- although recent research has found that with less soil compaction, trees can be more easily grown on mined land.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Coal industry could have prevented mine deaths with investment in devices, weekly's editorial says

As the rescue effort at the Crandall Canyon Mine of Murray Energy Corp. in Utah remained halted, leaving six miners trapped and probably dead, The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., continued to offer some of the sharpest criticism about the current state of mine safety in the United States.

In this week’s edition, an editorial listed the names of the 63 miners killed nationwide since Jan. 1, 2006, as well as the six miners still missing in Utah. “It's a terrible toll -- 70 miners in all -- and one that should be unacceptable, because fatality-by-fatality reviews show that most of these deaths could have been prevented by a combination of systematic risk assessment, conscientious mine management, diligent regulatory enforcement, and adoption of technologies that are taken for granted elsewhere,” the editorial said.

The editorial suggested key links between recent coal mining deaths: a lack of advanced emergency breathing and communication devices in mines. The Eagle said miners aren’t given adequate training with breathing devices, called Self-Contained Self-Rescuers, and that the models in use in these mines have been rendered “obsolete.” In addition, the editorial said miners lack a system for two-way communication in mines. Legislation passed after the Sago Mine disaster of January 2006 has mandated the installation of such systems, but not until 2009, and the editorial said progress has been slow on that front. (Read more)

Meanwhile, a friend of one of the miners trapped in the Crandall Canyon mine confronted mine co-owner Bob Murray yesterday at a funeral for one of the three rescue workers killed at the mine, The Associated Press reports. The man "handed Murray a dollar bill" and said, "This is just to help you out so you don't kill him." AP reports, "Murray's head snapped back as if slapped." Here is CNN video.

The episode "revealed more than just the frustration of people in this mining community in central Utah's coal belt, where most still speak in whispers when criticizing the officials whose businesses pay their bills," AP reports. "Critics are now openly calling the mine a disaster waiting to happen and pointing fingers at Murray Energy Corp. and the federal government as the agents of the tragedy." (Read more)

Today, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Murray and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration made a risky change to the mining plan of the previous owner, contrary to statements by Murray. MSHA approved Murray's proposal in only seven business days, Robert Gehrke reports. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

W.Va. county narrowly approves adding table games to slots at racetrack; foe seeks recount

A dog-racing track near Charleston, W.Va., which already has slot machines, hopes to add casino table games following apparent, narrow approval by voters in a countywide referendum -- the third and last such vote in the Mountain State this year, and part of a regional trend that could encourage casinos in Ohio and Kentucky.

The outcome of the Aug. 11 referendum was in doubt for another week, as a recanvass widened the 33-vote margin to 343. The final tally was "23,192 in favor of allowing poker, craps, roulette and other casino-style games at Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center, and 22,849 against," reported Tara Tuckwiller of The Charleston Gazette. (Read more) Opponents split on a recount; the West Virginia Family Foundation said it wouldn't change the results, but the West Virginia Council of Churches said it would pay for a recount, reports Mike Waterhouse of WSAZ-TV. (Read more)

The state's four tracks, which have had slots for several years, won legislative approval for table games this year, after Pennsylvania authorized slots statewide and Maryland continued to discuss allowing slots at tracks. The only West Virginia county to reject table games was prosperous Jefferson, at the state's eastern tip. The other two approvals came in the Northern Panhandle, close to Pennsylvania.

The expansion of gaming in the two states is expected to increase pressure for it in Ohio, where voters have twice rejected casinos, and Kentucky, where Democratic gubernatorial nominee Steve Beshear is pushing for a statewide referendum and leading in polls against Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher. After Beshear won the primary, the governor dropped his hands-off stance on the issue and said he would fight casinos. This week he launched a television ad campaign built around a recent tour he made to states with casinos.

Television chains rushing to create Web sites for high-school sports, invading local media province

Coverage of high-school sports has long been a staple, and an important audience-builder, for local news media. Now local outlets are getting more competition from national media chains, and they could have an impact in rural areas.

"Within days of each other, three media companies . . . launched Web brands aimed at high school sports," writes Katy Bachman of MediaWeek, reporting on the latest site to be announced, by Hearst-Argyle Television, "Emmis Communications, partnering with the Indiana High School Athletic Association launched a statewide brand, Belo [Corp.] launched in six of its markets, with plans to roll out the site out to all the company’s markets by the end of this month."

Hearst-Argyle plans to launch the site in all 25 of its markets and "to syndicate the site in markets where it doesn’t own stations, with the goal of reaching 100 markets by August 2009," Bachman reports. "One of the main signatures of Playbook are the specially trained student sideline reporters, at least 10 in each market, who will not only contribute video coverage but serve as the face and voice of the community . . . equipped with Canon HV20 high-definition camcorders, provided by Canon, the first sponsor of the site. The site is also heavy on social networking with MySpace- and Facebook-like community tools including personal profile pages, team pages, school pages, SMS voting and other 'mashable' content." (Read more)

Bush administration crackdown on illegals raises nationwide concern about labor for harvests

The Bush administration, under political pressure to show toughness after failure of its immigration bill, says it is cracking down on employers of illegal immigrants. That has helped spread worries about lack of farm labor to harvest crops this year to all corners of the country, including the apple orchards of the Hudson River valley in New York. "There are new fears in New York and around the nation over whether there will be enough hands to pick the crop," Lisa Foderaro of The New York Times reports from Hamptonburgh, N.Y, where Jonamac apples are being harvested in the photo by the Times' Joyce Dopkeen.

"Nationwide, growers’ associations estimate that about 70 percent of farmworkers are illegal immigrants, many of them using fake Social Security numbers on their applications. Under the new rules, if the Social Security Administration finds that an applicant’s information does not match its database, employers could be required to fire the worker or risk being fined up to $10,000 for knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant," Foderaro writes. "Growers say that only 2 percent of farmworkers nationwide come from the current guest-worker program, which, they say, is plagued by red tape, low capacity and delays." (Read more)

The Department of Homeland Security "first proposed the regulations in June 2006 but then failed to implement them while an immigration-overhaul made its way to the Senate floor," reports June Kronholz of The Wall Street Journal. "That bill collapsed in part because of a public outcry over the administration's lax enforcement of immigration laws already on the books." (Read more)

The American Farm Bureau Federation, after first saying that it welcomed the new regulations, had a conference call for its leaders with administration officials last Thursday, Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network reports. "There have been concerns in agriculture that the latest rules will cause an even greater shortage of farm labor, especially in fruit and vegetable-growing areas," Meyer reports. "Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation president, Bill Bruins says that concern came up in the conference call and while the White House acknowledged the problem, they have every intention to push-ahead with the enforcement." (Read more)

Monday, August 20, 2007

As feds focus on fighting terror, Indians and Seattle P-I say fight against drugs on reservations suffers

"While the FBI turns its attention to preventing another 9/11, drug traffickers are exploiting the vacuum. The result: A drug epidemic and related crime wave are plaguing Indian communities," report Paul Shukovsky and Daniel Lathrop in today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "White House cuts to the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration have been disastrous for tribes -- in part because the bureau in Indian Country acts like a local police department, making the felony arrests," the P-I reports. "Tribal police don't have legal authority to arrest non-Indians or charge anyone with felonies. And the maximum term in reservation jails is one year." The big problem drug: methamphetamine.

Justice Department records studied by the P-I show that the FBI has had 27 percent less investigative activity on Indian reservations since Sept. 11, 2001 -- "mirroring the transfer of more than 2,000 agents nationwide to counterterrorism duties, and a related sharp decline of investigations into white-collar crime, police abuse and civil rights violations," Shukovsky and Lathrop report.

"Officially, the FBI maintains that the number of agents assigned to Indian Country has increased by 7 percent, and that the number of indictments handed down has remained steady. But special agents in the field, former FBI administrators and federal prosecutors say the real picture is bleak. They say agents who would normally respond to reservation crimes aren't doing it as much because of a domino effect of the FBI being saddled with homeland security matters. And they say federal investigations on most reservations have failed to keep pace with burgeoning crime." (Read more)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Number of gun dealers down 79% since 1994; laws led many small ones to close in rural areas

"The number of federally licensed firearms dealers has fallen 79 percent nationwide since 1994, when Congress passed " new gun-control measures that still spark fiery debate," reports Michael Doyle of the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

"In 1994, there were 245,628 U.S. residents holding federal licenses to sell firearms," Doyle reports from Washington. "Now, there are 50,630 of the so-called Type 1 federal firearms licenses nationwide. "The decline in licenses began after Congress approved in 1993 the so-called Brady Bill, named for former White House press secretary James Brady, who was wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan. The 1993 law, and a subsequent 1994 anti-crime law, imposed new restrictions."

Firearms licenses now cost $200 for three years, not $10 for one year, and "applicants now must submit photographs and fingerprints and inform local police of their plans. In many cases, those losing licenses were so-called 'kitchen table' dealers, who operated from their homes rather than from formal storefronts."

"Smaller shops simply can't afford some of that," National Rifle Association spokesperson Ashley Varner told Doyle. "People in rural areas have a harder time getting firearms if they aren't near a large store." Still, "Justice Department records indicate total firearm sales have remained roughly even." (Read more)

Rural providers recruit local citizens, get outside help to fill gaps in health-care workforces

"Frontier and rural health care providers looking for innovative ways to solve increasing workforce shortages are sometimes finding that help is as near as their own backyards: by recruiting and training local people to be health care professionals in their communities," reports Candi Helseth in the Summer edition of The Rural Monitor.

The story cites examples from Nevada, Alaska and Maryland. In the photograph, Dr. Christine Alarcon, left, and assistant Lisa Windsor treat a three-year-old patient at the only dental clinic for low-income children in Dorchester County, on Maryland's isolated Eastern Shore. Community groups "negotiated a deal with Alleghany College in western Maryland to reserve two spots for Eastern Shore students in its dental hygiene program. . . . Students were required to commit to practicing at least two years on the Eastern Shore."

The University of Nevada "developed a medical student rotation program to introduce students to rural practice and, at the same time, provide more services to those communities," and directors of a frontier hospital in Alaska "picked up the bill for hospital employees to become registered nurses," Helseth writes. (Read more) The Rural Monitor is published by the federally funded Rural Assistance Center, a collaboration of the University of North Dakota Center for Rural Health, the Rural Policy Research Institute and the Office of Rural Health Policy in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Rural intersections in Wisconsin deadlier than busy ones in urban areas, newspaper study finds

Intersections in northeastern Wisconsin were deadlier "than more congested urban intersections in recent years," Karen Lincoln Michel and Ben Jones report for Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers after studying state records for a 10-county area and the rest of the state from 1994 through 2005. About 80 percent of the 422 crashes at intersections were on roads the state classifies as rural. "Statewide, 70 percent of all fatal crashes at intersections occurred on rural roads," Lincoln and Jones report.

Two reasons seem to be two kinds of speed: faster driving in rural areas, and fast suburban growth. "The speed at which traditionally rural areas are transitioning to far-flung suburbs, boosting travel pressure on narrow country roads, is outpacing government’s ability to make upgrades," they write. "Although the majority of deadly crashes happen on local roads, they get a minority of the federal funds aimed at preventing deaths."

The story, which points out several problem intersections, can be done by any reporter in any state, using data collected by state transportation agencies and the U.S. Department of Transportation. (Read more)