Saturday, September 22, 2007

Editor-publisher in Jena, La., says his community and his newspaper are not racist

The editor and publisher of The Jena Times wrote this week that he and his son stopped giving interviews to national news media after the British Broadcasting Corp. "twisted everything that was said to make us look like fools" and an unnamed U.S. news outlet's report of a later interview "was twisted to the point that we did not even recognize it."

In an editorial headlined "Editor addresses a world audience," Sammy Franklin, right, defended his town and LaSalle Parish against media representations of racism in light of the "Jena Six" case that prompted protesters from all over the nation and journalists from much of the globe to converge on the town of 3,000 on Thursday. He said racists in the parish, which is 12 percent black, are "few and far between." He also defended his weekly newspaper, saying it had reported the truth about the controversy and treated African Americans with equality since he bought it in 1968. (Read more)

For the paper's advance story on the protest, its report on recent court action involving one of the Jena Six, and its chronology of events, click here. Franklin's son, Assistant Editor Craig Franklin, wrote in his column, "Lost in all of the racial headlines is the fact that the school, despite all the distractions it has faced in the past year, managed to exceed all projections for academic growth and is listed with the highest academic rating that a school can achieve." (Read more) For a balanced and comprehensive profile of Jena, from Todd Lewan of The Associated Press, click here. For an update of events since Thursday, from Abbey Brown of The Town Talk, the daily paper in nearby Alexandria, click here. UPDATE: For an interview with Paul Carty, executive editor of The Town Talk, by Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute, click here.

More farming in East needed to counter risks of demand for water in West and ethanol belt?

More U.S. agriculture needs to return to the eastern half of the country to head off two big challenges facing the nation -- increasing demand for water for ethanol production in the Upper Midwest and for development in the increasingly arid but still-growing West, two atmospheric scientists write in today's New York Times.

"Returning agricultural production to the Eastern United States under irrigation would be efficient and environmentally sound," write Richard McNider and John Christy of the University of Alabama-Huntsville. "In the West, at least three to four feet of water per acre is needed every year to produce a good crop. In the East, only a few inches of irrigated water per acre are needed, because of the region’s heavier rainfall."

However, because stream flows in the East "fall to critically low levels in the summer . . . the federal government will need to provide money to help farmers build storage ponds to catch winter water," the scientists write. "Without a government role, Eastern farmers may decide instead to forgo storage ponds and irrigate on-demand from low-flow summer streams or from ground water. Neither strategy is sustainable or good for the environment." (Read more)

Environmentalists say Iowa not regulating factory hog farms, ask EPA to take over

Three environmental groups have filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arguing that Iowa officials have failed for three decades to enforce rules limiting water pollution from the hog industry, and thus should no longer be allowed to enforce federal laws and regulations upon the industry.

Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement claim the industry is illegally discharging millions of gallons of hog waste that is damaging water quality and killing fish. "If the state will not properly enforce and implement the Clean Water Act in Iowa, then the state should no longer be allowed to administer the program," Pam Mackey-Taylor, chairwoman of Iowa's chapter of the Sierra Club said at a news conference outside the offices of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "That is why we want the EPA to take over the administration of the program in Iowa." (Photo of ICCI member Virgil Henricksen of Audubon protesting at the news conference by John Gaps III of the Des Moines Register.)

Department Director Richard Leopold told the Register's Perry Beeman, ""I do not think we are doing things that are in violation of the Clean Water Act. We are talking about interpretations."
Department spokesman Kevin Baskins told The Associated Press that the agency "has been particularly diligent to try to cope with an industry that has grown by leaps and bounds."

Perry Beeman reports for the Register, "The state hasn't issued any federal sewage permits to livestock confinements but has issued them to 100 of the approximately 1,500 open feedlots registered in Iowa. Leopold said his agency is waiting for the EPA to sort out recent court decisions that affect the program, though the EPA has said the state should act now." EPA is required to respond in writing to the petition, but there is no deadline for a reply. (Read more)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Many praise gritty ad campaign for steep decline in meth use in Montana

Methamphetamine use has fallen 66 percent among high school students and 70 percent among adults in Montana over the past few years, reports The Billings Gazette. Citing state surveys, Jennifer McKee and Noelle Straub report that 4.6 percent of high school students used meth at least once last year, a drop from 13 percent in 1999. That news, coupled with the 70 percent drop in adult use of meth over the past two years, has leaders praising The Montana Meth Project and its gritty ad campaign, McKee and Straub write.

The results have been "more significant than any prevention effort in history," project founder Thomas Siebel said at a Washington news conference with Montana's congressional delegation. In the last two years, Montana has gone from fifth nationally in per-capita meth use to 39th, and its meth-related crime rate has fallen by 53 percent. Meanwhile, adult meth use increased by 6 percent in Wyoming and 8 percent in South Dakota over the last two years.

"The Montana Meth Project is the two-year-old campaign that features graphic television, radio and billboard ads showing the effects of meth use, including rotten teeth, wasted and pock-marked bodies and losing one's virginity in a dirty bathroom," McKee and Straub write. Siebel, who funded the project, told the Senate Finance Committee that 10 more states could have their own with $40 million in federal funding. (Read more) To view the 12 television ads of The Montana Meth Project, go here. To see the print ads, go here. (Note: The ads are very graphic.)

Wal-Mart responds to its critics with new health-insurance plans for employees

A new health plan from Wal-Mart offers employees more coverage and cheap prescriptions, but some critics say the plan remains too expensive for many, reports The New York Times. (Photo of Wal-Mart pharmacy by Jay Westcott of The Associated Press.)

The plan "will look a lot like that offered by many other American companies, but with some twists that even longtime critics described as innovative," writes Michael Barbaro. As the nation's largest private employer — and a key fixture in rural America — Wal-Mart had drawn criticism for the health plans it offered employees. The new plan features premiums as low as $5 per month and makes 2,400 generic drugs available at $4 a prescription.

The low premiums come with annual deductibles as high as $2,000, a hefty price for the many employees that make less than $20,000 a year, Barbaro writes. And some plans include waiting periods that could last a year for new employees. Workers can customize the plan to their needs in one of 50 ways, such as paying higher monthly premiums to reduce the annual deductible. Currently, about 125,000 Wal-Mart employees (about 10 percent) do not have any health care coverage. About 636,000 already receive coverage from Wal-Mart. (Read more)

Missouri dedicates its first wind-energy farm

In northwest Missouri, the Bluegrass Ridge Wind Farm (in a photo by Richard Oswald for the Daily Yonder) became a reality thanks to the cooperation of local landowners, reports Brownfield Network.

The push to create this wind farm, the state's first, began with Tom Carnahan, the son of former Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan and the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. But he told Brownfield's Julie Harker that nothing could have happened without local support. "Getting the landowners in the community, their support and involvement is key," Carnahan said. "It doesn't matter how good your wind is, if a community doesn't want a wind farm there, there's not gonna be one."

The farm's 27 turbines sit on 8,000 acres. The energy they create will be purchased by Associated Electric Cooperative. John Deere Wind Energy and Carnahan’s Wind Capital Group worked together to build the farm, which was dedicated this week. Two other Missouri wind farms are being developed. (Read more)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Some rural counties lose population from both outmigration and deaths exceeding births

In the 1990s, the population of many rural counties rose because of in-migration and natural increase (more births than deaths). But in this decade, more rural counties' populations are declining because some are seeing a reversal in both those trends. Nearly 500 rural counties' populations are falling due to both outmigration and as the death rate overtakes the birth rate, reports the Daily Yonder.

As seen in the map by Department of Agriculture demographer Calvin Beale and Kathleen Kassle, the darkest counties are those with this "double whammy." This condition, “which did not did not arise overnight, poses difficult development challenges,” Beale told the Daily Yonder. (Read more)

West Virginia miner dies in coal mine where inspections were missed

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors had gone more than five months without doing a complete review of safety at a coal mine in Logan County, West Virginia, where a worker died on Sunday, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

MSHA must perform a "
complete inspection of every underground coal mine once per quarter," but inspectors had missed those inspections in the last two quarters at the Mountaineer II Mine of Arch Coal Inc., Ward reports. On Sunday, Robert D. Fraley, 53, died after he fell about 350 feet down an airshaft that was under construction. This was the second time in September that a miner died in a West Virginia mine where inspections had been missed. It also was the second fatal shaft-construction accident nationally in the last six weeks. MSHA reports that shaft construction has the highest accident rates of all coal-ming work.

Ward explains that while federal officials had conducted many “spot inspections,” those reviews are not as thorough as the required quarterly inspections. After the first worker's death at a mine where inspections were missed, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., railed against MSHA. “I’m absolutely flabbergasted — flabbergasted,” Byrd told MSHA chief Richard Stickler. “I’m at a loss. “How can we have any faith that things at MSHA are improving if you’re not even fulfilling these basic inspection responsibilities?” (Read more)

Kentucky county to join others' lawsuit against makers of OxyContin

Citing an increase in overdose deaths from OxyContin last year, officials in Pike County, Ky., are planning to join other Kentucky counties in suing the company that makes the drug, reports the Appalachian News-Express of Pikeville. Officials had considered a suit since June, and this week the county hired a local law firm to represent it, Loretta Tackett reports. In July, in federal court in Virginia, Purdue Pharma L.P. of Stamford, Conn., accepted a $600 million fine and three of its managers agreed to pay $34.5 million for misleading the public about the painkiller’s addictive qualities.

Pike County is at Kentucky's eastern tip and is the state's largest county in land area. Its coroner found that oxycodone, the generic name for OxyContin, was involved in 13 of the county's 46 drug-related deaths in 2006. In 2005, that number had been seven of 57 cases, but both may be low; officials said many deaths are not handled by the coroner. In autopsies of 484 overdose victims in Kentucky last year, state medical examiners found oxycodone in 78. Pike County likely would join other Kentucky counties in the suit, which Attorney General Greg Stumbo is expected to file Oct. 4 in Pike Circuit Court. (Read more)

Mining industry's answer to new, Democratic climate on Capitol Hill: money for Democrats

With a new Democratic majority in Congress, the mining industry has been challenged like never before, writes Jim Snyder of The Hill. As Democrats have pushed for new mining regulations, the industry has responded by stepping up its lobbying efforts and by sending more contributions to the Democrats, Snyder writes. While the National Mining Association's two political action committees gave about 90 percent of contributions to Republicans in recent years, by the end of 2008 40 percent will go to Democrats. “We need to broaden our support on the Hill,” Kraig Naasz, the NMA's president and chief executive, told Snyder.

Under the Republican majority, the industry had gained subsidies for "clean coal" in the 2005 energy bill, but now it faces increased pressure to improve safety from Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. Their bill would force the industry to speed its implementation of the safety measures Congress mandated after the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia in January 2006. Rahall is also working to reform the Hardock Mining Law of 1872, to make mines pay higher royalties.

"Climate-change bills present perhaps the biggest challenge to the industry," Snyder writes. "Coal now accounts for 52 percent of the electricity produced in the country. Most energy experts say coal would remain a significant source of electricity to meet expected increase in energy demand. But a bill that raises the price of carbon dioxide could push more utilities to use natural gas and other fuel sources that emit less carbon dioxide than coal does." (Read more)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Among children 12-17, one in three see little or no risk in trying methamphetamine

Despite years of horror stories about the dangers of using methamphetamine, it remains a major problems in parts of rural America -- and one in three youths aged 12 to 17 "sees little or no risk in trying the illegal drug," says Gannett News Service, reporting on the "first-ever national use and attitudes survey about the drug."

The survey of 2,602 students found that almost a fourth think "meth 'makes you feel euphoric or happy' or helps you lose weight, and the same number said it would be 'very' or 'somewhat easy' to obtain meth," Pamela Brogan writes. "About one in six youths has either a friend or a family member who has used or been treated for meth addiction, the survey found. . . . And yet, in a finding that might be of comfort to parents, three out of four youths said they are strongly opposed to using meth."

The survey was conducted by The Meth Project, "which aims to reduce first-time meth users through advertising campaigns." It is based in Palo Alto, Calif., but started its first campaign in Montana, where it says youth meth use has been cut in half. It has started similar campaigns in Arizona, Illinois and Idaho. (Read more)

Proposed coal-plant expansion draws more cheers than jeers in North Carolina

Duke Energy's plan to expand one of its North Carolina coal-fired power plants, its first such expansion in decades, has drawn both strong support and opposition. However, But the supporters of the Cliffside plant in Rutherford County expansion far outnumbered those opposed at a public hearing this week, reports Drew Brooks of The Shelby Star in adjoining Cleveland County. (Encarta map)

Of the 300 or so attendance, most were wearing green "Cliffside Yes" stickers, Brooks reports. These stickers dominated the few saying "No excuse for coal" worn by those opposing the expansion. "The perception has grown that the majority opposed the expansion," Duke Energy's President and CEO Jim Turner told Brooks. "I think it’s a great show of community support."

Of the few speaking against the expansion, all but one came from counties other than Cleveland and Rutherford. Those in favor mostly were local leaders, who claimed their constituents were almost unanimously in favor of the plan. They also emphasized that the construction create as many as 2,000 jobs and that the plant near the Broad River would add 20 to 30 permanent positions.

Bruce Henderson of The Charlotte Observer reports that the environmentalists speaking against the plan emphasized that coal-fired plants contribute to irritating ozone. He added that the South "accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, which most scientists say is warming the planet." Dr. Richard Fireman, a physician from Mars Hill, north of Asheville, said the expansion would be "a death sentence for our state."

N.H. agriculture commissioner, in newsy Bulletin, tells us about the leading designer of corn mazes

When New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor retires next month, we will miss his writing for the Weekly Market Bulletin of the state Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food. Steve was once a journalist, so he still has a nose for a good story, and the skill to tell it, so the Bulletin is one of the newsier and well-written publications of any state farm agency. The latest example of that is Steve's item in the latest Bulletin about corn mazes, the labyrinths that are chopped through cornfields to provide entertainment for "agri-tourists" and extra income for the farmers.

"New Hampshire’s largest and most intricate corn maze opens for fall fun this weekend in East Conway," Steve writes. "The corn-maze craze has spread all over the U.S. over the past few years, and the Sherman Farm’s layout in the Mount Washington Valley expects to draw visitors from throughout New Hampshire and Maine. It covers over eight acres, and contains more than three miles’ worth of twists, turns and decision points. The correct pathway can be walked in about 15 minutes, but its designer, Brett Herbst, figures it will take most people at least an hour."

Still a good reporter, Steve not only provides an aerial description of the maze and how it was planted and cut, but broader news useful to Rural Blog readers: "Herbst is a Utah-based entrepreneur who claims to have the largest cornfield maze design company in the world. Since getting into the business a decade ago he has designed over 600 mazes, including 160 this year alone in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Europe." We would have copyedited that sentence to say "more than 600," but it gives you some background and a starting point for research the next time you write about a corn maze. Thanks, Steve, and best wishes in your retirement. (Read more)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Obama leads presidential candidates in rural contributions; Romney first among Republicans

In this year's second quarter, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., received $861,646 in campaign contributions from rural residents, the most collected by any candidate, according to Daily Yonder analysis. Republican Mitt Romney came closest to Obama's total with $810,554 in rural contributions. Obama had almost twice as many rural contributors as did Sen Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., but her rural givers wrote bigger checks, giving her a rural total of $762,536, not far behind Obama's.

Obama collected money from 888 of the 2,580 rural counties; Romney scored in 777, many of them "ski counties in Utah, where he headed the 2002 Winter Olympics," Bill Bishop and Tim Murphy write. Their analysis also showed that contributions from rural residents were dwarfed by those from their urban counterparts in the second quarter, as candidates collected $5.7 million in rural areas but $101 million from urban Americans. This breaks down to an average of 49 cents per urban American compared to 8 cents per rural American. The rural contributions were almost equally divided between the Democratic and Republican parties. (Read more)

New technology may help fill labor needs on farms worried about immigration crackdown

Farmers in need of stable labor have long looked to technology for help in the fields, but especially now that a crackdown on illegal immigration could be coming soon, reports The Associated Press. Jacob Adelman writes that new machines are growing more adept at tasks still done by hand, namely the picking of fruits and vegetables. (At right, in AP photo, a machine harvests lettuce.)

Machines have been used in the past with crops such as tomatoes and low-grade wine grapes and nuts, but fresh produce demands more advanced machines than those in the fields today. But with imaging technology that allows farmers to map an orchard coupled with improvements in hydraulics, the newest machines are beginning to replicate the movements of a manual laborer.

"The technology is maturing just at the right time to allow us to do this kind of work economically," Derek Morikawa, whose Vision Robotics has been to develop a fruit picker, told Adelman. Still, the machines are not ready for consumer use, and when they are, they likely will cost $500,000 each.

About the half the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California, which relies on thousands of illegal immigrant workers each season, Adelman writes. With increased attention from law enforcement last year, "California's seasonal migration was marked by spot worker shortages, and some fruit was left to rot in the fields," he writes, quoting Robert Wample, viticulture and enology program director at California State University-Fresno: "There's a lot of very nervous people out there in agriculture in terms of what's going to be available in the labor force." (Read more)

Rural sprawl raising wildfire risk in Sierra Nevada

As more homes have risen in wild areas of the Sierra Nevada, there are increased risks for wildfire, and taxpayers are paying for it, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

A two-year study by the Sierra Nevada Alliance shows that this "rural sprawl" has moved into fire danger areas,the communities, Peter Fimrite reports. As a result, many communities "cannot afford to maintain roads, build new infrastructure and pay for the fire protection necessary to keep up with the growth," he writes. The Sierra Nevada is California's third-fastest growing region; 88,000 people moved there between 1990 and 2000. And now 94 percent of new development there is within fire-prone areas, the alliance's report says.

"The more development you have the more challenges you have," Rex Norman, spokesman for the Lake Tahoe basin management unit of the U.S. Forest Service, told Fimrite. "As an agency we don't get into private property issues, but we are a participant in the concern, mainly with regard to the resources that people need for fire protection and the work people need to do to prevent fire."

The report suggests that homeowners in these areas pay the cost of increased protection and that communities keep development within already developed areas. (Read more)

Loss of federal money keeps American Indian court and cultural facility unfinished

After grand plans and a promising start, a South Dakota building designed to be an American Indian cultural facility and judicial center remains incomplete as its federal funding has been cut off, reports The New York Times.

Monica Davey writes that the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place (pictured in a Times photo by Keith Bedford) was meant to help lure outside investment to the reservation "by creating a court system where outsiders could recoup losses if a business deal went bad." Former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had led the push for a federal earmark for the $18 million project, but with the loss of his re-election bid in 2004 and the anti-earmark tide sparked by the Jack Abramoff scandal, the project lies half-finished, Davey writes. The project's budget also has ballooned to $25 million, and so the building's eagle-inspired design has just one wing.

“The thing is, this is anything but a bridge to nowhere,” said Marshall Matz, a lawyer in Washington who is representing the center, told Davey. “But no one wants to hear that. The Congress seems to feel we are an earmark, and earmarks are very difficult now to get money for.” But this is the story of earmarks, Davey explains, that when a project is tied to one lawmaker, its risks are greater than those connected to large companies and multiple lawmakers. Even with new rules requiring lawmakers to put their names on their earmarks, "House lawmakers have put together spending bills with nearly 6,500 earmarks worth almost $11 billion," Davey writes. (Read more)

Anniston Star rolls out the red carpet to welcome a T. Rex skeleton to local museum

As the Anniston Museum of Natural History in Alabama prepares to unveil its biggest visitor, a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, The Anniston Star has found some creative ways to cover the upcoming exhibit, "A T. Rex Named Sue" (pictured at left in a photo by Trent Penny). The newspaper has a special section set for Saturday, Sept. 20, the same day the exhibit opens to the public, but is using its Web site and accompanying blogs to offer information in the meantime.

The paper has devoted a section of its main site to coverage of the exhibit as well as links to more information about dinosaurs. On the "Behind the Star" blog, there are some funny video trailers made by staffers to promote the arrival of Sue. To view them, go here and here. In total, the Star has 12 blogs devoted to various subjects, from education to high school sports.

Overdose deaths from OxyContin, other drugs on the rise again in rural Virginia

Fatal drug overdoses killed 264 people in western Virginia in 2006, a 22 percent increase from last year, reports Laurence Hammack of The Roanoke Times. Those deaths accounted for 40 percent of the state's drug overdoses, even though the region has just 20 percent of the state's population. The 2006 total also represented a 294 percent increase from a decade ago, as prescription drug abuse has become a "public health epidemic," Dr. Martha Wunsch told Hammack.

In recent years, however, federal prosecution had targeted OxyContin and its marketing, and the number of fatal overdoses had stopped climbing between 2003 and 2005, Hammack reports. "Back in the heyday of OxyContin, it had really gotten bad," Richard Stallard, head of the Southwest Virginia Drug Task Force, told Hammack. "But right now, it is the worst I've ever seen it."

In many of these rural areas, the overall population has plateaued or even declined, which makes the growth in overdoses hard to explain, Hammack writes. John Dreyzehner, co-chairman of the Appalachian Substance Abuse Coalition for Prevention and Treatment, told Hammack there is a renewed sense of commitment to stop the problem. "I think if the problem is in the community, the solution is in the community, and I think the community is stepping forward to address the problem," he said. "But that doesn't mean it will happen overnight." (Read more)

Crackdown on illegal aliens could disrupt this year's harvest season

Since the White House vowed to curtail illegal immigration, farmers have been worrying about what could happen when the administration makes good on that promise, writes

That crackdown could arrive in time for this harvest, which could mean an inconvenience or worse for farms that depend on immigrant labor. Ellis adds that law enforcement will be focusing on those businesses that employ illegal aliens. If that happens, then "the food chain could start falling apart," one California producer told Ellis.

According to Mark Duffin, executive director of the Idaho Sugarbeet Growers Association, the effect of this heightened enforcement would not be limited to farms. “I think clear across the whole economy, it can create some serious problems; it’s not just agriculture,” he told Ellis. “It will be felt across the country.”

The first sign of trouble will be the arrival of a "no-match" letter from the Social Security Administration, which notifies a business about a problem with employees' Social Security Numbers. The business can then either fix the problem with the SSA or fire the employees. If the employee remains on the job and is found to be illegal, the business could "face fines or criminal sanctions," Ellis writes. Since the start of the 2007 fiscal year, there have been 742 criminal arrests of employers.

With no guest-worker plan in place, many farmers say the enforcement could leave them shorthanded. “If we go cold turkey, it could create some real disruptions,” Duffin told Ellis. “We obviously do need the workers here. But we need to know who they are and have them here legally and the system isn’t working now.” (Read more) To view the Department of Homeland Security's information on immigration, go here.

Microbe makes carbon-neutral ethanol from cellulose, other plant material

Venture-capital funds and other investors recently put millions of dollars into SunEthanol, a biofuels technology company in Amherst, Mass., that is working with a bacterium that converts all sorts of plant matter, including cellulose, into ethanol. The company is using research by University of Massachusetts Amherst microbiologist Susan Leschine, who has made it the focus of her work for the past decade and is the chief scientist at SunEthanol.

“The Q microbe . . . is highly efficient at converting biomass to ethanol. And it does so in a carbon-neutral process that doesn’t require the additional enzyme treatments usually accompanying bioethanol production," says Newswise, a research-reporting service. "The microbe’s enzymes are another property that makes it an ideal organism for use in large-scale production of ethanol from biomass. Usually, cellulosic ethanol production involves several steps: pre-treat the plant material mechanically or chemically to get rough biomass; treat rough biomass with enzymes that have been bought or made in a lab; add the fermenting organism; recover and purify the ethanol. But the Q microbe’s own enzymes are more than sufficient, eliminating a costly step and consolidating production into one tank. Low estimates are that this consolidated production reduces costs by 25 percent, says Leschine."

Newswise adds that the bacterium's ethanol-making process "is carbon neutral and can be carbon negative, depending on the biomass that’s being used, says Leschine. . . . While the fermentation process releases some carbon dioxide, that amount isn’t more than what the original plants took in and therefore isn’t adding carbon to the cycle the way petroleum products do. And if a plant such as switchgrass is used, which stores large amounts of carbon in its roots, the process is actually carbon negative, putting carbon that was in the atmosphere into the ground. Now that SunEthanol has secured its first round of funding, Leschine and her researchers are exploring the forms of biomass that microbe Q favors, optimizing pre-treatments and fermentation conditions." (Read more)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ethanol boom means tension among farm lobbies

As the ethanol industry gains momentum nationally, various farm lobbies find themselves battling over ways to slow or speed its growth, reports The Associated Press. Christopher Leonard explains that as corn farmers and their lobbyists push for more government subsidies for ethanol production, meat and dairy farmers and their lobbyists seek the opposite. With Congress considering new fuel standards that could bring production of renewable fuels to 36 billion gallons by 2022, the future of the biofuels industry could be determined by the "food fight shaping up between grain producers and livestock lobbyists," Leonard writes.

"It's very true that the agricultural lobby will speak with a louder voice if it's saying the same thing. In that sense, it's been a less united voice than it has in the past," Pat Westhoff, an economist with the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, told Leonard.

Amber Waves, the publication of the Department of Agriculture, offers a clear and concise overview of the ethanol explosion. In this report, Paul C. Westcott explores the catalysts for the ethanol boom, namely, rising oil prices and increased government incentives, as well as the long-term impacts of an increased production of corn-based ethanol, such as a reduction in livestock and rises in retail prices. These forecasts fuel the debate among farm lobbies, with each side choosing some to bolster their arguments. (Read more)

Agriculture no longer biggest employer globally, study says

This decade is the first in which more people in the world are employed in service jobs than in agriculture. A study by the International Labor Organization found that in 2006, 42 percent of the world's workers were in the service sector, while agriculture employed 36.1 percent. The industrial sector accounted for 21.9 percent, unchanged over the last decade. Agriculture, which was arguably the world's first form of employment (after hunting and gathering), is still the top employer in the world's poorest regions, the report adds.

The ILO reports that the United States had the highest productivity ranking in terms of hours worked, according to Reuters. In terms of productivity by the hour, the United States ranked second, behind Norway. "Working hours per person employed are considerably higher in the United States than in the majority of European economies,'' the report says. From 1980 to 2005, American productivity grew at an average rate of 1.7 percent, while British output over that time grew by 2.1 percent. (Read more)

Global market good for U.S. coal but maybe not in Appalachia; safety laws' effect on small mines cited

As China's demand for coal has begun to outpace its supply, other international markets are turning to the United States for coal, reports Matthew Dalton of Dow Jones Newswires. As China opens another coal-burning plant almost every week, it is importing more coal from Australia and South Africa. These markets normally serve Europe, and so consumers there will now rely on U.S. coal.

Companies producing coal used in making steel will see benefits first, especially because two major metallurgical coal mines have been shut down temporarily, Dalton reports. Most U.S. coal is used to make steam in domestic power plants, but as much as 58 million tons of both steam and metallurgical coal will be exported in 2007, which would be an 18 percent increase from the 49 million tons exported in 2006. As demand for both types grows, utilities' stockpiles of coal should dwindle.

"It's not affecting us yet," Deborah Rouse, manager of coal and transportation at Southern Co., one of the nation's largest coal consumers, told Dalton. "It's not affecting the U.S. market yet because of the inventory hangover. ... If the export demand continues, and domestic demand picks back up, then I think that just has upwards price pressure on the market."

For companies in southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia, however, rising production costs could force some producers out of the market. In the Central Appalachian region, smaller underground mines have fueled production, but new safety laws are making small-scale mining more expensive, Dalton reports. "There's a big question mark on how much Central Appalachian production will drop out of the market because of that," John Hanou, a coal market analyst at the energy research firm Hill & Associates, told Dalton. (Read more)

Most students don't know today is Constitution Day, study reveals

According to a study sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a majority of high school students do not know about Constitution Day, the anniversary of the document's adoption and the day American students are legally required to learn about it, The Associated Press reports. Today is Constitution Day, the anniversary of the completion of the document in 1787.

The study reports that 51 percent of high school students did not know about Constitution Day, and just one in 10 remembered how his high school observed the day last year. Led by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., Congress created the day in 2004 with a law requiring every school that receives federal money to teach its students about the Constitution on or around Sept. 17.

Eric Newton, Knight Foundation journalism-program vice president, told AP he worries that today's students lack an understanding of their nation's democracy. "We're concerned that teaching to the test and the emphasis on math and science is hurting the American civics education," he said.

AP reports that the study also found that 68 percent of students had taken a class related to the First Amendment, up from the with 58 percent who said they had in 2004. For the full report, go here.

Technology experiments help rural schools and students connect, keep up with peers elsewhere

Education initiatives are seeking to improve learning by putting the latest technology in students' hands. Rachael King of Business Week reports on a few of these programs, which make use of iPods, laptops and the Internet to help rural students stay up to date with their peers.

Photo by King shows students using iPods on a school bus in a pilot program of the Aspirnaut Initiative in Grapevine, Ark., which has transformed the bus into a second classroom for the children who spend 15 hours a week riding it, she reports. The initiative has brought wireless Internet to the bus and given each of the children laptops or iPods so they can keep the long commutes from being lost time. That program was started by Billy Hudson, a Vanderbilt University biochemistry professor and Grapevine native, who wanted rural children to be prepared for today's economy. "People are seeing in rural areas that the jobs they know about are being outsourced," he told King.

A school in Mobile, Ala., is also using the Web to help its students experience a world beyond their community. There, students were struggling to learn vocabulary because words such as "trampoline" were totally outside their frame of reference. To address this, the class has begun taking field trips and recording them on podcasts and blogs, so that the information is available to all in the school for future reference. In many of the examples King cites the money for the programs came from grants sought by the schools and came from companies such as Apple and Microsoft. With the introduction of more technology in the classroom, King writes, there came the need for specific guidelines to keep the tools from becoming distractions or even threats. The guiding rule is usually this: The students use them correctly or lose them.

Still, the technology could mean a world of difference for these rural children, one educator told King. "We're not just competing with school systems in the state," Suzanne Freeman, superintendent of Trussville City Schools in Trussville, Ala., said. "Our kids are competing with India, China, Japan, and other countries around the world." (Read more)

Rising ammunition prices mean changes for recreational shooters, law enforcement

Several media outlets have reported on an ammunition shortage facing police departments, and many pointed to the fighting in Iraq as the main culprit. However, National Public Radio reported that rising prices and demand have come from increases in copper. Regardless of the cause, the spike in prices has hit recreational shooters as well, and The Daily Courier of Prescott, Ariz., reports on how they are dealing with it.

Jason Soifer writes that shooters are shunning commercial bullets in favor of cutting costs by making their own. Soifer writes that for about $800, a shooter can buy reloading equipment and “recoup that money in about a year” in saved bullet costs. For other recreational shooters, the only choice is to reduce the number of bullets they use.

Law enforcement officials, however, don’t have those two options, and so they must order well in advance to ensure they have enough bullets when it comes time for training sessions. (Read more)

Coal miners' black-lung rates have doubled in the last decade, study says

After decades of decline in the incidence of black lung, the coal miners' disease is on the rise, The Charleston Gazette reports. Ken Ward Jr. writes that a new study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows the rate of black lung has doubled since 1997. According to the study, 9 percent of miners with 25 or more years working underground show signs of black lung, up from 4 percent 10 years ago. Since NIOSH began its X-ray studies of miners' lungs in 1970, until the late 1990s, black lung rates had been steadily declining. A 2006 study from the Centers for Disease Control reported areas in Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky where cases of black lung were sharply increasing, Ward writes.

The 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act was passed to limit the amount of airborne dust in mines, but United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said the dust standard is not strong enough, or is not being strictly enforced. “We’ve seen that miners are dying at increased rates on the job in the last two years,” he told Ward. “Now, we’re finding out that many more of them are getting this terrible disease many of their fathers and grandfathers suffered from. Miners need action now.” (Read more)