Saturday, February 02, 2008

Carter leads effort to unite moderate Baptists

Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times writes from Plains, Ga.: "Jimmy Carter still spends much of his time injecting himself into the nastiest spats on the planet. But most Sundays, the 83-year-old former president manages to be back here in the tiny city where he was raised. He does not like to skip Sunday school. He gives his Bible lessons at Maranatha Baptist Church, an unassuming red-brick chapel on the outskirts of town." (Walter Petruska photo)

A lesson the day Fausset visited was Jesus' directive that we love our enemies as we love ourselves. "That directive has driven Carter to try his hand at healing the rifts between the great antagonists of the last half-century: Arab and Jew, Cuban and American, Hutu and Tutsi," Fausset writes. "For his efforts, he has been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize and derided as a quixotic fool. But there is one divisive row that is perhaps the most personal for Carter, and his failure to heal it has haunted him for years. It is the rift between liberals and conservatives within his own religion."

Wednesday night in Atlanta, Carter opened a three-day meeting "meant to unite moderate Baptists across racial and theological lines and show their tradition goes beyond conservative Southern Baptist beliefs," writes Rachel Zoll of The Associated Press.

Southern Baptist Convention leaders refused to attend. Carter personally invited President Frank Page, who said the meeting had a "smoke-screen, left-wing, liberal agenda." Presidential candidiate Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister and Arkansas governor, backed out, saying he feared the agenda would be "political rather than spiritual."

Healing the breach will be difficult because for many Baptists, religious identity has defined their personal identity. Fausset quotes Bill Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University and a liberal Baptist: "The curse and the genius of the Southern Baptist Convention for Carter's generation is that it inculcated a sense of Baptist identity that is so deep in people that it was hard to give up," said "It shaped your spirituality -- but also your own sense of who you were." (Read more)

Andre Walker reports today in Georgia Politics Unfiltered: "The three-day event ended last night with remarks from former President Clinton in which he discussed his faith and spoke of ways Baptists could come together" and said he was disappointed in Page's description of the conference "heaped praise" on Huckabee but said he was "sad Huckabee didn't come here." Clinton's remarks were the only partisan words of the conference, Carter said, but said they were not critical and he agreed with them. (Read more)

An exemplar of rural and community journalism changes, offering essential lessons in the craft

Examples of community journalism are easier to come by than a clear-cut definition of the term. For years, the Point Reyes Light in western Marin County, California, has been an exemplar. The weekly newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1979, for its coverage of the Synanon drug-rehabilitation group that turned into a religion, but well before that had established itself as an essential part of community life and function. That is less true today, and the change teaches lessons.

A little over two years ago, the Light was sold to a newcomer, and things changed. So reports Jonathan Rowe, who lives in the village of Point Reyes Station, writing in the latest issue of Columbia Journalism Review. His article, “The Language of Strangers,” highlights how central local and concerns are to community journalism, and what can happen when readers think their needs and wishes are being ignored.

Beyond the ups and downs of the Light, also reported here and here, Rowe’s report is worth reading for his broader points about weekly newspapers, points rarely made in the pages of national journalism reviews. For our take on it, with some additional information and links to Rowe's article and others, click here.

Super Bowl footballs take thoroughly rural route

Katie Thomas of The New York Times writes from Ada, Ohio, to tell "the legend of Wilson [Sporting Goods] factory workers in this town of 5,500 in rural Ohio, the birthplace of every football thrown in the Super Bowl since 1969." She notes that the National Football League is "the only major sports league whose balls are manufactured in the United States." (Encarta map)

The balls take a thoroughly rural route, beginning "on the backs of cows taken from feedlots in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska," Thomas reports. Plant manager Daniel Riegle "said he preferred young, lean steers over fat dairy cows because their leather did not stretch as much." (Photo by J.D. Pooley shows Sharon Mullins stretching a hide. For a good slideshow of how a ball comes together, click here.)

The plant is unionized, with pay based on piecework. "Husbands and wives work alongside each other. So do mothers and daughters. The average employee has worked at the plant for 20 years, Riegle said," Thomas reports. "There is something special about working in the Wilson factory, many of the workers say, not least because Ada is a football town. The Ada Bulldogs made it to the Ohio high school football playoffs last year, and most of the workers are fans of either the Cleveland Browns or the Cincinnati Bengals, with a few Pittsburgh Steelers fans mixed in. Working at Wilson is a job, they said, but it is different from making rubber bands or ball bearings." (Read more)

To the weekly Ada Herald, circulation 2,800, the Super Bowl story is old news, but still worth noting. This week's edition has a front-page color photo by Larry D. Spradlin showing three workers at the plant inspecting footballs before shipment. To read the page, click here.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Carolina Chocolate Drops cross racial boundaries

"The banjo claws, the fiddle saws, the twangy, ancient- sounding voice sings of darkness and murder," writes Richard Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times. "The recording of the folk staple 'Little Sadie' -- like most of the tracks on the 2007 album Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind -- is pure mountain music, the kind indelibly associated with the rural white communities of the 19th and early 20th century American South.

"But the Carolina Chocolate Drops . . . are three young African Americans, and for many their music will be an eye-opening introduction to the tradition of the black string bands that provided a soundtrack for the South alongside their white counterparts. The Drops' square-dance drive and infectious performances have made them a hot act on the folk circuit . . . despite the playfully provocative group name and the presence of the often divisive 'Dixie' in their song list."

Dom Flemons of the Drops (who hail from North Carolina) tells the Times, "Music will cross racial boundaries with no problem whatsoever. . . . We're just trying to play the music and be like, 'This is part of our whole American history.' Just showing people the musical traditions that America has. Through all of its hardships, it has very powerful music it makes. Whether it's out of the struggle or whether it's just social music or the mixing of different cultures coming together, it's amazing." (Read more)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Midwestern manure gets more blame for the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico

Manure from farms in the Mississippi River watershed is an even bigger reason behind the "dead zone" — an area devoid of life in the summer — in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, reports Phillip Brasher of the Des Moines Register (which produced the maps).

"The study by the U.S. Geological Survey also says that manure runoff from pasture, rangeland and feedlots is a bigger contributor to the problem than previously thought," Brasher writes. "The dead zone, which lies along the coast of Louisiana and Texas, is created when phosphorus and nitrogen flow out of the Mississippi River and encourage the growth of algae in the Gulf. The algae growth robs the water of oxygen, forcing fish, shrimp, crabs and other sea life from the region."

Fertilizer runoff from corn and soybean farms has long been identified as the source of much of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the Gulf. As farmers increase acreage and their use of fertilizers, scientists say the problem could get worse, Brasher explains.

"The study, released Tuesday, said Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi contribute 75 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that reaches the Gulf," Brasher writes. "Those states represent just one-third of the land drained by the Mississippi River or its tributaries." (Read more)

Homeowners say New Urbanism front porches make better neighbors and neighborhoods

When garages became part of home design, front porches got left out. The architecture movement called New Urbanism seeks to reverse that trend, and there are plenty of front-porch fans in Prescott, Ariz.

Ken Hedler of The Daily Courier in Prescott reports, "The homeowners sit on their front porches - at least when the weather is warmer - and strike up conversations with neighbors and other passersby," Hedler writes of locals such as Linda and Ron Woodward (above, in a Courier photo by Jo L. Keener). "Their porches feature porch swings, rocking and wicker chairs, and other furniture."

Lora Lee Nye, a councilwoman in the town of 34,000, told Hedler front porches and pedestrian-friendly streets make for safer neighborhoods. "The planners and designers are indirectly responsible for increasing the crime rate," Nye said of a lack of front porches. "Of course, that was not their intent. That is the result." (Read more)

Georgia murder case highlights threadbare, varied systems of funding for public defenders

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright held that indigent defendants must be provided free legal counsel. Since then, many states have struggled to create comprehensive systems for funding lawyers for the poor. In Georgia, the murder case of Brian Nichols, who sparked a widely reported Atlanta manhunt after his violent escape from court during his rape trial in 2005, has drained the state's fund for indigent defendants and placed other defenses in jeopardy, reports Jeffrey Toobin for The New Yorker. The case has implications for rural areas, where public-defender systems are often threadbare. Toobin writes:
The Nichols case illustrates a troubling paradox in death-penalty jurisprudence: the more heinous a crime—and the more incontrovertible the evidence of a defendant’s guilt—the greater the cost of the defense may be. Death-penalty trials require juries not only to determine whether the defendant is guilty but also to make other complex moral judgments—why a defendant committed a crime, whether he is likely to do so again, what punishment fits the crime. Defendants are entitled to often costly expert assistance, including the services of psychiatrists, as they prepare their cases. Yet spending large sums of public money on the defense of capital cases is politically incendiary, and in Georgia the consequences may be cataclysmic.
In 2003, the state created the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council to oversee the assignment of attorneys to poor defendants, but the Nichols case is testing the system. Nichols' defense team has racked up a bill of more than $1 million, partly because attorneys had to be hired from North Carolina; defense attorneys in the Atlanta area claimed they were too close to one of the victims, a judge. The bill has left many Georgians asking question: What is the cost of a fair defense? Toobin quotes Steve Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights: "The question now is whether the whole thing is going to come crashing down. . . . Georgia has 159 counties, and each one has a different system of hiring lawyers for the poor." Toobin reports, "In November, a judge in a murder case in rural Pike County removed two private attorneys because the council could no longer afford to pay them."

In many places, the question of legal defense for indigent defendants is determined on a court-by-court or case-by-case basis. States such as Florida, Oklahoma and South Carolina have placed caps on legal fees, but fees to expert witnesses still send the average cost above six figures. The financial problems have delayed the Nichols case for months now, and the end is nowhere in sight. Toobin's account is worth a look, and it could inspire additional reporting on this subject. (Read more)

Toobin's story has had a big impact on the case — Judge Hilton M. Fuller, left, removed himself after being quoted in the article, reports Shaila Dewan of The New York Times. In discussing the defendant, Toobin quotes Fuller as saying, "Everyone in the world knows he did it." Fuller had halted the case when there were no funds to pay for Nichols' defense. "Prosecutors, politicians and even fellow judges have railed at Judge Fuller over the delay," Dewan writes. "Judge Fuller stood firm, saying it was pointless to try a case without meeting constitutional standards for an adequate defense." (Read more) For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's story about Fuller's recusal, by Beth Warren, click here. (Photo by Pouya Dianat, AJC)

Are rural communities really cashing in on ethanol?

Advocates for ethanol say the industry is producing thousands of jobs for Iowans as more plants are built. While ethanol has meant more jobs for Iowa, the industry does not quite live up to the hype for rural communities, Bill Bishop reports for the Daily Yonder.

"The gains to rural communities are real (from ethanol), but they're not as big as folks have made them out to be," Iowa State University economist David Swenson said at a North Dakota Grain Dealers Association meeting in Fargo. Swenson said plants have created many jobs but nowhere near the 47,000 jobs some groups claim. Ethanol has driven up the price of food and farmland — two clear benefits for farmers — but rural communities are not cashing in all that much, according to Swenson.

"The economist writes that these new plants and their employees will stimulate other economic activity — they will have 'multiplier' effects in the economy," Bishop writes. "But even when these are counted, the average plant will support a total of 133 jobs — not bad, but not a savior for rural Iowa's economy. At most, 5,400 jobs in Iowa can be attributed to ethanol production." (Read more)

At the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit today, another economist, John Urbanchuk, will unveil his study that shows biofuels are worth $12.7 billion to the state, reports the Des Moines Register. "The study shows that Iowa's biofuels industry, the largest in the nation, generated $2.9 billion in income for Iowa households, created more than 96,000 jobs in the Iowa economy and led to about $790 million in state tax revenues," writes Jerry Perkins. (Read more) Register map shows ethanol and other biofuel plants in Iowa. An interactive version is here.

Rural towns in northern New York wonder what will happen if four of six area prisons close

Rural Franklin County, New York, is home to five state prisons and one federal prison, which have sparked the local economy for decades. Not all the state prisons are full, so Gov. Eliot Spitzer has planned to shut down four to cut costs — a plan that has the area's rural residents worried about the future, reports Fernando Santos of The New York Times (NYT graphic).

The county's situation is not unique — we recently mentioned a similar one in Iowa — because many rural counties have come to depend on prisons for jobs. "As rural economies across the country crumbled in the 1980s and the population of prison inmates swelled, largely because of tougher drug laws, states pushed prison construction as an economic escape route of sorts," Santos notes. "Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, an average of four prisons were built each year in rural America; the rate quadrupled in the 1980s and reached 24 a year in the 1990s, according to the federal Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service."

The prisons brought jobs, but they also kept towns from pursuing other economic-development opportunities. None of the workers at the closing prisons will be laid off, but it is uncertain where they would have to transfer in order to stay on the state payroll. The prisons and their inmates provide valuable services — including helping to build the ice palace that is the centerpiece of the local Winter Carnival — and boost the county's population when it comes to state and federal aid. (Read more)

As Clinton focuses on getting rural support, some of Edwards's rural lieutenants come out for Obama

Now that he is out of the presidential race, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina isn't saying whether he favors New York Sen. Hillary Clinton or Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination, but his most prominent rural spokesmen are already campaigning for Obama.

"Being a Southerner, being a rural American who's been completely devastated by the trade policies of the Clintons, I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that he does not endorse Hillary Clinton," Edwards' chief rural strategist, David "Mudcat" Saunders of Virginia, left, told Norah O'Donnell MSNBC, as first blogged and transcribed in The Politico by Ben Smith.

Kevin Merida of The Washington Post picked up on that today, quoting Saunders as saying, "Hillary Clinton has about as much chance of beating John McCain as this Scots-Irish hillbilly has of becoming pope." Merida also got hold of former U.S. Rep. Ben Jones of Georgia, who played Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard" and campaigned with Edwards. Jones told Merida, "I've already enlisted in the Barack Obama campaign. The fight goes on. It's about the past and the future, and I'm with the future. I think the Clintons are the past." (Read more)

Beyond such prominent folks, though, Edwards's supporters are likely to scatter, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, told Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times. "The Edwards base will feel 'cross-pressured,' Kohut said, with men more likely to support Obama and other lower-income voters probably moving to Clinton." Wallsten notes that despite Edwards' anti-poverty message, he "drew votes from an economically diverse bloc, mostly white men, who were just as likely to be rich as they were to be poor." (Read more)

In a non-bylined "Notes" column, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Clinton met privately with state House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, "who only last Sunday was hosting his candidate of choice, John Edwards. Now Edwards is gone. And Porter had a personal, face-to-face appointment with Hillary Clinton after her speech this evening. . . . But he said he would give any decision at least a few days, out of respect for Edwards."

Porter is publisher of The Herald Courier in Dublin, which editorialized this week about Edwards' weekend visit to Laurens County: "Many Sunday may stand on the opposite side from Edwards on the issues, but they wanted to become informed citizens first and foremost. . . . This country would be so much stronger and wiser if all citizens had the opportunity to meet political candidates up close as Laurens County did Sunday. But, that is a pipe dream. However, there is still no reason, in this age of technology, that the citizenry cannot be enlightened about a candidate." (Read more) But it's important to remember that many weekly newspaper readers don't read a newspaper daily, and that most of the television coverage about the race is superficial. So all news media need to pay attention and inform the voters.

Farmers expand cropland to cash in on grain boom

Farmers are moving to cash in on "the biggest global grain boom in decades," but there are still worries about how long the good grain times will last, reports Lauren Etter for the Wall Street Journal (which ran the chart of futures prices).

Etter explains that the boom is the result of a jump in biofuel production and an increased demand for grain — such as corn, wheat, soybeans, barley and sunflowers — in China and India. Food prices have gone up, too. Still, there are plenty of risks, and experts predict near-term volatility in the market.

"Farmland prices have climbed more than 20 percent over the past year in many Midwestern states, so the many growers who lease land are shelling out higher rents," Etter writes. "Some seed prices have jumped 30 percent, and fertilizer prices have doubled nearly across the board. Nocturnal thieves are stealing grains from unlocked bins. And ever looming is the prospect of a drought, which could push prices even higher, sending shock waves through global grain markets."

Etter adds that although a recession should not derail rising food prices, economic worries still have farmers asking: "Could the grain boom be another bubble like dot-com and housing?" Regardless, many farmers are changing fields over to grains and hoping for the best. (Read more)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rural youths more likely to be idle (not in school, work or military) than those in cities, suburbs

Rural youth aged 18 to 24 are more likely to be idle — not in school, not employed and not in the military — than urban youth, according to a study sponsored by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Nationwide, 10.4 percent of youth are idle. In rural areas, 12.4 percent of youth are idle, well above the 10 percent figure for urban areas.

Anastasia R. Snyder of Ohio State and Diane K. McLaughlin of Penn State conducted the study using 2006 Current Population Survey data. They find that education is a key factor, with high school dropouts being three times more likely to be idle — in both rural and urban areas — than those who earned a diploma.

The rates of idleness also are high among racial-ethnic minorities in rural areas:
  • 17 percent of rural blacks are idle (14 percent of urban blacks are idle)
  • 19 percent of rural Hispanics (15 percent of urban Hispanics)
  • 23 percent of "other" rural racial groups, such as American Indians (10 percent in urban areas)
To download the study's fact sheet, go here.

MSNBC probe finds bridge inspections running behind; data on Web site enables local reporting

The collapse of a Minneapolis interstate highway bridge last year brought attention to inspections of bridges large and small around the country, but an MSNBC investigation of records through April 2006 shows that thousands of the spans were overdue for a checkup.

"At least 17,000 bridges in the U.S. went more than two years between safety inspections," writes Bill Dedman (who also took the photo). "These newly released records from the National Bridge Inventory include inspections through 2006. Although Congress in 1971 ordered rigorous standards for inspecting bridges every 24 months, the records reveal a system in which the buck is passed down from federal to state to local governments, without penalty for those that fail to protect the public."

Overall, one in four bridges was classified as deficient or obsolete. There is some good news in the data: 97 percent of the nation's 592,000 vehicular bridges met the federal standard for inspection within two years. Four states had perfect records: Delaware, Georgia, Nevada and Tennessee.

The states with the highest percentage of bridges with delayed inspections:
  • Hawaii (46.5 percent)
  • Rhode Island (27.5)
  • Arizona (26.7)
  • New Mexico (17.4)
  • West Virginia (12.2)
  • Illinois (11.5)
  • District of Columbia (11.5)
No records were available for Kentucky or for federal bridges. Dedman's report, located at, includes plenty of tools for journalists to explore the story locally. Those include an interactive map that lets users track their normal driving routes and a state-by-state ranking of bridge inspections. (Read more)

Pilot program helps Ky. and Tenn. loggers gain certification as environmentally sensitive

A new program aims to help loggers in Kentucky and Tennessee gain a competitive edge through additional certification and training. The Certified Master Logger Program, a joint effort of the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Forest Industries Association and the Kentucky Division of Forestry, has certified 39 logging firms in western Kentucky and Tennessee thus far. Kentucky loggers have $1 billion in annual revenue.

The program is an expansion of the Kentucky's state-mandated Master Logger Program, but this version is voluntary and performance-based. Organizers developed the new program after being approached by NewPage Corp., a paper manufacturer for Time Warner publications. Time Warner wants to make sure its paper comes from timber logged in ways that protect the environment. By completing this program, loggers can gain that certification. NewPage, which has a paper plant near Wickliffe, at the western end of Kentucky, is funding the initial stage of the program and gives preferred status to loggers who complete it.

“That’s an automatic guarantee that this program’s having an impact to the loggers involved and direct economic impact for the rural communities they live and work in,” University of Kentucky Forestry Professor Jeff Stringer, who oversees the program, said in a news release. (Read more)

Paper chases story about police chases, overcomes city's roadblocks of efforts to get records

When the town of Oak Grove, Ky., population 7,000, refused to give the Kentucky New Era of nearby Hopkinsville a copy of a police report of an accident that ended a police chase, "the paper began a lengthy investigation of police pursuits in Oak Grove," writes Julia Hunter, whose stories on the subject appeared in the 11,000-circulation daily last weekend. (Photo of Oak Grove cruiser by Danny Vowell of the New Era)

"It was one of at least 12 high-speed Oak Grove police pursuits in a six-month period between March and December 2007," Hunter wrote in her main story. "Five of these resulted in wrecks and four people were injured. . . . Eleven reports were issued to the New Era as a result of the request. It is unknown how many are still under investigation, and, therefore, how many were omitted."

In her sidebar about the difficulty of obtaining records from the city, overcome with help of the state attorney general's office, Hunter illustrated why such stories are worth pursing (no pun intended). First, she quoted a telling statistic from the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that one person dies every day as a result of a police pursuit. Then she quoted, a group that pushes for safer police pursuits: “When an innocent is killed, most reporters are spurred to ask the questions that need to be asked, to do the research that needs to be done. Unfortunately, if they had done this in the cases they reported previously, where no fatality resulted, they might have prevented the death of an innocent bystander.”

Police chases are big news in small towns. In our mailbox today, with the weekend edition of the New Era, was the nearby McLean County News from last week. Its main headline: "Police chase leads to arrest." The weekly is not available online.

Bush administration, citing rising costs, pulls out of deal to build no-emissions power plant in Illinois

In a "stunning decision" that could lead to a big battle with Congress, the Bush administration has withdrawn Department of Energy support and funding for a power plant that would have virtually no emissions and that utilities want to build near Mattoon, Ill., reports Deirdre Shesgreen of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The federal government was supposed to provide three-fourths of the estimated $1.75 billion cost of the FutureGen plant, with utilities and coal companies providing the rest. But when the industrial partners announced recently that they had chosen Mattoon for the plant, the Energy Department declined to join the announcement.

Members of the Illinois congressional delegation "scurried to try to get the decision overturned even before the official announcement," reports Shesgreen, of the P-D's Washington bureau. "They vowed to secure funding for the plant anyway, and some charged that politics were behind the reversal because Texas was not selected as the site."

An Energy Department spokeswoman said it "remains committed to FutureGen's objectives" for clean-coal technology but favors a "restructured approach" to head off "further cost escalation." Federal officials will "pursue alternatives to FutureGen," at least as it is currently planned, Peabody Energy lobbyist Frederick Palmer told Shesgreen. -free power plant, told federal lawmakers Tuesday it plans to pull its support for the $1.8 billion project in Illinois, lawmakers said. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said, "In 25 years on Capitol Hill, I have never witnessed such a cruel deception." (Read more) For the Energy Department's site on the project, click here.

Duke to retire old coal burners in return for new ones; landmark deal still doesn't please critics

North Carolina yesterday "became the first state to force a utility to retire old power plants to offset the carbon emissions of a new one," requiring Duke Energy to retire old coal-burning units in return for approval of new, more modern units at Cliffside on the Catwaba River, reports The Charlotte Observer. (Encarta map)

Bruce Henderson writes that the deal between Duke and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources marks the start of a new era in North Carolina: "controlling the planet-warming carbon dioxide that coal plants pump out by the millions of tons a year." Opponents of the permit application, however, criticized the action.

"The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation said it will fight the plant," Henderson reports. "The Carolinas Clean Air Coalition vowed the permit 'will not go unchallenged.' Duke says it will start construction immediately," but opponents have 60 days to take action blocking the permit. Henderson adds: "The state still hasn't made Duke assess the impact of Cliffside's nitrogen and sulfur releases on wilderness areas such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, north of Cliffside, said Gudrun Thompson of the Southern Environmental Law Center. The National Park Service has predicted 'severe impacts' to the Smokies." (Read more)

UPDATE, March 20: An appeal was filed by the N.C. Waste Awareness & Reduction Network. (Read more)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

McCain wins rural Florida; Obama's campaign touts his own rural strength, a milestone of recognition

As Arizona Sen. John McCain rode a strong rural vote in Florida to become the Republican front-runner for president, Democrats looked ahead to Super Tuesday next week and advisers to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama touted his rural strength. (Associated Press photo by Charles Dharapak, via The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla., in Polk County, which McCain carried)

In the networks' exit poll, 11 percent of Florida Republicans were classified as rural, those voting at precincts outside metropolitan areas. McCain won 40 percent of that segment, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney got 27 percent. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee got 20 percent of the rural vote and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani got 9 percent. Romney and McCain were statistically even among urban Republicans, but McCain beat him 36-30 in suburbs, which provided 64 percent of the exit poll sample.
UPDATE, Wed., Jan. 30: When the actual vote is divided by metropolitan-area and city boundaries, McCain did better in urban areas (36.2 percent) than rural (34.3 percent), reports the Daily Yonder, which focuses on "exurban" voters, those "partly rural communities around the edges of cities." Such communities "are more conservative than either more rural communities or cities." Romney won those areas, and they are where Huckabee did best.

"One thing for sure, the exit-poll designations of what is rural, urban and suburban don't conform with the votes on the ground," the Yonder says. "Exit polling in Florida said Clinton won 45 percent of the urban vote. She pulled 50.4 percent on the ground. Exit polls said Obama won 40 percent of the urban vote. He won 33.6 percent of the vote in urban counties." (Read more)
Florida was not a good measuring stick for Democrats because the candidates did not campaign there, with no delegates at stake because the state scheduled the primary before national Democratic leaders wanted. In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Obama's campaign manager cited his candidate's rural and small-town performance in other states "for the first time in the campaign," Al Giordano writes in The Field. "We think we’re going to do very well in rural areas on February 5 and that’s going to make a difference in delegates," David Plouffe said.

Plouffe said Obama "did much better in the northern and rural districts" of Nevada than Clinton did. However, Clinton's campaign has said she won rural Nevada, apparently based on the networks' caucus-entrance poll, which had her winning the sample rural precincts 44 to 42 percent (within the poll's margin of error). But as Giordano notes, "Plouffe’s statements today mark a milestone in the efforts of rural voters to be recognized for their true worth as an important group of voters." (Read more)

Ky. governor leaves ag-development money alone, asks coal severance tax funds for mine safety

Dealing with what he calls an unprecedented financial crisis, new Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, right, nevertheless kept hands off two popular rural programs in the budget he presented to the legislature last night, and noted them in his speech to a joint session of the House and Senate.

Beshear, a Democrat elected in November, said half of the state's share of the national tobacco settlement should continue to go to the Agricultural Development Fund, which uses about $100 million a year for projects and programs to improve the state's agricultural economy. "I feel strongly about keeping our commitment to agriculture," Beshear said to applause. "We must increase net farm income." He also won applause when he called for expansion of the University of Kentucky's Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center.

Beshear also said the state must continue to share coal severance tax revenue with coal-producing counties, but called for using some of that money to increase mine inspections and safety training previously authorized but not funded by the legislature. And in another boon to the state's coalfields (Kentucky is the only state with two), he called for a $50 million bond pool to finance water and sewer projects in coal-producing counties. The lack of any such proposal for non-coal counties was noted by state Senate President David Williams, the legislature's top Republican, who represents one of the state's most rural districts, one with relatively little coal production.

Spurred by stories, feds finally fine coal company

When The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported this month that no fines had been levied against a southeastern Kentucky coal company in connection with a fatal accident more than two years before, that got federal officials looking at their own fine system. That led to a story in the Sunday Gazette-Mail of Charleston, W. Va., reporting that the feds had failed to levy fines in about 4,000 cases over the last six years.

Today, R.G. Dunlop of The Courier-Journal closes the circle on his reporting with a story saying that the feds have fined the coal company he first wrote about $60,000 and are "trying to determine how many other safety violations nationwide have gone unpunished." He writes that a spokesman for the Mine Safety and Health Administration told him "the agency believes less than 1 percent of all citations have not been assessed financial penalties since records were computerized in 1995."

The agency blamed an "administrative error" by its Barbourville, Ky., office, which had failed to send information to MSHA headquarters, and said it "has taken new steps immediately to ensure that this oversight will not be repeated." However, Dunlop notes, spokesman Matthew Faraci "declined to describe those steps or to say why the agency previously had no such oversight in place." MSHA is part of the Department of Labor.

The case involves H & D Mining Inc. of Harlan, Ky. Its employee, miner David "Bud" Morris, "bled to death Dec. 30, 2005, after he was hit from behind by a mine vehicle loaded with coal," Dunlop writes. (Read more)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Subsidy for rural phone service is up for changes, including cuts and first help for broadband

The Federal Communications Commission is seeking ideas for changes in the fund that subsidizes rural telephone services, because its cost is rising as rural wireless companies expand service and get subsidies, reports Amy Schatz of The Wall Street Journal.

"One proposed change calls for using a reverse-auction system to pick which phone companies receive multimillion-dollar payments for providing phone service in rural areas," Schatz writes. Another plan would cut the money wireless companies get to offer rural service, and the FCC will for the first time examine "whether money should be set aside to subsidize broadband Internet lines."

The Universal Service Fund is financed by a tax on telephone services, usually labeled "federal universal service charge." Schatz reports, "The program's budget ballooned to about $7 billion last year from $5.2 billion in 2002 as more companies sought to tap the federal revenue stream. ... If something isn't done to restrain the fund's growth, FCC officials warn, consumers will continue to see the USF fee on their phone bills continue to rise."

The Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, which monitors the program, says payments to rural wireless companies "rose to nearly $1 billion in 2006 from $15 million five years earlier," Schatz reports. Because the subsidy is based on the costs of providing local landline service, "wireless companies have been receiving something of a windfall. ... The FCC is proposing to close that loophole in the program and reimburse wireless companies based on their actual costs of providing service." (Read more)

Bills would require dental exams for school kids in Ky. and W.Va., the 2 states with worst oral health

To attack oral-health problems where they begin, a bill in the Kentucky legislature "would require all children entering public school to have their teeth checked" by a dentist, reports Sarah Vos of the Lexington Herald- Leader. (Photo by H-L's David Perry shows Dr. Wendy Humphrey, left, dental clinic director at the Family Care Center in Lexington, listening as Alexus Wilkinson explains that her mouth was still numb after she got two crowns)

"Kentucky has some of the worst oral health in the nation," Vos writes. "The state ranks number two in the nation for toothlessness among adults, and number one in toothlessness among adults of working age. The teeth of Kentucky's children are not much healthier. Approximately 42 percent of kids ages 2 to 4 have active cavities. At any given point, some 4,500 3-year-olds, or 8 percent of the population, have a tooth ache, said Julie McKee, the state dental director."

The Kentucky Association of School Administrators "says the bill could have the unintended effect of preventing kids from going to school," Vos writes, but Mike Porter, executive director of the Kentucky Dental Association, told her, "Dental disease, dental pain is one of the number one reasons kids are missing school."

The dentists' group is backing the bill, but dentists are skeptical if not opposed to an alternative that would allow the exams to be conducted by dental technicians or hygenists. The sponsor of House Bill 186, Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, is open to that idea. The bill will be heard soon in the House Health and Welfare Committee, which he chairs. (Read more) A similar bill is pending in West Virginia, which regularly vies with Kentucky to avoid the distinction of state with worst oral health.

Mine-safety measures passed in appropriations bill

"With little notice, Sen. Robert Byrd (right) inserted language making key changes to the nation's mine-safety laws into a spending bill approved last month," The Courier-Journal reports. "The West Virginia Democrat won approval of provisions establishing rules restricting the use of conveyor- belt openings for ventilation, a practice considered hazardous by safety advocates."

"Byrd also included language in the omnibus appropriations bill -- signed into law by President Bush -- that is aimed at quick deployment of underground refuge chambers, which miners can use to protect themselves during emergencies," James R. Carroll writes for the Louisville newspaper. "Finally, he added $34 million to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's budget to hire more inspectors and implement the new rules."

The legislation requires MSHA to propose by June 20 and finalize by Dec. 31 rules that effectively ban the use of belt air entries for ventilation, "except in limited cases approved by the head of MSHA," Carroll writes. "Belt air can contain coal dust and toxic chemicals, and critics have said that using it for ventilation is a major fire hazard." It has been blamed for the 2006 fire that killed two miners at the Aracoma mine in West Virginia.

Regulations for refuge chambers "or facilities that afford at least the same measure of protection" must be proposed by June 15 and finalized by Dec. 31. Such a chamber would have saved miners who died in the Kentucky Darby mine in 2006, mine-safety lawyer and former regulator Tony Oppegard told Carroll. (Read more)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Feds fail to levy penalties for coal-mine violations

"Federal regulators have allowed mine operators to avoid fines for thousands of health and safety citations, despite a federal law that requires monetary penalties for such violations," reports Ken Ward Jr. of the Sunday Gazette-Mail in Charleston, W. Va.

"Over the last six years, the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration did not assess civil penalties for about 4,000 violations, according to preliminary MSHA data. Most of the violations involve situations where MSHA did not assess monetary penalties within 18 months of issuing a citation. Agency officials believe that is the legal time limit for doing so," Ward writes.

"MSHA officials emphasized that less than 1 percent of all violations cited by agency inspectors were involved, and said steps are being taken to fix the problem. But at least one of the citations involves a violation that MSHA inspectors concluded was partly responsible for the December 2005 death of an underground miner in Kentucky. The revelation is another major setback for MSHA, which is still trying to catch up on missed mandatory inspections and implement far-reaching safety laws passed after a series of disasters in 2006 and 2007." (Read more)