Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter special: Where do your eggs come from? Chances are best they were laid in Iowa

Iowa is known for being the leading producer of corn and hogs, but did you know it also leads the nation in production of eggs?

In a report timed for Easter, and colorfully illustrated (we borrowed the graphic), Dien Judge of the Iowa Independent reminds us that the state has 53 million chickens who laid 13.9 billion eggs last year. That was 15 percent of U.S. production.

"While Iowa eggs are purchased from grocery store coolers all around the country, many are processed into other products right here in the state," Judge writes. "In addition to being tops in egg production, Iowa is also the No. 1 egg-processing state." (Read more)

Below, a map from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, one of the most valuable sources of information about agriculture, shows egg production by state.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Energy companies launch nationwide campaign against climate-change legislation

We have noted that energy companies have been waging a public relations campaign in an effort to combat growing concerns about global warming that have derailed or delayed plans for coal-fired power plants. With climate change legislation pending in Congress, energy companies and other business interests are now funding a 17-state "Climate Change Dialogue" tour that argues the new bill would "could cost millions of jobs, drive gasoline prices sharply higher and suck thousands of dollars from household incomes," reports Matthew Brown of The Associated Press.

The effort is a response to the bill sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) that has been approved at the committee level. It would create a nationwide cap on emissions and create a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions. On the tour, which began this week in North Dakota and Montana, industry-sponsored economists said such a plan would mean a loss of three or four million jobs. "A recent study commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Council for Capital Formation estimates that the U.S. economy would have fewer jobs and face at least $631 billion in costs by 2020 should Congress institute an emissions reduction program," Brown writes. The Environmental Protection Agency's own analysis said the economic cost could be $238 billion. (Read more)

Last Wednesday, Billings, Mont., "was the latest stage for an ongoing national debate about the potential costs of curbing carbon dioxide emissions linked to the earth's warming climate," reports Mike Stark of The Billings Gazette. The Montana Chamber of Commerce hosted a conference — sponsored by industry groups — in which speakers said the Lieberman-Warner bill would mean a loss of 3,700 to 5,900 jobs in Montana by 2020 and a jump in gasoline prices by as much as 140 percent, Stark reports.

"Claims of dramatic job losses and rising prices for consumers were quickly dismissed by environmentalists, Gov. Brian Schweitzer's office, Montana economists and others," Stark writes. "Those forecasts fail to account for new technology and emerging economies that will reduce carbon emissions and keep Montana's economy humming." (Read more)

Study says 90 percent of voters want to know candidates' positions on open government

According to a survey conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, almost 90 percent of Americans "say it's important to know presidential and congressional candidates' positions on open government, and three out of four view the federal government as secretive," reports The Associated Press. The 74 percent of those surveyed who said the federal government was secretive was a jump from the 62 percent who said that in 2006. Commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors as part of Sunshine Week, the survey interviewed 1,012 adults. Other findings:
  • 50 percent said state government is secretive.
  • 40 percent said local government is secretive, up from 34 percent in 2007.
  • 82 percent want to know lawmakers' daily schedules.
  • 71 percent want to have access to police reports about specific crimes in their neighborhoods.
  • 66 percent want to know who has a permit for a concealed handgun.
The lesson here is that readers want to know about open government issues, and that the issue is not just a provincial one for journalists -- who should be sure to ask candidates for their opinions on such matters, even in local races. (Read more)

Controversial mine owner fined near-maximum for flagrant, 'powderkeg' conditions at Utah coal mine

The owner of the Utah coal mine where nine miners died last year has been fined $420,000 for flagrant violations at another of his operations in the state, the Tower Mine in Carbon County. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration levied the fine against Andalex Resources, which is controlled by Robert Murray, left, of Murray Energy Corp. The maximum penalty for the violations is $440,000, reports Mike Gorrell of the Salt Lake Tribune.

Gorrell writes, "Inspectors repeatedly found excessive accumulations of hydraulic oil, fine coal particles covering electric equipment and excessive amounts of potentially explosive coal dust building up on conveyor belts, MSHA said. The coal dust standard is especially pertinent at Tower, which is known as a 'gassy mine' because the coal seams it excavates contain elevated levels of explosive methane gas. Volatile liquid hydrocarbons, which are like diesel fuel, also are found in Tower's coal seam."

The citations came during inspections after Murray Energy "moved into Utah in early August 2006 with the purchase of the Tower, Crandall Canyon, South Crandall Canyon and West Ridge mines from Andalex Resources," Gorrell reports. Crandall Canyon was the scene of the disaster that month. "Mike Dalpiaz, a United Mine Workers of America executive based in Price, said it is not uncommon for a mine to receive a flagrant violation notice every now and then. 'But to have as many as [Murray] has in one mine in such a short time is unbelievable.' Coal dust accumulations in a gassy mine, he added, are 'just like gunpowder. ... It just makes a big powderkeg in the mine.'" (Read more)

Connecticut is a model for handling open-records complaints, but not for handling appeals

During Sunshine Week, newspapers have been highlighting ways to make government more open, often by pinpointing ways it has failed to be accessible in the past. As part of its Sunshine Week series, the Des Moines Register draws attention to Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission, which many see as an example of open government done right.

Created more than 30 years ago, the commission is "an independent, executive-branch agency that officials in other states, including Iowa, have come to consider a model nationally for resolving open records disputes," writes Lee Rood. "The commission and its staff, which has grown from roughly five to 22, handles about 700 to 800 complaints annually - most through mediation but others through a court-like process."

According to Colleen Murphy, the commission's executive director, the key is keeping the commission free from political pressure, a fact that she said allows the public to trust its decisions. (Read more)

Another highlight of the Register's series was a report on a national study that graded states' open-records laws. The study, conducted last year by the Better Government Association and sponsored by the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri journalism school, gave 38 states failing grades, Rood reports. Among those earning an 'F' was Connecticut, which the study said made it difficult for citizens to appeal record denials. "What the freedom-of-information research found, one open-records advocate said, was that 'the tools available to citizens to enforce their rights under state FOI laws are, with rare exceptions, endemically weak,'" Rood writes. (Read more)

Bush administration to give up to 10 states flexibility on parts of No Child Left Behind

This week, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced some changes in enforcement of the federal No Child Left Behind law, saying the Department of Education "would relax the law’s provisions for some states, allowing them to distinguish schools with a few problems from those that need major surgery," reports Sam Dillon of The New York Times.

The new pilot program would "give up to 10 states permission to focus reform efforts on schools that are drastically underperforming and intervene less forcefully in schools that are raising the test scores of most students but struggling with one group, like the disabled, for instance," Dillon writes. No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002, aimed to make all students proficient in math and reading by 2014, but as of now, 9,000 of the nation's 90,000 schools are failing to make the grade. Under this pilot program, individual states would have the final say on how to deal with schools that miss NCLB targets. (Read more)

Sen. Hillary Clinton released a statement supporting the increased flexibility for schools but said more needs to be done to fix struggling schools. "No Child Left Behind is a failed policy that needs fundamental overhaul – not tinkering around the edges," she said. "As President, I will work with Congress to end the No Child Left Behind Act, and put in its place a more sensible law that stops micromanaging our schools from the federal level and provides real support to struggling schools." While Sen. Barack Obama has also voiced his opposition to NCLB, his campaign did not comment on the pilot program.

Cockfighting probe accuses 63 people of taking part in contests in rural Oregon and Washington

A sting operation that involved 500 law enforcement officers has led to 63 people being accused of taking part in a dozen cockfight derbies in rural parts of Oregon and Washington over the past two years, reports Bryan Denson of The Oregonian.

"A mammoth task force of federal, state, county and city police agencies -- more than 500 law enforcement officers and support staffs -- took part in some aspect of the two-year investigation and weekend raids in both states," Denson writes. "The investigation was dubbed 'Operation Red Rooster' in Oregon and 'Operation Tattered Wing' in Washington."

Five of the mean accused of being part of the cockfighting contests also are accused of being involved in drug trafficking. During a raid last weekend in southern Oregon, police "seized more than 700 roosters in Klamath County, at least $100,000 in cash, 50 guns, 2.5 pounds of meth, 1.5 pounds of cocaine, 6 pounds of marijuana and 48 marijuana plants, authorities said," Denson writes. (Read more)

West Texas school district reaches settlement with ACLU over Bible course

In 2005, the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, started offering an elective course on the Bible. Last May, the course was challenged in lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way on behalf of eight local parents, but a settlement has been reached that will allow the district to continue teaching the course with a new curriculum, reports Ruth Campbell of The Midland Reporter-Telegram.

The two sides reached an agreement that says the district cannot use "any existing high school Bible curriculum as its basis, or any past or future versions of such curriculum," and instead must form a committee of seven educators to author a new curriculum, Campbell reports. The classes —in which 38 students were enrolled at Odessa and Permian high schools — had been using the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which has been criticized for being too fundamentalist.

"The settlement, which the board overwhelmingly adopted, prohibits the (district) from teaching Bible course using the National Council curriculum," Judith E. Schaeffer, legal director for People for the American Way in Washington, D.C., told Campbell. "The goal of the lawsuit was achieved in this settlement. This is the relief plaintiffs were asking for in the litigation." "We will all be monitoring this," she added. (Read more)

The new curriculum must be delivered by June 1, and the Odessa American said in a editorial the committee members are up for the job. The newspaper also said it hopes the effort is worth the hassle for class that has struggled to draw many students. "We wish the committee good luck in creating something that will satisfy all parties in the dispute," the newspaper writes in an editorial. "This is an issue that has been emotional and exhausting for a lot of community members. And it really served as a distraction to the overall goal of improving the quality of education in all areas." (Read more)

Clintons turn Indiana into presidential battleground

Indiana is shaping up as a potentially pivotal battleground in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, with early observers thinking Barack Obama from adjoining Illinois starts out with and edge but seeing Hillary and Bill Clinton make a strong effort, especially in the state's smaller cities and towns. Indiana's population is almost 30 percent rural.

Yesterday, the New York senator visited two cities with almost identical population and trends -- Anderson and Terre Haute, both with about 57,000 people by 2006 Census Bureau estimates, almost 4 percent fewer than the census counted in 2000. The Herald-Bulletin of Anderson said in an editorial that Clinton's appearance there was "electric with hope."

The Tribune-Star of Terre Haute, also part of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., focused on Clinton's staged, sit-down discussion "with several invited Wabash Valley citizens who described some of the challenges they or family members face in today’s economy," reports Sue Loughlin. (Read more)

The paper's coverage also includes an interview Loughlin got with Clinton, a crowd story, and video of Clinton speaking, with Sen. Evan Bayh at her side. (Photo by Charles Dharapak, Tribune-Star)

The Herald-Bulletin posted a short story about Clinton's speech there and another short piece about the crowd. By far its longest story was about two bomb threats against the event, one called in to its own newsroom. The story quoted an unnamed staff member who took the call as saying, “I don’t remember precisely the words, but essentially it was, ‘Listen carefully, there’s a bomb set to go off at the Wigwam at 3:40 p.m. I thought it was a joke.”

The story continued, "He said at first it sounded like a coworker was playing a prank, but when he looked around the empty newsroom — cleared of photographers, editors and reporters busy covering the campaign stop — he realized the threat could be real and immediately called 911. Police dispatchers told the staff member they would relay the threat to officers at the scene." Police said the arena had been swept five times and the event was not disturbed.

Obama gives candid answers, paper lays 'em out

Sen. Barack Obama answered questions "quite candidly" during his visit last night to Beckley, W.Va., in the heart of the Appalachian coalfield, reports Audrey Stanton of the local Register-Herald. And the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. daily in the town of 17,000 did right by the issues, devoting more than 1,200 words to Obama's give-and-take on tough topics such as coal. (Photo by Rick Barbero, Register-Herald)

"When Nelson Staples of Beckley asked him how he planned to lower the cost of gasoline in the United States, Obama responded with an answer that included investing in alternative fuel research, investing in refinery capacities, having a more sensible policy in the Middle East, strengthening the value of the dollar by improving the economy, charging polluters and creating more fuel-efficient vehicles in the United States," Stanton reports, continuing with dialogue:
When Nelson Staples of Beckley asked him how he planned to lower the cost of gasoline in the United States, Obama responded with an answer that included investing in alternative fuel research, investing in refinery capacities, having a more sensible policy in the Middle East, strengthening the value of the dollar by improving the economy, charging polluters and creating more fuel-efficient vehicles in the United States.

“But the hard truth is, the only way to, in the long term, reduce gas prices is to reduce demand,” Obama said.

“ ... So, in the meantime, what kind of car do you drive?” he asked Staples.

The laughter from those sitting around the Beckley resident gave him away even before he answered: “An Escalade.”

Obama shrugged his shoulders and widened his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Obama said, “but this is what I’m talking about right here.”
As for the really big energy question in West Virginia, the future of coal, a man from Fayetteville "asked Obama how he could help the state strike a balance between the environmental damage caused by the coal and logging industries and the environmental concerns of eco-tourism."
“The truth is, we don’t have perfect energy sources,” Obama said, adding that even though he supports wind energy, he is aware windmills threaten migratory birds. “Every source of energy has some problems. .... There are ways of removing coal that work well ... in a way that does not degrade the environment. But there are other companies tearing stuff up. The key for us has to be to work with those companies that are engaging in the best practices and understanding that over time everybody has an investment in the environment of West Virginia. ... But we have to do it in a way that does not completely eliminate the industry that provides a livelihood for a lot of people. We have to make a transition to clean energies, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
As for longstanding questions about coal-mine safety, raised by the son of a Beckley coal miner:
“Coal mining remains one of the most dangerous occupations there is,” Obama said. “I want to do everything that’s needed to improve coal mine safety.” Obama said he planned to meet with Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Robert C. Byrd, both D-W.Va., to make sure the necessary safety measures are in place to ensure the safety of miners.
Obama also pledged "strong enforcement" of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, in replying to a questiomner who said a coal mine had polluted a stream near his home. There's not much analysis in Stanton's story, but a lot of quotes and facts; to read it, click here.

The day before, Obama told Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer that some of the manufacturing jobs lost in North Carolina "just aren't coming back." When Morrill asked him where the new jobs would come from, Obama said laid-off factory workers could get construction jobs improving infrastructure, such as "broadband lines, for example, that can help stitch rural communities into the Internet. … We can put people back to work building windmills; that takes a lot of steel." The video of the interview appears to have been taken down, but the Observer offers an edited transcript.

Foes of Virginia coal plant say law for it violates interstate commerce by mandating Virginia coal

Opponents of a proposed Dominion Power plant in the southwest Virginia mountains contend that a state law allowing the plant "is unconstitutional because it requires burning of Virginia coal," reports Keith Strange of The Coalfield Progress in Norton, near the Virginia City plant site.

The Southern Environmental Law Center "filed a 60-page brief with the State Corporation Commission, alleging the legislation’s Virginia-only coal provision violates the U.S. constitution’s interstate-commerce clause," Strange reports. "They filed the brief on behalf of Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Sierra Club and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards." SELC staff attorney Cale Jaffe said the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar measure in Oklahoma, which required all coal-fired plants in that state to burn at least 10 percent Oklahoma-mined coal. (Read more; subscription required)

Self-employment rises in rural areas, but average income of rural self-employed appears to fall

"Self-employment has become a major source of jobs in large areas of rural America — particularly down the midsection of the country," Bill Bishop writes in the Daily Yonder. "But even as more people begin to work for themselves, incomes are dropping" -- at least on average, and according to the available data.

Bishop's report is based mainly on a study by Stephan Goetz of Penn State, published in the latest edition of Rural Realities, the quarterly of the Rural Sociological Society. "Since 1969, the number of self-employed rural workers has expanded by over 240 percent, to 5.3 million," Goetz writes. "In comparison, there was only a 61 percent growth in rural wage and salary workers over the same time period." If the trend continues, by 2015, one of every four rural workers will be self-employed.

But even as self-employment booms, average income of the self-employed has declined "to historic lows," Goetz writes. "In 2005, the average self-employed worker earned only one-half of what wage-and-salary employees captured ($16,851 versus $31,596)." But those data may not be definitive, because they could be driven in part by part-time proprietorships of retirees, spouses or partners who are not a household's main source of income, and so on. Goetz acknowledges, "Better data than those currently available are needed to examine whether these differences are due to part-time vs. full-time employment differences or linked to underreporting of self-employment income." (Read more)

Goetz's report includes county-by-county maps showing percentages of self-employed workers, divided into five categories, or quintiles. "The South has the lowest proportion of self employed," Bishop writes. "Tunica County, Miss. ... has the lowest proportion of self-employed in the country." It's a big casino county, near Memphis, Tenn. Not too far away, Meigs County, Tenn., has the highest percentage of self-employed. Decatur is the county seat.

"In Meigs, located in the southeastern portion of the state, for every 100 wage workers, there are 185 people who are self-employed," Bishop writes. "Meigs has had its problems. The community lost its garment-manufacturing base some time ago. It has few public sector jobs. And the county has had a considerable number of people leave. So those working for themselves in Meigs county do wood working. They drive trucks and make pottery. There are also a number of musicians in the county." For the rest of Bishop's report, also based on an Ohio State study in Ohio, click here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Columnist: Sunshine Week is time for presidential candidates to come clean about open government

As Sunshine Week rolls on, Mark Fitzgerald of Editor & Publisher writes that the presidential candidates are overdue in speaking out on issues of open government and full disclosure. He explains that the American Society of Newspaper Editors had failed to any draw a response to its open government survey until Sen. Hillary Clinton responded on Saturday. Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain have failed to answer. Fitzgerald writes:
Clinton squeaked under the Sunshine Week wire with a survey that repeatedly wags its finger at the 'excessive secrecy' of the Bush administration -- and ignores her own transparency-challenged record.

Obama at long last used the lull between primaries late last week to finally address an issue he has preferred to keep in the shadows for the past year -- the full extent of his political and financial relationship with Illinois power broker Tony Rezko, who is now on trial in Chicago on federal corruption charges.

He has yet to respond to the Sunshine Week survey, but, as the indefatigable Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Lynn Sweet -- who deserves much of the credit for pressuring Obama to come clean -- reports, he now believes he's positioned to make a campaign issue of transparency."
Fitzgerald says that Clinton has "talked the talk" but has still not released tax returns or her records as First Lady. He says McCain refuses to release his tax returns and supports keeping certain Vietnam War documents classified. At the same time, McCain does support a federal shield law for reporters. Fitzgerald's main point is that it's definitely time for openness — as it relates to the candidates and government in general — became an issue on the campaign trail. (Read more)

Sunshine Week continues through Saturday. More information is available here.

Once considered pointless, E. Carolina University's medical center makes big economic impact

Although North Carolina lawmakers initially opposed giving Greenville-based East Carolina University the opportunity to start a medical school, no one regrets the decision now. Since its first class in 1977, "the medical school has transformed Pitt County Memorial Hospital and the region," reports Jerry Allegood of The News & Observer in Raleigh. "Not only did the school boost health care in Greenville — now there are about 500 doctors and 1,200 nurses on the hospital staff alone — but it also fostered a far-reaching regional health care system serving 1.2 million people in 29 eastern North Carolina counties."

Without the university and the medical school in that part of the state, "we would look like a developing nation," former U.S. Sen. Robert Morgan, an ECU graduate and longtime political supporter, told Allegood. The university is about two hours east of Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina medical center.

The initial goal was to increase the number of doctors for the state's rural areas, but the resulting growth of the hospital has been an economic boost thanks to the med center's 6,300 jobs. "With tobacco's decline and the near-extinction of small-town hospitals, this latest development boom underscores the medical complex's role as an economic engine and provider of rural doctors," Allegood writes. (Read more)

Iowa farmland values surge; up 2/3 since 2003

Farmland values in Iowa keep rising, at an accelerating rate: 18 percent in the last year and 11 percent in the last six months, reports Agriculture Online.

The figures come from the latest survey conducted by the Iowa Farm and Land Chapter #2 of the Realtors Land Institute. "The survey polls farmland value specialists and real estate agents for their estimates of 'bare, unimproved land,' says Troy Louwagie, RLI Land Trends and Values committee chairman and Hertz Land Management agent in Nevada, Iowa," Ag Online reports.

Since 2003, land prices in Iowa have increased by two-thirds, thanks to the surge in corn and soybean prices cause by demand for ethanol and biodiesel. "The highest average farmland value in the state came in west-central Iowa, where high quality crop ground fetched an average of $5,630 per acre," Ag Online reports. "Southwestern Iowa saw the largest value climb in the last six months; land values there rose by 14 percent since September of last year." (Read more)

New rule leaves 45 non-metro counties too 'ozony'

The Environmental Protection Agency recently revised its standards for acceptable levels of ozone, and according to those standards, 45 non-metro counties possess health-hazardous levels, reports Julie Ardery of the Daily Yonder. In the EPA map above, the counties in pink exceed the new standard of .075 parts per million; those in blue were between .070 and .075. The old standard was 0.8.

EPA and the American Lung Association wanted to move the standard even lower, but some officials, such as Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said the new standard would hurt his state since areas could lose federal funds due to high pollution levels. Four of the nine non-compliant Oklahoma counties were rural, Ardery notes.

"Polluted country air poses hazards to people, animals, and even crops," she writes. "Ozone (O3) is produced when sunlight interacts with emissions from cars and trucks, factories, and power-plants. It causes asthma, damages the lungs of animals (human and otherwise), and stunts the growth of plants." Ardery cites a recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that says if current ozone trends continue, "by 2100 the global value of crop production will fall by 10 to 12 percent." (Read more)

Oregon town gradually accepts immigrant influx

Immigration, legal and otherwise, is transforming the look of America's small- and medium-sized communities. Lise Nelson, a University of Oregon geography professor, found a case study of those changes in Woodburn, Ore., which in the 2000 census had 20,000 people and was the largest city in the state with a majority of Latinos. (Encarta map)

Drawing from archived newspaper articles, public records and personal interviews conducted in English and Spanish, Nelson described a somewhat grudging acceptance of the new neighbors in journal articles for Geographical Review and Cultural Geographies. "Woodburn is a place that represents a microcosm of the broader-scale migration and settlement dynamics that are changing small- and medium-sized towns throughout the United States," Nelson said in a university news release.

"Woodburn's farmworker housing struggle in the 1990s offers a window into the shifting dynamics of belonging and identity," Nelson writes. "The housing struggle reflected a deep resistance on the part of some white residents to the presence of Mexican immigrants, yet today we see, at least on an official level, a more active embracing of Woodburn's multicultural identity. A few years ago Woodburn inaugurated, as its first urban renewal project, a downtown plaza, designed in a Latin American style. For several years now the city has helped organize a community celebration of Mexican Independence Day. This is not to say the picture is all rosy, as racism and discrimination against immigrant residents have not disappeared, but there have been public and visible changes."

Woodburn is not truly rural, but Nelson's work looks at the population changes occurring throughout the adjoining farming areas of the Willamette Valley, including the small towns of Gervais and Canby, thanks to expansion in the nursery industry and increase in agricultural processing plants. (Read more) To read Nelson's Geographical Review article, go here. To read her article from Cultural Geographies, go here. To view a slide show on the subject, narrated by Nelson, go here.

Spot coal prices have risen by half in last 5 months

The world price of coal on the spot market has jumped by half in the last five months, a greater increase than the much more widely reported increase in crude-oil prices, notes The Washington Post in a thorough, 2,461-word story. "Coal is suddenly in short supply and high demand worldwide," write Steven Mufson and Blaine Harden, due to "an untimely confluence of bad weather, flawed energy policies, low stockpiles and voracious growth in Asia's appetite."

"Mining companies are enjoying a windfall. Freight cars in Appalachia are brimming with coal for export," the Post reports. "While the price of coal has slipped slightly in recent weeks, many analysts and companies are wondering whether high prices are here to stay. As increasing numbers of the world's poor join the middle classes, hooking up to electricity grids and buying up more manufactured goods, demand for coal grows. World consumption of coal has grown 30 percent in the past six years, twice as much as any other energy source. About two-thirds of the fuel supplies electricity plants, and just under a third heads to industrial users, mostly steel and concrete makers. Meeting rising demand will prove difficult. To maintain its role as the world's producer of last resort, the United States will need to make major investments in mines, railways and ports."

And what about global warming? Mufson and Harden write, "If high prices last, that would raise the cost of U.S. electricity, half of which is generated by coal-fired powered plants. Expensive or not, coal is almost always dirtier to burn than are other fossil fuels. Although its use accounts for a quarter of world energy consumption, it generates 39 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Climate-change concerns could lead to legislation in many countries imposing higher costs on those who burn coal, forcing utilities and factories to become more efficient and curtail its use. Climatologists warn that without technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions, burning more coal would be disastrous." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mississippi, a state of limited access to government records, making police reports available to public

Mississippi journalists and other open-government advocates won a victory today, with final passage of a bill that would guarantee public access to incident reports by police. House Bill 474 passed the Senate unanimously and is headed to Gov. Haley Barbour.

The bill "would clarify the definition of incident reports that include information such as the name of a person arrested or charged with a crime," reports Leah Rupp of The Clarion Ledger in Jackson. "Investigative reports, which usually include more detailed information, would only be made public if the law enforcement agency chose to give it out."

The bill is the result of a year of lobbying by the Mississippi Press Association and other groups, and compromises among MPA, the House, the Senate and law-enforcement officials. It appeared to get a boost from Mississippi newspapers' recent package of stories, "Secrecy in Mississippi," showing how the Magnolia State had some of the country's most limited access to government records. (Read more)

Another Appalachian furniture plant bites the dust

Another furniture factory in Southern Appalachia has closed, this one a leader in "a controversial but ultimately successful campaign to persuade the federal government to investigate the pricing of wooden bedroom furniture pouring in from China," says The Roanoke Times.

The furniture makers proved "Chinese manufacturers were violating anti-dumping trade laws by exporting furniture at illegally low prices," and federal agencies imposed fees on the imports and distributing the money to the American complainants, Duncan Adams reports. Vaughan Furniture of Galax, Va. (near center of Encarta map), got $3.3 million over several years, enough to keep it going -- but in the end, not enough to keep it open. It employs 275 people and is the last factory of a company that once had five.

Founded in 1923, "The company expects to employ about 35 people as it moves forward as an importer, distributor and supplier to furniture retailers," Adams writes. "Vaughan Furniture will apply for federal benefits available to workers whose job loss can be attributed to foreign competition. The Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits can, among other things, help pay for job training, provide relocation allowances, extend payment of unemployment benefits and provide a tax credit for health insurance coverage costs."

The story is "Breaking News" on the Web site of the weekly Galax Gazette. The closing is the latest in a series on the Blue Ridge Plateau and adjoining Piedmont of Virginia and North Carolina. Adams calls the toll in the Old Dominion: "In 2007, Hooker Furniture in Martinsville, as well as Stanley Furniture, Ridgeway Furniture and Bassett Furniture Industries, all in Henry County, each closed a manufacturing plant, with related layoffs." (Read more)

Bill Clinton dubs himself 'designated rural hit man'

After former President Bill Clinton wandered off the reservation with some inopportune comments in South Carolina, the presidential campaign of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, started scheduling him more heavily in rural areas, where she usually does well and there is less national media attention. Yesterday, in Indiana's southeastern corner, he acknowledged his new role.

"I'm the designated rural hit man," the would-be First Gentleman told a crowd in Lawrenceburg, a town of 4,700 in the Cincinnati metro area, reports Pat Crowley of The Cincinnati Enquirer, who writes:

"I like to go to small-town America," said Clinton, who left here early Tuesday afternoon for campaign events in Richmond and Fort Wayne.

"I like to go out to the heartland of the country campaigning.

"It is places like this that are going to propel her to the Democratic nomination and ultimately to the presidency," he said, followed by a loud cheer.

Many in the crowd of 400 "waited 90 minutes in the rain to hear Clinton deliver a 40-minute stump speech for his wife," Crowley reports. (Read more) Crowd estimates are tricky. Bill Ruthhart of The Indianapolis Star, a sister Gannett Co. Inc. paper, pegged the crowd this way: "About 375 people packed a small room in the center to listen to Clinton, and 125 listened in an adjacent room. About 150 students and 50 adults listened to the speech in a nearby firehouse."

Ruthhart reports, "Much of Clinton’s 40-minute speech focused on the economy. He said Hillary Clinton would turn the economy around by solving the subprime-mortage crisis and generating new jobs through an aggressive energy policy." (Read more) "He said his wife appreciated the support she had won in rural areas on her way to primary victories in Ohio, Texas and Missouri," The Associated Press reported. (Read more) For more details on the speech, see Crowley's blog. (AP photo by David Kohl)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Iraq, 5 years on: City enlistment drops; rural stable

As we noted Sunday, the upcoming fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has reporters reflecting, and noting rural America's disproportionate share of the human cost. The trend appears likely to increase. Douglas Fischer the San Mateo County Times reports that inner-city recruiting has "dried up" but "Rural areas remain stable," with an enlistment rate 43 percent higher than in major cities.

The paper's analysis of enlistment data from 2001, 2003 and 2006 show last year's enlistments in cities of more than 300,000 "dropped, on average, 15 percent from levels from before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks." Per-capita enlistment in such cities is now 8.7 per 10,000 people; in small towns, 12.4 per 10,000.

Fischer has a great lede for his story: "Five years into the war in Iraq, not one service member from Oakland has been killed in battle. Sixty miles to the east, the ranching and bedroom community of Tracy, one-fifth Oakland's size, has lost seven soldiers to the war." Tracy has 80,000 people and an enlistment rate of 13.3 per 10,000. (Photo by Gina Halferty of the San Joaquin Herald shows the pertinent part of Tracy's war memorial, due for an update.)

Tim Marema, vice president of the Whitesburg, Ky.-based Center for Rural Strategies, told Fischer the economic opportunities — are lack there of in rural areas — have a clear influence. "For young people who want to choose the military, good for them. Our nation needs them," Marema said. "But it shouldn't be a choice made under duress. It should be a choice, and, in the sense of fairness, we would hope all our young people would have the same opportunities as they look at how they want their lives to unfold." (Read more)

Successful at home, ConnectKentucky goes national to expand rural broadband access

ConnectKentucky began four years ago in Bowling Green with five employee and a mission was to expand broadband access across the state. The nonprofit has taken off since then, growing into a national organization called Connected Nation with an office in Washington, D.C. and similar projects in other states, reports Ameerah Cetawayo of The Daily News in Bowling Green.

"Connected Nation, which also provides consulting services to the state of California, has been contacted by at least 25 other states about adopting some or parts of the ConnectKentucky initiative that pushed the broadband availability in Kentucky’s mostly rural 120 counties from 60 percent to 95 percent of Kentucky households in three years - growth unmatched by any other state, according to the company," Cetawayo writes.

The organization's funding is an 80/20 split between public and private money, and its officials said the 2007 Connect the Nation Act — contained in the Farm Bill — brings even more potential for growth since the bill seeks to speed deployment of broadband in rural areas. Connected Nation currently is working to help create better measurements for broadband availability. Cetawayo explains the existing standard comes from the Federal Communications Commission's definition and says that as long as one business or resident has access in a ZIP code the whole ZIP code is deemed "connected." Connected Nation looks at download/upload speed and census data to find gaps in service. (Read more)

Connected Nation's report, "The Economic Impact of Stimulating Broadband Nationally," estimates that $134 billion could be gained by increasing broadband across the country. To read the report and see state-by-state estimates, go here.

With no local newspaper watching government, residents in Saltville, Va., work to keep tabs

Newspapers pride themselves on being watchdogs of government at all levels, and in small communities that role is even more vital. In remote Saltville, Va. (pop. 2,200, Encarta map), the nearest newspapers are two weeklies and a daily owned by Media General Inc., but the town's residents say they need someone else keeping tabs on local government. For now, a group of locals plans to form a group to send people to committee meetings and post updates on a Web site, reports Debra McCown of the Bristol Herald Courier (Media General's nearby daily).

"Some residents say they believe town meetings are conducted improperly, they feel they do not know what’s going on and some claim there have been cases of favoritism and cronyism," she writes in a February article. The Herald Courier's Web site does not have any recent updates, and a quick search of the Web site for the Smyth County News & Messenger (a nearby Media General weekly) did not uncover an initial report or any recent news from Saltville.

The lesson here is the importance of local newspapers for local government, especially their ability to inform people about what is going on in committee meetings or other sessions. When no one is watching how officials are making decisions, residents lose touch with their government. In this case, it seems some residents are taking a proactive approach to solving that problem. (Read more)

CDC goes to West Virginia to investigate rising number of prescription drug overdoses

Appalachia's abuse of prescription medicine has been called an epidemic. Readers, viewers and listeners may have thought that terminology gave the word a different meaning, but the folks who specialize in studying and controlling epidemics are tackling this one. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently stepped in to help West Virginia researchers investigate why the state's rate of drug overdoses leads the nation and find ways of addressing the epidemic, reports Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Drug overdose has become the leading cause of death for young adults in the state. In 2006, 332 West Virginians died from accidental drug overdoses, and the "average victim was a man in his 30s, living in southern West Virginia," Finn reports. "More than half the victims had a history of chronic pain, mental illness or substance abuse." The study also found that "doctor shopping," going to multiple doctors for multiple prescriptions, played a major role. "The average victim had been to three doctors and three pharmacies in the last year," Finn explains. "Some went to a lot more," such as a few who had gone to 22 different providers in one year.

Prescription drugs were the leading cause of these overdoses; more than 90 percent of victims died from prescription drugs, with methadone contributing to a third of those deaths. "Approximately a third of the drugs that killed individuals were valid prescriptions, were validly prescribed products, which means that most of the folks that are dying from prescription drug overdose are obtaining those drugs through non-sanctioned means," Dr. Aron Hall, CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service officer for West Virginia, told Finn. (To listen to the report, go here.)

A February 2007 report by the CDC prompted the study, reports Tara Tuckwiller of The Charleston Gazette. That report "showed unintentional poisoning deaths climbed 550 percent in West Virginia between 1999 and 2004, far more than in any other state," she writes. (Read more)

Kentucky's rural demographics and history give Clinton an advantage in state's May 20 primary

As the Democratic presidential primaries roll on, white men could be the key to the contest. Dan Balz of The Washington Post examines this crucial bloc of voters in light of Ohio's results, which he says raise the "question of whether racial prejudice would be a barrier to (Obama's) candidacy in some of the major industrial battlegrounds in the general election if he becomes the Democratic nominee."

Given the demographics and history of Kentucky, that question will be a key one in the state's May 20 primary, a fact that likely gives Clinton an advantage, writes Al Cross in his Sunday column for The Courier-Journal of Louisville. Cross focuses on Kentucky's voters — about 40 percent of whom are rural — but it's a similar look at the intersection of race and politics in this campaign.

The campaign's recent storylines and results highlight "the harder fact about race and Obama," that "there are still some white voters for whom his race is a disincentive or even a disqualifier," Cross writes. Exit polling from Ohio's March 4 primary shows Clinton held an advantage among voters who said race was a key factor for their vote, such as in the state's Appalachian 6th Congressional District — known as "Pennsyltucky" since it borders Kentucky and Pennsylvania — where Clinton won 72 percent of the vote. Add that to polls and results from other states that shows Obama's struggle to win over lower-income, lesser-educated whites, and it looks like Clinton should have an advantage in a Southern state like Kentucky.

Six weeks ago, Cross wrote that Obama could win Kentucky thanks to "swing voters over 55 who still feel angst about how they acted during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and would like to cast a cathartic vote" for an African American. This week, he has a different outlook and writes:

That was wishful thinking -- not in hope of an Obama victory, but in hope of a victory over our racist past, which still lingers. William Faulkner was not just describing the old Confederacy when he said, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." Obama says he is the candidate of the future. If he is to succeed, he must confront the past -- and in some places, the present.

Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and former political writer for The Courier-Journal. Forgive the "cross-promotion" here, but the column is worth checking out since Kentucky — with all its baggage — is entering in the political spotlight. (Read more)

This is Sunshine Week: What are you doing for it?

Yesterday began Sunshine Week, a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. It continues through March 22. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know. News outlets are encouraged to join in the effort to build public support for open government and maccess by the public and journalists. One focus of the effort in this big election year is to put the issue to candidates.

Sunshine Week is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is funded primarily by a challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Many state press associations have Sunshine Week materials on their Web sites. The coordinator for weekly and community newspapers is Steve Haynes, publisher of the Oberlin Herald in Kansas and president of the National Newspaper Association. He is at 785-475-2206 or here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Evangelical environmentalists get bill to limit mountaintop mining on agenda in Tennessee

Evangelical environmentalists in Tennessee are pushing for a bill that would limit mountaintop strip mining of coal in the state, which they fear is about to increase. And they might have a better chance of getting something passed on the subject than elsewhere; the bill has bipartisan support and is linked to the state's tourism industry.

Because Tennessee turned over strip-mine regulation to the federal government many years ago, mountaintops mined for coal in the state must be restored to their approximate original contour. That means Tennessee does not have typical mountaintop-removal mines, like those that put their excess dirt and rock into surrounding hollows in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. But the "cross-ridge mining" that is allowed in Tennessee ruins hydrology and scenic vistas, opponents say. They say only 327 Tennesseans work in coal mining, while the major mining area is in the watershed of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

The bill pushed by the Lindquist-Environmental Appalachian Fellowship would "would prohibit surface mining above 2,000 feet or within 100 feet of a stream or other waterway," Theo Emery writes in The Tennessean of Nashville. "It would prevent any additional permits for surface coal mining from being issued until after the federal government does a new environmental review of the effects of surface mining." A map from the LEAF Web site shows current mountaintop mines in red, proposed mines in yellow and potential sites in green.

Attorney General Bob Cooper said last week that only the federal government can regulate mining, but LEAF says in its latest Web alert, "He's mistaken. Our bill regulates water issues related to mining, and even when regulating mining, the Federal government is clear that our laws can be more restrictive than federal laws as long as they don't conflict. We are blessed to have some impressive environmental attorneys helping us out on this for free. We think we can bounce over this with good law and discussions. It does, however, make for a bit more work."

Emery writes, "The church group began as a living memorial to a deceased congregation member, Kathy Lindquist. She was passionate about stopping mountaintop mining, and wrote about the issue in her final newsletter column before she died of cancer in 2005." LEAF says the bill is due up in a House subcommittee March 19 and a Senate committee March 26. Coal interests appeared before the committee last week. "Daniel A. Roling, president of Knoxville-based National Coal Corp., said the ban would cost his company $700 million and cripple its operations," Emery reports. (Read more)

Rick Held reports in Metro Pulse, a Knoxville weekly, that more mountaintop mining is on the horizon in Tennessee, with permits pending, and "The Tennessee Valley Authority’s huge investment in smokestack scrubbers for their coal-burning power plants has created an even greater incentive to extract its own coal reserves under the ridges of its vast holdings in the Royal Blue tract," home of a state wildlife management area in Scott and Campbell counties. (Read more)

Iraq war, 5 years on, tests the loyalty of Loyal, Wis.

Loyal, Wis., "is a city of four bars, three churches, three gas stations, two feed mills, two banks, a bowling alley, grocery store, modest homes and 1,290 people," and two casualties in Iraq, where a war enters its sixth year this week, writes Bill Glauber of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Like many rural places, Clark County has lost more than its share of soldiers in Iraq, probably because the military is a greater source of employment for rural youth than for their counterparts in suburbs and cities. (Journal Sentinel map)

The word of the county's two casualties arrived in Loyal exactly two years apart, on the days after Christmas in 2004 and 2006. The first was a father of four, a youth football coach and a bank vice president. The second was a Loyal High School graduate who had gone straight into the Marines. The two men "are honored as heroes. Esteem is less secure for the war in which they fell," the Journal Sentinel says under its headline, "Loyal weighs the cost."

The newspaper distributed a voluntary-reply survey about the war, drawing 224 respondents who said they lived in Loyal. Two-thirds said they opposed the war. Just over half "said the U.S. should begin withdrawing troops from Iraq within a year, and one-fifth favored an immediate withdrawal," Glauber reports, noting that the poll was unscientific and "There is not one anti-war sign in the city." Coni Meyer, who works in the high-school office, told him, "It isn't going to help a grieving family if you're angry."

Loyal was named for Civil War veterans who "proclaimed they were loyal to the Union. That loyalty is tacked to a large plaque at American Legion Post 175, more than 700 tiny pieces of wood emblazoned with the names of those from the area who served in America's armed forces," Glauber reports. (Photo by Kristyna Wentz-Graff) "It is difficult to bridge the space between Loyal and Iraq. ... Loyal is tethered to another 3,000 people who live in surrounding townships and communities that dot the rolling farmland. Some of the old farms are now owned by Old Order Amish families who ride the back roads in horse-drawn buggies painted black. Over there, in Iraq, is an expanse of desert, cluttered, broken cities, a society that continues a fitful and violent emergence from dictatorship, all while under the occupation and protection of U.S. forces. It is so peaceful in one place, often so bloody in another." (Read more)

Rising fuel prices pinch rural schools, commuters

If you're a rural journalist and your news outlet hasn't done a story about how rising fuel prices are causing financial stress for school districts and local governments, and another story about the impact on rural commuters, it's probably time. In The Washington Post today, Kirstin Downey looks at the local-government situation in Maryland and Virginia.

In Loudoun County, Va., "the per-mile cost of operating its 742 school buses has almost tripled in the past eight years, climbing from 30 to 81 cents. If prices keep rising, school officials may need to curtail some services, such as field trips and extracurricular activities."

Fairfax County "is monitoring credit card purchases of fuel, reprogramming engine computers so that diesel-powered vehicles automatically shut down after a certain amount of time idling and installing data recorders to make sure automobiles are being used for appropriate purposes. They are also telling county employees to minimize idling, avoid 'jack-rabbit' starts, opt for right-hand turns to avoid long waits at traffic signals and consider riding bikes to work instead of driving county cars." (Read more)

Commuting is an economic lifeline to rural areas. The Census Bureau's American Fact Finder site has detailed commuting data for most places. One example: For the 379 residents of New Castle, Ky. (Encarta map) who are in the labor force, the average commute in 2000 lasted 25.6 minutes -- longer than the national average. Surrounding Henry County was added to the Louisville metropolitan area after that census because more than a fourth of its workers commuted to metro Louisville. The site will also tell you how many commuters carpooled, drove alone or walked to work.