Saturday, August 02, 2008

Big power line okayed for northern West Virginia

Just before the deadline of midnight last night, the West Virignia Public Service Commission approved a massive electric transmission line that would stretch across much of the northern part of the state and has upset many rural residents. The route approved was a longer alternative that avoided the most organized opponents and eliminated the opposition of PSC staff, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

The Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, which Allegheny Power Co. calls TrAIL, "was among the most controversial PSC matters in years, and is the first of two proposed major in-state power-line projects to go before the commission," Ward writes. The other is the Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH), which the PSC is expected to begin considering soon. It is a joint effort of Allegheny and American Electric Power. It would connect Frederick, Md., and a power plant located between Winfield and St. Albans, W.Va.

To win approval of TrAIL, Allegheny agreed to "move a transmission operations center to West Virginia, and to save customers more than $40 million in industry rate reductions, low-income assistance and conservation plans, and deferments of rate hikes to fund the transmission line construction," Ward notes. "In an earlier settlement, the PSC consumer advocate also dropped opposition to the project. That deal required Allegheny to provide free electricity to residents whose property is crossed by the transmission line. Allegheny also pledged to severely limit clearcutting and not use aerial herbicide spraying to maintain the power line right of way." (Read more)
UPDATE, Aug. 3: Ward reports that the Sierra Club will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Sam Houston State's Center for Rural Studies aims to be main research, outreach unit for rural Texas

Sam Houston State University has established a new Center for Rural Studies: Research and Outreach. "I truly believe that the Center will quickly emerge as the premier teaching, research and outreach authority on rural Texas," says Director Gene Theodori, an associate professor in the university's sociology department, site of the center.

The center will offer educational and technical assistance programs and a broad range of policy research and recommendations, using faculty from several disciplines. "Rural Texas communities, school systems, and businesses desperately need data on which to base their decisions," says John de Castro, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Theodori, right, says the center will address a variety of issues and projects, including community-based planning, environmental and natural resource planning and policy, rural and small town government, ecotourism, transportation, health care and public and private collaboration for rural areas, using faculty from a wide range of disciplines. Potential clients include local governments, community and economic development corporations and chambers of commerce.

"The social and economic fabric of many rural communities throughout the U.S. has been progressively weakened by a number of regional, national and global changes over the past few decades," Theodori says. "Rural communities in Texas have not been exempt from such structural-level occurrences. Transformations in economic, demographic and spatial organization have had profound impacts on rural Texas." Read more.

Database shows reported incidents of poisonings by supposedly safe pesticides

We love it when a news organization conducts an investigation, develops a database and then puts it online so journalists anywhere in the country can do a localized story about the issue. The latest example is the Center for Public Integrity's examination of supposedly "safe" pesticides that have caused thousands of poisonings, increasing nearly 300 percent in the last 10 years.

The data come mainly from reports chemical companies are required to make to the Environmental Protection Agency. "The EPA's pesticide incident-reporting system has not been public until now," Jim Morris and Pell report. "Called one of the "Ten Most Wanted Government Documents" by the Center for Democracy and Technology, the database was released under the Freedom of Information Act to the Center for Public Integrity in early 2008."

Since the law asks manufacturers to create potential problems for themselves, EPA also gathers data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Pushed by inquiries from the Center for Public Integrity, the EPA has begun reviewing how incident data are collected and analyzed," Morris and Pell report.

Thanks to Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for the heads-up on this excellent resource.

Wal-Mart tells workers that unions could make life harder for them if Democrats win in November

Wal-Mart, which has most of its stores in rural areas and small towns, and no unionized workplaces, is warning its employees "that if Democrats win power in November, they'll likely change federal law to make it easier for workers to unionize companies -- including Wal-Mart," The Wall Street Journal reports.

After interviewing employees from seven states who attended mandatory company meetings on the subject, Ann Zimmerman and Kris Maher report, "Wal-Mart executives claim that employees at unionized stores would have to pay hefty union dues while getting nothing in return, and may have to go on strike without compensation. Also, unionization could mean fewer jobs as labor costs rise."

Wal-Mart executives stay within the law by not specifically telling hourly-wage employees how to vote, "but make it clear that voting for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama would be tantamount to inviting unions in," the Journal reports. A Wal-Mart customer-service supervisor from Missouri told the newspaper, "I am not a stupid person. They were telling me how to vote."

The main issue is the proposed "card check" law, titled the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workplaces to be organized through a majority of employees' signatures on union cards rather than a secret-ballot election on representation. "It is far easier for unions to get workers to sign cards because the organizers can approach workers repeatedly, over a period of weeks or months, until the union garners enough support," the Journal notes.

Wal-Mart is telling employees that Congress would pass and Obama would sign such a law. Other opponents with undisclosed funding sources are running TV commercials against the idea and Democratic candudates who support it, saying it would subject employees to intimidation. Unions say it would protect workers from intimidation by employers. "Unions consider the Employee Free Choice Act as vital to the survival of the labor movement," Zimmerman and Maher report.

No Wal-Mart employees are represented by unions. When the United Food and Commercial Workers organized a small group of Wal-Mart butchers in Texas in 2000, "the company phased out butchers in all of its stores and began stocking prepackaged meat," the Journal notes. "When a store in Canada voted to unionize several years ago, the company closed the store, saying it had been unprofitable for years." (Read more)

UPDATE, Aug. 14: The reporters write in a follow-up that labor unions, citing the Journal story, are asking the Federal Election Commission is violating federal law by spending corporate funds on the meetings. (Read more)

Defense spending becomes more important to the economies of rural areas

"Defense is an important and growing part of the rural economy — in many places the most important and fastest-growing part," the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City reports in the latest edition of Main Street Economist. The U.S. spent $660 billion on defense in 2007, the most since 1945 after adjusting for inflation.

"Many rural areas should also be well-positioned to capture an increasing share of the defense-related expenditures in the future. The largest component of rural defense spending — military personnel expenditures — is expected to grow quickly heading forward, and policymakers are increasingly looking to locate bases and troops away from major population centers," write Chad Wilkerson, a bank vice president and Oklahoma City branch executive, and Megan Williams, an associate economist. Many of the country's largest military operations are already located in rural areas.

Military incomes and defense contracts are the two largest components of U.S. defense spending and account for more than 4 percent of total rural U.S. economic growth. They have exceeded overall rural GDP growth by a significant margin since 2001, when defense spending began to increase significantly. Several rural areas, including Indian tribes, captured major defense contracts for goods or services.

"The recent rise in national defense spending has clearly increased the economic prospects of these as well as other rural areas across the country," the authors write. "Defense is almost certain to maintain an important role in the U.S. economy over the next few years, since many near-term defense spending decisions have already been made. One way in which planned military spending could have implications for rural areas in the near term is through the current round of military base realignments. Another is through the mix of defense spending that will occur over the next year or so, since some types of military expenditures are more heavily concentrated in rural areas."

While some rural facilities will lose defense personnel in coming years, no rural bases are slated to close, and expected losses are minimal. Modest changes in military-related expenditures are expected through 2013, but projections through 2025 indicate gradual declines of procurement and research and development contracts and continued solid growth in personnel and operations. Wilkerson and Williams warn about over-reliance on military spending for economic sustainability, especially because cuts in local defense activity can have significant effects on smaller communities.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Black henna tatoos causing major skin problems

Those who attend state and county fairs and summer carnivals may have something new to look out for. Dermatologists warn that black henna tattoos might contain para-phenylenadiamine (PPD), a harmful chemical used to make the longer-lasting tattoos, which has been associated with a sudden increase in major skin problems, reports Newswise, a research-reporting service.

"Perhaps the most alarming issue we are seeing with black henna tattoos is the increase in the number of children -- even children as young as 4 -- who are getting them and experiencing skin reactions," says Sharon Jacob, an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of California, San Diego. "Kids make up a significant portion of the population that receives temporary tattoos, because parents mistakenly think they are safe since they are not permanent and are available at so many popular venues catering to families. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Some henna artists are adding PPD (used commonly for black hair dye) into the henna mix, which turns the tattoos black and intensifies the tattoo, making it last for weeks compared to days when natural henna, right, is used. Leaves from the lawsonia inermis plant provide brown, green or red vegetable coloring in producing natural henna that is used in temporary tattoos. Direct application of PPD to the skin is prohibited by the Food and Drug Administration due to its known health risks -- including contact dermatitis, eczema, blistering and permanent scarring. "Each exposure to PPD re-challenges the immune system, so each time you get a black henna tattoo or use a hairdye that contains PPD, there is an increased risk of having a reaction," Jacob says. "Unless the artist can tell you exactly what's in the tattoo, don't get one." (Florida Dept. of Health photo)

Research helps explain vets' mental-health issues

Military training intended to help soldiers to react quickly in combat makes them more prone to various emotional and psychological issues upon return to civilian life, according to research at the University of Arkansas. Rural areas should take note because military enlistment is disproportionately rural.

"What we learned talking to soldiers and mental health professionals affirms the findings of the Department of Defense Health Board Task Force on Mental Health, particularly regarding the stigma attached to psychological problems and the shortcomings in available treatment," says sociologist and lead researcher Lori Holyfield, an assistant professor in UA's Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. Her research team analyzed oral histories of Iraq War veterans and mental-health professionals who were active in the field or work in Veterans Administration facilities and soldier, as well as professional accounts from military blogs, documentary films and news coverage.

The analysis used what sociologists have learned about emotions and "edgework," which is what they call voluntary, risk-taking behavior through negotiating between danger and safety in life-and-death situations. Edgework consist of four stages: preparation involving confidence building, performance marked by suppression of emotions, completion allowing emotional release, and maintenance that redefines emotions. Soldiers interviewed for the Veterans Oral History Project consistently reported feelings of hyper-arousal. Despite the suppression of many emotions, the constant threat can produce extended states of rage or anger.

During the completion stage, anger often resurfaces, and when soldiers return home, they must learn to control their emotions and reconcile their feelings and actions. According to the researchers, "the ability to get a perspective on one's self is blocked" because emotions have been continually repressed. They found that soldiers returning to civilian life often redefine their emotions in hyper-masculine ways, including toughness or self-sacrifice. High rates of post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with increasing rates of suicide, substance abuse and alcoholism place mental-health problems for returning veterans at crisis levels. Yet, the number of mental health professionals is declining, which has encouraged the Veterans Administration to work on increasing its mental health staff. Read more.

Kentucky's lieutenant governor heartily endorses mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear has called for dialogue on how to mitigate the impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining, and some other Democrats want to rein in the practice or largely outlaw it. But Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, whom Beshear chose as his running mate, said in an Appalachian coalfield speech last night that "I see it as a positive," reports the Appalachian News-Express of Pikeville. (State photo shows Mongiardo signing "Pledge to Protect Nature" at 2008 Arbor Day ceremony in state Capitol)

In a speech to an athletic banquet in Pikeville, "Mongiardo ... was very vocal about his support of mountaintop-removal mining, stating that we need flat land in order to develop into a national leader" in energy development, Justin Holbrook writes, quoting the lieutenant governor, a physician and former state senator from Hazard, another coalfield town:

“A lot of people look at mountaintop removal as a negative, but I see it as a positive. We need to stop apologizing for coal. We don’t want to defend mountaintop removal, but I want us to promote mountain top removal, because we need flat land. We cannot have economic expansion without places to do things and part of mountaintop removal is for places like hospitals, airports and different type of merchants.”

Mongiardo then switched to his favorite topic of late, adventure tourism: "We can put people on horseback, mountain bikes, foot and four-wheelers in Eastern Kentucky, which as you and I know, is one of the most beautiful areas in this country. There is no place prettier than going to the top of the hills and looking out across Eastern Kentucky. I can't wait for people from across the world to come and see what natural resources we have, and it’s not in spite of coal but because of coal." (Read more)

Mongiardo's remarks brought an e-mail blast from Appalachian lawyer and coal-industry watchdog Tony Oppegard: "Mongiardo is an intelligent man. Yes, Eastern Kentucky is one of the most beautiful places in the world. But if MTR mining continues, does he really believe that tourists are going to flock to eastern Kentucky to look at our once-beautiful but now devastated mountains that resemble moonscapes? He must be out of his mind."

Oppegard didn't mention other arguments against many huge mountaintop-removal and "area" mines, which have similar impacts: They are too far from infrastructure to be economically developed; the amount of developable land being created is more than the region can ever use; the typical reclamation into grassland destroys forever a forest environment that has one of the world's highest levels of biodiversity; valley fills bury headwater streams and watercourses forever; and stream sedimentation from mining creates water-pollution and flooding problems downstream. For the other side of the story, from the Kentucky Coal Association, click here.

Prospects for reporters' shield law this year dim

"The prospect of congressional approval of a federal 'media shield' law this year dimmed Wednesday when Senate Republicans blocked legislation that would protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources," writes Jennifer A. Dlouhy of Hearst Newspapers.

Republicans were trying to force a vote on their energy proposals. "Supporters of the shield bill said it is possible -- but unlikely -- that the issue will be revived in September, after the Senate takes a planned monthlong recess starting this weekend. Otherwise, backers of the bill would be forced to begin again in January, when a new Congress convenes." That is likely, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a sponsor of the bill, told Dlouhy. (Read more)

Former Edwards adviser cites book by 'Cooter,' former congressman, as good advice for Obama

Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, right, a former adviser to John Edwards' presidential campaign, has encouraged presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama to become better acquainted with rural voters. Saunders continues his appeal to Obama as a new contributor to the Daily Yonder. (Photo by Tim Dillion, USA Today)

"If Obama intends to rally support in rural America, he should read former Georgia congressman and Dukes of Hazzard actor Ben "Cooter" Jones' new book, Redneck Boy in the Promised Land: The Confessions of Crazy Cooter," Saunders writes in a review of the book, his first contribution to the Yonder. (Jones photo from Cooter's Place)

Saunders argues that the book would also be a good read for others who need to better understand how to secure rural votes. "If you are from the culture, you should read (the book). Not only will you be sprouting Cooter's one liners to your pals, but if you're like me, it will make you damned proud of who you are. And if you are not from our culture and have been wondering why it's so powerful at the ballot box, then you should read this."

McCain targets Obama, with an eye to voters in small towns; Obama targets rural Missouri

"Sen. Barack Obama campaigned through the conservative heart of rural Missouri on Wednesday, determined to prove that a Democrat can capture this bellwether state by winning over voters in its far-flung small towns as well as in its urban centers," report Peter Slevin and Jonathan Weisman of The Washington Post. Obama traveled with Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, trying to replicate the formula that elected her in 2006.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain started a television commercial that aides told CNN was aimed at "small town" voters, depicting Obama as a vapid celebrity "along the lines of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton," Jim Rutenberg writes for The New York Times. It is part of "a newly aggressive campaign to define Mr. Obama as arrogant, out of touch and unprepared for the presidency." (Read more) The effort appears aimed at changing opinions of voters who don't have a firm opinion of Obama, but polls show overall opinions of McCain are less firm than those about Obama.

Among self-defined "small town" voters in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released last week, McCain led 46 percent to 44 percent, well within the error margin for that subsample, which made up a fourth of the overall survey. More importantly, that group has a high share of "persuadable" voters, those whose views of either candidate are not strongly held, and that is especially true of the Arizona senator; 25 percent said their view of him was neutral, while only 15 percent said that of Obama. A majority had mild opinions about McCain; 26 percent said their view of him was somewhat positive, and 18 percent said their view was somewhat negative. He was viewed very positively by 16 percent and very negatively by 13 percent. Among all voters, the numbers were similar.

Opinions of Obama were more polarized; 24 percent of self-defined small-town voters said their view of the Illinois senator was very positive, and 25 percent were very negative. His other numbers were somewhat positive, 21 percent; neutral, 15 percent; and somewhat negative, 14 percent. For other small-town and rural results from the poll, go here. While opinion about McCain may be milder, the election is essentially about Obama. As Bob Drogin and Peter Nicholas note in the Los Angeles Times, the poll showed that "51 percent of people said they were focusing more on what kind of president Obama would be than McCain; 27 percent said they were focusing more on McCain." (Read more)

In rural Missouri, Obama has 24 offices and 150 paid staff members, triple the number 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry fielded, and "a significant number of his Missouri staffers have local roots," the Post reports. "Nearly 100 volunteers, most from Missouri, just finished a six-week commitment to work 30 hours a week. Many worked more. Volunteers and staffers have canvassed in rural areas where no presidential candidate has operated before." (Read more)

Fuel prices are a big issue in rural America, and in The Springfield News-Leader, Chad Livengood focused on Obama's opposition to oil driling offshore and in Alaska. "Instead, Obama says the country needs a national energy independence initiative similar to the 1940s Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb and the 1960s Apollo mission to get a man on the moon. Sen. John McCain ... has been pushing the Manhattan Project concept as well, but his plan entails expanding domestic energy exploration in western states, as well as coastal shores. Obama said it would take at least 10 years to get new American oil on the market -- an argument Democrats made against drilling in Alaska 10 years ago." (Read more) In the Rolla Daily News, Alan Lewis Gerstenecker took a more general approach, but in the Lake Sun Leader of Camdenton, Joyce Miller called Obama a "46-year-old black man from Illinois whom many said didn’t have a chance" and described his surprise stop at a restaurant in Lebanon, Mo. (Read more)

Nitrogen fertilizers expand Gulf "dead zone," make streams unsafe for swimming, drinking

The "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, caused mainly by use of nitrogen fertilizers, has reached near-record size and would be bigger than ever if Hurricane Dolly hadn't stirred up the water, Joel Achenbach reports in The Washington Post. As the Post chart shows, the zone has grown in four of the last five years.

Achenbach, the author of Why Things Are (1991), explains that nitrogren spurs "the growth of algae. Animals called zooplankton eat the algae, excreting pellets that sink to the bottom like tiny stones. This organic matter decays in a process that depletes the water of oxygen," killing or driving away fish. "The hypoxia tends to go away after October as cooler weather slows algae growth and storms mix the waters. Even so, there's a "legacy" from year to year, said Eugene Turner, a professor of coastal ecology at Louisiana State University who makes annual predictions of the size of the dead zone. Not all organic matter on the bottom decays in any given year."

Turner told Achenbach that the whole Mississippi River watershed, including the Ohio and Missouri rivers (which are larger than the Mississippi where they join), is affected by increased use of nitrogen, mainly by corn farmers seeking high prices driven by ethanol. Achenbach wrotes, "About half the streams and rivers in the watershed are unsafe for swimming, drinking, recreational contact or use as drinking water, Turner said." (Read more)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Penalties for taking land out of Conservation Reserve Program will remain, USDA says

The Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it will not eliminate penalties for farmers who plant crops on land they placed in the Conservation Reserve Program. Intense lobbying efforts were organized by bakers and livestock owners in hopes of erasing the penalties in order to boost the wheat harvest and lower crop prices, Andrew Martin writes for The New York Times. Their arguments were strengthened following the Midwest floods in June that washed away fields, amplifying fears of a poor harvest.

A larger crop is now forecast compared to those soon after the floods, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said, citing a 25 percent drop in corn prices and a 14 percent decrease in soybean prices from peak levels. Conservationists and hunting groups applauded the ruling because they had argued that lifting the penalties would have shredded the program, which has 34.7 million acres, primarily in the Great Plains. "The Conservation Reserve Program is the holy grail of conservation, and we are pleased that the USDA will maintain the program and the benefits that it has had," says Bart James, director of agriculture conservation policy for Ducks Unlimited. Robb MacKie, president and chief executive of the American Bakers Association, argues that continuing the penalty will hurt business owners and consumers effected by high commodity and food prices. "It's outrageous that the government is going to pay these folks not to grow when they want to grow on these acres," he said. Hog farmers struggling to pay for feed will also be hurt by the decision, the National Pork Producers said.

Schafer announced in May that more than half the acres farmers had put into the program could be used for hay and grazing following the completion of the bird-nesting season, "but in explaining Tuesday why he would not go further and lift penalties to allow farmers to plant on conservation, explained that economic forces were already shrinking the program," Martin writes. Farmers brought 288,726 acres back into production in the last 19 months by paying their way out of the program, and farmers with contracts that expire in coming years may opt or of the program, especially if commodity prices remain high.

Schafer's decision could be reconsidered depending on crop conditions. The Rural Blog posted an item on July 24 that discussed the permanent junction that prevented the USDA from releasing more acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program for haying and grazing.

Remote Area Medical treats mountains' uninsured

You've probably seen the national news coverage of Remote Area Medical's free, one-day clinics in Appalachia. There's good local coverage of the latest clinic, from Keith Strange of The Coalfield Progress in Norton, Va. (photo by Whitney Bentley):
The pulsating sea of thousands of people in urgent need of free medical care could have been a scene from the Sudan, Somalia or another Third World country. But the international Remote Area Medical organization was not providing care overseas. The setting for last weekend’s RAM health outreach was Wise County, in a country touted as having the world’s best health care.

As they surveyed the crowd Friday, RAM founder Stan Brock and local organizer Teresa Gardner were visibly shaken, despite the fact that this year’s event was the ninth of its kind in Wise County. The annual growth in patients coming to the county fairgrounds for care they can’t otherwise get is a testament to what’s wrong with the nation’s healthcare network, according to Gardner. “Every year surpasses the past. Our success is a failure. Our healthcare system . . .” Gardner shook her head as the words trailed off.

Preliminary tallies indicate that once again the Wise County RAM set records, a trend Gardner said is threatening to overflow capacity at the fairgrounds. Although Gardner said she expects the totals to grow by another 10-20 percent as final numbers come in, she said this year’s three-day event treated 2,539 patients, resulting in about 5,148 patient encounters. (Read more)

Strange also has a sidebar that begins: "Telling their personal stories, Remote Area Medical patients and caregivers illustrated both the enormous gaps in the U.S. healthcare system and the inspiration for thousands of volunteers to do something about it."

Teen farm chores may cause bone problems later

Research at the University of Cincinnati suggests that excessive weight-bearing activities, including squatting, kneeling or lifting, can affect properties of developing bones, ScienceDaily reports. According to a UC news release, the researchers "say this could leave junior farmers more susceptible to degenerative skeletal disorders later in life." (UC photo)

The study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Agromedicine, examined the biochemical properties of developing bones. Researchers were interested in whether or not repetitive high levels of load-bearing activity, such as shoveling chicken feed, would produce changes in bone mass and strength. Results showed that young boys who participated in regular farming activities have significantly lower ability to absorb shock when heels strike the ground.

"We've detected signs that high levels of cumulative weight-bearing activity during a time of rapid growth could cause chronic trauma to bone growth plates," says Dr. Amit Bhattacharya, a professor of environmental health and principal investigator fo the study. "Larger studies are needed to determine the extent of damage, but our initial findings support taking a closer look at how much physical activity farming children are doing and make sure their bone is developing normally for their age." Bhattacharya explains that weight-bearing activities are not bad, but excessive activity in this age group raises concern.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

World trade talks collapse over ag subsidies, tariffs

Seven years of World Trade Organization negotiations aimed at lowering trade barriers collapsed today over bids by China and India to let them and other developing countries raise tariffs on farm products to protect their own farmers from surges in imports or drops in prices.

Such protections are common, but "are rarely used and reflect only a minute portion of the billions of dollars in manufacturing, farm and services gains the WTO's Doha trade round was supposed to create," Bradley Klapper reports from Geneva, Switzerland, for The Associated Press. "It was all the more disappointing because the talks made greater progress than they had in years on issues such as farm subsidies and manufacturing tariffs — which were responsible for scuttling previous high-level trade efforts."

All sides bemoaned the collapse. "In the face of global food price crisis, it is ironic that the debate came down to how much and how fast could nations raise their barriers to imports of food," said U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, who called the China-India proposal "blatant protectionism." Prospects for an early resumption of the talks do not appear good. Klapper reports that pressure for a deal was higher than ever "because of the likelihood that the United States and other key trading partners would lose interest amid administration changes over the next couple of years." (Read more)

UPDATE, July 30: European Union trade chief Peter Mandelson told John W. Miller of The Wall Street Journal that the collapse leaves the talks in limbo for "the foreseeable future." Miller adds, "The setback could also signal an end to some 60 years of continuous expansion of global free-trade deals, some trade diplomats and experts said." Miller writes, "None of the major players in the talks saw enough gain in a deal to make it worth selling any significant sacrifices to skeptical populations back home."

Miller reports that "The two sides couldn't agree ... on where to set the threshold for any import surge that would trigger the clause. The U.S. wanted to set the trigger at a 40 percent jump. China and India wanted the trigger set much lower, at a 10 percent increase." Key crops at issue were cotton, rice and sugar.

The long-term impact of the failure could be significant. "It could weaken the authority of the WTO, which also plays a key role in settling trade disputes between countries. And it could make even bilateral deals harder to strike," Miller writes. "In Washington, Tuesday's failure is likely to energize critics of free trade, who've already managed to scuttle much smaller U.S. deals with Colombia and Panama this election year." (Read more)

India Trade Minister Kamal Nath, who got most of the blame for scuttling the talks, defended himself in a telephone interview with The Washington Post: "I come from a country where 300 million people live on 1 dollar a day and 700 million people live on 2 dollars a day. So it is natural for me, and in fact incumbent upon me, to see that our agricultural interests are not compromised. You don't require rocket science to decide between livelihood security and commercial interests." For the Post story by Anthony Faiola and Rama Lakshmi, click here.

W. Va. coal-to-liquid plant to produce gasoline

Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy Inc. and Houston-based Synthesis Energy Systems Inc. announced a joint venture Monday to build the first modern coal-to-liquid plant in the U.S. in Benwood, W. Va., so in three years Americans could pump into their cars fuel made from West Virginia coal, Joselyn King writes for The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register.

"This project has the potential to transform West Virginia from a major coal producing state to a national energy center as well," Consol Energy President and CEO J. Brent Harvey in a release issued by SES. "By converting some of our region's abundant, high-btu coal into gases and liquids, not only will we create economic value for the state, but we will help West Virginia become the linchpin of American energy security." (photo of Consol employee by Scott McCloskey, News-Register)

The estimated $800 million project, which could begin in a year if required permits are acquired, would produce 200 to 300 construction jobs, and the completed plant would employ 60 to 70. The plant will use SES' U-Gas technology to convert coal to gas. It is expected that the 'syngas' will help produce approximately 720,000 metric tons of methanol annually, which can be used as a feedstock for the chemical industry. The project is also expected to be capable of converting methanol production to approximately 100 million gallons per year of 87-octane gasoline.

Most road deaths rural; Web site shows locations

Researchers in the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety at the University of Minnesota are unveiling a Web site to detail the location of every fatal road accident in the U.S. in 2006. It is intended to help drivers locate unsafe roads more quickly, ScienceDaily reports."This tool sheds light on the importance of strong public policy that helps save lives in states across the nation," CERS Director Lee Munnich says. "When you can visually see how many lives can be saved, it really changes how the public and policy makers see our roads."

The tool is intended to educate the public, especially those living in rural areas, about road fatalities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 21 percent of Americans live in rural areas and the Federal Highway Administration reports that 57 percent of highway deaths happen on rural roads. The site's interactive maps will serve rural and urban drivers as well as drivers education teachers, parents and policy makers. "By mapping out these fatalities, we can visually see what a large problem we have in our country," Munnich says." It is time to start working towards prevention and each one of thee dots on the map represents that." (Read more)

Monday, July 28, 2008

McCain appears to be the choice of rural voters, but his opposition to ethanol subsidy creates split

John McCain appears to be the choice of rural voters. The Republican led Democrat Barack Obama by 9 percentage points in the latest presidential poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, though the error margin makes that result inconclusive. Among the 156 voters who said they lived in a rural area, as opposed to a small town, suburb or city, 47 percent supported McCain and 38 percent chose Obama. The margin of error for the rural sample was 7.8 percentage points, but other results indicated that McCain is the rural favorite.

For example, 48 percent of rural voters said they had positive feelings toward McCain; 17 percent chose "very positive" and 31 percent "somewhat positive. Only 23 percent said their feelings were negative. Obama's positive-negative rating was 40-40, with 29 percent choosing "very negative." Asked if each candidate had "a background and set of values" that they could identify with, 69 percent said McCain did and 25 percent said he did not. Obama fared poorly, with a result of 40-49.

However, rural distaste for Obama has its limits. When asked if he "is in the mainstream of most Americans' thinking, or is out of step with most Americans' thinking," Obama actually fared better than McCain, with 56 percent putting him in the mainstream and 30 percent saying he was out of step. McCain's rating was 50-34. This incongruity could be a function of Obama leading in all national polls; in this one, among all voters, he led 47-41.

The key to Obama's lead were self-defined urban voters, who favored him 64-29. In the suburbs, he led 44-41, with an error margin of 5.1 percentage points. Among those who chose the "small town" option to describe their residence, McCain led 46-44, with an error margin of 6 points. The telephone survey was taken by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Neil Newhouse July 18-22. When the two news outlets reported the poll, they lumped rural voters with self-defined "small town" voters to get a larger sample and a smaller error margin. NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd provided the more detailed breakouts at our request. Thanks, Chuck!

One issue that splits rural voters in the race is ethanol, subsidies for which Obama favors and McCain opposes. Bill Bishop writes about it in the Daily Yonder: "Republican or Democrat matters less than whether you represent a corn state or a livestock region. It's an issue that has more to do with geography and rural economies than with ideology," and perhaps the best example is the central battleground state of Missouri, where Obama is campaigning this week. The Associated Press reports.

On another current dispute of rural interest, because military recruitment is disproportionately rural, Annenberg Political Fact Check says McCain's latest television commercial falsely insinuates that Obama "canceled a visit with wounded troops" because "the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras." For details, go to

Rural states and regions use Web sites to attract professionals back to their native areas

"A growing number [of Americans are] bringing their professions back to small-town America thanks to Web-based recruitment campaigns by rural regions beckoning with quality of life," Sue Lindsey writes for The Associated Press. Return to Roots, a southwest Virginia program funded partly with tobacco-settlement money, posts job opportunities that include positions in information technology, engineering, education and heath care. Other states, including Vermont, South Dakota, Kansas and West Virginia have similar Web-based efforts.

Lindsey writes, "West Virginia inserted tear-off postcards in newspaper ads earlier this month and asked residents to send them to friends and family as part of its campaign. Kansas has a program aimed at professionals in bioscience that it plans to expand to a statewide initiative for all types of jobs, said state Commerce Department spokesman Caleb Asher. More than 500 job-seekers have moved to South Dakota for a variety of jobs since it launched Dakota Roots in October 2006." Virginia's program mailed 30,000 postcards to area high school and college graduates.

"Rural areas have gained appeal among companies looking for a less expensive way to do business without sending jobs overseas," Lindsey reports. Return to Roots users cite their desire to help their native areas and love for the outdoors, and say rural employment offers simpler lives and less stress. "Once we understood the vision, we chose to come," says Keith Brown, a software engineer in southwest Virginia. His wife Julia is somewhat worried about the lack of ethnic diversity because their daughter is Chinese, but says the family has felt at home. "I think it's much better for (our daughter) to live in a more wholesome place where we're not caught up in this rat race all the time," Julia says.

In wake of record raid, more information emerging about Iowa packing plant with many immigrants

Details from a May raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Postville, Iowa, continue to emerge as investigations continue. Henry C. Jackson writes for The Associated Press that the raid "scarred a small town and tore families apart." More than 20 of the 389 illegal immigrants rounded up in the raid were under-age workers, many of whom are telling investigators about their jobs, Julia Preston reports for The New York Times. More than 1,000 people attended a Postville immigration-reform rally on Sunday, Lynda Waddington writes for the Iowa Independent, which has reported extensively on this story raid. Opponents, below, also protested. (Iowa Independent photos)

The raid at Agriprocessors, the nation's largest kosher meatpacker, was the largest of its kind in U.S. history and "has drawn criticism for what some see as harsh tactics against the immigrants, with little action taken against their employers," Preston writes. "But in the aftermath of the arrests, labor investigators have reaped a bounty of new evidence from testimony of illegal immigrants, teenagers and adults, who were caught in the raid. In formal declarations, immigrants have described pervasive labor violations at the plant," which could lead to criminal charges against Agriprocessors' executives. Elmer L., a Guatemalan who was 16 when he started working on the plant's killing floors, said, "They told us they were going to call immigration if we complained."

Agriprocessors issued a statement saying the company did not employ workers under 18 and would fire any under-age worker who presented false documents to secure employment. Sonia Parras Konrad, a Des Moines lawyer representing many of the young workers and, says she has identified 27 who were under 18. Other possible violations include sexual harassment and wage and hour violations.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus heard three hours of often emotional testimony criticizing immigration officials, the Department of Homeland Security and Agriprocessors while visiting Postville on Saturday. "Women whose husbands are being detained talked about their longing to be reunited, underage workers detailed deplorable working conditions and city and religious officials lamented the impact on the community," Jackson writes for the AP. Postville Mayor Robert Penrod encouraged the congressmen to tell others in Washington that immigration raids do not work. "This raid did nothing for this community," he said. "It downgraded us substantially. It caused people to suffer, and it caused our reputation to suffer clear across the country." Read past Postville-related items from the Rural Blog here.

After air views of strip mining, congressman with purse strings says it may need to be reined in

Two Democratic congressmen who flew over large-scale surface coal mines in southeastern Kentucky said they were surprised at the extent of the excavations, and the more powerful representative said the practice might need to be reined in.

“The amount of land that has been mined was quite substantial,” Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington state said moments after his flight with Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky's Bluegrass region. Dicks said the mining, which can include mountaintop removal, has much more impact than timber cutting. “In our state we have very large clear-cuts and these were of even greater magnitude than those,” he told Cassondra Kirby-Mullins of the Lexington Herald-Leader. “I do think the question of sustainability comes up and what the consequences or the impact of this is on the environment.”

Kirby noted, "Dicks chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees environmental matters, giving him power over the budget of the Office of Surface Mining. It is the first time a member of Congress in such a position has come to Kentucky to view large-scale surface mining and meet with opponents." A representative of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which opposes mountaintop removal, was on board, as were two OSM officials. Other KFTC members met with the congressmen after the flight.

Kirby also makes an important distinction often overlooked about mountaintop removal: "Opponents use the term to include other forms of surface mining such as area mining. That involves blasting away only part of the mountain but creates similar issues, including filling adjacent valleys and waterways with excess rock and dirt, which opponents argue damages the environment. The coal industry defends large-scale surface mining as the most economical way, the only way, at times, to recover some coal." (Read more)