Wednesday, December 24, 2008

As Tennessee goes agog at coal-ash spill, enviros urge Obama to block more disposal in old mines

UPDATES, Dec. 29: So many people showed up for a meeting among TVA officials and local residents that it had to be moved to the county high school, Terri Likens of the Roane County News reports. The New York Times has an excellent graphic with its Dec. 25 story on the issues raised by the spill, except it errs in saying the Clinch River flows 100 miles to Chattanooga. (See below.) The mapping mistake recalls some geographic history: In pioneer days, the Tennessee River was deemed to begin at Kingston, at the confluence of the Clinch and the river that flowed through Knoxville, then named the Holston. But Knoxville folks wanted to be on the Tennessee, and they argued that it began at the confluence of the Holston and the French Broad, upstream from their city. They prevailed.

The day after a coal-ash retention pond broke at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tenn., closing a river and inundating about a dozen homes with sludge, 39 environmental groups asked President-elect Barack Obama to reject a pending regulation that would make it easier to dispose of such ash in abandoned coal mines.

On Monday, an estimated 500 million gallons of sludge went into the Emory River near its confluence with the Clinch River, which shortly downsteam flows into the Tennessee River, impounded as Watts Bar Lake. Residents "had trouble coming to grips with the scope," reports Terri Likens of the Roane County News (who took the photo). "Depending on where they looked, the scene was like a moonscape or piles of pavement scraped up from a giant roadway." (Read more)

On Tuesday, the environmental groups said coal ash "has already polluted water in 23 states and the new rule would open the way for more pollution by failing to require consideration of risks to human health and the environment before new disposal sites are approved," reports Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"Coal-fired power plants produce approximately 129 million tons of waste ash a year, the second-largest industrial waste stream in the nation. About 25 million tons are dumped in coal mines," Hopey writes. "The waste contains numerous hazardous materials including arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, boron, thallium and molybdenum. Water pollution has resulted in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota and New Mexico." (Read more)

Big electric co-op in trouble; board has a conflict

Kentucky utility regulators made an accounting move yesterday to help East Kentucky Power Cooperative stave off some creditors and ordered a management audit, saying the co-op's "worsening financial problems raise questions about its continued viability." It has suffered setbacks recently in an air-pollution case and a failed attempt to expand its territory.

EKPC, which generates and trasmits electricity, is owned by 16 small co-ops that distribute power to more than half a million consumer-members -- and that each have one director on the EKPC board. The state Public Service Commission said those directors have a conflict of interest because "They must balance East Kentucky Power's need for revenue with the desire for low electricity rates for its customers," Jim Jordan writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The customers' desire for low rates can hurt the long-term health of the company." (Herald-Leader map)

Many other generation-and-transmission cooperatives have similar board structures. Does yours? How's it working?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Injury hospitalization rate is higher in rural areas

Injuries requiring hospitalization occur at a significantly higher rates in rural areas, according to a study that researchers say is the first of its kind.

“As the population density decreases, the risk continues to increase,” said Dr. Jeffrey H. Coben of the Injury Control Research Center at West Virginia University. “If you just look at violence – person against person – the rates are higher in urban areas. But for virtually every other cause of trauma, the risks are substantially greater in rural areas.”

Previous studies found that death rates from injuries are higher in rural areas. This study examined all injuries that prompted admissions to U.S. hospitals in 2004. Hospitalization rates for injuries were 35 percent higher in sparsely populated rural counties and 27 percent higher in more populated rural counties. (The release from Newswise, a research-reporting service, didn't make clear whether the comparisons were with metropolitan-area counties or the U.S. as a whole.) The study is published in the January issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Why is rural riskier? In addition to promptness of care, other factors include higher-risk occupations such as farming, longer commuting distances, and a host of other possible factors. "Previous studies have shown that people who live in rural areas are more likely to take part in risky behaviors such as recreational drug use, drunken driving or failing to use seatbelts," Newswise reports. "Plus a culture of self-reliance may cause people to undertake household fix-up chores that are inherently dangerous, such as roof repairs." (Read more)

Gov. Palin creates Rural Subcabinet for Alaska

Last week, we noted data indicating that reports of mass migration from rural Alaska was no more than would be expected at a time of economic downturn, but Gov. Sarah Palin is creating a new structure to help rural communities deal with what may be a long-term trend. The Rural Subcabinet will also examine rising energy costs and make proposals to strengthen schools and public safety, create more jobs, and improve community infrastructure, writes Pat Forgey in the Juneau Empire.

Although the migration numbers were not as bad as expected, Palin said if economic pressures were causing the trend, the state needs to act: "I want the Rural Subcabinet to look for ways to make certain migration is a result of personal decisions, not despair or a lack of choice resulting from economic pressures or other factors." (Read more)

Rural Kansas towns struggle to keep pharmacies

Having to drive to another town to go to the store or the cinema can be a bother, but when you or a family member are sick it can be a hardship. Communities in rural Kansas are having trouble recruiting qualified pharmacists to open or stay open in their towns, The Associated Press reports. Among the 105 counties in Kansas, 31 only have one pharmacy, and six have none at all. Pharmacies in urban areas often offer signing bonuses and incentives to pharmacists that rural pharmacies cannot offer.

The limited number of pharmacy-school graduates also adds to the challenge. "When the school is only graduating about a 100 a year, and you figure only a handful want to come to a small town, that is hard," says Dick Stanley, who is on a task force to recruit a pharmacist to Hoisington, population 3,000. "You are competing against every other western Kansas community that wants to attract the same person." While recently, state legislators moved to expand the pharmacy school at the University of Kansas, proposed budget cuts are threatening that expansion. (Read more)

Big Gates Foundation grant will create high-speed Internet access in libraries in seven states

Broadband in public libraries, the only form of regular Internet access for many people in rural areas, will improve in seven states with grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Almost $7 million in grants will be shared by Connected Nation, a non-profit broadband advocacy group, and the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy. The grants will support faster Internet connections at libraries in Arkansas, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, and Virginia.

The foundation's press release notes that, with the economy's decline, library visits have increased significantly. “Our nation’s future depends on our ability to compete successfully in global markets,” ALA President Jim Rettig said. “To maintain our competitive edge, citizens must be guaranteed access to the ever-expanding universe of knowledge, tools, services, and resources available on the Internet. Public libraries not only can and should provide that access, they also act as catalysts for improving Internet service for entire communities." (Read more)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Indiana electric co-op fighting insurance company

Hoosier Energy Rural Electric Cooperative, which serves most of Southern Indiana, is thriving but threatened with bankruptcy -- by "an atrociously convoluted deal" it made with an insurance company six years ago, Gretchen Morgensen writes in her "Fair Game" column in The New York Times.

The deal is much too complicated to explain in a short blog item, but Morgenson says it illustrates how "collateral damage from the credit crisis continues to crop up in the most unlikely places." It's also a tale of how investment bankers used a non-profit's tax-exempt status to rack up millions in fees and rob the Treasury of tax revenue. And how John Hancock Life Insurance Co. filed the default notice just as Hoosier Energy was about to strike another deal to avoid it. Hoosier believes John Hancock is trying to use the situation "to generate a quick $120 million," Morgenson writes.

Here's a map of the Hoosier service area, its headquarters, five generating stations and 18 member cooperatives, which have 800,000 member-customers: