Friday, July 03, 2009

In search of the elusive and fearsome alligator gar: part fishing, part tracking, part target shooting

John Paul Morris needed help from three other men to get this 8-foot-3-inch long alligator gar out of the Trinity River in Texas. "Fishermen despise the gar because they believe the fish devour prized bass and crappie," Tom Benning reports for The Wall Street Journal. "But in recent times, alligator gar have experienced a kind of trash-to-trophy renaissance as sportsmen discovered the thrill of hunting the beasts. . . . In the rural South, the prospect of bagging a trophy gator gar inspires a special brand of enthusiasm." (Bass Pro Shops photo; Morris is son of CEO Johnny Morris)

A gar expedition is "part fishing, part tracking and part target shooting," since the preferred method of bagging the fish is with crossbow and "stainless-steel, prong-tipped arrows that can pierce the gar's thick scales," Benning writes. The pursuit has become so popular, Texas has imposed the first limit on the fish, one per day. "The limit has infuriated commercial fishermen, who catch gar by the hundreds to export to Mexico, where they are a popular menu item," Benning reports. "After September, every Southern state with gar populations except Louisiana will have some kind of alligator gar fishing limits." (Read more)

Kentucky Baptists shun youth group from church ejected from Convention for gay-friendly policies

A youth group from a gay-friendly Baptist church in Texas has been disinvited by a Baptist college and church in southeastern Kentucky, where the youths were going to help build homes for the poor. The reason? The church "Broadway Baptist Church was 'disfellowshipped' from the Southern Baptist Convention last week because of the church’s tolerant stance on homosexuality," reports The Times-Tribune of nearby Corbin.

The group was to stay at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg and sing at Main Street Baptist Church in the town of 5,000, reports Deborah Yetter of The Courier-Journal. (Encarta map) "Youth minister Fran Patterson said the group is leaving by bus Friday and she had to scramble to line up another mission project — in Nashville, Tenn., where the group already was scheduled to spend this weekend. Patterson said the youths were disappointed when told of the change." She told Yetter, "They said this is about wanting to help poor people — it's not about politics.'' (Read more)

Pipeline firm says it shipped first blended biodiesel

"The first commercial pipeline load of blended biodiesel fuel ever shipped in the United States was sent to Roanoke and Athens, Ga., last week," Jeff Sturgeon reports for The Roanoke Times, citing a spokeswoman for Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, a Texas pipeline company.

"The shipment traveled from Mississippi in the Plantation Pipeline, which routinely carries gasoline and conventional diesel fuel. The special shipment consisted of 15,000 gallons of B5, a blend of 5 percent biodiesel made from plant material and 95 percent petroleum-based diesel, the company said, adding that it was responding to a customer's request.

"It's a very positive development," Jenna Higgins, spokeswoman for the National Biodiesel Board, told Sturgeon. "Biodiesel transport through pipeline has the potential to open new and growing markets for biodiesel." Biodiesel usually moves by truck but sometimes by rail, Sturgeon reports.

W.Va. coal regulators admit not properly applying rules meant to keep mines from causing floods

"West Virginia regulators and coal operators have not properly implemented state rules meant to keep strip mining from contributing to flooding during heavy rains over narrow mountain hollows, according to a new federal report," Ken Ward Jr. reports in The Charleston Gazette. "Mine operators have inconsistently applied computer modeling in permit applications, and state regulators have approved those applications anyway," according to the report from the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation.

Also, Ward reports, "The state Department of Environmental Protection does not do follow-up studies to see if permit models were accurate," and doesn't require long-term monitoring of runoff from surface mines. DEP officials concurred with the findings and "agreed to hold an industry seminar and better train its employees to try to fix some of the problems." Ward notes, "Coalfield residents have pointed to mountaintop removal as a contributing cause for this spring's heavy flooding in southern parts of West Virginia." (Read more)

Judge rejects Bush-era rules for national forests

A federal judge has thrown out rules the Bush administration adopted for managing national forests and grasslands because they "failed to analyze the effects from removing requirements guaranteeing viable wildlife populations," Noelle Straub reports for The New York Times' Greenwire blog. "The decision "marks the third time a court has rejected revisions of the regulations over the past decade."

"Conservation groups hope the Forest Service will reinstate the 1982 rule while coming up with new regulations," according to Marc Fink, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case. "Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh said the decision is under review," Straub reports.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Healthiest daily newspapers are the smallest

Smaller newspapers are generally doing better than those in metropolitan areas, but are "also feeling the effects of the economic downturn and Internet competition," writes Eric Sass of MediaPost, reporting on a study by the Inland Press Association. "The study's findings temper the optimistic view evinced by many publishers in smaller markets, who take pains to distinguish their properties from the big metro dailies." Sass makes a point to remember: "In the future, any discussion of the fortunes of small newspapers will have to specify how small."

The biggest profit decline was among papers with circulations of 25,001 to 50,000, "one of the segments that was supposed to be faring better than the big metro dailies," Sass writes. "If this trend continues, bankruptcy and sale or closure could follow for scores of newspapers, as the plague afflicting big metro dailies infects smaller markets. Their fate will largely be determined by indebtedness, which has proved the bane of big publishers, especially with the global credit crunch."

But the study also showed that the smallest daily papers, those with circulations of 15,000 or less, were bucking the trend. That category "showed a 2.5 percent growth in gross revenues during the five-year period ending in 2008," Adolfo Mendez writes for Inland. And despite "all the widespread coverage of newsroom layoffs and cutbacks, the Inland study found that the majority of participating papers with less than 50,000 circulation reported an increase in news and editorial expenses over the five-year period." (Read more)

The findings are based on data from more than 160 newspapers that participated in the organization's annual National Cost & Revenue Study for Daily Newspapers. For a copy of the full report, contact Tom Mather, Inland's financial studies director, at 847-795-0380.

Rural-oriented stocks doing better than others

Two years ago today, the Daily Yonder began tracking the stock prices of 40 diverse, publicly traded companies that do much of their business in rural America. The record shows that the "Yonder 40," as it is called, was doing better just before the economic downturn and is coming out of it more quickly. (Yonder chart)

"The Yonder 40 stock index has lost 27 percent of its value since July 1, 2007," Co-Editor Bill Bishop reports. "The Dow [Jones] Industrials — 30 of the nation’s largest corporations — have lost 37 percent. And the S&P 500 — a broader index of large companies — has lost 39 percent. The only common index that comes close to the Yonder 40’s performance has been the NASDAQ listing of smaller firms. The NADAQ has lost 29.5 percent in the last two years."

Bishop adds, "The Yonder 40 was an experiment of sorts, so it is not exactly clear why these rural stocks are doing better than the broader stock indices. In much of mid-America, unemployment rates have been lower than in the rest of the country, especially in agricultural counties. However, rural manufacturing has been particularly harmed during the recession and unemployment in these counties is running well above the rest of the country."

The story mentions several individual companies, including those that have been dropped from the index for various reasons. One is newspaper publisher Lee Enterprises, which was dropped "because its stock prices dropped so low the company was in danger of being delisted by the New York Stock Exchange," Bishop reports. "It is now trading for considerably less than a dollar," after starting the index at $21. The best performer has been coal producer Walter Energy, "up 25 percent from July 1, 2007, even though it has taken a huge tumble from its highs." The best so far this year has been Cabela's, the chain of huge sporting-goods stores. It's up 107 percent since Jan. 1, to $12.30 a share on June 30.

Feds make minumum speed for broadband faster, but slower than expected due to rural obstacles

The terms "broadband" and "high-speed Internet" are used interchangeably, but there is no standard definition of how much speed the service must have to be considered broadband. The latest definition will have special meaning to those without the service, because it applies to projects to be funded by the $7 billion for broadband in the economic stimulus package.

The prevailing definition, by the Federal Communications Commission, has been a speed exceeding 200 kilobits per second in at least one direction: from the Internet to the user’s computer (downstreaming) or from the user’s computer to the Internet (upstreaming). The FCC's definition has been criticized as being too slow. The latest one, by the Rural Utilities Service and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, moves it up, to a minimum of 768 kbps downstreaming and 200 kbs upstreaming. But some still think that's too slow.

"The choice of 768 kbps will seem like the broadband Stone Age to many, though the ability of some technologies to reach remote and rural areas likely factored into the decision," Dan O'Shea writes for Fierce Telecom. He refers readers to an non-bylined story in Telephony, which says, "Although these speeds are lower than some might have wished, a senior administration official for the NTIA told reporters that this definition was influenced by geographic realities. Because it is difficult to deliver speeds above 10 Mbs over certain types of terrain, he said, the lower data rate was chosen. But in awarding funds, he said, preference would be given to higher-speed projects." (Read more)

Though the speed threshold is lower than some expected, the agencies are ensuring neutrality among service platforms, "and that likely means an unusual opportunity for wireless providers, especially in rural areas," reports Gary Kim, a contributing editor for 4G Wireless Evolution, which follows WiMax wireless broadband for Technology Marketing Corp. at TMCnet.

Legislation makes catching Colo. raindrops legal

Two new laws permit Colorado residents to legally collect rainwater. Growing population, drought and declining groundwater have forced Colorado and other states like Arizona and New Mexico to re-examine water laws and encourage people to collect the runoff, Kirk Johnson reports for The New York Times. “I was so willing to go to jail for catching water on my roof and watering my garden,” Tom Bartels, pictured, told Johnson. “But now I’m not a criminal.”(New York Times photo)

Initially, laws were enacted to protect the public from exploiting community resources, but a 2007 study found that in an average year 97 percent of the precipitation did not even approach a stream. The old law giving downstream owners water rights “created a kind of wink-and-nod shadow economy. Rain equipment could be legally sold, but retailers said they knew better than to ask what the buyer intended to do with the product.” (Read more)

Map shows 'hot zones' for accidents on rural roads

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Excellence in Rural Safety has updated its rural safety road map in time for the holiday weekend, The Associated Press reports.

Launched last year, the nationwide map shows the 100 rural accident “hot zones” in each state, in addition to a list of the top ten state offenders for rural road safety. The most dangerous states include Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Texas and Virginia.

Entering a ZIP code, city name or street address will allow users to see the fatal crashes that have occurred in the past five years. (Read more or view the map)

Rural doctor does it all, or most of it, and says urban patients' care is fragmented by specialists

The trials and tribulations a rural doctor faces every day make those who volunteer for the job stand out among the crowd. In the midst of physician shortages, economic disparity and little monetary and administrative support, these doctors have heeded the “calling” to work in rural medicine, Stephanie Desmon reports for the Baltimore Sun.

In Oakland, Md., Dr. Ken Buczynski (Sun photo by Amy Davis) is the saving grace of the 1,856 people who live in the town about 200 miles west of Baltimore. Since applying to medical school, Buczynski has felt a calling to serve the rural poor, but the sacrifices of such a life are acutely felt. In “the hamster-wheel life of the country doctor in Garrett County,” pop. 30,000, at the western end of Maryland, Buczynski works 14-hour days that include everything from baby deliveries to skin biopsies.

Buczynski’s experience puts him in a distinctive position to judge the shape of the health-care system. He says patients' care is being fragmented "by seeing an endocrinologist for their diabetes and thyroid and the cardiologist for their high cholesterol, their gynecologist for their Pap smear. When you start seeing all those doctors, often times the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. In our community that patient with those problems is likely coming to their primary care doctor 90-plus percent of the time ... and if specialty care is required, we help patients get that. I think that's a good model."

As Congress debates health reform, some see Buczynski’s approach as successful bedrock for the system. Don Battista, the CEO of Garrett County Memorial Hospital, says urban patients who rely on unnecessary and costly visits to specialists are worse off than rural patients. A family doctor forced to customize care in underserved areas usually has better results. "For the first time, people are realizing that more intensive, more specialty care may not give you better outcomes," says Dr. Roger Rosenblatt, vice dean of family medicine at the University of Washington.

The skills rural doctors are quickly forced to learn can be a tempting benefit to the job. “It doesn't get boring," Buczynski tells Desmon of his work. "If I were in suburban Baltimore, seeing patients with hypercholesterolemia, hyperlipidemia between the ages of 55 and 75 all day, I'd go nuts." But the thrill of such a job is heavily weighted by the sacrifices: family, money, free time and a social life all suffer. “To go to a recruiting fair and say, 'Come to rural America where everyone will know your car, your business, your house, what kind of chicken you buy at Wal-Mart, and you'll take call 168 hours at a time and there's no mall for an hour and a half,' … When you start talking about those things, it's a real detractor to a lot of physicians," Buczynski says.

The solution, Rosenblatt says, is not simple. "We have these extraordinary doctors but they're sort of dying on the vine,” he said. We have to make this a profession people can do and enjoy and have something else besides medicine." (Read more)

Partnership aims to transform algae into ethanol

A demonstration plant is being developed to perfect a new process that uses algae to turn carbon dioxide into ethanol. The partnership between Dow Chemical and Algenol Biofuels plans on producing 100,000 gallons a year, Matthew L. Wald reports for The New York Times. (Algenol Biofuels photo: Algae grows in saltwater troughs.)

Algae has long been an appealing energy substitute because it does not require farmland, and scientists at the University of Kentucky have been conducting their own research on the topic. Wald reports that the process of using the algae could be more environmentally friendly and cost effective with a target price of $1 a gallon. Paul Woods, chief executive of Algenol, told Wald, “The process also produces oxygen, which could be used to burn coal in a power plant cleanly.” The majority of the waste from such a plant would be carbon dioxide, which could then be reused to make more algae. Peter A. Molinaro, a spokesman for Dow, said the algae method is intriguing because the chemistry is so simple. “We’re looking at options, and this is one.” (Read more)

R.I.P.: James Baker Hall, rural poet-photographer

"While the nation has been swept up with the recent passings of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, many of us regionalists and cultural workers lost a great friend and artist this past week. He was a friend and inspiration to all he touched." So writes Jack Wright of Ohio University about James Baker Hall, and poet and photographer who retired in 2003 after for 30 years director of the creative writing program at the University of Kentucky.

On UK's Appalnet list-serve, Wright refers readers to a tribute by Bellarmine University English Department Chairman Frederick Smock in The Courier-Journal of Louisville. "Jim's poetry (he published seven volumes) is admired for its humor, crisp imagery and deep feeling. He delighted in life's little moments, and he caught them absolutely in his lilting lines," Smock writes. "His poetic method was photographic, which comes as no surprise, for he was also a talented photographer, publishing three books of photographs and showing his work, recently, at 21C and Actors Theatre in Louisville, and at the UK Art Museum." His last major photo book was Tobacco Harvest: An Elegy, published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2004.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

USDA starts announcing state directors for Rural Development programs and Farm Service Agency

After some delay, the Department of Agriculture has started announcing appointments of USDA's key political positions in each state: director of the state office of the Farm Service Agency and director of Rural Development programs. "So far the administration has announced 18 FSA executives and 16 Rural Development directors," Farm Futures reports.

When we interviewed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on May 27, we asked him about the delay. He said he had hoped to announce all 100 appointees at the same time, but had been delayed partly because consultations with senators, House members and other officials had taken longer than expected. "Some members of Congress are quite timely," he said. "Others have taken their time." Also, he said, clearance of appointees may be taking longer because of the administration's strict ethics rules.

The USDA Newsroom Web page has releases on appointees for Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. We were happy to see our friend Colleen Landkamer, a county commissioner in Blue Earth County, Minnesota, named RD director. She has been president of the National Association of Counties and has worked on rural development with local, national and international organizations, including the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, speaking at the week-long workshop we programmed for the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland in 2005.

Other notable RD appointees include Philip Lehmkuhler of Indiana, who has been manager of economic development and member services for the Indiana Municipal Power Agency, serving 52 rural towns; Francisco Valentin of Texas, former director of USDA's Rural Utilities Service; Mario Villaneuva of Washington, director of Catholic Charities Housing Services in Yakima. Notable FSA appointees include Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Adrian Polanski, Michigan Racing Commissioner Christine White and Mississippi farmer Michael Sullivan, executive director of the National Furniture Market in Tupelo.

Boom in wind and solar power requires new lines that can pit environmentalist vs. environmentalist

An old source of controversy in rural areas, high-voltage power lines, has a new impetus: the need to run lines from major electric-consuming areas to the usually remote and less populated areas that are sources of wind and solar power.

"There are tens of thousands of miles of new transmission lines planned or under construction, most traversing ranch and farm land," Co-Editor Bill Bishop writes on the Daily Yonder. "Some estimate that the country will spend up to $200 billion dollars building out a new electric grid. Most of that money will be spent in rural America, as new transmission lines are strung to connect the wind turbines on the Plains to the cities." (Photo: John Curley via the Yonder)

Bishop reports that rural residents are turning out for meetings to voice concern about projects in Texas, Northern California, Southern California and New York. "The oldest story in the country is that rural America pays the largest price for producing the power used in the cities," he writes. "But the massive investment in transmission lines now underway is immensely complicated. The construction of new lines and the lease payments they bring will benefit some rural residents, while others see it as unmitigated destruction. Landowner is pitted again landowner, environmentalist against environmentalist and region against region." The story has lots of information and many links. Read it here.

EPA poised to scuttle deal for Plains power plant

A rural electric cooperative that wants to build more generating capacity in the Great Plains will probably have to go back to the drawing board despite a compromise brokered by the new governor of Kansas. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to tell Sunflower Electric Corp. to "start over," reports David Sassoon of Solve Climate.

When Gov. Mark Parkinson succeeded fellow Democrat Kathleen Sebelius two months ago, he brokered a deal to let Sunflower build one 895-megawatt plant instead of two 700-MW plants that Sebelius, now federal secretary of health and human services, had blocked in the face of strong opposition from utility and coal lobbies at the state legislature. The site is at Holcomb, near Garden City. (Encarta map)

But in late May, "EPA told Sunflower that the company would have to submit a new permit application, provide refreshed technical analysis on whether its plans meet the best available technology, and hold new public hearings before EPA could give it the green light to break ground," according to unnamed "state and federal officials" cited by Sassoon. "Another meeting is planned for today. ... If the talks are conclusive, an official announcement could be forthcoming."

The case could be nationally significant because of the climate bill moving through Congress, which "would set performance standards for coal plants initially permitted after Jan. 1, 2009," Sassoon writes. "By 2025 the plant would have to reduce its emissions by 50 percent. It would add a further large expense that would have to be passed on to Kansas ratepayers," though most of the electricity generated by the plant would go to Colorado and Texas. (Read more)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Obama announces 'Rural Tour' that he's not on

UPDATE, July 2: Peter Nicholas of the Los Angeles Times notes that the tour "includes several politically competitive districts, which would give the Obama administration a chance to make its case to people who voted Republican in past congressional races but are now represented by Democrats up for reelection in 2010. ... White House spokesman Shin Inouye said the itinerary was not shaped by political considerations."

President Obama announced yesterday that 10 members of his Cabinet and other administration officials will make stops on a "Rural Tour," starting today in Wattsburg, Pa., where Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Vice President Joe Biden will discuss extension of high-speed Internet service. For a report from the Erie Times-News, click here. For the new federal Web site on that subject, click here.

The tour will be "a series of discussions on how communities, states, and the federal government can work together to help strengthen rural America," a White House news release said. It will include three more stops in July, three in August and two in late September. Other secretaries listed as participating are Steven Chu, energy; Shaun Donovan, housing and urban development; Arne Duncan, education; Ray LaHood, transportation, Ken Salazar, interior; Kathleen Sebelius, health and human services; Eric Shinseki, veterans affairs; and Hilda Solis, labor. "Vilsack will hold listening sessions in additional states with local and state elected officials," the release said.

Conspicuous by his absence is the president himself, who broke his Iowa campaign promise to hold a rural summit in the first 100 days of his administration. Nevertheless, he included himself when he said yesterday, “We’re going out to hear directly from the people of rural America about their needs and concerns and what my administration can do to support them.” Events have been scheduled in Alaska, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. For the release, with cities and dates, click here.

UPDATE, July 1: Vilsack is the leader of the tour, scheduled to make every stop. He writes on the Rural Tour Blog, "I want to listen to the thoughts, concerns and stories about each community’s vision for its future. We will collect ideas about how the USDA could be better serving these communities." The Daily Yonder says, "We at the Yonder wonder why elected officials feel like a visit to any community outside a city should be called a 'tour'? Isn’t a tour for tourists? And for politicians, why is it now always a 'listening tour'?" (Read more)

On the Appalnet list-serve for Appalachian issues, West Virginia native Brad Woods, a doctoral student in rural sociology at Penn State, writes, "I find it odd (and disturbing) that central Appalachia," particularly West Virginia and Kentucky, are not part of the tour, "especially given the climate and concern about natural resources." Lee Mueller, former Eastern Kentucky reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, replied, "One way to find yourself absent from an office-holder's post-election discussions is to vote against him. If you listen closely, that flapping sound you hear is a chicken coming home to roost in West Virginia and Kentucky," which John McCain carried strongly.

Corn price drops by market's maximum on USDA forecast of second-largest crop in over six decades

We don't usually track daily market activity, but when the corn price on the Chicago Board of Trade drops by the board's maximum of 30 cents a bushel on a Department of Agriculture forecast of higher corn production, it's worthy of note. "USDA’s planted acreage estimate was larger than expected, up from March and 1 percent more than a year ago. To say that was a surprise following the wet spring would probably be an understatement," John Perkins reports for Brownfield Network. (Read more)

The forecast and price drop will mean "a windfall of lower feed prices for livestock producers," reports Rita Jane Gabbett of MeatingPlace. "This is about the best news the hog industry has had all year long," University of Missouri livestock economist Ron Plain told Gabbett.

"At 87 million acres, this would be the second-largest corn acreage in more than 60 years," Gabbett writes. "USDA also estimated farmers sowed a record-high 77.5 million acres to soybeans, up 1.8 million acres from last year and up 1.5 million acres, or almost 2 percent, from the March planting intentions forecast." (Read more)

Demand for coal will turn on what Congress does, coal executives tell Virginia coalfield committee

"The demand for Appalachian coal will overcome the current economic slowdown and continue to rise — unless major federal legislation slams on the brakes." That's how The Coalfield Progress summarized speeches by "two major figures in the Virginia coal industry" last week. For the twice-weekly newspaper in Norton, Va., Jeff Lester reported on remarks by Alpha Natural Resources CEO Mike Quillen and Virginia Coal Association President Thomas Hudson.

They spoke to the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority's executive advisory committee three days before the House passed a bill to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. If the bill becomes law, demand for coal will drop, Quillen said.

"Hudson said he opposes the carbon dioxide emissions cap-and-trade system in the legislation, and he opposes any scheme to tax carbon. But if he had to choose one, he said, he’d rather see a straight-up carbon tax," Lester writes. "With cap-and-trade, Wall Street gets involved in emissions trading and takes its 'cut,' helping to drive up all sorts of costs for the taxpayer and electric ratepayer, Hudson said. A straight carbon tax would be more honest and possibly not as costly for ordinary folks. Lawmakers don’t want a carbon tax because that would focus the public’s blame on them, Hudson said."

Quillen also noted what Lester called "increased regulatory pressure" on strip mining, which produces about 8 million tons of Virginia's annual coal production of 30 million tons. The state had about 4,400 coal miners last year, "with roughly 60 percent of them underground, he said. Mining and natural-resource extraction provides the fifth-highest number of jobs in the seven-county, one-city coalfield region, employing about 6,700." (Read more; subscription required)

Proven technology would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions now, but many states won't allow it

Instead of reviving a pilot project to perfect unproven technology to capture carbon dioxide from burning coal, the Obama administration should promote proven technology that eliminates two-thirds of CO2 emissions, veteran environmental and political writer Gregg Easterbrook writes in The New York Times.

The object of Easterbrook's scorn is the FutureGen project in Mattoon, Ill., a partnership between the Department of Energy, electric utilities and coal companies, and the subject of several items on this blog. "FutureGen was better off canceled. Government is good at basic research, poor at commercial-scale applied energy technology," Easterbrook writes, citing previous flops. "Test runs may not begin for a decade. No wonder the project’s nickname is 'NeverGen.' This is part of a Washington tradition — beginning pie-in-the-sky projects that create an excuse to avoid forms of conservation and greenhouse-gas reduction that are possible immediately."

Easterbook points to the “integrated gasification combined cycle” process, which not only requires a third less coal but "can achieve near-zero emissions of toxic material and chemicals that form smog" and is better suited to carbon-capture technology than old-fashioned plants. Duke Energy is building an IGCC plant in Indiana, but "Most state public-utility commissions have denied requests to construct these environmentally friendly systems," he writes. While the up-front cost is larger, "the economics of gasification plants may become attractive, with low-emission plants costing less to run," if Congress passes a cap-and-trade system like that in the climate bill the House passed last week. (Read more)

Problems of Pilgrim's Pride are amplified in Georgia town where it was the largest employer

The closing of a chicken-processing plant has left a southeast Georgia town at odds with Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., perhaps the most troubled company in a U.S. chicken-processing industry that is being squeezed by the economy. The company cost Douglas 1,000 jobs and $300,000 in annual taxes when it filed bankruptcy and closed the plant May 15, Lauren Etter reports for The Wall Street Journal. Researchers at Georgia Southern University estimate that related job losses could bring the total to 2,000. (WSJ chart)

Pilgrim’s Pride recently rejected a $32 million bid for the plant, and another potential buyer was only allowed to fly over the plant because the company allows bidders to visit only after demonstrating financial viability, among other criteria. Critics argue that Pilgrim's asking price of $80 million is too high and exceeds the $50 million appraisal confirmed by Etter and Pilgrim’s own analysis. Another company plant in El Dorado, Ark., is on the market, but that town says it gave up trying to find a buyer after Pilgrim rejected a bid from a local company. The company has creditors who want it to emerge strongly from bankruptcy rather than sell assets now. The company's attitude has caused a rift with town officials, who say there has been “no meeting in the middle.”

With a sale seeming unlikely in the near future, the domino effect of the closure is bleak. Insurance agent Alan Carter told Etter that 35 percent of his revenue came from insuring chicken houses and related operations. The region’s medical center is preparing for more uninsured patients, and the city will likely have to raise taxes to offset the money lost from their largest sewage and water customer. And at home, local chicken farmers are quickly running out of money and into debt. (WSJ photo: Residents welcome a potential buyer)

For the 11,000 or so residents of Douglas and 25,000 in Coffee County, hundreds of cavernous, metal-and-wood chicken houses in the county are reminders of the loss. Farmers told Etter that the structures were worth at least $200,000 each when filled with chickens but are now virtually worthless. Walt Dockery, a fourth-generation farmer who derived about 90 percent of his income from chicken farming, says Pilgrim’s Pride is crippling the community. "They just have no consideration for what they're doing to the people down here.” (Read more)

List of potentially hazardous coal-ash dumps is out

After refusing for weeks to provide the public with a list of potentially hazardous coal-ash dumps, the Environmental Protection Agency has released a list of 44 such sites in 10 states. Renee Schoof reports for McClatchy Newspapers that the list is a direct result of the Tennessee coal-ash pond spill in December.

Included on the list are 12 sites in North Carolina, seven in Kentucky and a pond in Pennsylvania, which all have the potential to become hazardous to the nearby people and environment. Schoof reports that coal combustion waste contains toxins such as arsenic, selenium, cadmium and chromium. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, pressed EPA for the release of the list and said in a statement that, "One of the lessons we all learned from the TVA coal ash spill is that a close look at these waste sites is extremely important.” (Read more)

TVA plan to send coal ash from big Tennessee spill to Alabama stirs opposition among residents

After a holding pond at its Kingston Fossil Plant broke in December, the Tennessee Valley Authority had to fund places to put huge amounts of coal ash. We reported recently TVA's plan to use a Tennessee strip mine as a landfill. Now the federal utililty also wants to use a landfill in Perry County, Alabama, Jason Morton reports for the Tuscaloosa News.

The privately owned landfill near Uniontown has five employees, and advocates say that number could increase to 50 or more if a deal is reached to handle the 3 million pounds of ash TVA wants to send there. Perry County would receive about $4.1 million for housing the ash. “That's like adding 1,500 jobs to a place like Birmingham,” Perry County Commissioner Fairest Cureton told Morton. Cureton is in favor of the landfill accepting the ash and helping curb the current 16.7 percent unemployment rate.

Some say those benefits fail to outweigh the costs, since the ash contains toxic materials like lead and arsenic. Lifelong resident John Osemer, (left, with Tom Vann), doesn't understand how the ash could help his town: "As far as making any kind of benefit for this community, I don't see any." District Attorney Michael W. Jackson agrees, and in a letter to the Selma Times Journal wrote, “The potential for increased cancer rates and other diseases are some of the reasons that most other states turned down the chance to receive this waste.” (Dusty Compton photo)

Alabama officials said they would allow the waste because the toxins are in low concentrations, and the Environmental Protection Agency has not labeled coal waste hazardous. But Lisa Evans, a project attorney for Earthjustice, says that judgment is widely disputed. “What we've been pointing out is that the EPA's research, since 2000, has shown that the waste is increasingly more dangerous than it determined in 2000,” she said. (Read more)

Rural districts dealing with school-nurse shortages

Legislation in Congress would give grants to states that have a student-to-school nurse ratio of 1,000 to 1 or higher – a growing problem in rural America. In north central Illinois, Tom Collins reports for the LaSalle News Tribune that some nurses are obligated to care for more than 1,200 students, and those schools with less than 300 enrollments do not have an on-site nurse available.

In schools with nurses, the average ratio is 840 students per nurse. But the norm is much higher than that, and is only expected to grow with budget cuts and a weak economy. The school districts in Princeton, Ill., rely on one nurse for more than 1,300 students and Mendota Elementary has one nurse and more than 1,350 students among three buildings. “Our nurse keeps quite busy trying to rotate through the buildings to treat and medicate students at appropriate times,” Burress told Collins, adding that each building has students with medical needs like diabetes that require nurse supervision. In addition to those duties, nurses administer state-required exams for vision, hearing and lice throughout the year.

Collins reports that administrators like Dan Marenda aren’t holding their breath for Congress to act. “The problem with federal legislation is even when it passes we don’t always get the money they tell us we’re going to get,” he said. “So what happens is you continue to take money out of local funds to pay for the mandates.” (Read more)

Monday, June 29, 2009

FDA rule will make some rendering plants reject dead animals, creating waste-disposal issues

Many localities are looking for new ways to remove dead animals because a new Food and Drug Administration regulation bans the use of animal brains and spinal cords as part of animal feed. The rule is aimed at diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease.

The rule requires removal and separation of brain and spinal cords from all cattle 30 months of age and older. About a third of rendering plants that have been processing animal carcassases appear likely to stop soon, David Meeker, vice president of scientific services at the National Renderers Association, told Tom Johnston of MeatingPlace, a news outlet for the red-meat industry.

For farmers who can no longer call a rendering plant for pickup, the best option "is probably on-farm composting," Meeker told MeatingPlace. "It's not easy to do it correctly with cattle, but it can be done. Some with nearby landfills may find that alternative useful. By far, the most environmentally sound option is rendering, and long-term government policies should be adopted so that renderers can economically recycle dead stock and offal whether or not it is used in animal feed."

Asked for the upside of the FDA regulation, Meeker said, "In spite of the fact that the risk of BSE in the U.S. is already negligible, the rule should remove the last remaining excuse to restrict international trade with the U.S. in beef and beef by-products. Often, conversations about beef trade ignore the need to reopen international markets to rendered by-products from U.S. cattle. The value of the by-products helps pay processing costs and contributes to profitability." (Read more) For a March item on how one locality was dealing with the issue, click here.

Ky. paper using shield law to defend suit seeking identity of anonymous commenter on story

A lawsuit against a small daily newspaper in Kentucky could make new law on the anonymity of online comments on news stories.

The story in the Aug. 13, 2008, Richmond Register, circulation 7,000, "was about a college student who'd been kicked out of a central Kentucky mall because she was told the dress she was wearing — bought there the day before — was too short. But the online poster, identified only as l2bme, claimed to have the true story behind Kymberly Clem's eviction — that she had exposed herself to a woman and her children who remarked on the dress. A furious Clem alleged defamation, with her attorney filing a lawsuit against l2bme and subpoenaing the newspaper to provide the anonymous poster's identity," reports Jason Riley in The Courier-Journal of Louisville. (Encarta map)

The Register, part of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., is using the usual defense of free-speech rights, but "is also using a more novel argument," Riley reports. It claims the poster is a confidential source under the state shield law, "because one of its reporters wrote a story about Clem's lawsuit and mentioned the comment. Judges in Oregon and Montana have ruled that newspapers don't have to reveal posters' names, but the Alton Telegraph of Illinois couldn't use that state's shield law to protect "the identities of two people who commented online about a murder investigation," Riley reports. (Read more

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The relatively small, short-term politics of a huge, long-range issue: climate change

Now that the bill to fight climate change has passed the House, and debate has yet to begin in the Senate, more attention is being focused on the political ramifications of the 219-212 vote that got the bill through the first chamber. Carl Hulse of The New York Times notes that the House passed an energy tax for a new Democratic president in 1993 by a 219-213 vote, "only to see it ignored by the Senate and seized as a campaign issue by Republicans, who took control of the House the next year." There was fear among Democrats; of the 44 who voted against the bill, 29 represent districts carried by Republican Sen. John McCain in November, notes Greg Giroux of CQPolitics.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican national chairman who just succeeded scandalized South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, told a party dinner in Iowa that the climnate bill violates what he says was President Obama’s campaign promise not to raise taxes on families making $250,000 or less a year. “I did not know that everybody who had a lightswitch at their house made more than $250,000,” Barbour said, according to Doug Burns in the Daily Yonder.

"Leading Democrats say they are more than happy to have the energy bill serve as a signature issue. They say it represents a transformative moment — their party’s effort to take on a genuine threat to the planet," Hulse reports. "They say voters will appreciate the legislation as an overdue effort to lessen the nation’s dangerous dependence on foreign oil while creating millions of new jobs in the production and distribution of cleaner energy and in energy conservation technology."

A poll for The Washington Post and ABC News June 18-21 found that "Three-quarters of Americans think the federal government should regulate the release into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases from power plants, cars and factories to reduce global warming," Steven Mufson and Jennifer Agiesta report for the Post. But when asked if they favor the "cap and trade" system in the climate bill, 52 percent said they did and 42 percent did not. "Although 62 percent of those surveyed said they would support regulation even if it raised the price of purchases, and 56 percent would back cap and trade if it resulted in a $10 increase in utility costs, 44 percent said they would back a cap-and-trade system if it boosted monthly electricity bills by $25." (Read more) For the full poll results, click here.

Rural Republicans argue that the bill will have a disporportionate effect in rural areas, and most farm groups oppose the bill, but Post columnist Steven Pearlstein says that is short-sighted. "With the possible exception of the ski industry, it's hard to think of any sector of the economy that will be hit harder by global warming than agriculture," he wrote Friday, noting that agriculture is "the one major source" of greenhouse gases that the bill doesn't cover, but farmers demanded to be compensated for trapping carbon with alternative farming practices, to have the Agriculture Department handle the process, and to protect the "ethanol boondoggle." And even when they got that, very few groups endorsed the bill. "The next time the world's most selfish lobby comes to Washington demanding drought relief," Pearlstein writes, "someone ought to have the good sense to tell them to go pound sand." (Read more)

Small farms finding success in economic diversity

Many small farmers are finding that diversifying their business is paving the way for continued success. New crops and ventures like agri-tourism and hosting wind turbines are some methods farmers are finding profitable, Jennifer Youssef reports for The Detroit News.

Especially for those farmers who work part time or have historically been limited to one type of produce, becoming diverse is a key part of generating publicity and revenue. "Any way farmers can add income is the way to go," Tom Kalchick, associate director at the Michigan State University Product Center for Agricultural and Natural Resources, told Youssef. In Michigan, several farms have established greenhouses for year-round produce and sell products through local grocers, farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Bob Boehm, manager of the Michigan Farm Bureau Commodity and Marketing Department, said "There are a lot of (farmers) who are saying 'What can we do to add value to our farm,' " and cites Michigan’s unique agricultural climate as a welcoming atmosphere.
Farmer Mark Falker (Detroit News photo) diversified his family’s 51-year-old dairy farm by introducing turkeys. He has plans to open a retail store on the property to sell milk, ice cream, frozen beef and chicken, and capitalize on the trend of consumers purchasing produce directly from farmers. "Farming is in your blood," Falker told Youssef. "Sometimes certain situations change and you have to change with it if you want to continue to do it." (Read more)

International weekly editors' group honors writers of editorials and Garrett Ray for public service

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors concluded its annual conference today on Prince Edward Island after recognizing 12 weekly editors for their editorials and giving its highest award to a man whom one nominator dubbed the dean of the organization.

Garrett Ray, right, former editor and owner of the Littleton Independent in Colorado and retired faculty member at Colorado State University, won the Eugene Cervi Award for a career of outstanding public service through community journalism. His friend Richard McCord of Santa Fe, N.M., said in announcing the award that Ray has won journalism awards for "almost anything you can win an award for."

Ray's awards included the 1980 Golden Quill, which ISWNE gives to the editorial deemed the best of the Golden Dozen, 12 editorials that are recognized at the group's awards dinner and reprinted in its quarterly magazine, Grassroots Editor. For the latest edition of the magazine, with the award winners and their editorials, click here. For a capsule rundown of the awards and the conference, click here.

Rural workers more likely on nontraditional shifts

Rural workers are more likely to work nontraditional shifts, according to a study by The Carsey Institute of the University of New Hampshire. Demographic differences were also noted, and male rural workers outnumber females across all shifts, Rogelio Saenz reports.

The report analyzed four shifts based on work arrival time: 12 to 5:59 a.m., 6 to 11:59 a.m., 12 p.m. to 5:59 p.m., and 6 to 11:59 p.m. Rural workers are disproportionately more likely to arrive earlier in the morning than their urban counterparts.

Other statistics noted by the study include variations among ethnicities and rural work shifts. Saenz reports that the first shift is dominated by Latino workers and foreign-born individuals who do not speak English well, while rural African-Americans are most likely to work during the afternoon shift.

The implications of the study may have a direct effect on rural community efforts to tailor activities for lifestyles that do not operate on the traditional work schedule of urban America. “It is important that rural policy makers and community leaders work to ensure that the needs (child care, health care, participation in school activities) of such workers are met,” Saenz writes. (Read more)