Friday, July 24, 2009

Outdoor theatre competes with outdoor denizens

"As the summer performance season enters full swing, nature is invading outdoor stages around the country," Ellen Gamerman reports in The Wall Street Journal. (Art by Ross McDonald) "A group of wild turkeys started gobbling from stage right during a recent performance of Noël Coward’s “Private Lives” at the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda, Calif. A bear ran across the lawn at the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Becket, Mass. Workers nervously kept an eye out for alligators that lurk around a venue used by the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C."

There's more: "Some actors struggle to coexist with their natural surroundings. Theatre of the Big Bend, in Alpine, Texas, stages its outdoor shows near a natural spring on a hill dotted with cottonwood trees, scrub oak and prickly pear cactus. During a recent rehearsal, an actor spotted a scorpion just as the group was about to run through a dream sequence in a Spanish-English comedy. Amid screams, a cast member who’s from the area stomped over in his cowboy boots and squashed it."

And the Journal, of course, has a business angle: "Though attendance is down at some outdoor venues—crowds at the first summer performance at Tablerock Festival of Salado, in Texas, were down 17 percent compared with last year’s opening night—other events are seeing a spike in interest." (Read more)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Calls to farmer suicide hotline up 20% this year

An increasing frequency of farmer suicides, driven partly by the dairy crisis, natural disasters and other troubles, has focused new attention on the paucity of mental health care in rural America, Lynda Waddington reports for the Iowa Independent.

The nation’s largest crisis help line for agricultural workers is the Iowa-based Sowing the Seeds of Hope hotline, sponsored by Iowa State University and Agri-Wellness. It serves rural people in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas. Calls to the line are up 20 percent over this time last year, and “The callers are reporting much more severe economic turmoil, more mental health symptoms and significant increases in mental stress,” Agri-Wellness Executive Director Mike Rosmann told Waddington.

"Experts say Midwestern states like Iowa are better prepared to deal with rural mental health problems," Waddington writes, but many other states offer little help to troubled farmers. "Further complicating the access issue for rural Americans is that there are very few medical educational tracks currently available that train health care professionals about the specific concerns that are often seen in more rural settings. And, outside of the rudimentary knowledge provided within those few agricultural medicine courses, there is no national curriculum in place for behavioral health professionals who intend to service rural areas." (Read more)

Ala. program is a model for rural online education

A three-year-old online education program in Alabama, which has given rural students opportunities they once only dreamed of while increasing Advance Plaement course offerings and graduation rates, is being extended to all schools in the state. The standard limitations of education in rural America – small schools, fewer teachers and less funding – has been transformed by the project, The Economist reports.

Alabama governor Bob Riley began the Alabama Connecting Classrooms Educators and Students Statewide program in 2005 to connect students in one town with teachers in another. ACCESS, which costs The $10 million, faced skeptics, but by 2008, students enrolled in more than 22,000 courses, and now educators are finding more innovative ways like “virtual field trips” to keep the program rolling.

Students in rural Alabama no longer have to choose between courses or are limited by scarce course offerings with ACCESS. Alabama’s superintendent of schools, Joe Morton, told The Ecomomist that Advanced Placement courses, once limited to less than half of the state’s schools, are now available with ACCESS. The success rate of the program is particularly high for black students in Alabama, who had the highest increase in AP coursework in the nation from 2003 to 2008. “That makes it all worthwhile right there,” Morton said. (Read more)

Rural cell telcos unhappy with latest Verizon offer

To appease its rural critics, Verizon offered last week to “allow any carrier with fewer than 500,000 subscribers to offer devices it sells after a six-month exclusivity window” but the Rural Cellular Association isn’t yet impressed, Marin Perez reports for Information Week.

In a statement, the association says Verizon’s commitment excludes popular handsets like the BlackBerry Storm and neglects a large part of the rural consumer base, and "More than 180 million of the nation's wireless customers are unable to benefit from the new policy.”

Big carriers promoting exclusive handset deals are facing more scrutiny from lawmakers and advocate groups like the association, who say they limit choice and provide an unfair advantage over smaller wireless phone companies. But major mobile companies are fighting back, arguing that exclusivity deals benefit consumers by encouraging healthy competition, and have generated products like Verizon’s Storm and Sprint’s Palm Pre. (Read more)

GOP senators say farmers will lose on climate bill

The Agriculture Department says climate legislation would help farmers more than hurt them, but skeptics like the American Farm Bureau Federation disagree, arguing that the bill would increase the cost of fuel, fertilizer and pesticides, Charles Abbott reports for Reuters.

At the forefront of the debate are Republican Sens. Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Pat Roberts of Kansas, who are questioning how much farmland would be transformed into forestry if a carbon offset market is created. Johanns, a former agriculture secretary, says those farmers who choose to maintain their current crops will face higher energy costs under the bill with no compensation. "Unless you can quantify this, you can't sell the plan," he said. (Read more)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Three wise men, planting ideas where it counts

Author-farmer Wendell Berry, right, geneticist Wes Jackson, center, and sustainable-agriculture advocate Fred Kirschenmann, left, lobbied the Obama administration and senators this week "for a new kind of food policy," The Washington Post reports. The trio wants "a 50-year-farm bill, a proposal for gradual, systemic change in American farming. The plan asks for $50 million annually for plant breeding and genetics research. But it also puts forward a new vision of agriculture, one that values not only yields but also local ecosystems, healthy food and rural communities."

Jackson is president of the Kansas-based Land Institute, Berry farms and writes at Port Royal, Ky., and Kirschenmann is a fellow at Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and president of New York's Stone Barns Center. They are looking for allies in urban America, not just in Congress.

"We're building a constituency, an urban agrarian constituency that is devoted to farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture," Berry told the Post's Jane Black. "You've got a farm population that's too small to count. So should we delude ourselves that we represent a politically significant population? No farmer thinks that. We're not going to get anywhere if we don't have urban allies." For the Q & A with Black, published in the Food and Dining section of the Post, with the same headline as above, click here.

Vilsack: Climate bill would probably help farmers in short term, certainly in long term; few specifics

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told senators today that U.S. agriculture would probably gain more than it would lose from House-passed climate legislation "in the short term, and the economic benefits from offsets markets will easily outpace increased input costs over the long term," writes Rita Jane Gabbett of Meating Place, a meat-industry journal.

"But under questioning from both Republicans and Democrats, administration officials declined to provide several specifics about the projections, including how much commodity or food prices would rise as a result of crop acres switching to forestry," Jon Harsch and Sara Wyant report for Agri-Pulse. "The analysis also does not include implications for specialty crops." (Read more)

In his remarks, Vilsack did not guarantee the bill would be a net plus for farmers, saying, "The economic opportunities for farmers and ranchers can potentially outpace, perhaps significantly, the costs from climate legislation." Though he said "can potentially" and not "would," he then gave USDA estimates to back up his statement. "We believe these figures are conservative because we aren't able to model the types of technological change that are very likely to help farmers produce more crops and livestock with fewer inputs," he said. "Second, the analysis doesn't take into account the higher commodity prices that farmers will very likely receive as a result of enhanced renewable energy markets and retirement of environmentally sensitive lands domestically and abroad." For the USDA's full report, click here.

Drilling stories win environmental reporting prizes

Stories on natural-gas drilling won both top small-market awards for environmental reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists. This year's only prize for small-market TV reporting went to Jim Parsons, Kendall Cross and Michael Lazorko of WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh for "Drill Baby Drill," which the judges called "the kind of outstanding environmental journalism that every newsroom should commit to report." First prize for small-market print reporting went to Lowell Brown amd Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe of the Denton Record-Chronicle for reporting on the effect of gas drilling in residential areas of the Dallas exurb. The 13,000-circulation paper is a sister of the Dallas Morning News.

The second- and third-place winners in the small-market category, both writers for High Country News, were more rural. Florence Williams won second for "On Cancer's Trail," which SEJ describes as "the story of a young Navajo biologist studying breast cancer so that she can understand the high incidence of the disease in her family and community." Williams spent a year reporting this story as a Ted Scripps fellow at the University of Colorado. J. Madeline Nash won third for "Back to the Future," a story about a global warming that lasted about 150,000 years around 55 million years ago. She asked, "What does that tell us about our current climate dilemma?" SEJ says, "The answer she provides is terrifying."

Stories on gas drilling by Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica won third place for investigative reporting. Second place for explanatory reporting went to Stefan Milkowski and John Wagner of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, circulation 14,500, for "Alaska's Changing Climate", which SEJ calls "penetrating examination of the state's shrinking ice cap, starving sea mammals, melting permafrost, beleaguered spruce forests and ailing fish stocks." For descriptions of all winners and links to their work, click here.

Grassley is key Republican senator on health care

If President Obama achieves his biggest goal, reform of health care, he will have some Republicans to thank, and despite some recent tension, the chief one may yet turn out to be Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, one of the few farmers in Congress and one of the most plain-spoken senators we've ever interviewed. (Photo by Lauren Victoria Burke,

Grassley and another rural-state senator, Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, have been negotiating for weeks on the issue, as ranking minority member and chairman, respectively, of the Senate Finance Committee. "Getting Mr. Grassley's imprimatur meant getting moderate Republicans, maybe even a sizable chunk of the GOP. It meant shoring up nervous Dems. It meant a health reform that might last," conservative columnist Kim Strassel writes, accurately we think, in The Wall Street Journal.

However, liberal Democrats have "cavalierly ignored" parameters Grassley set early on, "vexing him greatly in the process," Strassel reports. "There are growing signs the Republican may exit the table." The key issue is Obama's desire for a "government-run health insurance program -- the public option," which Grassley warned in March would not fly. He moved toward a compromise proposed by Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, for a nonprofit cooperative like those created in the 1930s to provide electricity in rural areas, but said it should not depend on public funds.

"Left to their camaraderie, Messrs. Baucus and Grassley might hammer this out. But Senate liberals, who never wanted compromise, are forcing Mr. Baucus to choose between their bread and Mr. Grassley's butter," Strassel writes. And she opines, "The sight of the Republican most committed to getting a deal being dissed by the White House and a maniacal Senate leadership will dissuade further GOP compromise." (Read more)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

As many cities and towns debate whether to allow keeping of chickens, a council meeting turns fowl

Local debates over whether to repeal ordinances banning chickens and other small animals in residential areas are occuring all over the country, as Nick Timiraos of The Wall Street Journal reported recently, but we doubt they have reached the level seen last week at the city council meeting in Bardstown, Ky., where one citizen brought one of his birds and asked council members to pet it.

"Cissell asked City Council to give him a license or special permit, but Mayor Dick Heaton said even if the councilmen voted to do so, chickens still would not be allowed on Cissell’s property because it is not zoned agricultural," Stephanie Hornback reported in The Kentucky Standard. (Photo from video by Standard's PLG-TV)

Cissell told the council he has had chickens since he moved to his current residence eight years ago, and no one complained about them until now, Hornback wrpte. "Cissell said he doesn’t know who complained, and he had signatures from all of his neighbors saying they were OK with the chickens. The neighbors understand the value of having the birds in the neighborhood because they eat ticks and other insects, Cissell said, adding that some neighbors even ask him to let the chickens into their yards for pest control. Cissell also eats the eggs from his nine hens, and when their offspring reach a certain age, he has them processed for meat. He doesn’t like eating store-bought eggs or chicken."

After Cissell spoke for about 20 minutes, Heaton said he "had made his point, but the laws of the city had to be upheld," Hornback reported. "Cissell was determined to not give up. 'Would you all like to rub little Charlie?' he said, taking the chicken around to the City Council members. Some stifled chuckles, and no one took him up on the offer." But after Cissell said others in the town of 11,000 kept chickens, Heaton no action would be taken against him while his claim is checked out. Council members "also want to hear feedback from the community on the ordinance" banning chickens and other livestock, which was enacted in 1950, the Standard reports.

Rural hospitals say health-reform bill is 'too urban'

Urban teaching hospitals are among the biggest benefactors of Medicare reimbursements, but in as Congress debates health-care reform, rural lawmakers are pushing to change the disparity, Susan Milligan reports for The Boston Globe.

Government policies pay more to big hospitals associated with medical schools for maintaining things such as trauma centers and burn units, and providing training for future doctors. But that rationale is being tested by lawmakers with rural constituents who say the bill is ‘too urban’ and neglects the impact and challenges of rural hospitals. Alan Morgan, chief executive of the National Rural Health Association, told Milligan that rural hospitals serve higher percentages of elderly and low-income patient populations, and therefore rely more heavily on government reimbursement.

Opponents say stripping Medicare money from teaching hospitals could have a big impact on the medical field, especially in hospital-rich states like Massachusetts. Nationally, about 18 percent of patients are referred to teaching facilities, but in Massachusetts that figure is closer to 50 percent. John Erwin, executive director of the Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals, said it is important to see what teaching hospitals bring to the table. He argues that they provide crucial services for the entire country and not just regions, and not only train physicians, including those who go to smaller communities to practice, but conduct research and cutting-edge medical procedures that help everyone. A bill that ‘levels the playing field’ could have some “real, unintended consequences,” Erwin warned. “It could have the impact of stifling innovation.” (Read more)

Prof's Midwest economic index slips as bankers in 11 states see little impact of stimulus package

The economic stimulus package does not appear to have helped rural communities in the Upper Midwest so far, and many residents are still hesitant about health care reform, according to the latest monthly survey of small-town bankers in 11 states by economist Ernie Goss of Creighton University in Omaha.

Goss said his Rural Mainstreet Index declined for the second straight month. “None of the bankers, and that's zero, reported large and significant impacts. In fact, most of the bankers report that the impacts thus far have been none to very, very modest ... so, we're not seeing much of an impact from the stimulus package," Goss told told Pat Curtis of Radio Iowa.

Results indicate a shift from the ‘growth neutral’ trend of the index, which Goss attributes to low crop prices. “The RMI has remained below growth neutral for 17 consecutive months,” he said in his report. “After appearing to bottom out earlier in the year, the index, which gauges overall economic activity, is now trending downward.”

Survey recipients were also asked about proposed taxation of the wealthy to pay for a reformed health-insurance system, and 70 percent disagreed. Goss said that means rural Americans have "some real concern about how the new health care plan is funded and where that money comes from." (Read more)

Dentist shortage, made worse by difference in Medicaid and private fees, grows in upstate N.Y.

Shortages of physicians and specialists rural areas have long plagued rural America, but a growing number of areas are also facing a dwindling number of dentists. Patti Singer reports for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester that the trend has reached the Finger Lakes region of New York, where at least 10 rural counties face below-average ratios of dentists to patients, exacerbating the problem of few dentists accepting Medicaid for the poor and disabled.

The dentist shortage and limits on Medicaid payments mean residents may go for years without dental care, putting them at risk for gum disease, heart disease and difficulty managing diabetes, among other conditions. Mobile clinics have offered some relief, but residents also face limited transportation for appointments. Singer reports that the solution will likely require higher reimbursement rates and loan forgiveness.

Andrea Haradon, a consultant/coordinator of the S2AY Rural Health Network, worked with the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency to quantify the problem in New York and says part of the issue is low Medicaid reimbursements. Only 20 percent of dentists in the rural counties studied will accept Medicaid. One, Dr. Michael Keating, works in Cayuga County and says Medicaid pays one-half to one-third the fees paid by private insurance, forcing him and his colleagues to cut off patients."We have to be selective about how many people we can take," he said. "Other people in my area do the same." (Read more)

Concealed-weapon permittees kill 44 in two years; measure would make states honor others' permits

UPDATE, July 22: Though 58 of the 100 senators (including 20 Democrats) voted for the concealed-carry amendment today, it needed 60 votes to be added to the bill. Also, it should be noted that there are many reciprocity agreements between individual states.

Just as new research indicates holders of concealed-carry gun permits are killing more people, Congress is close to approving legislation that would allow anyone with a permit from one state to carry a concealed weapon in any of the 40 states that issue them.

Permit holders were involved in 31 fatal shootings of 44 people in 17 states from May 2007 to April 2009, the Violence Policy Center found. Florida had the most shootings, 10, including one of a law-enforcement officer. Other states with multiple killings were Ohio, four (one officer); Pennsylvania, two officers; North Carolina, two private citizens; and Utah, two. States with one shooting incident were Alabama, Colorado, Idaho (an officer), Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. (Read the study)

"Critics, including police organizations, big-city mayors and gun-victims groups, decried the legislation as creating 'a new national lowest common denominator' for ownership of firearms," Shailagh Murray reports for The Washington Post. "But twice this year, Republicans have succeeded in rolling back restrictions on guns with substantial backing from moderate Democrats, many newly elected from Western states with strong Second Amendment traditions." (Read more)

Meanwhile, a law passed this month in Tennessee will allow the state's 237,750 handgun carry permit holders in the state to take their weapons into places that serve alcohol unless the establishments specifically ban them – arguably forcing the hospitality industry to tell their patrons ‘No,’ Michael Cass reports for The Tennessean. Perhaps surprisingly, 80 percent of the businesses are banning guns. (Read more)

Cookes expand newspaper holdings from Fla. Keys by buying 13 Cox papers in North Carolina

In a testament to the relative health of the community newspaper business, Cox Enterprises Inc. will sell three daily and 10 weekly newspapers in North Carolina to Cooke Communications LLC, a privately held firm headed by John Kent Cooke, son of the late billionaire Jack Kent Cooke, for an undisclosed price. (UPDATE, July 27: Tom Heath of The Washington Post estimates a sum of $30 million to $35 million.)

The dailies are The Daily Reflector of Greenville, circulation 21,000; the Rocky Mount Telegram, 14,000; and The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City, 10,000. The weeklies are the Beaufort-Hyde News of Bellhaven, the Bertie-Ledger Advance of Windsor, The Chowan Herald of Edenton, the Duplin Times of Kenansville, The Enterprise of Williamston, the Farmville Enterprise, Perquimans Weekly of Elizabeth City, the Standard Laconic of Snow Hill, the Times-Leader of Ayden-Grifton and the Weekly Herald of Robersonville.

Cooke's eldest son, John Kent Cooke Jr., "will move to the Greenville area to become president of Cooke Communications North Carolina and publisher of The Daily Reflector," the Telegram reports. His company "owns The Key West Citizen – 8,900 circulation daily, 9,749 Sunday – a number of weekly newspapers stringing the Florida Keys and Internet publishing business" The elder Cooke was "part owner of the Los Angeles Daily News, the Washington Redskins and The Chrysler Building in New York City, among other businesses."

(Neil Johnston of Cox, John Kent Cooke and John Kent Cooke Jr. in the Reflector newsroom. Reflector photo by Greg Eans) The elder Cooke told Reflector employees, "Newspapers are not dead. They’re not even ill. ... I’m not worried in the least about the future of this business, particularly here in North Carolina. It’s going to be difficult at times, but we will be successful because we have the same attitude that the Cox people have and that is we’re going to concentrate on our local news,” the Reflector reports. Meanwhile, "Paul A. Clarin, who has served as Cooke Communications corporate chief financial officer since 2001, has been named publisher of The Key West Citizen and accompanying weekly community newspapers in the Florida Keys." Heath writes, "Because there are no local TV stations, Cooke has the turf to himself. He said his 425 employees, including reporters and editors, can outhustle the radio stations and anyone else trying to muscle in." And he quotes leading industry analyst John Morton: "Going forward, it's going to be the smaller papers that do reasonably well."

Atlanta-based Cox said last year that it would sell most of its newspapers in Colorado, North Carolina and Texas, The Associated Press notes. The company announced last week that it would sell the Grand Junction Sentinel and the Waco Tribune-Herald, and is still trying to sell others in Texas. It previously sold the Lufkin Daily News and The Daily Sentinel of Nacogdoches. UPDATE, Aug. 5: Cox takes its Austin paper off the market.

New Web site will help journalists cover poverty

A Web site to guide journalists through the often-difficult tasks of covering poverty and its ramifications has gone live. Created by the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, the site has tutorials on covering aspects of poverty such as education, financial services, health, housing, politics and race, and incorporating poverty into coverage of those subjects, as well as general advice on covering poor people.

The Resources section of the site includes several "tip sheets" including top Web sites, books and policy organizations to consult; the "top 10 places to mine for story ideas in your community;" and the top four myths about poverty, one of which is that most poor people don't work. In fact, the site says, "The majority of people living in poverty actually have jobs. But you can work two minimum-wage jobs and still not make above poverty wage." A corollary myth, the site says, is that if someone has "full employment" he or she isn't poor. "The term 'full employment' erroneously suggests a kind of comfort. It tends to mask minimum wages and inadequate health care coverage."

The driving force behind the site is John Greenman, the college's Carter Professor of Journalism and an academic partner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Greenman and the college's director of public service, Diane Murray, invite journalists to use the site and tell them what they think about it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

European 'farm' subsidies often aimed at rural development, non-farmers, new public data show

In debates over farm subsidies in the United States, global trade and European subsidies sometimes come up, but we bet few Americans know much about European farmers and their subsidies, details of which have been obscured by a veil of secrecy. Here's a chance to learn.

"This year for the first time, all of the 27 nations in the European Union were forced to disclose how they distribute the money from farm subsidies," Stephen Castle and Doreen Carvajal report for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. "The data underscore the extent to which the subsidy program has evolved beyond its original goals of increasing food production and supporting traditional farmers as they dealt with market fluctuations. It also illustrates how the European Union has moved to emphasize rural development instead of price support and production incentives, and in the process has decentralized the system, giving countries more discretion over the dispersal of subsidies."

The E.U. hands out 50 billion euros(€), or $71 billion, a year in farm and rural subsidies. Three-fourths of the money goes to farmers and landowners, but recipients also include a Spanish construction company, €1.59 million for rural roads; a German candy manufacturer, €332,000 for the sugar in its gummy bears; and an Italian caterer that serves cruise ships, €148,000. The story has many more examples of how the system works.

"European officials and some economists believe that much of the cash from those subsidies ultimately trickles down to local farmers, since without them companies might buy cheaper food elsewhere," Castle and Carvajal report. "But the rebates have a powerful effect on global trade by depressing world prices and undercutting poor farmers outside Europe, whose incomes are damaged. It is another form of price support, economists say, a vestige of an old system that encouraged overproduction of food and one that the E.U. authorities hope to end by 2013." (Read more)

In Va., Obama team's 'Rural Tour' touts biofuels; energy chief offers critique of local plant process

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, right, said the United States' agricultural base gives it an advantage for a more independent energy future, and gave some technical advice to an alternative-energy company, at the latest stop on the Obama administration's "Rural Tour" yesterday in Southside Virginia.

“What this country has, perhaps more than any other country in the world, is an agricultural resource,” Chu told a crowd in the Pittsylvania County town of Gretna, population 1,250. The town is the site of Piedmont BioProducts, which says it hopes to commercially produce "petroleum replacement products" from switchgrass and other crops.

Matt Tomsic of the the Danville Register & Bee reports, "The men were in the plant looking at the production equipment when Chu made a comment about the silver pipes that turned at right angles. He said the sharper angles required more energy to push the contents through the turns." Chu, a physicist, said, “The bends cost the most amount of money. Big circles reduce the resistance a lot. These are all the wrong bends.” The firm's owner, Ken Moss, laughed and replied, “They’re the only ones we could afford at the time.”

Chu, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and freshman U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello "thoroughly" answered questions from the crowd, Tomsic reports. Perriello, who narrowly ousted Republican Virgil Goode last fall, is one of several first-term Democrats whose districts are part of the tour, on which Vilsack is making all stops. UPDATE, July 21: Perriello, who voted for the climate-change and energy bill, "is a test case for whether President Barack Obama's energy agenda will help or hurt vulnerable Democrats in next year's midterm elections," Stephen Power reports in The Wall Street Journal. "Skirmishing on the climate bill in Mr. Perriello's conservative district, which voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election, has been particularly fierce," with broadcast ads attacking and defending the Democrat. (Read more)

Ash spill has far-reaching effect, from coal's future to plant neighbors who still have to live with it

The risks of environmental and personal disaster from coal-ash ponds are made clear and compelling by the reporting and writing of Arian Campo-Flores of Newsweek, in a Web-only story about the Dec. 22 collapse of storage ponds at the Tennessee Valley Authority's steam plant at Kingston, Tenn., which the magazine calls "the largest industrial spill in American history."

"The cleanup effort, which the Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing, could cost as much as $1 billion (though estimates continue to climb) and take years to complete," Campo-Flores writes. "Meanwhile, the released ash—which is packed with toxins like arsenic, lead, and selenium—threatens to poison the air and water. Congressional committees are investigating the failure, some lawmakers are calling for greater regulation of utilities, and the EPA is probing about 400 other facilities across the country that store ash in similar ways. Yet the debacle has had another, potentially more far-reaching, impact: it has displayed in the most graphic manner imaginable just how dirty coal is." (Read more)

TVA's cleanup project has been shipping the ash by rail, but now the federal utility is about to use trucks as well, and that does not suit Terri Likens, editor of the Roane County News, the local weekly. "Shipping by truck will only result in further problems — damage to our roadways, more air pollution just from the truck fumes alone, more impact on traffic and safety and more concerns for local residents," Likens says in an editorial. "We’ve been through enough as a result of this disaster. Let’s keep the ash and the trucks that will be carrying it off of our highways." (Read more)