Friday, August 28, 2009

Most of chain e-mail's assertions about health bill are lies, say independent, nonpartisan analysts

A widely circulated, chain e-mail about the health-reform bill passed by a House committee "contains 48 claims. Twenty-six of them are false and the rest mostly misleading. Only four are true," the independent, nonpartisan analysts at say in their latest post.

Among the lies: A government committee will decide what treatments individual patients will get, illegal aliens will get free care, and "The federal government will have direct, real-time access to all individual bank accounts for electronic funds transfer." Repeating: These are lies.

"We can trace the origins of this collection of claims to a conservative blogger who issued his instant and mostly mistaken analyses as brief 'tweets' sent via Twitter as he was paging through the 1,017-page bill," Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson and Jess Henig write. "The claims have been embraced as true and posted on hundreds of Web sites, and forwarded in the form of chain e-mails countless times. But there’s hardly any truth in them."

We've said it before and we'll say it again: It is the responsibility of all news media, large and small, urban and rural, to set the record straight on the biggest issue of our day. We trust FactCheck, and you can, too.

Single-sex classrooms improve rural boys' grades

Independence Middle School sixth graders in Raleigh County, West Virginia, began classes this week in gender-specific rooms. According to Jackie Ayres of The Register-Herald in Beckley, the students will receive separate instruction in the core subjects of math, science, social studies and history. Independence is the first school in the county to try gender-based education, Ayres reports.

Ayres reports there are 540 U.S. public schools with gender-based classes, adopted mainly in search of better gradess and test scores. She quotes Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education: "We're accustomed to seeing kids improve 30 or 40 percent in single-sex classes." Katie Scarvey of the Salisbury Post in North Carolina reported in March that Salisbury High School was experiencing similar success in gender specific algebra classes. Scarvey reports that the consensus among an all-male algebra course was clear: "It's easier to concentrate on math in an all-male environment." (Post photo by Jon C. Lakey)

Ayres reports a 300 percent improvement by male students at Anne Bailey Elementary in Kanawha County, W.Va. Sax told her that wealthy families shouldn't be the only ones who have the option of sending their children to all-boy or all-girl schools: "Kids are all different. We are not saying that single-sexed education is best for every child. What we are saying is that parents should have a choice.”

Falling gas prices and economic downturn hurt alternative fuel production, especially biodiesel

Two-thirds of U. S. biodiesel production capacity, once counted on to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, is sitting unused, according to the National Biodiesel Board. Ann Davis and Russell Gold of The Wall Street Journal report that the global credit crisis, a glut of capacity, lower oil prices and delayed government rules changes on fuel mixes are threatening the viability of biodiesel and next-generation fuels derived from feedstock other than food. (Journal chart)

Davis and Gold report GreenHunter Energy Inc. has halted production and may have to sell its year-old Houston biodiesel plant. Dozens of other plants have also stopped production because biodiesel production is no longer economical, the Journal reports. The Environmental Protection Agency is several months late in issuing regulations for blending of biodiesel with regular diesel fuel.

Biodiesel isn't the only biofuel in the lurch. A federal jury recently found that Cello Energy, which was supposed to account for 70 percent of the U. S. cellulosic biofuel supply, had defrauded investors. Ethanol is also hurting, but is somewhat insulated by a federal subsidy.

A 2007 law calls for the U.S. to blend 36 billion gallons of biofuel into its fuel supply by 2022, increasing biofuel's share of the domestic liquid fuel market from 5 percent to 16 percent. "The industry is already falling behind its targets," Davis and Gold report. (Read more)

Significant downturn in farm income is forecast

While American farms have proven more adept at weathering the economic recession that most industries until now, U. S. Department of Agriculture projections show it isn't immune to the downturn. USDA projected yesterday that there will be a 38 percent fall in U.S. farm income this year.

"This is going to be a very unusual year for farm income with much larger than expected declines," USDA economist Jim Johnson told USDA Daily Radio News. Keith Good of reports, "The 2009 forecast is $9 billion below the average of $63.2 billion in net farm income earned in the previous 10 years."

Scott Kilman and Lauren Etter note in The Wall Street Journal that the economic downturn hasn't affected all farmers equally. The pair write that harvest problems in India have led to the highest sugar prices in 28 years for U. S. farmers, but shrinking foreign demand and low prices have left U. S. dairy and hog farmers "barely holding on."

Kilman and Etter explain that while less than 1 percent of Americans are directly engaged in farming, farmers have a large impact on the economy: "They are big spenders, produce commodities that are ubiquitous in the economy, and use about half of the nation’s land. According to past calculations by the USDA, agriculture and food account for about 13 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.” (Read more)

Coal may not rebound even after recession ends

The abundance of cheaper natural gas and a declining industrial demand for coal may signal an end to coal's dominance in the U. S. energy market. Bruce Nichols and Eileen O'Grady of Reuters report that industry analysts predict that even after the recession ends, demand for coal from its industrial and power-generation base may not recover. (Photo by Lucas Jackson)

Nichols and O'Grady report that "power companies are reducing use of coal plants because of declining demand from heavy industry, the economic sector hit hardest by the recession." Due to the increased availability of natural gas and other alternative energy sources the loss of this industrial "baseload" appears long term.

Some electric companies are already trimming their plans to expand coal-fired generation and at least one has begun replacing some of its coal plants with gas units, Nichols and O'Grady note. Coal's hope for a rebound might be a quick improvement of the economy and industry before natural gas and "cleaner" forms of energy have the ability to cope with the demand, they write.

Even if it scores a quick rebound, coal appears to have lost its stranglehold on the U. S. energy market for good, with increased government action to slow global warming, Nichols and O'Grady report, noting that that the Electric Power Research Institute predicts coal's share of the power market will shrink to 38 percent bay 2030. (Read more)

Can coal make electricity without being burned?

A group of researchers and companies are working to develop technology that may solve the "clean coal" conundrum. Some skeptics of clean coal say the only way to create clean coal is to stop burning it, and Jessica Leber of Climate Wire writes for The New York Times reports that some researchers believe they can do just that. These scientists are working with "direct carbon" fuel cells (DCFCs) to produce electricity directly from the carbon source by potentially using half the coal burned today.

Dan Raster, energy-storage manager for the utility-funded Electric Power Research Institute, acknowledged to Leber that major hurdles exist to developing DCFC technology, but he thinks it will provide an "attractive option to electric utilities that need to reduce their carbon emissions." DCFCs "convert carbon sources to electricity in a single reaction step, just as current fuel cells do with hydrogen," Leber writes, noting that the process is more efficient than plants that burn coal to make steam that drives turbines.

Because coal has impurities and contaminants, DCFC technology is likely to be first developed with other biomass, and the chief obstacles are money and time, Leber reports. "Personally, I feel that it's an area that needs more attention," Raster told her. "There's a role for good basic science at this point." (Read more)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Iowa school district eliminates class on Bible and another critiquing evolutionary theory

An Iowa school district has decided to remove a Bible class and a class critiquing evolutionary theory from its curriculum to avoid being sued over its proposed "religious liberties" policy. Staci Hupp of The Des Moines Register reports that "the elective classes and other parts of the plan drew fire last month from civil rights activists who said they promoted Christian beliefs." (Photo by Win McNamee)

The Spencer School District's plan to offer a constitutionally valid Bible course is believed to be the first such attempt at outlining religious freedoms in an Iowa public school. Georgia, Texas and other states have seen school systems adopt similar policies, Hupp reports. In a 2007 Time magazine cover story that detailed the rising trend of teaching Bible literacy courses in public schools, David Van Biema reported that a textbook called "The Bible and Its Influence" had been adopted by many schools as a vehicle to teach the Bible's historical context in the United States. According to the Bible Literacy Project, the creator of the book, it is used in 330 schools across 43 states. In October 2007, Alabama became the first state to approve a textbook for academic study of the Bible when it designated "The Bible and Its Influence" available with purchase of state funds.

Hupp reports that the Spencer district's policy "drew complaints from interfaith and nonreligious advocates, a university professor and an attorney from Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., among others." Spencer officials plan to revise the policy with advise from attorneys, teachers and other groups before submitting it again, Hupp reports. (Read more)

EPA updates toxic release inventory earlier than expected; data lack interpretation

The Society of Environmental Journalists has both praised and panned the Environmental Protection Agency for making available the raw Toxic Release Inventory data for 2008. SEJ writes in a post on its Web site that the release of the data was with "a promptness unprecedented in the history of the program that some took as a sign the agency was trying hard to reverse Bush-era secrecy."

The new release isn't without its problems, though. SEJ writes that EPA has sacrificed increased interpretation of the data for the speed of release. SEJ reports that a "certain amount of the data submitted by industry is inaccurate, incomplete and improperly formatted." SEJ warns journalists that the raw data will require increased "ground-truthing" on their part before use.

In January, Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette reported that the Environmental Integrity Project had used Toxic Release Inventory data to determine that West Virginia was home to dozens of coal-ash impoundments that take in more toxic waste from power plants than the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant impoundment that broke in December 2008. Ward reported that the Environmental Integrity Project said the impoundments "pose the threat not only of catastrophic failure, but also of a "slow poisoning" of groundwater supplies with heavy metals and other toxics."

The EPA said in a news release that it has taken the "unprecedented step of releasing the raw data prior to completing its analysis," but "is analyzing the data and will publish the national analysis once its completed." The Toxic Release Inventory contains information on the release of more than 650 chemicals and chemical categories from industries across the country.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The scary basics of 'shake and bake' meth

We're choosy about passing along stories from The Associated Press because they get very wide circulation, but this one by Justin Juozapavicius out of Tulsa commands our attention and, we hope, yours: "This is the new formula for methamphetamine: a two-liter soda bottle, a few handfuls of cold pills and some noxious chemicals. Shake the bottle and the volatile reaction produces one of the world's most addictive drugs."

We've reported on the "shake and bake" way to make methampehtamine, but that's the best lede we've seen. And there's real news: "An Associated Press review of lab seizures and interviews with state and federal law enforcement agents found that the new method is rapidly spreading across the nation's midsection and is contributing to a spike in the number of meth cases after years of declining arrests."

Juozapavicius explains why: "Because the new method uses far less pseudoephedrine, small-time users are able to make the drug in spite of a federal law that bars customers from buying more than 9 grams — roughly 300 pills — a month. And he delivers this warning: "One little mistake, such as unscrewing the bottle cap too fast, can result in a huge blast, and police in Alabama, Oklahoma and other states have linked dozens of flash fires this year — some of them fatal — to meth manufacturing." (Read more)

Storytelling with Narratives in Print and Pictures, workshop for journalists, Oct. 2 in Lexington, Ky.

No matter how newspapers are changed by technology, new business models and factors yet unknown, their journalists will keep performing at least two basic functions: telling citizens what they need to know, and telling stories about them. (Photo by Jock Lauterer, from the third edition of his book Community Journalism.)

Storytelling is as old as the human race, and one of the things that makes us human. It is also something that could be crucial to the future of newspapers, whether through narrative accounts of people’s lives; new, digital forms using photography, audio and video; or multimedia combinations. A recent example is this package on Alabama loggers from The Washington Post. Or, going back a few years, this story by Rick Bragg in The New York Times on a tornado killing worshippers at a church.

To help community newspapers tell stories in new ways, or ways that may be new to them, The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues will present a one-day workshop, “Storytelling with Narratives in Print and Pictures,” at the University of Kentucky in Lexington Friday, Oct. 2. The earlybird registration deadline, with a reduced fee, is Sept. 4.

The storytellers will be Stephen G. Bloom, left, author and journalism professor at the University of Iowa and writer for The Oxford Project, a 2008 book of photographs and narratives of the people of Oxford, Iowa; photographer David Stephenson, who recently left the Lexington Herald-Leader after helping the newspaper break new ground in storytelling with audio, video and still photography; and Amy Wilson, feature writer and roving rural reporter for the Herald-Leader and former reporter for the Orange County Register in California.

The idea for the workshop began with Bloom, who hopes to help community newspapers, especially those in rural America, publish the kind of deeply personal narratives that are part of The Oxford Project, which has won widespread praise. Filmmaker Ken Burns said of it, “This powerful confessional book draws its strength from the truth that so-called ordinary people, not those with bold-faced names, are actually the heroes of our American drama." Hank Steuver of The Washington Post wrote, “People don’t get much more real than this.” More information on the book is available at

“These narratives are important stories that cut to the heart of life in rural America,” Bloom says. “Yet seldom, if ever, do we see these kinds of deeply personal narratives appear in rural newspapers. I'd very much like to share with rural journalists how I went about interviewing residents, and why such journalism is essential to the future of rural newspapers.”

Wilson, left, and Stephenson, right, have won many awards and have collaborated on several multimedia stories for the Herald-Leader, some of which are at “We are lucky and proud to have such a great lineup of experts,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute. “They will help rural journalists tell compelling stories in a variety of ways, which our business increasingly demands.” For a PDF with more about the workshop and a registration form, click here. For more information, contact Cross at 859-257-3744 or

Monday, August 24, 2009

Protests of mountaintop-removal mining spur predictions from both sides: things will get violent

Amid a situation piece about protests and fresh counter-protests over mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal in Central Appalachia, Erica Peterson of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports a dire prediction from both sides: Physical violence, like that of coal-related conflicts past, is coming. (Photo by Peterson)

Peterson profiles two men on opposite sides of the debate as she explores the historical implications of the controversy: Jess Baldwin, a foreman on a Pritchard Mining mountaintop job, and Chuck Nelson, a retired miner involved with Coal River Mountain Watch and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, who sees coal mining as the opposite of progress.

"Both men agree that things are heating up in the coal fields," Peterson reports. "Nelson has been attending and organizing mountaintop removal protests for several years, but he hasn't seen a lot of coal miner opposition until recently." She says "both predict violence in the coalfields," and quotes Baldwin: "The men are going to start to stand up. It’s going to come to a brutal end. It is, it’s going to come to a physical thing." Nelson agrees: "It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t really got hurt bad already."

Violence has already shown up at least once in the region, at Marsh Fork Elementary School on June 23, when Ruth Tucker allegedly slapped Coal River Mountain Watch Co-Director Judy Bonds. Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reported in June that Tucker had been charged with battery for her role in the incident.