Friday, October 09, 2009

EPA issues voluntary meth-lab cleanup guidelines

The Environmental Protection Agency has released its first voluntary blueprints for cleaning up methamphetamine labs, a move that may lead several state agencies to change their practices. About 20 states currently require meth labs to be cleaned up before a new family moves into the home, Christine Byers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. EPA's plan describes everything from cleaning carpeting to plumbing, and cost $1.75 million over two years to create.

Illinois requires home buyers to be told of a former meth lab before they purchase the house, but cleanup guidelines for property owners are voluntary. The current two-page guideline is dwarfed by EPA's 48-page document. "We would not recommend people try to do these cleanups on their own because of the risk of exposures to hazardous chemicals," Kathy Marshall, an environmental toxicologist for the Illinois Department of Public Health, told Byers.

About two-thirds of meth labs are in residential settings, and Byers reports one in five meth lab busts nation-wide occurs in Illinois or Missouri. The Post-Dispatch reported on Missouri and Illinois families who were unknowingly living in former meth labs, where contamination levels were high enough to be condemned in 18 states, in October. The stories prompted the Illinois Attorney General's Office to post addresses of former meth labs online. (Read more)

Senate panel approves nomination of Pa. official to head Office of Surface Mining

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmed Joseph Pizarchik as the director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement by a unanimous vote of the 12 present members Thursday. Pizarchik's nomination had come under fire from environmental groups for his record as director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, Daniel Malloy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

Sens. Robert Menedez, D-N.J., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., both opposed the nomination and were not present for the vote. Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said he had received hundreds of letters and e-mails, mostly against the nominee. "I'm prepared to give Mr. Pizarchik the benefit of the doubt," Bingaman told Malloy, saying most of the concerns had been addressed at Pizarchik's confirmation hearing in August. (Read more)

The vote came hours after the Citizens Coal Council filed another formal notice thatg it would sue over allegations of serious deficiencies in the Pennsylvania strip-mine regulatory program that Pizarchik runs, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. This petition alleges chronic violations of federal historic-preservation laws, and it follows a previous notice filed by the group against Pizarchik's policy of allowing coal ash to be dumped in underground mines. (Read more)

Increased U.S. pot output threatens Latin cartels

Small-scale but widespread marijuana production in the U.S. is threatening the Mexican and Colombian domination of the pot market, Steve Fainaru and William Booth of The Washington Post report. An increasing local supply is threatening the Latin American trade in a way decades of arrests and seizures never has, they report.

As much as half of marijuana sold in the U.S. is now produced domestically, Fainaru and Booth write. Contrary to traditional images of rural pot farming, small-scale production and indoor farming may have played a large role in the increased production. "While the trafficking of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine is the main focus of U.S. law enforcement, it is marijuana that has long provided most of the revenue for Mexican drug cartels," the reporters write.

Mexican cartels are improving their product and streamlining delivery to compete with increased U.S. production, they report. The National Drug Intelligence Center says cartels are increasingly growing pot on public lands in the U.S. to move closer to the market.
The 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 14.4 million Americans age 12 and over had used marijuana in the past month, and more than 10 percent of the U.S. population reported smoking pot once in the past year. (Read more)

4-H seeks to create new generation of scientists

4-H is usually associated with agriculture, but the organization has many urban members among its 6 million. Now it has started a new program that may further redefine its image, a project to encourage student interest in the so-called "STEM" fields: science, technology, engineering and math, Sean Cavanagh of Education Week reports. As part of the initiative, 4-H hosted "Biofuel Blast," a nationwide science experiment as part of its second annual 4-H National Youth Science Day, on Wednesday.

Youths participating in the experiment worked together to create biofuels before taking part in 4-H-sponsored alternative energy discussions. The development of biofuels is a key issue in many communities where 4-H is popular, Cavanagh reports. The "One Million New Scientists, One Million New Ideas" campaign hopes to attract one million new youths by 2013 to the more than 5 million currently involved in the organization's science, engineering, and technology programming in topics such as robotics, rocketry, wind power, GPS mapping, agricultural science, film making, and water quality and conservation. (Read more)

At least one newspaper has already reported on the "Biofuel Blast." Five 4-H ambassadors participated in the Biofuel Blast at the University of Nevada-Reno Wednesday, Dana Kudella of the Daily Sparks Tribune reports. “Biofuels is a part of science,” 16-year-old high school student Kayla Nelson told Kudella. “It’s a good way to help the Earth.” (Read more)

A grocery can hold a rural community together

Rural grocery stores are one key to helping communities remain vibrant. Brian Depew and Steph Larsen of the Center for Rural Affairs write that rural groceries not only are a great convenience, they bring jobs and tax revenues to towns, and attract shoppers to other businesses. "When you have to leave town to buy groceries, it’s easier to pick up hardware, fill prescriptions and buy clothes at the same time," Depew and Larsen note.

Communities without groceries have less access to healthy fruits and vegetables, and their residents, especially the elderly, have to go longer between trips. The stores are also centers of social engagement, as customers interact and share news. "Similar to a school, post office, restaurant and churches, a grocery store makes a community a more attractive place to live," the writers note.

But how does a rural community ensure the success of its grocery, or get one back after losing it? Private enterprise and/or community cooperation. A survey among Stapleton, Neb., residents showed 95 percent of residents wanted a local store, so two local investors stepped up to finance one. More than 300 Walsh, Colo., residents decided that their 30-minute drive to a grocery was too far, so they started a food co-op, a model the reporters say works because the grocery is responsive to its customer-owners. High school students in Arthur, Neb., reopened a local store as part of an extracurricular program. The authors cite the store's connection to youth as a reason for its 10 years of success. (Read more)

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Government plans to move, sterilize wild horses

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Wednesday that the government plans to build new public preserves in the Midwest and East to house the growing herds of Western wild horses and burros, and to sterilize the transplanted herds to reduce the population -- which has risen from 25,000 in 1971 to 69,000. "We have a huge problem -- out-of-control populations of wild horses and burros on our public lands," Salazar said. "The problem has been growing and simmering over time, and it's time for us to do something about it that protects the horses, the public lands and the taxpayers."(Idaho Statesman photo by Darin Oswald)

Lindsey Layton and Juliet Eilpern of The Washington Post note that the horses have no natural predators and compete with cattle and other wildlife for food and water. The Bureau of Land Management says the Western range can support around 26,000 wild horses, but 37,000 currently live there, with another 32,000 in holding facilities.

Salazar's suggested land purchases could cost around $96 million, but the preserves would be marketed as tourist attractions, and the government could join with non-profits to fund them. The proposal, which has to be approved by Congress was applauded by several groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, and members of Congress "We have been fighting this battle for a long time now and will continue to do so until the BLM fulfills its duty under the law to protect America's free-roaming wild horses and burros," House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D.-W.Va., told the Post. (Read more)

Not all reaction to the announcement was positive. “It takes the wild out of wild-horse herds,” Ginger Kathrens, a documentary filmmaker who chronicled the lives of a wild-horse herd in Montana, told Jim Robbins of The New York Times. “They’re families in sophisticated societies. Creating gelding herds and preventing them from reproducing is managing them toward extinction.” (Read more)

'Coal Country' film makes its debut in Kentucky

The quest to stop mountaintop-removal coal mining is a new incarnation of the civil rights movement, according to the producer of a new anti-MTR movie and other environmental activists. “This is our moment in time, and we shall overcome,” Mari-Lynn Evans, producer of “Coal Country: Rising Up Against Mountaintop Removal Mining,” proclaimed during a question-and-answer session following the Kentucky premiere of her film, in Lexington last night.

The 90-minute documentary examining the environmental and social impacts of mountaintop removal, debuted to a heavily anti-mining crowd at the Kentucky Theatre. The West Virginia premiere was met by pro-coal protesters, but if there were any in Lexington, they hid well. But activist Mickey McCoy of Inez, Ky., alluded to pro-coal sentiment in the coalfield, and could just as easily have been preaching when he told the crowd after the movie, “This movement is like the civil rights movement, and we need people from the outside. Without the outside people coming in during the civil rights movement we’d still be drinking from different water fountains in this theater tonight. “

An opening duet from Appalachian icon Jean Ritchie and coalfield crooner Kathy Mattea set the tone for the night as one of protest and some old-fashioned “rabble rousing.” The audience erupted as a young adult, shown in the movie at a public hearing on mountaintop removal mining, told a heated crowd that they were losing sight of the key issue in their haste to insult each other. “West Virginia is one of the poorest states, and southern West Virginia is the poorest part,” he said. “This would never happen in a place that wasn’t poor.”

Evans and the crowd chuckled at her assertion that there are two sides to the story as she explained her concern with including the pro-coal stance in the movie, but the film made good on its promise to show the pro-coal argument. Gene Kitts, senior vice president of mining services for the International Coal Group, was featured prominently along with Argus Energy environmental manager Randall Maggard, right.

“I try to do what’s right,” Maggard says in the film. “I mean when your kid comes home from school and says ‘Daddy, my teacher wants me to write a paper, a letter opposing mountaintop removal mining.’ I said, well, ‘Why don’t you just go ahead and tell them to write a letter trying to put me out of a job.’”

Mattea agreed that the fear that environmental protection means the loss of mining jobs is one that anti-coal groups need to respond to. “We have to find some structure for civil discourse,” she said. “I think instead of judging these people we have to try and understand what it’s like to stand in their shoes, so we can create a civil dialogue.” She added, “We need a comprehensive economic plan, not just an idea of something more. We’ve got to get economists into this discussion so there is something concrete. It can’t just be green jobs. It’s got to be bigger than that.”

At one point in the film, Kitts and West Virginia environmental lawyer Joe Lovett appear to be saying the same thing from different sides of the divide. “We’re not opposed to alternative energy,” Kitts said. “As other technologies gain some cost competitive characteristics, then the economy will naturally migrate toward those.” Lovett said, “I want to stress that I’m not saying that all miners should be thrown out of work tomorrow and all power plants should be shut down, but that we need to start making a transition away from burning coal.”

Despite that glimmer of hope, neither side admits in the film that they might be closer than they think, and the film’s supporters were quick to point out that the movie isn’t just about valley fills and water pollution. “It’s not only a film about environmental destruction,” Teri Blanton, a Kentuckians for the Commonwealth fellow, said. “It’s also a film about destruction of the people.”

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

TV version of Brokaw's story on historic newspaper misrepresents the state of rural journalism

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Tom Brokaw recently stopped in Emporia, Kan., as part of his NBC and USA Network documentary American Character: Along Highway 50, to profile the Emporia Gazette, founded by famed editor-publisher William Allen White in 1896. The three-minute segment is being shown on several NBC shows today before the full documentary airs on USA in January. In the piece, Brokaw arrives just in time to see the Gazette's printing press shut down for good after 114 years so the daily paper, circulation 7,100, can outsource the printing and dismiss its four-man press crew. Many small dailies have done likewise.

Brokaw asserts that because the "newspaper business is in free-fall," White's grandson, Chris White Walker, is doing something previous generations of family owners couldn't have imagined. That paints the community newspaper business as on the brink of annihilation, which just isn't true. As we recently noted, community newspapers' advertising revenue has dropped during the recession, but only half as much as metropolitan papers' has. While the Gazette has been forced to make cuts like other papers, Brokaw's characterization that the newspaper is surviving "for now" may incorrectly suggest that doom is just over the horizon.

The text version of the story on includes a key point not in Brokaw's video report. Chris Walker says, "Whether people read their news on newsprint or blackberries, telling the stories of the community is what its about. Newspapers will survive." In recent years the Gazette has begun publishing online and started a monthly Spanish-language edition for the growing Hispanic population in the region, the text story notes. The story finishes with this line of hope: "With that positive spirit and a willingness to embrace change, there is every possibility that Chris is right – and that one day a fifth generation of American Characters will be at the helm of the historic Emporia Gazette." (Read more)

Contract workers, 'veterans in all but name,' suffer same injuries and come mainly from rural areas

Injuries from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are altering the lives of contract workers as well as soldiers, and the contract workers seem to come disproprtionately from rural areas, as soldiers do. "Contract workers from the U.S. have been mostly men, primarily middle-aged, many of them military veterans drawn by money, patriotism or both, according to interviews and public records," T. Christian Miller of ProPublica writes for The Los Angeles Times. "They are police officers, truck drivers, firefighters, mechanics and craftsmen, mostly from rural corners of America, especially the South."

But contract workers don't qualify for the same medical care as injured military personnel. Troops are guaranteed treatment at Veterans Administration facilities, but contract workers only qualify for worker's compensation insurance paid by the federal government under the Defense Base Act, Miller reports. "These guys are like the Vietnam vets of this generation," Lee Frederiksen, a psychologist who worked for Mission Critical Psychological Services, a Chicago-based firm that provides counseling for war zone workers, tells Miller. "The normal support that you would get if you were injured in the line of duty as a police officer or if you were injured in the military . . . just doesn't exist." That puts more pressure on health services in rural areas.

Nearly 1,600 civilian workers, whom Miller calls "military veterans in all but name," have died in Iraq and Afghanistan with thousands more injured. Reggie Lane, a contract worker from Central Point, Ore., was injured in Iraq when insurgents attacked his fuel truck with rocket-propelled grenades. His mental state has gradually deteriorated since he returned home, leaving him unable to speak, and American International Group Inc. estimates his care will cost as much as $8.9 million for the rest of his life, for which the federal government will reimburse his employer.

Herbert J. Lanese, former chief executive of DynCorp International, one of the largest employers of civilian workers in Iraq and Afghanistan, tells Miller: "These are people who have given their lives in the service of our country. They are the unappreciated patriots of our country at this point in time." (Read more)

Rural roads account for most U.S. traffic deaths

The National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration has released its latest data on traffic fatalities, and the verdict remains the same: More Americans die on rural roads. About 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, but 56 percent of the 37,261 U.S. traffic deaths occurred on rural roads in 2008, Larry Copeland of USA Today reports. Overall U.S. traffic deaths, likely influenced by record gas prices and the recession, dropped in 2008, but rural traffic deaths improved less.

Every state reported more rural deaths per 100 million miles traveled than urban fatalities, Copeland reports. Lee Munich, director of the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety at the University of Minnesota, tells Copeland faster speeds, more drunken driving, less use of seat belts and slower delivery of acute medical care can all factor in the increased rural fatality rates.

USA Today has also included an interactive map, above (see article for Flash graphic), that shows the rural percentage of traffic fatalities in each state. Our home state, Kentucky, saw 77 percent of traffic fatalities occur on rural roads. South Carolina led the country at 95 percent and Massachusetts had the lowest rate at 10 percent. (Read more)

You can also see the University of Minnesota's map of the top 100 rural traffic fatality hot zones.

Historic mine reopens to tourists after a long wait

It took 32 years to turn the idea into reality, but an old, historic coal mine has reopened to visitors in Lynch, Ky., near the Virginia border. Portal 31 was opened by the old U.S. Coal & Coke Co. in 1917, produced a world record 12,820 tons of coal in a nine-hour shift in 1923 and was mined until 1963, Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "It's the best exhibition mine in the country, maybe the world," Bruce Ayers, president of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, whose Southeast Education Foundation will oversee the operation of the tourism attraction, said. (Herald-Leader photo by David Perry)

The Disney World-like attraction will follow an animatronic Italian immigrant miner and three generations of his family on a 30-minute rail car ride through the mine. The tour starts with 1910-era hand mining and continues through 1960s mechanization. The attraction is the latest example of Harlan County's increased emphasis on tourism, Hjalmarson reports. The county opened ATV trails in nearby Evarts and is home to the Kentucky Coal Museum. Ayers hopes Lynch's remote location won't deter visitors from coming to see the mine: "We're trying to use the remoteness as part of the attraction."

The Portal 31 exhibit used about $2.3 million in grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Economic Development Administration, the Appalachian Regional Commission, state coal severance taxes and state park funds, Hjalmarson reports. "I thought I would have gone to glory before I saw this finished," Bobbie Gothard, director of a local Main Street program, told Hjalmarson. (Read more)

Nearly $750,000 was spent to reinforce the mine's roof and walls, Jason Edwards of the Harlan Daily Enterprise reports, and the tour isn't just a mining how-to. “We talked about the issues facing the miners, not just mining itself," Ayers told Edwards. He said the exhibit already has attracted inquiries from hundreds of interested tourists, and it might take as long as a month to accommodate the pent-up demand. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Old formula makes poverty line too low, many say

The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced that the poverty level for a family of three is $17,330, and for a family of four $21,834. But can a family of four really live on $22,000? That's the question Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute and others are asking. The Economic Policy Institute developed the Basic Family Budget Calculator to determine exactly how much money a family needs to survive; its findings were clear: "Besides offering detailed data on how much costs vary across rural and urban areas and different geographic regions, the calculator shows that poverty thresholds are too low just about everywhere."

EPI's calculations revealed that a rural Arkansas family needs $37,388 a year and a rural Texas family needs $38,862. "These regions are comparatively inexpensive," EPI writes. "But still have costs for essentials that easily exceed incomes at the official poverty threshold." (Read more)

The National Academy of Sciences has developed an increasingly popular formula that finds 18.6 percent of Americans 65 and older are living in poverty, compared to the current measure of 9.7 percent, Hope Yen of The Associated Press reports. The original government formula doesn't account for rising cost of medical care, among other things. "It's a hidden problem," said Robin Talbert, president of the AARP Foundation. "There are still many millions of older people on the edge, who don't have what they need to get by."

"The changes have been discussed quietly for years in academic circles, and both Democrats and Republicans agree that the decades-old White House formula, which is based on a 1955 cost of an emergency food diet, is outdated," Yen writes. If the federal government adopted NAC's standards the overall poverty rate would increase from 12.5 to 15.3 percent and child poverty rates would actually decrease slightly to 17.9 percent. (Read more)

Sunflower scheme drops biodiesel for edible oil

When an renewable-energy activist turned entrepreneur approached farmers in rural Dolores County, Colo., about growing sunflowers to fuel a bioenergy revolution, they saw it as a chance to reverse the county's 14 percent unemployment rate, highest in the state. Five years and one serious downturn in the biodiesel market later, the jury is still out on the success of the project i Dove Creek, Adam Burke of National Public Radio reports.

As federal subsidies for biodiesel dried up, plant developer Jeff Berman had to change his philosophy. Instead of creating commercial-grade biofuel, the plant would use the flowers to make food-grade sunflower oil. "To survive, we had to make some changes," Berman told NPR. "If we had insisted on building our biodiesel plant, then we would not be here." The shift wasn't easy for Berman, who was looking to start a green revolution, NPR reports, but the company has been able to hold onto its renewable dream by using seed stocks to create almost a third of the electricity and heat needed to run the plant.

Berman hopes the plant will eventually become the first always-on hybrid renewable plant in the country. To finish it and pay farmers for last year's crop, he has been shipping sunflower seeds to the Midwest at a loss, Burke reports, and San Juan Bioenergy has produced just 15 tankers of oil since January. Dove Creek is certainly no worse off that it was five years ago, Burke writes, but the future of sunflower energy could go in two vastly different directions. Local farmer Grant Allen tells Burke: "Sunflowers could bring us farmers down, just as much as it could bring us up right now." (Read more)

When The Durango Herald reported on San Juan Bioenergy's plan to use sunflowers to create biodiesel in July, the outlook was rosier. "This isn't cow country. This is sunflower country now," a local cafe owner told Shane Benjamin. The bioenergy plant had brought 15 new jobs, and farmers were generally reporting larger yields from sunflowers than from traditional crops. U.S. Rep. John Salazar even stopped by to hail the plant as "the correct way to bring economic development throughout rural America." (Read more)

Feds' embrace of 'net neutrality' keeps some firms from seeking stimulus; broadband wireless is hot

Americans have long been used to a tiered system of cable television that charges users for more content. But what if the Internet worked the same way, and you needed a premium package for full access to Or what if service providers such as Comcast made Web sites pay more for bandwidth? Start-ups like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube might never become fixtures in our daily Internet lives because they lacked the initial funding to pay for bandwidth required to operate their sites.

That's the picture painted by advocates of "net neutrality," which the Obama administration supports. They point to Comcast's first attempt to throttle Internet speed to heavy users in 2008, which the Federal Communications Commission ruled invalid. "At its core, the net-neutrality debate pits those who believe the Internet is a channel for open communications against those whose best financial interests lie in a controlled Internet," industry analyst Craig Settles writes for the Daily Yonder.

When Congress required recipients of stimulus funding for rural broadband initiatives to adhere to net-neutral policies, many large providers declined to apply. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski recently outlined six principles aimed at ensuring that "Consumers can get whatever legal content they wish, using whatever computing devices they want, without fear of service providers’ favoring, or discriminating against, content that flows over the networks that link to the Internet," as Settles summarizes it.

Opponents of net neutrality argue that companies like Yahoo and WebMD are taking free rides on their infrastructure, and argue they should be able to charge heavy users for access to their networks. Settles says that is a myth, since companies already foot large bills for the private infrastructure to maintain and guarantee access to their sites. He argues that if one company is moving 500 gigabits of data and another is moving only 100, it's fine for the first company to pay more for its access, but under net neutrality the operator of the system can't arbitrarily slow down the second company's traffic becausr it's a smaller customer.

Most of the proposals for broadband stimulus money are for wireless networks. Many local governments are already supplying such networks, and provide more bandwidth than traditional networks. "These communities don’t worry about throttling content because their networks’ wireless technology enables capacity that exceeds subscribers’ need for speed," Settles writes. He finishes with this piece of advice for rural readers: "Don’t let the incumbent PR blitz fool you. Net neutrality, applied fairly to big and small Internet service providers, is good for consumers, businesses and providers." (Read more)

Native Americans defend their coal-fired power plant against environmentalists

The president of the Navajo Nation joined other Native American leaders this week in criticizing environmentalists for trying to shut down coal-fired power plants in northern Arizona. "These are individuals and groups who claim to have put the welfare of fish and insects above the survival of the Navajo people when in fact their only goal is to stop the use of coal in the U.S. and the Navajo Nation," Joe Shirley Jr. said, adding that the Navajo depend on the jobs and revenue brought in by the plants, Dennis Wagner of USA Today reports. (Arizona Republic photo by John Stanley)

Shirley's comments came Wednesday, after the Hopi Nation's Tribal Council sent a letter to the environmental groups telling them to stay off the reservation. An inquiry by environmental groups and some tribes into smog over the Grand Canyon pointed to the Navajo Generating Station, which with a reservation coal mine supplies more than 70 percent of the Hopis' government revenue, as a possible culprit.

Tina May, a spokeswoman for the Hopi Nation, told USA Today that a successful effort by environmentalists to shut down the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., cost the tribe $6.5 million a year. She said closure of the Navajo Generating Station could cost another $11 million. "We need to make public that we don't want the environmental groups coming in and causing trouble for the Hopi tribe," Nada Talayumptewa, chairwoman of the council's energy team, said. "It's time we take a stand."

Andy Bessler, the Sierra Club's representative in the Southwest, told The Associated Press, "We need to do something about global warming, and coal is the greatest threat. ... We work with anybody who wants to help protect the environment, stop global warming and transition our economy to a clean economy. We don't discriminate, and we'll continue to honor the invitations we get from Hopi and Navajo communities to work with them." (Read more)

Monday, October 05, 2009

Governor, senators join Ind. newspaper promotion

The Hoosier State Press Association is launching a new marketing campaign to emphasize the importance of newspapers, The Associated Press reports. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, left, will join other prominent Hoosiers in the new campaign to voice their support for newspapers. The campaign, "Newspapers Still Deliver," features an advertisement quoting Daniels, a second-term Republican who was budget director in the second Bush administration, saying "Newspapers are best equipped to be a government watchdog and are the most factually reliable news medium."

The campaign also features U.S. Sens. Richard Lugar (R) Evan Bayh (D), Indiana University President Michael McRobbie, Hoosiers screenwriter Angelo Pizzo and others. The campaign began Sunday in time for National Newspaper Week. It hopes to "Reassure current readers and advertisers of newspapers’ importance and viability" and attract new readers and advertisers, the press association writes in a memo. (Read more)

Pennsylvania trying to deal with 'fracking' water

Two separate contaminations of the Monongahela River from natural-gas drilling have further illuminated problems surrounding the discharge of wastewater from fracturing gas-bearing rock strata. Industry officials estimate that oil and gas wells discharge about 9 million gallons of waste water a day in Pennsylvania, Joaquin Sapien of ProPublica reports, and by 2011 that figure is expected to top 19 million gallons, enough to fill 29 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection officials say the most troubling substance in drilling waste water is total dissolved solids, which can make the water five times as salty as sea water. "Large quantities of TDS can clog machinery and change the color, taste and odor of drinking water," Sapien reports, adding that while TDS is not usually harmful to humans it can damage freshwater streams. Pennsylvania drilling companies currently dispose of their waste water at municipal sewage plants, despite warnings from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the facilities aren't equipped to remove TDS, and that TDS can kill organisms needed to treat human waste in the water.

DEP chief John Hanger has promised to implement more aggressive plans by 2011, including a requirement that drilling wastewater be treated in special plants capable of removing TDS. Until then, DEP has promised to add more TDS monitors along the Monogahela, Sapien reports, and monitor the level of TDS in streams where water would be discharged before it is treated at a specific sewage plant. Dana Aunkst, who heads the DEP's water program, told Sapien: "We were trying to scramble, to put it bluntly, to get our act together to figure out how we were going to address these withdrawals as well as the disposal issues." (Read more)

Senate climate bill disappoints farm interests

After reviewing the climate bill proposed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., farm interests have voiced their concern about provisions from the House bill that were left out of the Senate proposal. "Those provisions are intended to ensure that growers can earn credits for carbon-storing practices, including reduced tillage," Phillip Brasher of The Des Moines Register reports, adding that House-passed provisions protecting ethanol and biodiesel industries from carbon-reduction standards are also missing.

Rick Krause, who follows climate policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, calls the Senate bill a "step-back," and the National Farmers Union says it fails to address its core principles on the issue of carbon credits. Farm-state Democrats have shown support for farm provisions, including Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow's and Montana Sen. Max Baucus' draft that would allow farmers to get credits for plowing land less. Energy analyst Kevin Book said the Senate bill is meant to be "an initial negotiating position well to the left" of where Congress will eventually wind up. (Read more)

Iowa Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin, who has stepped down as the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman to head the Health Committee, told Dan Looker of Agriculture Online: "We've got a bunch of votes on the Ag Committee and they need our votes to get this passed." Most Washington insiders agree the bill is a starting point, Looker reports, and some of their concerns may be fixed as it moves through the Senate. (Read more)

The farm industry's disdain comes as President Obama's top climate and energy official has conceded that there is virtually no chance Congress will have a bill ready before global climate treaty negotiations begin in December, Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times reports. “Obviously we’d like to be through the process — that’s not going to happen,” Carol M. Browner said at a conference on politics and history organized by The Atlantic. “I think we would all agree the likelihood you would have a bill signed by the president on comprehensive energy by the time we would go in early December is not likely.” (Read more)

Decrease in death rates has been less in rural U.S.

Death rates across the country have been decreasing since 1990, but urban rates are improving twice as fast as rural ones. "As a consequence of the changing rates of mortality, hundreds of thousands of rural residents have died since 1990 who would have been expected to live had the gap not appeared," Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder reports. If the rate of decrease in urban and rural communities had remained the same after 1990, 389,000 fewer rural Americans would have been expected to die between 1990 and 2004, a phenomenon researchers have coined the “nonmetropolitan mortality penalty.”

This news comes on the heels of reports from Harvard University that life expectancy of women in 1,000 mostly rural counties had declined from 1983 to 1999, and a report that found California rural residents were more likely to commit suicide. “These excess deaths are equivalent to approximately 9 percent of the total mortality in the nonmetropolitan United States,” Arthur Cosby, a sociologist at Mississippi State University, and other researchers write in the August 2008 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. (USDA Economic Research Service graphic)
“A possible explanation for the emergence of the nonmetropolitan mortality penalty is based on the observation that access to health care is the most pervasive health disparity in the nonmetropolitan United States,” Cosby wrote in 2008. “If healthcare is becoming significantly more effective in prolonging life, then limited access to healthcare is becoming profoundly harmful to the nonmetropolitan U.S. population; hence, the nonmetropolitan mortality penalty.” The gap between rural and metro death rates in the South is the greatest, Bishop reports, while almost no gap is observed in the Midwest, and rural death rates in the West remain relatively low. (Read more)

Pro-coal organizing moves into Kentucky

We reported last month about the coal industry's increased emphasis on grassroots organizing in the face of increasing concern about mountaintop-removal mining in Central Appalachia and climate-change legislation that the industry opposes. Now the pro-coal campaigns are moving from West Virginia to Kentucky.

The Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security, which calls itself "FACES of Coal," launched its Kentucky campaign last week. Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that the group, funded by coal interests, seeks to "educate people outside the mining regions about the benefits organizers say coal brings to the state." (Associated Press photo by Bob Bird)

A new "Friends of Coal" license plate is the fastest selling special interest plate in the state's history, Hjalmarson reports, and a Coal for Kids group helps provide clothing and food to children through family-resource centers at schools in some counties. Perry County Clerk Haven King, director of Coal Mining Our Future, an industry-sponsored non-profit, credits his group's letter-writing campaign with stopping the state "stream saver" bill that would have halted valley fills needed for mountaintop-removal mines.

King, who is up for re-election next year, told Hjalmarson that coal companies have always given back to the community, but "The reason they are tooting their horn is because of me." At a recent pro-coal concert in Breathitt County, King told the crowd that environmentalists in Lexington and Louisville "want to take your jobs," and led chants of "Our coal! Our children! Our mountains!"

Lauren McGrath, the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign representative in Lexington, notes that surface mines employ far fewer workers than underground mines, and while coal output is up in the last 20 years, some of the country's poorest counties remain in coal country. "The higher-ups in the industries are benefiting," not the local residents, she tells Hjalmarson. (Read more)

"Coal, known as king and curse in Kentucky, is the subject of two very different kinds of events coming early in October," The Beattyville Enterprise reports. The first official FACES of Coal Kentucky event, a Hazard rally that has since been postponed, and the Oct. 7 Kentucky debut of Coal Country, the Movie, a controversial anti-coal documentary highlight both sides of the debate. (Read more, subscription required)

Rural background made Va. governor candidate a compromiser by nature, too flexible for some

Does a rural background encourage compromise and flexibility in politics? That's an argument in favor of Creigh ("kree") Deeds, the Democratic nomine for Virginia governor in the Nov. 3 election, who has been criticized for changes in position and "saying yes and no to the same question," as Michael Leahy writes in The Washington Post. The Daily Yonder had this to say about Deeds and Leahy's profile of him:

The thrust of the story is that Deeds is tentative about certain issues — the headline describes him as a fence straddler — and that this uncertainty is a product of his rural upbringing. Deeds describes himself as a "work in progress," according to writer Michael Leahy, "the product of growing up on a farm, on the hard side of a mountain where the unexpected was the norm and where anyone who couldn't compromise was inviting failure." Lehy describes a childhood of farm work and uncertainty and says this upbringing helped create a politician who is uneasy making final "yes" or "no" decisions about issues.
Declining to give specifics about a complicated tax plan, Deeds said, "I could be specifically wrong." It's interesting that uncertainty is considered political immaturity these days, and we think that being absolutely certain is a sign of being a good leader.
We like Leahy's closing lines:

Raised to believe in the power of compromise, he tends to see pledges and specifics as just so many holes in a frayed fence that will require patching anyway. Long ago, he learned the lessons of wily Bath County politicians, and it has shaped his style since, its strengths and vulnerabilities. He doesn't see the point in pontificating from the mountaintop. His career reflects the belief that it works best simply to drive around the mountain and hammer something out with somebody -- that results count more than white papers. But at some point, even people on the mountain want to know where you are taking them, want to see your map. For Deeds, the task is to convince voters during the campaign's final 30 days that he has one.

Deeds' latest TV ad for Southwest Virginia implies that his opponent, Republican Bob McDonnell, "has contempt for rural people, thinking of them in terms of hillbilly stereotypes," Eric Kleefeld of Talking Points Memo reports. The ad says, "McDonnell opposed eliminating the sales tax on groceries because he heard people around here shoot our food." (Read more)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Wall Street Journal goofs on requirements for reclaiming mountaintop-removal coal mines

The Wall Street Journal's news columns are usually authoritative, but reporter Kris Maher owes the paper's readers a correction for an off-base assertion in her Friday story about the Environmental Protection Agency's decision that all 79 permit applications for mountaintop-removal and similar coal mining in Central Appalachia should be rewritten to reduce environmental impact.

Maher did make a useful distinction, noting that "Each mining project requires a dozen or so permits," not just one per mine, as some national reporters have assumed. But then she wrote, "Mining companies, which are required to rebuild mountains when work is finished, say their projects follow the permit process."

Mining companies are not required to rebuild mountains. The term "mountaintop removal" was coined to describe mines operating under the "steep-slope exception" to the 1977 federal strip-mine law's requirement that mined land be restored to its "approximate original contour." Most of the mines that remove all of the soil and rock above coal seams being extracted are generally called "mountaintop removal" but are officially classified as "area mines" and thus don't operate under the exception.

Also, state regulators have used such a broad definition of "approximate original contour" that the reclaimed landscape can have a very different elevation and slope. Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council says that results in "much more material being off-loaded into valley fills than Congress intended. A study by the Office of Surface Mining of sites in Kentucky where the variance had been approved and those that claimed to have achieved a return to 'approximate original contour' could not distinguish between the two."

Finally, exceptions to the original-contour rule require a higher post-mining land use, or public use, and state regulators' definition of "higher use" has usually been generous.

Pop Stoneman's contributions to country music brought to light by record, Ala. writer's essay

The 1927 recording sessions of Ralph Peer in Bristol, Va., have been called "the big bang of country music," because they were the first sessions of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and other early country stars. But the big bang might not have happened without Peer's adviser at the sessions, a southwest Virginian who had set a big match to the fuse three years earlier: Ernest Stoneman, right, later known as "Pop," the patriarch of a family that, like the Carters, still has playing members. (Wikipedia photo)

Stoneman, who has been called "the unsung father of country music," is the main focus of an essay in today's Tuscaloosa News by Ben Windham, who also notes recent releases of collections by Stoneman, Rodgers and iconic folk singer Woody Guthrie. ("His music usually isn’t billed as country," Windham reports, "but the new collection shows Guthrie’s deep rural roots.")

Stoneman's "music was more purely Appalachian country than Rodgers," Windham writes, and he was "one of the first Appalachian musicians to record." In 1924, he recorded “The Titanic” about the passenger ship. The next year, "It sold thousands and thousands of copies, stunning record company executives," Windham reports, and it "sounds fabulous today." One reviewer compared "the chugging rhythm of his autoharp ... to the engines of the massive vessel."

Stoneman fell on hard times during the Depression, but mounted a comeback after World War II and laid the groundwork for other family members. Ronnie (or Roni) Stoneman, 71, left, still sings. (Roanoke Times photo by Kyle Green) Thanks to the late Elmer Goodman, my old colleague at WANY Radio in Albany, Ky., for educating me about Pop Stoneman 40 years ago.