Saturday, October 31, 2009

Anniston Star wins SNPA commentary prize again

Three staff members of The Anniston Star won the Carmage Walls Commentary Prize given by the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association: Bob Davis, editor; Phillip Tutor, commentary editor; and John Fleming, editor at large. They wrote about Alabama's lax regulations on predatory lending and the victims created by it: "An enterprising, well-researched and well-told investigation into a horrific legal shakedown." It was the second such award for Davis, right.

Judges cited "deep research and sharp writing," and praised "the writers' ability to frame an issue specifically for their readership. Predatory lending is a difficult issue in many communities across the nation, but these pieces show how they strike at home. More important, they describe how they can be solved at home. Second, these pieces shine by personalizing the issue. They put faces to what might be nameless statistics and explore individual stories. That makes them all the more readable and memorable."

To read the entry, go here. For information on predatory lending from the Center for Responsible Lending, go here.

Friday, October 30, 2009

New Park Service director: Global warming is the greatest challenge ever to face national parks

Jonathan Jarvis, right, took control of the National Park Service this month with an $8 million maintenance backlog among a long list of ongoing problems. But Jarvis considers one problem to be above all the others: global warming. He describes climate change to Todd Wilkinson of The Christian Science Monitor as "the greatest challenge ever to face national parks."

Jarvis hopes boosting the agency's $2.5 billion budget will help fund scientific research and education efforts about global warming, Wilkinson reports. Jarvis, the first park service director to be trained as a biologist, says the parks could sequester carbon, serve as sanctuaries for species facing extinction, and bring to public attention the ways global warming is transforming the environment. His first goal, Wilkinson writes, is "to ensure that peer-reviewed science plays a foundational role in management decisions, especially in confronting climate change."

Among resource professionals, "He has credibility not only because he spoke out, but because he came up inside, through the ranks. He's not an outsider," Denis Galvin, a retired Park Service policy veteran, tells Wilkinson. "He knows the agency culture, its traditions, and its mandate for the American people. He didn't buckle under." Praise hasn't been universal, though, for the director who has "worn greenness on his sleeve." Chuck Cushman, leader of the American Land Rights Association, recently wrote: "Now, with Jon Jarvis in charge of the Park Service, the National Parks Conservation Association and their green allies have their best chance yet for an enormous park expansion plan, huge buffer zones around every park, and a multibillion-dollar land acquisition trust fund." (Read more)

Wyoming coal-gas drillers win round in water war with downstream Montana ranchers

Montana farmers have been finding a lot of salt in their water for three years, and state regulators are pointing to neighboring Wyoming coalbed methane (CBM) operations as the culprit. "Water, pumped by the millions of gallons from coal seams to help coax gas to the surface, is then routinely pumped back into the Tongue River and other watersheds by CBM operators, where it indiscriminately mixes with downstream water supplies," Scott Streater of Greenwire reports for The New York Times.

To protect Montana farmers from upstream CBM discharges, the state, supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, adopted strict limits on salinity in the Tongue, Powder and Little Powder rivers, which drain from Wyoming. The regulations are in jeopardy after a Wyoming federal judge ruled that EPA failed to properly review studies and other arguments made by the natural-gas industry that the standards "were not based on sound science," Streater reports. Wyoming also argued that it was not required to comply with Montana's standards under the Clean Water Act. EPA has until Nov. 3 to inform the Justice Department if it plans to appeal the ruling. If it does not appeal, EPA can initiate a new review of the regulations, revise them or abandon them completely.

Mike Volesky, natural resources policy adviser for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, says the West's next water war may pit farming that provides long-term economic stability for Montana against CBM that is a one-time boost for Wyoming. "It's around for 10 or 15 years, and then it's gone," Volesky said. "But once they're gone, there are still ranchers and farmers out there that have to depend on the water for a living."(Read more)

Rural electrics fight cap-and-trade climate bill

Tens of thousands of oversized yellow postcards from rural utility customers, expressing concern regarding the effect of cap-and-trade legislation on electricity prices, arrived in the offices of senators just in time for the Senate introduction of the climate-change bill. The postcard campaign, organized by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, was designed to persuade senators of the importance of climate change legislation to rural electric cooperative customer-members, Bill Lambrecht of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Co-ops get 80 percent of their electricity by burning coal.

Barry Hart, right, CEO of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, delivered some of the postcards during his trip to Washington, during which he testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Hart said co-op customers in states like Missouri, whicht depend highly on coal, will be face greater rate increases than previous forecasts indicate. He said increases would average "between 12 percent and 26 percent starting in 2012 with the potential to reach as much as 50 percent should utilities be forced to switch from coal to natural gas for a significant portion of their fuel." (Read the entire testimony here)

Tougher emissions limits in the Senate bill will make things harder on co-op members, Hart told the Post-Dispatch, but he said he would be heartened if the bill didn't include specific amounts of emission credits that would be awarded. He tells Lambrect: "That would mean that consumers will be at the table and have a chance to make electricity affordable." (Read more)

Is W.Va. roadblock to global action on climate?

Rural America, and West Virginia specifically, are the principal culprits in slowing global action against climate change, writes Justin Rowlatt of BBC News. Rowlatt, whom the BBC bills as its "Ethical Man," is traveling across the United States trying to save the world, and in a recent post concluded that coal mining in West Virginia will keep the world from addressing global warming as it should. In one of the more provocative headlines you'll read, Rowlatt asks if "rural America can hold the world ransom."

"It may seem extraordinary that a sparsely populated, rural state like West Virginia could hold such sway in international politics, but the logic here on the ground is compelling," Rowlatt writes. He writes that coal mining is all West Virginians have, and their dependence on coal will likely prevent the state's two Democratic senators from supporting the climate-change bill. Without West Virginia's votes Senate Democrats will then water down aspects of the bill to prevent a Republican filibuster, undecutting global climate-change talks.

In an effort to explain the thinking of West Virginians, Rowlatt writes that miners and some local residents fear climate legislation will cause them to lose jobs, but his article slights the Mountain State by saying it has little to offer other than its "mountains of coal." (Read more)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nieman has Web site to aid coverage of influenza

The Nieman Foundation at Harvard University has a Web site to help journalists cover the influenza pandemic. It is billed as a one-stop resource for reporters, editors and newsroom managers trying to navigate the complex and at times confusing details of the flu story. Most of the information is relevant for any flu pandemic, not just the current H1N1 virus.

China agrees to reopen its market to U.S. pork

In a move that should provide some relief to the ailing American hog industry, or at least some encouragement, China agreed today to allow imports of U.S. pork and live swine. The ban was "imposed last spring on concerns over the H1N1 virus," Tom Johnston reports for Meatingplace. "Last year, China was the U.S. pork industry's fastest growing market," but still took only about 1 percent of American production, Johnston notes.

Meanwhile, Johnston reports, "The U.S. Agriculture Department will soon begin a review of China's food safety laws and poultry plants with an eye to allowing imports of Chinese poultry products, [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack told Reuters on Thursday. The poultry issue has been another trade conflict between the two countries." The deal was announced in China, at the annual meeting of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade. Here's the USDA release.

Report on record coal spill remains largely secret

Six months after Attorney General Eric Holder was applauded for loosening Bush-era government secrecy, the Labor Department is still resisting releasing an uncensored version of its Iinspector general's report on the record coal slurry spill in Martin County, Kentucky, in 2000. The spill resulted from a 60-foot wide hole in the bottom pf a Massey Energy impoundment built over an old mine and polluted 100 miles of waterways in more than 10 Kentucky counties.

The Lexington Herald-Leader's editorial board called Thursday for the government to release the report into allegations of a coverup of the spill. About half of the 25-page report was withheld, raising questions about what was being hidden and why. The newspaper writes: "The only imaginable risk is to the reputations of government officials, past and present, whose actions or inactions might have contributed to this environmental catastrophe." (Read more)

We join with the Herald-Leader and our friends at Mine Safety and Health News in calling for the government to avoid any more unneeded secrecy in releasing this long overdue report.

Cops seek more than 500 in Ky. drug roundup aimed mainly at 'pill pipeline' from Florida

Law-enforcement officers are serving more than 500 arrest warrants in Eastern Kentucky, aimed largely at the prescription pill pipeline from Florida, as part of what state police called Operation Flamingo Road, the largest drug roundup in state history. (State police map shows arrests by post and county)
Federal, state and local officers fanned out across the region Wednesday morning, Bill Estep, Dori Hjalmarson and Valarie Honeycutt Spears of the Lexington Herald-Leader report.
"Florida is a key source of what Rick Bartley, commonwealth's attorney in Pike County, called a 'tsunami' of pills into Eastern Kentucky," the reporters write. Florida has passed a law to monitor painkiller prescriptions but it won't take effect for more than a year. (Wall Street Journal map)

Stories on natural-gas 'fracking' shift from land use, technology to environmental impact

Most of the early coverage regarding drilling of the Marcellus Shale in Central and Northern Appalachia concerned landowner concerns about mineral rights, leasing agreements and other relations with the drilling companies, or the technology of the new practice. Now the focus is shifting to broader environmental impacts, Jeremy Moule of the Rochester City Newspaper in New York reports.

Diane Hope, a communications professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has been tracking drilling stories from the region and says she began to notice the shift after a few months. "The news stories began to reflect the public's growing environmental and public health concerns," Moule writes. "They also started to get into detail about the proposed drilling method [fracking], which uses a slurry forced at high pressure down a deep horizontal well to break open the rock and free up the gas." (Read more)

Broadband stimulus grants delayed by one month

Citing the complexity of the 2,200 applications received, federal officials have pushed back the awarding date for the first round of broadband stimulus grants from November to December. At a Senate oversight hearing Tuesday, "several lawmakers expressed frustration at how the program has been run and concerns that the money won't be spent in rural areas without decent high-speed Internet service," Amy Schatz of The Wall Street Journal reports.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D.-W.Va., raised concerns that small companies serving rural areas in his state and others found the application process too complicated to attempt. Some of the country's largest Internet providers chose not to participate in the program due to the number of qualifications required for applicants, including that they adhere to "net neutrality." (What's that? The National Press Foundation has a webinar about it on Nov. 17.)

The Government Accountability Office also listed a number of concerns about the program, including the ability of the agencies to process that many applications effectively by September 2010, when all of the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus funding must be awarded, Schatz reports. Lawmakers said they would make changes to the program for the second round of grants, and some are voicing support for pushing back the second round of application deadlines. (Read more)

S.D. paper provides forum for farm, environmental adversaries on 'cap and trade' climate legislation

Last week we reported on American Farm Bureau's ramped-up lobbying against "cap and trade" climate legislation and a report from the Environmental Working Group about the risks to farmers if they don't support the bill. The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D., took the point-counterpoint a step further by printing the complete text of a state Farm Bureau official's response to the EWG report, and EWG's rebuttal of his claims.

Among the highlights: FB Administrative Director Mike Held says there isn't sufficient research to fully support EWG's claim that severe weather patterns resulting from global warming will affect farmers. EWG replies, "The preponderance of scientific evidence and scientific opinion is unequivocal. Climate change will pose serious challenges to agricultural production and our soil and water resources." You can read the full text of both sides' comments here.

Obama team: Health reform would help rural folks

A new report released Wednesday by the Obama administration said two-thirds of Americans living without health care are in rural areas, and would be among those who benefit most from health-care reform legislation. In a conference call with rural reporters, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, right, said individuals, farmers and small businesses would have more choices and better coverage after health insurance reform, including the provision of a public option or other alternative to private insurance, Chuck Haga reports for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. (Associated Press photo)

"The system we have really isn’t working for the 50 million Americans who live in rural areas," Sebelius told reporters. She added that rural Americans are more likely than urban residents to face transportation issues and miss critical preventive care. Sebelius said she "favored a backstop for people who don't have employer-sponsored insurance," Haga reports, and she would be looking closely at the public option part of the reform bill.

One in five farmers is in medical debt, and rural Americans pay for nearly half of their health care costs out of pocket, the report says. Rural populations have only 55 primary-care physicians per 100,000 residents, compared to 72 per 100,000 residents in urban areas. In isolated small rural areas, the rate decreases to 36 physicians per 100,000 residents. (Read more)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bible verses move from Ga. football field to stands, where they enjoy clear constitutional protection

Cheerleaders at Fort Oglethorpe High School in Georgia carried banners displaying Christian messages and Bible verses for eight years before concerns about the legality of the practice led the county school board to order the cheerleaders to stop. But those banners and signs are still present at the football games: in the stands, not on the field, Mark Andrews of the Catoosa County News reports. (Times photo by David Walter Banks)

"Calling themselves Warriors for Christ, a twist on the teams' name, fans have held rallies at churches and a local polo field and sold more than 1,600 T-shirts bearing passages from Deuteronomy and Timothy," Robbie Brown of The New York Times writes. Federal courts have ruled students can promote their faith, but not in school-sponsored clubs, and constitutional experts told Brown that the cheerleaders' signs would have been a violation of those rulings. "The backlash demonstrates the difficulty of separating church and state in communities, especially in the South, where many prefer the two merged," Brown writes, in a vague overstatement that should have been edited out (or not edited in).

The parent who raised concerns says she wasn't complaining about the signs, just telling the school they could be sued for supporting the practice. One of the cheerleaders told Brown that the ban had put a damper on her senior year, but some Christians said the controversy and the outpouring of personal messages and signs from fans have brought the Christian message to many who wouldn't have hear it before, one parent says. Charles C. Haynes of The First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., says the signs prove “that Jefferson and Madison got it right. It’s a reminder of the difference between religion that’s state-sponsored and religion that is vital, voluntary and robust.” (Read more)

EPA releases study of coal ash and its risks

A new Environmental Protection Agency report says potentially toxic pollutants found in coal ash are worrisome because they can concentrate in large amounts that are discharged into waterways or seep into groundwater. The 233-page report brought accolades from the environmental community and a renewed call for regulatory action, Anne Paine of The Tennessean reports.

"We applaud the EPA for addressing coal's toxic legacy head on, for delving deeper and completing this long overdue investigation," Mary Anne Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a statement. Hitt says that she hopes now the EPA will place strong federal regulations on coal ash, Paine reports, and the EPA has said before it will make that decision by the end of the year. Industry officials say that labeling coal ash as hazardous would undermine its recycling into concrete and other products.

"Many of the common pollutants found in coal combustion wastewater (e.g., selenium, mercury, and arsenic) are known to cause environmental harm and can potentially represent a human health risk," the report says. Arsenic causes liver poisoning and developmental abnormalities in fish and is associated with an increased risk of liver and bladder cancer in humans, Paine reports. Mercury can cause kidney and other damage to humans and wildlife, and short-term exposure to a level higher than the legal limit of selenium can damage a person's nervous system. Selenium can also result in fish kills and reproductive failure. (Read more)

Cleanups after meth labs may leave hazards; researcher to study possible hidden contamination

Earlier this month we reported on the Environmental Protection Agency's voluntary guidelines for cleaning up former methamphetamine labs and the push for states to inform prospective home owners and tenants if a meth lab had been present. Now a researcher at the Missouri University of Science and Technology has been awarded a grant to study how long contaminants are left at a meth lab site. Dr. Glenn Morrison, an associate professor of environmental engineering, says decontamination methods may not be enough to protect future occupants.

"Most people who live in a former meth house don’t even know it," Morrison says in a Newswise news release. "And some hotel rooms have also been contaminated." The $116,000 grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology will fund Morrison's research, in conjunction with researchers at the University of Texas-Austin, into the interactions between building materials and the chemicals used in methamphetamine labs. He says chemicals like ammonia and methanol commonly used in meth labs can penetrate into paint, wood and vinyl flooring only to surface again over time.

Morrison says children who frequently contact these surfaces are at particular risk, and lingering meth particles could bond with chemicals in the air allowing them to be inhaled months to years after a thorough cleaning. "We want to be comfortable with the cleaning methods," Morrison says. "Are these methods sufficiently protective? How much should people be concerned about living in a former meth house?" (Read more)

Health providers boost rural economies, tax bases

We've often noted the shortage of doctors in rural areas and its impact on access to health care; that shortage may also affect rural economies. When health care providers leave an area, the community loses a significant portion of its tax base, Lynda Waddington of The Iowa Independent reports. She writes, "Doctors are an important component of the rural economy, improving conditions far beyond the walls of an examination room."

A 2007 study from the National Center for Rural Health Works at Oklahoma State University shows a full-time primary care physician generates, on average, approximately $1.5 million in revenue, $900,000 in payroll and creates 23 jobs. Clinic employment, inpatient services, outpatient activities and the multiplier effect of these factors all contribute to this large effect, Waddington reports. The study also documents that when rural residents travel to urban centers for health care they shop, eat and spend money in other areas of the urban economy instead of their hometown. The study estimates a rural community with a shortage as low as one-half of one full-time physician can lose $236,565 from clinic visits and $451,169 net revenue at a local hospital.

Despite this evidence, few rural communities include attracting health care providers in their plans for economic development, , Waddington reports. To increase health care access, rural communities have begun recruiting doctors through "stay at home" programs designed to encourage local students to return home after college and rural residency programs at several medical schools. (Read more)

EPA says Senate bill on climate change would help farmers more than initial studies showed

New Environmental Protection Agency analysis shows higher and more widespread income potential for agriculture from climate-change legislation. Farmers could receive $1.2 billion of initial income benefits from the Senate bill and potentially $18 billion over time, Ken Anderson of Brownfield reports. The analysis, conducted by researchers from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University and AgriLife Research and Extension at Texas A&M University, contradicts earlier analysis done by the Agriculture and Food Policy Center, also at Texas A&M.

EPA's new analysis says the vast majority of producers across the country, including crop and livestock, should benefit from the Senate bill. The earlier analysis said two-thirds of farms would decreasing cash reserves under the House climate bill, Anderson reports, but "EPA says the new analysis used a model that considered potential revenue from the sale of offsets and producer response to changing input costs." (Read more)

Despite growing belief that the bill won't pass this year, President Obama and Senate Democrats expressed the need for new urgency in addressing climate change Tuesday. The president and Vice President Biden, appearing at "green" events in Florida and Michigan yesterday, both spoke of the potential for alternative energy to create jobs, John M. Broder of The New York Times reports. Five senior administration officials also spoke yesterday to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in support of a climate-change bill. Obama told the crowd in Florida: "At this moment, there’s something big happening in America, when it comes to creating a clean-energy economy. But getting there will take a few more days like this one, and more projects like this one." (Read more)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

USA Today calls for tighter regulation of mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal

The issue of mountaintop-removal coal mining kept gaining a higher national profile today, as USA Today, until recently the nation's largest-circulation newspaper, said in an editorial that "It's time to tip the scales the other way" in granting permits for mountaintop mines. "The administration would do well to block the worst of them and change regulations to make the permitting process much stricter," the editorial said. Hal Quinn of the National Mining Association disagrees.

University of Ky. approves Wildcat Coal Lodge

To loud protests from a group of about 30 people, mostly students, the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees voted 16-3 this afternoon to accept $7 million for a men's basketball dormitory on the condition that it be called Wildcat Coal Lodge. The dissenting votes were cast by student, faculty and staff trustees, who cited disapproval by their constituents. (Kentucky Kernel photo by Zach Brake)

After the vote the protesters crowded the barrier between the audience area and board table shouting their displeasure for the naming. The students provided a printed statement, which equated naming the building after coal with naming a building after liquor or cigarettes, to the student trustee to read, but he merely circulated it among board members. The board recessed until the crowd was escorted out, but a few board members stayed to hear the students.

"Big Coal is about to go down, and the university's going down with them," Cor de Jong, one of the protesters, shouted after the vote. Faculty Trustee Ernest Yanarella added during discussion: “This sets a precedent of identifying industry with university property. Had Phillip Morris given $7 million, there would be similar objections.” Board member Jo Curris disagreed: “I consider coal to be a source of great pride. Coal can very well be that mechanism that is going to retrigger the economy for the Commonwealth.”

Read our previous report about the donation here.

Environmentalists differ on carbon-capture efforts

This is a story about a town within shouting distance of New York City, but it has a rural angle. I writing about the battle over the proposed PurGen carbon capture and storage power plant in Linden, N. J., Peter Applebome, columnist for The New York Times, has touched on an important dilemma facing environmentalists. "Some of the biggest hurdles to dealing with global warming could be the tactics environmentalists have perfected over the years to stop projects — toxic and sometimes not so toxic — they didn’t like," Applebome writes.

Bradley Campbell, a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, explains: "One of the difficult challenges that climate change presents is that environmental groups are very good at opposing projects, and not very good at making compromises in supporting projects. We need to get beyond the mind-set that there’s a perfect alternative if we ever hope to avoid the worst impacts of climate change."

The environmentalist blitz against the New Jersey CCS plant is in full stride, citing the possible dangers of the still mostly unknown process, uncertain technology and reinforcement of the U.S. dependence on coal. Applebome points out a growing schism between environmentalists' distaste for coal and acknowledgement that climate-change solutions will need more than wind, solar and energy savings.

He cites environmental concerns raised recently about wind and solar projects that are seen as alternatives to coal and concludes, "Maybe on closer review, PurGen will look like a dangerous dead end or a promising way out," he writes. "Maybe T. Boone Pickens will find a way to put a million wind turbines all over the Texas Panhandle and provide all the energy we want. Maybe combating climate change feels like being on a 40-ton truck barreling downhill with no brakes." (Read more)

Senate panel OKs bill recognizing 7 Indian tribes

We reported in June that the U.S. House passed a bill to officially recognize seven Indian tribes in Virginia and North Carolina. Now a Senate committee has approved the legislation. "The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and six Virginia tribes would be eligible for up to $800 million in federal funds under two bills passed by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee," Ken Thomas of The Associated Press reports. The bills ban the tribes from purchasing casinos.

Normally, lawmakers say Congress lacks the expertise to recognize tribes, but Thomas reports these groups have faced "lengthy delays in accessing federal funding for housing, education and health benefits." President Obama has said he supports the Lubmees' recognition but has not commented on the Eastern Chickahominy, Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond.

The Lumbees have sought federal support for more than a century, while the six Virginia tribes have been petitioning the government since the 1990s. Some have waited 20 or 30 years for their federal recognition to be processed through the Interior Department, a system that Sen. Byron Dorgan, D.-N.D., characterized as "broken." (Read more)

Carbon-capture-and-storage technology may be developing too slowly to be a savior for coal

American Electric Power will begin carbon capture and storage operations at its Mountaineer Power Plant in Mason County, W.Va., later this week, but the coal industry's effort to reduce carbon emissions may be coming too late in the race against climate change. If AEP's project works it could save the coal industry, Ken Ward Jr. reported for the Sunday Gazette-Mail in Charleston, but the technology may not develop quickly enough to do that.

Scottish carbon-capture-and-storage expert R. Stuart Haszeldine recently warned in an edition of the journal Science that CCS technology may drift beyond 2020 as a commercially viable option if more financial commitment to real construction for pilot projects isn't found soon, Ward noted. Meanwhile, scientists aren't even sure injecting large amounts of compressed CO2 underground is really safe.

While West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin proclaimed CCS technology as "here today" when state permits were issued for the Mountaineer project, it is only a small test, Ward reports. The CCS plant makes up only 20 of the 1,300 megawatts the plant produces and will capture only 1.5 percent of its emissions.

CCS facilities also face a lack of physical space, Ward reports. A general rule says a CCS facility requires at least the same footprint as the plant it serves, and some plant sites don't have room to accommodate a CCS facility. While some environmental groups like Greenpeace label CCS as a "false hope," some analysts say additional funding for the technology may be called for in climate-change legislation to get Democratic West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd's vote, which may be needed to pass the bill. (Read more)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Maize mazes become fall tradition, boost incomes

When the Jester family of Farmland, Ind., decided eight years ago they needed to supplement their income they and hundreds of other U.S. farmers looked overseas for inspiration. Maureen "Mo" Jester and her family sat down at the kitchen table and began sketching blueprints for an agrarian twist on popular British hedge mazes, P. J. Huffstutter of The Los Angeles Times reports. The maze now attracts urban visitors looking for some autumn joys.

"It was getting harder to make a living each year," Jester told Huffstutter. "If you have a small amount of ground, you either have to grow and get big or keep your small farm and have an off-farm source of income." Now each fall, tens of thousands of visitors come to Jester's 1 Fun Farm, right. Patty Randall, a Sunday school teacher from First Presbyterian Church in Bluffton, Ind., tells Huffstutter: "I don't know if it's the cold or the leaves turning or how the air smells of corn cobs burning on the bonfire, but October's not October without a trip to the farm."

The modern farm maze appeared in the early 1990s thanks to Adrian Fisher, a British developer. (Did he call it a maize maze?) Ever since, farmers have been competing to create the largest, scariest and most unique mazes. Kamille Combs, spokeswoman for The MAiZE, a leading corn-maze design firm based in Utah, told Huffsutter there are an estimated 500 mazes across the country. She says: "Families like to do things that create traditions around holidays, and it's tough to take little kids and the grandparents to a haunted house every October. But visiting a farm is something that feeds people's sense of nostalgia and appeals to all ages." (Read more)

New owner revives closed New Hampshire paper

In July we reported on the sudden demise of The Eagle Times in Claremont, N.H., after its owner filed for bankruptcy, citing the economy and changes in the newspaper industry. Now the paper is publishing again under new owners, Pennsylvania-based Sample News Group. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge J. Michael Deasy tentatively approved the sale during a hearing in Manchester in September, The Associated Press reports. (Encarta map)

The newspaper returned to newsstands Oct. 12 after a three-month hiatus, but its Web site is still not operational. When former publisher Harvey Hill filed for bankruptcy he laid off 62 full-time employees; Sample has rehired around 20. Sample adds the 7,800-circulation newspaper to its current newspapers in Maine, Pennsylvania and New York. (Read more)

Freed-up TV channels bring new, promising broadband service to a rural community

Television "white spaces," unused broadcast frequencies made available by the switch to digital TV, are being used for the first time to deliver high-speed Internet access wirelessly. Using an experimental license granted by the Federal Communications Commission, Spectrum Bridge, a Florida-based firm, has designed and deployed a wireless white-spaces network to provide broadband connectivity in Claudville, Va., in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, near the North carolina line.

Some researchers say white spaces hold the key to providing broadband signals to rural America, because they can carry signals across long distances and penetrate walls, trees
and other objects. The network is providing the link between the wired broadband provider and wireless hotspots in Claudville's business and school areas and will also provide broadband access directly to end users, Reuters reports.

"Due to its availability and range, TV white spaces have proved to be a very cost-effective way to distribute high-speed Internet in this heavily forested and hilly rural community," Peter Stanforth, CTO of Spectrum Bridge, told Reuters. "The non-line of sight conditions, coupled with long distances between radios, would have posed significant challenges to existing unlicensed alternatives. TV white spaces could prove to be invaluable to those striving to bring broadband access to underserved and unserved rural communities." (Read more)

States ponder worst-case scenario H1N1 decisions

Federal officials maintain that the chances of U.S. intensive-care units being overwhelmed by flu patients in the coming weeks are remote, but what if they are wrong? States are beginning to struggle over triage guidelines in the event of a worst-case flu pandemic. "In recent years, officials in a host of states and localities, as well as the federal Veterans Health Administration, have been quietly addressing one of medicine’s most troubling questions: Who should get a chance to survive when the number of severely ill people far exceeds the resources needed to treat them all?," Sheri Fink of ProPublica reports.

Triage guidelines in some states instruct doctors to refuse ventilators or admission to hospitals to patients with "Do Not Resuscitate" orders, the elderly, those requiring dialysis, or those with severe neurological impairment, while others apply triage guidelines to mental institutions, nursing homes, prisons and facilities for the "handicapped" before the general public. Most triage plans were created for mass casualty events, not disease outbreaks, Fink reports. "Exclusion criteria," which bar certain categories of patients from standard hospital treatments in a severe health disaster, and "minimum qualifications for survival," which instruct doctors to remove essential treatments from patients who are not improving within a certain time frame, in state plans have sparked controversy.

Dr. Frederick Burkle Jr. outlined these features in a post-9/11 journal article suggesting triage plans in a large-scale bioterrorist event. Now some are arguing against one-size-fits-all approaches to triage. Some state pandemic plans call for hospitals to remove patients from ventilators if they are not improving after two to five days, Fink reports, but studies show that people severely ill with H1N1 flu generally need a week to two weeks on ventilators to recover. State and federal officials say formal rationing is the last in a series of steps designed to stretch scarce resources and protect the public, but even Burke doesn't think current plans fit the possibility of a flu pandemic. He tells Fink: "I have said to my wife, 'I think I developed a monster here.'" (Read more)

Nation's iconic college basketball program may become latest instrument of coal-industry PR

We've reported several times in recent months about the increase in coal-industry public relations and lobbying efforts; now coal interests may have gained their most important foothold in the nation's No. 3 coal-producing state: University of Kentucky basketball. The UK Board of Trustees will consider a request Tuesday to accept a $7 million donation for a new men's basketball team dormitory from a group of UK boosters referring to themselves as the Difference Makers. The donation comes with one caveat: The name of the dorm should include the word "coal," Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

The Difference Makers, led by Alliance Coal president and UK basketball practice facility namesake Joe Craft, say their donation will not be fulfilled unless it's used to replace the team's current home, Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge. A UK spokesman says that as with all large donations, an agreement would allow the donor to stipulate the new building's name. The current lodge, named for UK's head coach from 1972 to 1985, opened in 1978. (Read more)

UK students were invited to participate in a student-only basketball practice, sponsored by Craft and Friends of Coal, Friday. As they entered, students were provided a free T-shirt displaying the Wildcat mascot, above, wearing mining gear on the front and a message on the back reading: "Coal, Cats, Calipari Power Kentucky." UK head coach John Calipari, left, began the event with a speech explaining the importance of coal in Kentucky, adding he was trying to teach his team the spirit he witnessed among underground miners during a recent visit to a mine. "They are a brotherhood," Calipari wrote on his Web site. "And that's what I want our team to become." (Photo of Calipari by Shannon Lewis)

The lodge naming rights and coal-sponsored practice have stirred up the coal debate on campus, Katie Perkowski reports for the Kentucky Kernel, UK's independent student newspaper. “My opinion is pretty much that coal has been a foundation of Kentucky’s economy for many decades, and it’s going to be the foundation for many decades to come,” Stephen Gardner, chairman of the UK Mining and Energy Foundation, told Perkowski. Martin Mudd, a graduate student and member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, disagreed: "My personal opinion is that the University of Kentucky has to choose whether it’s going to be a friend of big coal or a friend of Kentucky and Kentuckians. With this announcement, it’s clear what the administration feels about that, but I don’t think that that view represents everybody on this campus." (Read more)

The Kernel also devoted its Monday opinions section to the topic with an editorial cartoon, right, by William Kiluba showing the lodge atop a strip mine, and editorial saying "Wildcat Lodge represents students, not special interests," a Gardner piece headlined "Coal remains important to Kentucky, nation" and a guest columnist saying "UK fails campus with allegiance to big business."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

You can't get 'swine flu' from pork, but large pig farms can be sites for development of new viruses

The pandemic H1N1 flu is now a national emergency, focusing more attention on the "small but steady traffic of virus between America's 110 million pigs and the 120,000 people who care for them," David Brown reports for The Washington Post. This story buries the fact that you can't get flu from eating pork, but explores an issue that should be of concern wherever swine are raised and processed, especially in confined animal freeding operations.

CAFOs "are inherently safer than backyard pig farms, where the animals mingle with people and birds fly overhead," Brown notes. "But if multiple flu viruses were to get into a CAFO, the crowding of the animals would make widespread transmission, and the chance of reassortment, likely." Reassortment is the exchange of genetic material that can make new, stronger strains that pigs then pass on to humans who work with them. (Post photo by Jim Bounds)

"Gregory Gray of the University of Iowa campaigned via editorials in three medical journals to have swine workers be made a 'priority group' in any pandemic vaccine program. He was not successful," Brown writes. "Gray has led the effort to document the flow of flu virus between pigs and their keepers. It has been difficult. Swine farmers have a long-standing suspicion of strangers on their farms. They fear attacks by animal rights and environmental activists; they don't want outsiders bringing bugs to their biosecure herds; and they are wary of scientific projects that may link, even indirectly, human illness and the animal that provides 'the other white meat'."

Now, with high feed costs and the "swine flu" scare, hog farmers and their veterinarians arte submitting fewer samples to research labs, Brown reports. Researchers "are putting their hope on a program launched last spring in which the Agriculture Department, not farmers, pays for testing sick pigs and sampling herds where flu is suspected. In many experts' minds, the program is long overdue." A cutline in a photo gallery acocmpanying the story says, "Surveillance for influenza in the swine industry is inadequate, in part because of subtle obstructionism by pig farmers and the Pork Board, which represents their interests." (Read more)