A digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. Links may expire, require subscription or go behind pay walls. Please send news and knowledge you think would be useful to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @RuralJournalism
Friday, November 06, 2009
Operators of free conference-call lines join opposition to Google Voice
"Google shouldn’t be able to tell consumers where they can call and where they can’t," David Erickson, president of the California-based Free Conferencing Corp., told Hart. Free conference call lines make up a sizable portion of those numbers that are still blocked, Hart reports. Erickson says his company, FreeConferenceCall.com, uses rural numbers to direct traffic to "underused parts of the telephone network." President Obama used FreeConferenceCall.com to place "millions of minutes" worth of calls leading up to the 2009 election.
Erickson says controversial "traffic pumping" to rural exchanges isn't nefarious, just good business practice. "The idea that Google’s pricing problems should fall upon the FCC to fix is a bit too much to ask," he said in a letter to the FCC this week. "We need to enforce the rules and laws that are in place, and Google needs to stop acting like silence from the FCC means Google can do whatever it likes." (Read more)
Two-thirds of W.Va. coal-ash dams need repairs
"DEP inspectors found stability problems, seepage and erosion at some of the dams as part of a roughly 10-month 'comprehensive review' launched after the failure of a coal-ash impoundment in East Tennessee brought new attention to such facilities," Ward writes. Brian Long, coordinator of DEP's dam safety program, told Ward, "We were able to identify stability issues along some embankment slopes, but largely the problems we noted involved control of animals and vegetation."
During the review, DEP also found that American Electric Power had built two ash dams at one site without notifying the agency. Neither dam at the Little Broad Run Landfill was designed to comply with safety standards of West Virginia's Dam Safety Act. DEP told Ward that it's considering adding additional inspections in the future. "We found enough through this exercise to be concerned, and to revisit our policy," DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said. "We probably need to look at these things ourselves a little more frequently." (Read more)
More farmers ignoring EPA's engineered-corn rules
Jaffe termed the data as "a wake-up call to EPA that the regulatory system is not working" in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson. The reports says ignoring these rules raises the risk that insects will develop resistance to the toxins in the corn that are meant to kill them, Pollack reports. In 2008 about 49 million acres of the altered corn, called BT corn, accounts for 57 percent of the domestic corn acreage.
So far there appears to be little evidence of growing resistance among insects to the toxins in the corn, Pollack reports. EPA requires farmers to plant at least 20 percent of their fields with non-BT corn to serve as a refuge for insects. Jaffe compiled his data from EPA reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Only 74 percent of farmers were still meeting the refuge requirement i 2008. EPA says it will review the report and take action if necessary. (Read more)
Kansas Supreme Court upholds county ordinance that effectively blocks wind farms
The ordinance in Wabaunsee County (Wikipedia map) says wind farms with towers more than 120 feet tall, short by modern wind-power standards, "would be incompatible with the rural, agricultural, and scenic character of the county." The Supreme Court agreed with a lower court that the commissioners had considered aesthetics and residents' desires in passing the law, but the court left open some issues for further discussion. On Jan. 27, the court is to consider whether the law constitutes taking property rights without proper compensation or violates the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. (Read more)
Coal forum panelists, fresh from negotiations, say mountaintop-mine policing will get tougher
“The way coal has been mined over the last 30 years is not going to happen anymore,” Joe Blackburn, director of the Lexington field office of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, told the crowd during the afternoon session at the University of Kentucky.
Blackburn’s prediction was echoed, and elaborated upon, at the evening keynote session by Tom FitzGerald, right, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, who had just finished talks with Blackburn, state regulators, industry representatives, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers, which issues Clean Water Act permits with EPA oversight -- which has recently become much tougher.
“The good news is we just finished a protocol that requires area mines to be returned to approximate original contour unless they get a variance,” FitzGerald said. The public often refers to area mines as mountaintop-removal mines, but the latter category requires a variance from the 1977 strip-mine law's mandate to return mined land to its approximate original contours. FitzGerald said that companies avoid that obstacle by calling their operations area mines, and regulators have often failed to enforce the original-contour rule. "It is a mockery of what Congress intended in 1977," when the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed, he said. “Some coal industry people are sick and tired of having to defend some of the practices that are going on."
He said the new procedures will reduce the dumping of blasted and excavated material into heads of hollows, or narrow valleys, and require coal operators to use the material to restore the contour of nearby pre-1977 mine sites benches before placing the waste in a valley fill. He said the new plan is now in use by the Corps' Louisville District, which encompasses most of Kentucky's part of the Appalachian coalfield.
FitzGerald and Blackburn were among more than a dozen speakers at the Thursday forum, sponsored by the university's Department of Mining Engineering and the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments in the College of Engineering. The event, billed by its organizers as “a balanced discussion regarding the past, present and future impacts of coal on our state’s economy and environment,” lived up to its mantra for the most part.
In the morning session, Pikeville College President Paul Patton, a two-term governor and also a former coal operator, asserted that cap-and-trade legislation to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change is an attempt by Northeastern politicians to raise Midwestern energy prices to meet those in New England and maintain their region's economic competitiveness. “A lot of the debate against coal is purely regional economic selfishness,” Patton said.
FitzGerald had a rejoinder for that in the evening: “Now is not the time to claim a conspiracy to shift wealth to the coasts … Now is the time for engagement, for creativity," which he said would flower "Once you give the right price signal by truly valuing the cost of coal and the cost of other fuels,” including their environmental impacts.
Fred Palmer, senior vice president for government relations of Peabody Energy, the nation's largest coal producer, called that an abstract concept that has not worked in the past. He was echoed by Joseph W. Craft, president and chief executive officer of Alliance Resource Partners, Kentucky's largest producer, and they were challenged by Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future.
Craft, right, who made headlines by rounding up $7 million for a new men’s basketball team dormitory to be called Wildcat Coal Lodge, began his remarks with an allusion to the controversy and a reference to his attire, the team's colors of blue and white. “I love the University of Kentucky, I love the Cats,” Craft said. “I also love coal.” (Photo by Pablo Alcala, Lexington Herald-Leader)
The evening session developed into a debate about the merits and future of technology. All four panelists voiced optimism that carbon capture and storage technology would one day become viable, but Goodell was the most skeptical. "It's not clear human civilization is able to grapple with this kind of a problem at this scale with urgency," he said, adding that carbon-capture technology's complexity and high cost make it the antithesis of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are looking to invest in "the Google of energy."
Palmer spoke often in terms that the technology was in the works and full-scale production was just around the corner. When Goodell challenged Palmer’s generalized faith in technology, Palmer retorted with a quote from President Obama, whom he called "green coal's advocate in chief:" “Yes we can.”
On a day that was often a competition of dueling PowerPoint presentations, Goodell’s emphasis on technology and innovation may have been the most intriguing. He argued that the rules governing coal are changing, whether industry officials admit it or not, and warned that if global warming causes a climate crisis, the industry will be public enemy No. 1 regardless of its real responsibility. Echoing the sentiment of new regulations mentioned by FitzGerald and Blackburn, Goodell concluded, “The new game starts today.”
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Ohio and New Jersey voters approve ballot questions favored by agricultural interests
The Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board was proposed to head off a possible animal-rights proposal, but the debate may not be over. "We just needed to see this issue resolved before we launch reform efforts in Ohio to phase out the confinement of animals on factory farms," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, told Johnson. "We haven't made the final decision to do that, but it's very likely." Gov. Ted Strickland said he would oppose such a move: "I think the people have spoken, and we could make the argument that the issue had been taken to the people in the form of a ballot initiative and they had expressed their desires." (Read more)
Dueling economists at same school offer differing views of climate legislation's effect on farmers
McCarl says farmers will likely get paid to conserve fertilizer, reduce emissions from manure and practice no-till farming, Marcia Zarley Taylor of DTN reports. He adds power companies will have a huge incentive to switch to biomass feedstock, and cellulosic ethanol will boost demand for crops over the next decade. However, Outlaw's study says only Midwest corn and soybean farmers and Great Plains wheat farmers would clearly benefit from the climate bill.
Outlaw admits forecasting economic impacts of climate change is one of the most complex tasks economists can tackle and cautions that there's much uncertainty in both forecasts. But he doesn't see an important distinction between the two studies. He says while McCarl may be correct about farm incomes being better off with climate legislation, but most of the benefits don't accrue to growers until carbon prices jump 20 or 30 years from now. He says farmers have to survive higher costs in the interim. (Read more, subscription required)
Rural America is common playing field for disputes about 'green energy' electric transmission lines
The Yonder explains: "The conflict isn't just between landowners and the companies stringing the line and building the towers. It's a contest between East and West, between wind farmers and ranchers, between coal and renewable power and between environmentalists who advocate renewable power and environmentalists who want to protect the land. The common playing field for all is rural America."
Wind farms tend to have local support due to the jobs they bring, the Yonder reports. However, many ranchers oppose them because they don't want large turbines overshadowing their pastures. Eastern utilities prefer to charge their customers for local renewable power than pay taxes for transmission lines that would provide jobs in the Great Plains. The Yonder writes: "For the people who live between the wind farms and urban America, these aren’t normal times." (Read more)
Ky. coal forum will include industry, enviros, young journalist who won award for work on topic
Luttrell, right, was editor of The Kentucky Kernel in the 2008-09 school year. He works as a commercial photographer and contracted freelancer with The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. He will present his coal project at the forum's evening session, preceding a panel featuring Fred Palmer, senior vice president of government relations for Peabody Energy; Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council; Joseph Craft, president and CEO of Alliance Coal; and Jeff Goodell, the author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future. The daytime part of the event, billed on its Web site as "a balanced discussion regarding the past, present and future impacts of coal on our state’s economy and environment," will be moderated by Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.
GOP divisions, newspapers in rural N.Y. district hand a congressional seat to the Democrats
Conservative Doug Hoffman lost to Democrat Bill Owens, who was endorsed by Republican nominee Deirdre Scozzafava and newspapers in the 23rd District. Sunday's endorsement by the district's largest paper, the Watertown Daily Times, may have been pivotal, Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham, a Hoffman supporter, told David Weigel of The Washington Independent, an online news outlet. "They roughed Hoffman up," Graham told Weigel.
For the Times story on the race, click here.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Warren Buffett buys Burlington Northern Santa Fe; analyst says it's a big bet on the future of coal
Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago, told Reuters that the deal is a bet on the future of coal. "Buffett is trying to get into coal, but doing it in a cheaper way," Ablin said. Nick Zieminski of Reuters writes, "With Berkshire's support, BNSF would be able to invest in its infrastructure and not have to worry about meeting quarterly expectations, said Thomas Russo, a partner with Gardner Russo & Gardner in Lancaster, Pa., which counts Berkshire as its second-largest holding." (Read more)
Study shows role of land use in global warming; turning U.S. forests into farms has cooling effect
The study, which will appear in the Royal Meteorological Society’s International Journal of Climatology, is based on "observation minus re-analysis," an approach co-developed by Maryland Professor Eugenia Kalnay. It adds "significant weight to a growing recognition among climate scientists for the need to more fully incorporate land-use change into computer models that are designed to forecast future changes in climate conditions," says Newswise, a research-reporting service. (Map shows variances in degrees Celsius from 1979 to 2003)
"Until recently, human-induced changes (warming) in climate have been viewed by most scientists as primarily the result of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases," Newswise notes. Now, says Dev Niyogi, a Purdue earth and atmospheric sciences professor and the Indiana state climatologist, "a significant trend, particularly the warming trend in terms of temperatures, can also be partially explained by land-use change." For the Newswise report, go here. For the study, here.
Mass. bill would streamline wind-energy permits
“For us to see progress, there needs to be a lot more certainty in the permitting process,’’ Ian Bowles, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, tells Abel. “That’s what we’ve heard clearly from the wind industry in order for them to do other significant wind projects in the state.’’
Opponents of the legislation say it give the state too much power and allows developers to steamroll legitimate opposition, based on noise pollution, loss of pristine views, and risks to birds and bats. The director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club says he hopes the bill is amended to allow more local input, while some groups that initially opposed it have removed their objection due to more protections for local control in the latest version. (Read more)
Interior says stream buffer-zone rule enacted in last days of Bush term will remain until early 2011
Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said Friday that it would open a 30-day period for public comment on a new rule this month and "expects to proceed to a final rule as expeditiously as possible." But Reis notes, "No formal timeline can be set without knowing the volume of public input." Mary Anne Hitt, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, told Reis: "Interior is spinning its wheels, leaving this Bush-era rule in place while Appalachia's mountains, streams and communities continue to be destroyed." (Read more)
Columnist ponders effect of a farming game and a farmers' photo gallery on popularity of agriculture
The Huffington Post recently featured an online photo gallery of what it determined were "hot organic farmers." Response was so great that the Post decided to do another spread. "We think organic farmers are rock stars and heroes," the site says. "And nothing is sexier than someone who likes to get dirty and supports the great food revolution." Exceeding the gallery's popularity is a new online social network game called FarmVille launched on Facebook last June. Zynga, the game's creator, says FarmVille, where users are given a virtual farm to manage, is the most popular game on Facebook and the fastest-growing social game of all time.
"Users report missing work, abandoning friends and setting their alarms to wake up several times during the night so they can make the moves necessary to advance in the game," Daum writes. But what does the dichotomy between gamers losing sleep over virtual crop rotation while their waistlines expand from an ever-growing diet of junk food say about the future of farming? "Nothing goes better with Internet games than prepackaged food that doesn't require stepping away from the computer," Daum writes. "Meanwhile, a whole generation just might grow up believing that strawberry milk comes from pink cows. Hey, maybe agribusiness should start working on that." (Read more)
Coal-state senators may be keys to climate bill; Harkin seeks votes to cushion rural electric impact
Swaying coal-state senators may be further complicated by a divide between Western and Eastern coal, Marshall reports. Some experts say Western coal is better suited for carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology supported by the bill, and interests of the two regions could conflict. States like Missouri, which gets more than 85 percent of its electricity from coal but produces little, have also reaped the benefits of cheap power. Rural electric cooperatives, which get 80 percent of their power from coal, could be a key factor in climate-bill negotiations.
The co-ops and some Midwestern utilities are pushing for more free carbon-dioxide emissions allowances in the bill for states that have traditionally low electric prices. Glenn English, the head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, told Marshall the "basis of a deal" on climate change would revolve around helping coal consumers weatherize their homes to cut costs, and authority for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to site electrical transmission lines, bypassing state utility regulators. (Read more)
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa is trying to round up Senate votes for such a deal, or something to cushion the impact of higher electric rates, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register's Washington Bureau reports. Harkin fears that the formula for emissions allowances in the bill "will unfairly and disproportionately raise electricity costs in certain regions of the country," Harkin spokesman Grant Gustafson told Brasher. (Read more)
Some small towns running short on candidates
Though political activity seemed to be at an all-time high a year ago, with a historic presidential election, this year many small towns across the country are struggling to find enough candidates to fill out a ballot. "State officials and political scientists say finding candidates has always been a problem for small towns and rural communities, but the recession has made it particularly tough this year," P. J. Huffstutter of the Los Angeles Times reports. State officials across the country say there will be scores of races with just one candidate, and several with none at all.
"It's a very scary time out there, economically. They're under the gun with their own finances, let alone being responsible for their town's financial health," Marty Newell, chief operating officer of the Center for Rural Strategies, told Huffstutter. Experts agree that running small towns has become more complex over the years, and now when elected officials are faced with laying off city workers by the hundreds in some places the attraction of public office is even smaller. Some towns have attempted to reduce the number of elected offices to cope with a lack of candidates.
"Being a local politician, even in tiny towns, is not an easy job," Huffstutter writes. "The pay is low, the hours long and the complaints loud." In some towns, getting out of public office may be even harder than getting in: In 1987 residents of McClelland, Iowa, population 125, elected fire department engineer and diesel mechanic Emmett Dofner mayor by write-in ballot for the first time. Twenty-two years later, he's been elected 11 more times without ever requesting his name be on the ballot, and expects today's election to turn out much the same. "I can't say no," he told Huffstutter. "I can't leave my community in a lurch." (Read more) Generally, if offices are left vacant by an election, there are provisions for appointments.
Monday, November 02, 2009
One of the more rural congressional districts steals the spotlight for tomorrow's elections
Republican Deirdre Scozzafava won the endorsement of New York District 23's largest paper, the Watertown Daily Times, Thursday. The paper said her answers to its questions had "a breadth and depth that are unmatched by her opponents." But on Saturday she released her supporters, and yesterday she endorsed Democrat Bill Owens over Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman for the seat vacated by Republican John McHugh, now secretary of the Army. Times reporter Nancy Madsen has a comprehensive wrapup.
Scozzafava, a Republican leader in the state Assembly, had won the nomination from local GOP officials but was unacceptable to many of the party's rank and file because she is "pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, pro-stimulus," Amy Walter of The Hotline told Woodruff, who said the fight "put the spotlight on the rift between the moderate and conservative factions of the Republican Party." Hoffman lives in Lake Placid, which is outside the district, but the Constitution requires only that House members live in the state containing their district.
When Scozzafava withdrew, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele switched his endorsement to Hoffman. Today Vice President Joe Biden campaigned with Owens, who recently changed his registration from independent to Democratic. Biden said radio talker Rush Limbaugh "handpicked" Hoffman, the Times reports. Biden and President Obama carried the district a year ago.
Farmers say 'rose veal' is a humanely raised meat
Humane veal raisers feed calves with their mother's milk and pasture grass instead of an industrial milk replacement. The diet creates a leaner meat with a rosy color instead of the traditional white, and it is often called rose veal. The Post reports that rose veal is catching on at some Washington restaurants and farmers' markets. (Post photo by Dayna Smith: Sandy Miller of Newburg, Pa., takes some of her neighbors' dairy bull calves and raises them for rose veal.)
Annual veal consumption was at 8.6 pounds per person in 1944, but hasn't topped one pound per person since 1988. To the common complaint that veal calves are killed too young, advocates say the animals are actually older than chickens, turkeys and pigs at the age of slaughter, and about the same age as lambs. But Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told Black: "People who think 'rose veal' is 'humane' are seeing the cruel veal industry through rose-colored glasses." (Read more)
Story on caribou slaughter in Alaska shows rural reporting shouldn't be done by remote
Burke's reporting "speaks to how hard it can be to tell stories anywhere in rural America," Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute writes. "The only way to report this story is to with boots-on-the-ground reporting, which is increasingly difficult as news staffs and budgets shrink." After interviewing Burke, Tompkins writes: "Her answers reminded me how similar rural Alaska is to so many rural and remote parts of America -- undercovered and misunderstood, especially by [news] media."
Burke said, "Urban Alaskans think rural Alaskans should be treated like everyone else because Alaska is a pretty accepting, multi-ethnic society. Rural Alaskans think they should be treated differently, and preferentially, when it comes to fish and wildlife because they need wild foods to live." Rural Alaskans are mainly Alaska Natives, but have pretty much the reactions to reporters as city folks: "I found people fairly accommodating in Point Hope," Burke said. "Some were leery, but I run into people who are leery of reporters even here in Anchorage." (Read more)
N.J. ballot measure would maintain program for farmland preservation; opponents object to cost
"During the past 60 years, our Garden State has lost 1 million acres of irreplaceable farmland," former state agriculture commissioner Charles Kuperus writes in an editorial in support of the ballot question for The Star Ledger of Newark. Kuperus admits that "much developed land was used to create the wonderful communities where we live and work," but he says "some has been lost to low-density sprawl." He argues the measure would preserve Jersey agriculture and promote local food. (Read more)
Here's the other side: "While those are certainly laudable causes, with the state's fiscal condition at this time, we can't support it," Jerry Cantrell, president of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association told Carmen Cusido of The Times of Trenton. "The reality is it's an expense we can forgo." Rob Calabro, a Republican Assembly candidate, echoed those sentiments in an email to The Times: "In the midst of skyrocketing property taxes, a record-high unemployment rate, and the state already straddled with $10 billion dollar deficit, now is not the time to borrow money." (Read more)
Farm interests push Ohio ballot issue as device to head off a measure from animal-rights activists
Some farmers see the amendment as a way to keep animal-rights groups from setting the agenda, Bell writes, but others think that it wouild be overkill and that the issue would be better addressed by communication between lawmakers and interest groups. The Farmers Union, Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association, Farm to Consumer Foundation, the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club and Food & Water Watch all oppose the amendment, while Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Gov. Ted Strickland, a long list of state and municipal officials and a number of business associations are among those endorsing the initiative. (Read more)
The pro-amendment group has created a mostly one-sided advertising battle with $4 million for a campaign that includes up to six commercials in support of Issue 2, Jim Provance of the Toledo Blade reports. The groups against the ballot issue have decided not to try and match the pro-issue advertising blitz. "They have so much money for TV ads, but we’re focusing on grass-roots efforts, using volunteers to spread the word,” Sarah Alexander, spokeswoman for the Ohio Against Constitutional Takeover coalition, tells Provance.
With passage of an animal-welfare referendum last year in California fresh in their minds, and fear that a similar measure might make it to the Ohio ballot if Issue 2 does not pass, supporters from Iowa, Georgia, Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and North Carolina have donated to the campaign. (Read more)
Google Voice flap shows gravy train for rural telcos
Rural phone companies, designated as Competitive Local Exchange Carriers, are permitted "to charge inflated fees for the incoming long distance calls that reach their customers," Berkes writes. CLECs earn their designation by providing competition to dominant phone carriers, and are allowed to charge more since they have higher per-customer costs. Some charge as much as 20 times the normal rate for such calls, Berkes reports, and many engage in "traffic pumping" by partnering with companies providing chat rooms and free teleconference services.
For instance, Great Lakes Communication has access to 800 local numbers assigned to it in Spencer, Iowa, population 11,000, but none of those numbers are actually assigned to local businesses or residences. By "traffic pumping" GLC generates 2.5 million calls a month with those numbers. Google, which designed its Voice application as a free service, decided the cost of completing those calls was too much. While the two sides continue to argue if Google should have to obey regulations of traditional phone companies, which have to complete such calls, Google maintains you can still use your cell phone or land line to call those exchanges.