Saturday, November 21, 2009

Student's death at hands of hunter is a cautionary, sad tale for deer season

Here's a sad, cautionary tale for deer season: Jason Cloutier, 31, of Ferrum, Va., is "charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless use of a firearm and trespass, charges that together carry a maximum of 12 years in jail and $5,000 in fines," after shooting Ferrum College student Jessica Goode while deer hunting, Brigid Schulte of The Washington Post writes.

"In this tightknit community of 1,400 that consists, literally, of the college and a scatter of farms and solitary houses in the woods, the killing of a beloved student has unleashed a welter of questions: How could he have shot her? Couldn't he see she wasn't a deer? And from another perspective, some neighbors want to know what Goode was doing in the woods in hunting season wearing white? Didn't she know she might look like a deer's throat?" And Schulte reports, "many students disregard regular warnings from the college about wearing bright colors during hunting season." But the investigating officer told her that the responsibility lies with the hunter.

Student Brad Tribble, who hunts, canoes and hikes, was a friend of Goode's. "What makes him angry is that the incident reinforces negative stereotypes about hunting that people outside rural areas might have," Schulte writes.

Dell closure of new N.C. plant shows need to stop chasing 'footloose industry,' economic expert says

"When are we going to halt public expenditures on the 'buffalo hunt' for footloose industry and instead focus our resources and efforts on the sector that produces by far most of the jobs - existing industry and homegrown business?" So asks Jesse White, a veteran of rural economic development, in the News & Observer of Raleigh with two recent events that make an object example.

On successive days last month, White notes, North Carolina saw these headlines: "Dell Computer closing shop (photo of plant from the Daily Yonder) and laying off over 900 workers and Cree Inc. adding almost 600 jobs. The difference: Dell - headquartered in Texas - was lured to North Carolina with the promise of over $300 million in incentives, while Cree - a homegrown business spun out of N.C. State University technology - requested no state incentives . . . "

White is director of the Office of Economic and Business Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. He is a former federal co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission and executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board.

"As a student of and participant in Southern economic development for almost 30 years, I have long been baffled and disappointed by the turn taken by this state in 1996 to enter into the incentives game," he writes. ""The evidence is that these incentives do not redound to the benefit of distressed rural areas as intended. Dell, for example, was located in Winston-Salem. In the 1930s and '40s, Mississippi bragged about the success of its industrial incentive program. Subsequent studies have found that incentives of this sort are a hollow kind of development. The scholarly literature on incentives shows that they are a very poor investment of public resources. And, of course, the business sector has become expert at playing off one state against another in something akin to corporate extortion; and who can blame them?"

North Carolina, which had invested heavily in education and Research Triangle Park in the mid-20th Century, was the last Southern state to join the downward spiral of incentives, White writes. "Our state needs to abandon this policy and return to its investments in education, technical training and small business support," he argues. "Not only is this sound economic development policy, it removes the insult to ourselves that only 'outsiders' can create the jobs and that we have to pay them to bring the jobs to our people. We can do better than that."

Friday, November 20, 2009

D.C. meetings look at barriers to rural broadband, proposed policy for universal Internet access

Thursday, the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Rural Development, Biotechnology, Specialty Crops and Foreign Agriculture met to discuss progress made by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce to award grants to expand broadband access in rural areas. Chairman Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., described rural broadband as "an investment that can create jobs, improve communities, and change lives" in a news release, but Subcommittee Ranking Member Mike Conaway said the arbitrary deadline set by Congress is resulting in a flawed process. (Read more)

The Federal Communications Commission held meetings Wednesday to discuss enacting a national broadband policy to provide high-speed Internet access for every American. The FCC task force charged with developing the plan has identified several barriers to universal broadband service, Marguerite Reardon of CNet reports. The task force believes money from the Universal Service Fund, originally set up as extra charges on consumers' phone bills, should be used to assist broadband deployment. Currently the fund only assists voice services.

Large gaps in broadband service still exist among geographic areas and income groups. Reardon reports that many low-income areas only have one broadband provider, causing high prices, and nearly 90 percent of families with annual incomes greater than $100,000 per year subscribe to broadband services, while only 35 percent with incomes of $20,000 or less do. The task force also said deployment in rural areas is often delayed by high costs of infrastructure and maintaining service. (Read more)

Obama: Through Thanksgiving, it's Farm-City Week

President Barack Obama signed a proclamation Friday designating the week ending with Thanksgiving Day each year as National Farm-City Week. The longstandign observance is designed to express gratitude for the contributions of U.S. farmers and ranchers, and to help ensure that all Americans have access to healthy food.

"For agriculture to thrive in the 21st century, we must continue to cultivate the relationships between farmers and rural businesses and their partners and customers in cities and towns," Obama said in the proclamation. "During National Farm-City Week, we celebrate the bounty of America, and we honor the commitment of those who grow, harvest, and deliver agricultural goods to feed our country and grow our economy." (Read more)

More states may OK raw-milk sales to help dairies, but FDA may ban sale of aged raw-milk cheese

Dairy farmers can receive $4 to $6 per gallon more for unpasteurized milk than the common pasteurized version, but there's one problem: The Food and Drug Administration banned interstate sale of raw milk 22 years ago. Individual states can regulate how unpasteurized milk is produced, bought and sold within their borders and just over half allow sale in some form, Hillary Brenhouse of The New York Times reports.

"There’s no middleman, and people are willing to pay a premium for raw milk and related products," Sally Fallon Morell, president of a D.C.-based organic-farming advocacy group, the Weston A. Price Foundation, told Brenhouse. "As the dairy crisis gets worse, raw is becoming more and more attractive."

The FDA warns unpasteurized milk and related products are "inherently dangerous" and can contain lethal pathogens, including salmonella, E. coli and listeria. Raw-milk advocates argue that pasteurization kills enzymes, bacteria and vitamins that are nutritionally beneficial and help with digestion.

Even as some states considering repealing their bans on raw milk sales to help struggling dairy farms, FDA plans to reconsider its only exception to the raw-milk ban, allowing sale of cheese produced from raw milk and aged for more than 60 days. A 2008 listeria outbreak that killed one and made 30 others ill in Quebec was traced back to raw-milk cheese. John Sheehan, director of FDA.’s division of plant and dairy food safety, says raw milk "should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason,” and the cheese exception is no longer effective. (Read more)

Top ethanol maker says it has cut cost of cellulosic product to the verge of commercial production

The world's largest ethanol producer says it has drastically cut the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol, giving hope for commercial production in two years. Jeff Broin, chief executive of South Dakota-based Poet, says the company reduced the cost from $4.13 a gallon to $2.35 a gallon during the past year, Ledyard King reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, the company's hometown.

"Two years ago, I would have told you this was a long shot," Broin told King. "Now I'll tell you that we will produce cellulosic ethanol commercially in two years." However, Broin warns those gains will be for naught if the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't agree to increase the amount of ethanol blended in gasoline. The industry wants the level raised to 15 percent from the current 10 percent.

EPA has said it plans to decide by Dec. 1, but King notes recent rumors suggesting that the agency may delay that decision while it waits for further testing on the effect of ethanol of engines. EPA said in a statement that it remains committed to meeting the deadline. Broin spoke to reporters during a trip to Washington, D.C., to promote ethanol-friendly policies in Congress. He said, "If we remain at (10 percent), cellulosic ethanol cannot become a reality."

Broin said Poet cut cellulosic production costs by reducing energy use, enzyme costs, raw material requirements and capital expenses at its pilot plant in Scotland, S.D.. The company plans to produce 25 million gallons a year of cellulosic ethanol from farm waste at a plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

(Read more)

Students in 18 Appalachian Kentucky counties to get education in entrepreneurship

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear announced Wednesday a new project to start entrepreneurial instruction in elementary and middle schools in 18 of the state's Appalachian counties. The initiative will be funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Governor's Office of Agriculture Policy, which spends the 50 percent of the state's tobacco-settlement money that is dedicated to agriculture.

The selected schools are mainly in two areas: Bath, Carter, Elliott, Lawrence, Lewis, Menifee, Morgan, Robertson and Wolfe counties in northeastern Kentucky, and Casey, Clinton, Cumberland, Hart, McCreary, Monroe, Russell and Wayne counties in the south-central part of the state. Clay County, in the southeast, is also included. By some measurements it is the state's poorest county.

The Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute in the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky, will head the program. "The opportunity for students to learn effective business skills from an early age will have a major impact on their future development as the community leaders of tomorrow," Beshear said in a news release. The Institute, created with tobacco-settlement money four years ago, piloted entrepreneur education at St. Patrick's School sixth grade in Maysville, Ky., during the 2008-09 school year. (Read more)

Report says biotech crops increase use of herbicides

In increased popularity of genetically engineered crops has led to a substantial increase in pesticide use, according to a report from The Organic Center, the Union for Concerned Scientists and the Center for Food Safety. The nonprofit lobbying groups say increased harvesting of biotech crops has also led to an epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds and more chemical residues in foods.

The report says herbicide use grew by 383 million pounds from 1996 to 2008, Carey Gillam of Reuters writes, with 46 percent of the total increase occurring in 2007 and 2008. The groups do note that genetically-engineered crops have led to reductions of 64 million pounds in insecticide use since 1996, bringing the net total of pesticide growth to 318 million pounds in the first 13 years of biotech crop use. The groups say the chief concern with increased herbicide use is the emergence of "super weeds" resistant to most herbicides.

"Herbicide-resistant crops are incredibly popular with farmers. They help them manage their weed problems in ways traditional crops don't," Mike Wach, managing director of science and regulatory affairs for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, told Gillam. "Farmers are continuing to adopt these crops because they provide benefits, not liabilities and problems." BIO officials noted a recent PG Economics Ltd. report that said gloobal herbicide use in biotech soybean crops decreased by 161 million pounds from 1996 to 2007. (Read more)

Bank: Clean coal would help West more than East

A new report about the future of coal says if clean-coal technology becomes economically feasible, Western U.S. coal stands to benefit more than Appalachian coal. The report, "The Green Side of Black," from HSBC, a London-based bank, says power companies that would capture and store carbon emissions would need more coal to supply the same amount of energy they produce today to make up for energy used in the process. That demand would benefit companies with vast Western reserves like Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, Keith Johnson of The Wall Street Journal reports, while companies that rely heavily on Appalachian coal like Consol and Massey don't have as much upside.

The report also says Peabody's large Australian metallurgical coal reserves could help fuel the Asian market. HSBC notes that the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects coal to fuel 47 percent of domestic electricity through 2030, about the same as now, even without steady progress on clean-coal technology.

The technology faces obstacles. Its economics now and in the near future are dismal, Johnson writes, while the sheer infrastructure investment needed is daunting. If coal becomes more expensive or less abundant in the future, he adds, the investment to clean it up may not prove worthwhile. (Read more)

Appalachia, Black Belt highest in diabetes, obesity; CDC has first national, county-by-county maps

Obesity and diabetes are growing across the country, but in the first county-by-county national breakdown, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals the rates are highest in heavily white Appalachia and the Black Belt and other heavily African-American areas of the Southeast. Edward Gregg, chief of epidemiology and statistics in CDC's division of diabetes translation and the study's lead author, described obesity and diabetes as "basically the two conditions of greatest concern for U.S. adults right now."

The two conditions are related; diabetes is one complication of obesity. In Appalachia, 81 percent of counties have high rates of diabetes and obesity, and the study shows three-quarters of counties in the Southeast have similar rates, with the highest concentrated in counties with high percentages of African Americans. ("Black Belt" was originally a geologic term for a soil section of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, but now also describes the crescent of majority African Amercian counties that reaches as far as Virginia.) Some counties with Indian reservations also have high rates.

"We think these increases in obesity and diabetes partially reflect the cultural shifts that are affecting all of us," Gregg told HealthDay News, "but we see them most in regions where there is more poverty and where educational levels are lower." (Read more) CDC produced county-by-county breakdowns of both diabetes and obesity levels in each state, and national maps of diabetes and obesity rates. Here's the national diabetes map:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Physicians say coal waging assault on human health

A new report from Physicians for Social Responsibility says pollutants from coal affect all the body's major organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the U.S. The report, titled "Coal's Assault on Human Health," warns, "Each step of the coal lifecycle - mining, transportation, washing, combustion, and disposing of postcombustion wastes - impacts human health."

Physicians for Social Responsibility is a Nobel Prize-winning organization that bills itself as "the medical and public health voice for policies to prevent nuclear war and proliferation and to slow, stop and reverse global warming," Environmental News Service reports. Dr. Alan Lockwood, a professor of neurology and nuclear medicine at the University of Buffalo and the report's chief author, estimates that exposure to emissions from coal combustion is killing 40,000 to 50,000 Americans per year. The report says coal pollutants contribute to heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. (Read more)

University of Kentucky is going tobacco-free today

The flagship university of the state with more tobacco growers than any other has officially gone non-smoking. Today, to coincide with the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout, the University of Kentucky officially banned the use of tobacco products on all campus property. Smoking had previously been banned withing 20 feet of a building and on the medical-center campus.

The move to a tobacco-free campus didn't go without notice among farmers. "It was very much the social fabric of many of those rural communities here in Kentucky," Will Snell, a UK agricultural economics extension professor, told Austin Schmitt of The Kentucky Kernel. Schmitt profiles Giles Shell, right, a May 2009 UK graduate who left the university with a degree in biology to return to his family's tobacco farm. He told Schmitt that tobacco is more than a crop, it's a way of life, and that it isn't bad for people, and that it's overuse of the product that causes problems. "It’s my livelihood, it’s my life, it’s what feeds my family," Giles said. "It’s what buys my vehicles so I can go from here to there." (Read more) (Kernel photo and video by Allie Garza)

You can also see the PDF images of the Kernel's special section today.

Last year, clean-coal group spent almost $40 million on lobbying, broadly defined (including TV spots)

New data released by the Internal Revenue Service offers a better glimpse at exactly how much money the coal and oil industries spent in 2008 on lobbying and public relations. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity "spent nearly $40 million on advertising, grass-roots outreach and communicating its message at federal and state levels," Anne C. Mulern of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. ACCCE had previously disclosed to Congress that it spent $9.9 million on lobbying in 2008.

The difference between the two figures stems from the options Congress gives groups to use to account for lobbying money. ACCCE and many other organizations chose an options that allows them to omit advertising, grass-roots organizing and state and local lobbying from the figures reported to Congress, Mulern reports. ACCCE spends millions on advertising "clean coal." Tyson Slocum, director of watchdog group Public Citizen's energy program, told Mulern, "It's very crucial that we have adequate disclosure and more frequent disclosure so people know these ads are connected."

Besides the ad campaign, ACCCE said it spent money on Web activity, teams working in several states, and outreach to reporters so its information landed in news stories, Mulern reports. The group is mostly funded by coal, railroad and electric companies. (Read more)

Rural superintendents tell education secretary his plans for poor schools may not fit their districts

Rural school superintendents told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Tuesday that many of his department's plans to turn around poor schools may not work for them. Superintendents from Michigan, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming, Arizona, Mississippi and California attended the meeting along with representatives from the American Association of School Administrators.

The "Rural Nine" told Duncan that the Department of Education's four turnaround models for underperforming schools won't work for many rural school districts, Michele McNeil of Education Week reports. The group also said Duncan's preference for awarding federal funding through competitive grants, over formulas, will put rural schools at a disadvantage. "Nearly every state has rural schools, which frequently lack resources, have trouble attracting teachers, and serve students living in areas with high concentrations of poverty," Duncan said in a news release. "At the same time, we know that all children can learn with the appropriate support. We must learn from and replicate the many examples of success in small rural schools."(Read more)

"Coming from Chicago, President Obama and Secretary Duncan understand how to turn around low-performing big-city systems," Tupelo Schools Superintendent Randy Shaver, one of the meeting participants, told Chris Kieffer of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. "I’m encouraged that they understand that they don’t know enough about rural and small-city systems." Shaver said the best way to turn around underperforming schools was to hold administrators, principles and teachers accountable. (Read more)

Feds vow tougher strip-mine inspections

The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it plans to increase scrutiny of state agencies' strip-mine inspections and reviews of mining permits. The Interior Department classified the beefed-up rules as "immediate actions to improve oversight of state mining regulators and better protect streams affected by surface coal mining operations," Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette reports.

Under the 1977 federal strip-mine law, in most states the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement oversees state regulators, but widespread staff cuts during the Clinton administration hurt the office's ability to enforce regulations. OSMRE inspections dropped from a high of 4,000 per year in the 1990s to fewer than 1,500. One of the new regulations will no longer allow state regulators to accompany OSM officials during inspections.

"Through tougher oversight and stronger enforcement ... we are putting all hands on deck to ensure that Appalachian communities are protected," newly confirmed OSMRE Director Joseph Pizarchik told Ward. He also announced plans for nationwide initiatives focused on the approximate original contour reclamation rule, and pledged to place "greater emphasis on reducing the off-site impacts of mining." (Read more)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Experts say broadband makes local less important, so rural papers should boost identity online

Rural broadband is sometimes held up as the torch that will lead rural America out of the dark ages, but Sharon Strover and Nick Muntean write for the Daily Yonder that the new technology may bring some negative consequences as well. "A quick glance at the historical record suggests that that any belief that technological development is an unalloyed good warrants a healthy dose of skepticism," Strover and Muntean write.

They point to rural electrification as a technology that dramatically improved the quality of life for farmers, but left many rural laborers without jobs. The Federal Communications Commission says rural broadband will make local government more efficient, provide greater distance learning opportunities, and make tele-medicine easier. Strover and Muntean characterize those goals as "laudable" and "well-intentioned," but say FCC fails to explain exactly how broadband will achieve them or account for any negative side effects.

"Broadband tends to make local places less important," Strover and Muntean write. "So now is the time for rural communities — which are all about remaining local — to consider ways they can maintain their identities as broadband spreads." Their suggestion to retain the vibrancy of local communities is for rural newspapers to create “online portals” for rural places to reinforce local identity and solidarity. Strover and Muntean close with one more piece of advice: "Rural communities need to act now to make sure that broadband’s virtual world doesn’t overwhelm the real." (Read more)

AP layoffs underway; hit at least one state capital

UPDATE 11/20: The AP tells Joe Strupp that 90 union employees have been laid off, which meets the news cooperative's goal of cutting payroll by 10 percent in 2009., using anonymous tips and sources, has organized the layoffs with a Google Map. (Read more)

In a move that will affect rural news consumers across the country, The Associated Press began widespread layoffs Tuesday in an effort to reach a cost-cutting goal. The News Media Guild said in a statement to Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher that 90 union employees (updated 11/20) had received termination notices, but NMG President Tony Winton said he did not know how many non-union employees had been let go. The guild represents 1,300 of AP's 4,000 employees.

Three of the terminations came in Kentucky, including the news editor in Louisville and one of two reporters in the Frankfort statehouse bureau. Kentucky journalists called the cut a disaster because only two of the state's 24 daily newspapers have reporters in the capital. Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. has a reporter there for the chain's five dailies and six weeklies in the state.

As part of what has classified as "widespread closure of smaller AP bureas," the bureaus in Wausau, Wis., and Albany, Ga., will be closed. The news editor in Little Rock will also now oversee Oklahoma, Gawker reports, citing unnamed sources. AP has consolidates many state operations in recent years. The total union layoffs include 33 reporters, 19 editorial assistants and five photographers, the NMG said. You can see Gawker's updated, unsourced list of AP layoffs here.

Last year AP announced it planned to cut payroll by 10 percent by the end of 2009, Strupp reports. The news cooperative had already reduced its staff by 100 this year through buyouts that ended in July. (Read more)

UPDATE 11/19: The future of the Roanoke, Va., AP bureau is in doubt after Sue Lindsey, the only reporter at the bureau was one of the employees let go Wednesday. Lindsey told Duncan Adams of The Roanoke Times that she didn't know what the AP's plans for the bureau were. Lindsey had been with the bureau since 2005 and led the AP coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech University shootings. (Read more)

Democrats say climate bill won't pass this year

We've been hearing that climate-bill negotiations will be put off until 2010, and finally Senate Democrats have acknowledged no bill will pass this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that climate legislation will be taken up "sometime in the spring," Ian Talley of The Wall Street Journal reports. Following the Democratic caucus meeting, party leaders said health care, overhaul of financial markets and job creation would take precedence.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain called the news "just a matter of reality; they can't get anything done at this time." McCain has previously supported climate legislation, but told Talley he would not support the current bill due to its handling of nuclear energy. A White House spokesperson said President Obama was still working with lawmakers to move the legislation as quickly as possible, and Talley reports the president plans to move ahead with a plan for the Environmental Protection Agency to declare greenhouse gases a threat to public health.

"Democrats looking ahead to the 2010 midterm elections are concerned about a backlash from voters in industrial and heartland states dependent on coal," Talley writes. Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill added, "It's really big, really, really hard, and is going to make a lot of people mad." (Read more)

EPA to tighten rules on sulfur dioxide emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday it would tighten its limits on sulfur dioxide emissions for the first time since 1970s. The new proposal would limit SO2 emissions at 50 to 100 parts per per billion per hour, Ayesha Rascoe of Rueters reports. Current regulations limit emissions, the majority of which come from fossil-fuel burning power plants, to 140 ppb over 24 hours and an average of 30 ppb per year.

The changes are an effort to address new data that says people are more at risk when exposed to higher amounts of SO2 in short periods of time. Clean Air Watch President Frank O'Donnell told Rascoe the existing rules essentially have a loophole that allows high levels of sulfur dioxide to be emitted in short bursts. O'Donnell said his group would push for the eventual standard to be set at around 50 ppb. EPA will allow public comments on the proposal for 60 days. (Read more)

Fired official says he lost job for blocking Ky. mine permits for land without right of legal entry

The former head of Kentucky's mine-permit division said he was fired by Gov. Steve Beshear last week after he attempted to block what he felt were illegal permitting practices. Ron Mills said he refused to issue about six permits in the past year that failed to show the company's legal right to enter and disturb all the area it would mine, John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. Mills said the administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, for whom he was a campaign worker, chose instead to issue permits to companies who showed they had legal right to mine as little as two-thirds of the property to be mined.

The so-called "33 1/3 policy" is the subject of a lawsuit the Kentucky Resources Council, an environmental group, is preparing to file. KRC director Tom FitzGerald told Cheves it was unclear if Beshear had implemented the policy when he was elected, but Mills had tried to end it after being hired in 2008. After a debate with the governor's office, Natural Resources Commissioner Carl Campbell signed the permits over Mills' objections. A Beshear spokesperson said the governor doesn't involve himself with such permitting or personnel decisions. FitzGerald told Cheves, "I'm profoundly disappointed by this administration."

Most of the permits apparently involved underground mines, because they were for Oklahoma-based Alliance Resource Partners, which has no surface mines in Kentucky. Its president and CEO, Joe Craft, last month headed a $7 million donation to the University of Kentucky to build a new men's basketball team dormitory to be called Wildcat Coal Lodge. (Read more)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Most-viewed stories on The Rural Blog last week

This is a measure of page views of individual items (usually via links sent by us or readers) and does not reflect readership by those who view the blog as a whole.
1. Democrats against health bill tended to be rural; rural Democrats who voted for it were pivotal
2. Coal forum panelists, fresh from negotiations, say mountaintop-mine policing will get tougher (an exclusive story)
3. Warren Buffett buys Burlington Northern Santa Fe; analyst says it's a big bet on the future of coal (some commenters disagreed)
4. Some small towns running short on candidates (updated and still popular after the election)

Ariz. journalist shows how to localize budget cuts

State budget cuts offer many opportunities for rural journalists to localize the topic. Joanna Dodder Nellans of The Daily Courier in Prescott, Ariz., starts her story this way: "Deep state budget cuts are affecting a vast array of Prescott-area citizens, from toddlers to the elderly."

The Arizona Department of Health Services is set to increase its licensing fee for preschools, raising local Cornerstone Christian Preschool and Daycare's fee from $150 to $14,000 annually. The director tells Nellans she will struggle to pay the fee without passing a portion of the price onto already struggling parents. If the daycare operated at full capacity, Nellans reports, the $14,000 would equate to a $6.50 per child per month fee for parents.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Nellans reports many elderly locals will soon lose free services as the Northern Arizona Council of Governments' (NACOG) Area Agency on Aging cuts support for home services. Several set to lose those benefits voiced concerns to Nellans that they would end up in nursing homes or emergency rooms without the services they're used to receiving. (Read more)

Judge says permits to Western Kentucky hog farms need to be made stricter

Environmental permits issued for as many as nine Western Kentucky hog farms during the previous governor's administration are invalid, a circuit judge in the state capital of Frankfort ruled yesterday. Several of the farms are already operating under the permits issued during Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration, James Bruggers of the The Courier-Journal reports. Judge Phillip Shepherd's ruling does not force any of the farms to shut down.

Shepherd, who was secretary of the cabinet in 1992-95, wrote that the permits failed to protect waterways and the public from excessive nutrients and pathogens and should have considered toxic air emissions. The judge also ruled the owner of the hogs, Tennessee-based Tosh Farms, must share liability with the farmers. A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's Energy and Environment Cabinet declined to comment to Bruggers, saying officials were reviewing the ruling.

The permits estimated that the nine farms operating at full capacity of 45,000 hogs would produce as much as 16 million gallons of liquid waste a year that they could then sell as fertilizer. Shepherd said the permits didn't contain specific pathogen controls, despite evidence that pathogens are in hog manure, Bruggers reports. Hank Graddy Jr. one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, told Bruggers that as many as 10 other farms that had been issued similar permits could also be affected by the ruling. (Read more)

Illinois town debates idea of feds buying prison for Gitmo detainees; other rural towns seek them

UPDATE 12/15: President Obama has directed the federal government to purchase the Thomson Correctional Cetner in Thomson, Ill., to house Guantanamo Bay detainees, Christi Parsons reports for the Chicago Tribune. One source familiar with the discussions told Parsons the prison could house between 35 and 90 GITMO detainees. (Read more)

Opinions in a rural Illinois town are mixed regarding President Obama's announcement that its prison is being considered to house detainees now at Guantanamo Bay as well as other federal prisoners. The debate among residents of Thomson, Ill., population 550, hinges on whether the increased jobs brought to the struggling area are enough to justify the added security risk, Judy Keen of USA Today reports. (Google map)

The White House says if the federal government bought the Thomson Correctional Center from the state, the facility would bring 2,300 to 3,200 jobs and add up to $1 billion to the local economy in the first four years. The unemployment rate in Carroll County is 10.5 percent. Despite those numbers, some locals still fear for their security. Donna Opheim, a gas-station manager, told Keen, "I'm not so much afraid of the detainees breaking out. It's the people who might be coming in to get them out." (Read more)

Communities in rural Colorado, Montana and Michigan have also welcomed federal consideration to move detainees to their prisons, leading Lee-Anne Goodman of The Canadian Press to conclude, "Canadian Omar Khadr and more than 200 other terror suspects currently detained at Guantanamo Bay may soon find themselves behind bars in rural America." Hardin, Mont., officials say their vacant 460-bed detention center should be more appealing than the Thompson site due to its remote location, making escape more difficult. Greg Smith, Hardin economic development director, told Goodman: "They have to go somewhere ... why not us?" (Read more) Despite some towns' interest, "As economic development projects go, however, few are as politically explosive," reports in a roundup story.

UPDATE, Nov. 25: Folks in rural Florence, Colo., told Kristen Schorsch of the Chicago Tribune that they don't worry about the "supermax" prison in the town of 3,600, which houses several terrorists. "We still leave our doors unlocked at night," former Mayor Bart Hall told her. Florence is near CaƱon City, home of the Colorado State Penitentary. (Read more)

Nebraska journalist says rural news outlets must boost Web presence for 'hyperlocal' impact

Hyperlocal journalism has become a buzzword in the search to save newspapers, but Mark Coddington of The Grand Island Independent in Nebraska says rural news organizations have been practicing hyperlocal journalism for decades. Coddington explains that most people talk about hyperlocal in urban and suburban contexts, but "Most of this journalism is being done by small-town weekly (and sometimes daily) newspapers, almost all of which have been doing hyperlocal journalism since decades before it became a buzzword."

While rural journalists and theior news outlets may not be struggling as much as their urban counterparts, they are experiencing their own troubles and many rarely produce much more than "press-release journalism." Good hyperlocal journalism is both harder and easier in rural areas, Coddington argues.

It's easier in one respect, because rural papers don't have to worry about creating a defined community, like new metro outlets do, since their township and county lines provide that already. The local news organization is already firmly attached to the community in rural areas, Coddington writes, and the "sense of community tied to one’s town is extremely deeply entrenched, making for fertile ground for local news organizations."

But hyperlocal journalism as it's being defined today is missing in some rural newspapers due to their lack of Web presence. In communities within metro areas, the hyperlocal approach brings residents to the news organization's Web site to discuss the news of the area; in rural communities these conversations are, for the most part, not taking place online, Coddington writes: "In most small towns, the conversation surrounding the news lives at the cafe, at high school basketball games, at the bank, at church. It’s critical that small-town news orgs capture that conversation online, where they can grow from and be informed by it." (Read more)

And, we would add, they can do that without giving away news content, a strategy that many rural papers have rejected for fear of cannibailizing their circulation revenue. It's a matter of adding content that can't be part of the printed product, such as blogs, extra photos and records databases. --Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Monday, November 16, 2009

Montana may open more of state's coal reserves

UPDATE 12/23: The Montana Land Board decided Dec. 22 to put the tracts up for bid and "said it will demand top dollar for the coal," Matt Gouras of The Associated Press reports. "Observers said the state may be asking too much."

Montana lawmakers are expected to vote on a proposal to open the state's substantial coal reserves in the nation's largest coal basin even as coal prices drop amid heavy supply. The state's 616 million tons of recoverable reserves in the Otter Creek region are interspersed among 731 million tons of private reserves which Arch Coal Inc. announced last week it had acquired leases for, Mark Peters of The Wall Street Journal reports. (Gazette graphic by Victor Ady)

Montana coal production has been overshadowed by neighboring Wyoming, which shares the Powder River Basin. Company officials and state lawmakers say declining production at existing mines elsewhere in the country, new power-plant construction, technological advances at existing plants and possible exports to Asia should boost demand for Montana coal in the coming years. The development isn't without its obstacles, Peters reports. Montana coal generally has higher sulfur content, limiting the plants that can burn it, and an estimated 90 miles of new railroad tracks are needed to connect the Otter Creek region in southeast Montana with the existing lines. (Read more)

Today's vote will come from the state Land Board, which will decide whether to go forward on accepting bids on the state coal or delay its decision, while allowing more public comment. Even if the state decides to move ahead with development, it would be years before any mining or development occurred, Dennison reports. Six environmental and conservation groups sent a letter to the Land Board this week asking for an additional 60 days to examine and comment on the lease documents. (Read more)

Bat populations keep falling; extinctions feared

We've reported on the mysterious syndrome affecting Northeast bats here, here and here; now scientists are developing a more accurate picture of the sheer volume of the plight, but are still far from any answers. "At least 1 million bats in the past three years have been wiped out by a puzzling, widespread disease dubbed 'white-nose syndrome' in what preeminent U.S. scientists are calling the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in human history," Stacey Chase of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine reports. (Globe photo by Jordan Silverman)

Scientists fear if the trend isn't soon reversed, the entire species could be extinct within the next decade. "We’re at the vanguard of an environmental catastrophe," Tim King, a conservation geneticist with the U.S. Geological Survey in West Virginia, told Chase. "There’s very little definitive information available at this point." Population counts at two dozen small winter colonies in New England have fallen from 48,626 bats to 2,695 since the outbreak began.

The syndrome was first detected near Albany, N.Y., in February 2006 and has spread to Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Scientists say it may be headed toward Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Ohio this Winter. White-nose syndrome gets its name from the white fungus that develops on many infected bats around noses, ears, wings and other exposed skin. Chase reports one theory suggests it kills the world's only flying mammal by waking it from winter hibernation more frequently, leading to starvation.

The disease appears to be primarily spread by the bats themselves, but some fear cavers may also be transmitting the disease on their equipment from infected caves to clean ones. In response to that fear, the U.S. Forest Service closed almost 2,000 caves and mine sites last year, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has requested the public observe a caving moratorium in 17 states. Others fear the syndrome may be related to recent mass deaths in frog and honeybee populations. Scott Darling, a Vermont fish and wildlife biologist, told Chase: "If it’s frogs yesterday, bees two days ago, bats today, and something else in two more years, how long before this system falls apart on us?" (Read more)

Oklahoma hosts wind energy conference Dec. 2-3

A Dec. 2-3 conference on wind energy in Oklahoma will offer locals a glimpse inside the growing renewable energy industry. "Revolution 2009: The Oklahoma Wind Energy Conference," sponsored by Oklahoma's secretaries of energy and environment in collaboration with the state Department of Commerce, will be held at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City. The event will include seminars about wind energy growth for Oklahoma and America, including discussions about finance, landowner perspectives, policy, infrastructure, and other key issues, according to a news release.

The conference is designed to inform and educate landowners, developers, manufacturers, utility companies, community planners, economic development groups and sustainable energy advocates, the news release says. "Our commitment to working with the industry to make wildlife and environmental concerns an integral part of wind development in our state is setting a precedent for the rest of the country," J.D. Strong, Oklahoma secretary of environment, said. You can register for $75 or visit the event's Web site.

EPA study shows widespread mercury and PCB contamination of U.S. lakes

For the first time the Environmental Protection Agency says it's able to estimate the percentage of U.S. lakes and reservoirs that have fish containing potentially harmful levels of chemicals such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). After a four-year study, EPA reports 49 percent of U.S. lakes and reservoirs show mercury contamination in game fish and 17 percent show PCB contamination. Concentrations of toxic chemicals were found in fish tissues in all 50 states.

"These results reinforce Administrator [Lisa] Jackson’s strong call for revitalized protection of our nation’s waterways and long-overdue action to protect the American people," Peter S. Silva, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, said in a news release. "EPA is aggressively tackling the issues the report highlights. Before the results were even finalized, the agency initiated efforts to further reduce toxic mercury pollution and strengthen enforcement of the Clean Water Act – all part of a renewed effort to protect the nation’s health and environment."

Burning fossil fuels, mostly coal, is the cause of nearly half of human-caused mercury emissions to the air, and EPA says in a news release these emissions are also a significant contributor to mercury levels in water. EPA notes mercury air emissions decreased 58 percent between 1990 and 2005, and says it's committed to enacting regulations to cause similar change in mercury levels in water. EPA also reiterates its previous position that women of child-bearing age should continue to follow its guidelines for fish consumption relating to mercury. (Read more)

Country artists ally against mountaintop removal

The country music scene was headlined by the Country Music Awards last week, but several musicians found time to join in a Monday-night event focused on ending mountaintop-removal coal mining. The meeting, sponsored by the National Resources Defense Council, gave the artists a chance to hear from NRDC senior attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and senior scientist Allen Hershkowitz about Music Saves Mountains, an artists’ initiative intended to help protect the peaks of the Central Appalachian coalfield from MTR, Peter Cooper of The Tennessean reports.

"The mountains of Appalachia are responsible for countless folk, country and bluegrass songs. Now, the home of that rich tradition is being destroyed," Emmylou Harris told Cooper. Hershkowitz added, "We have to change the cultural assumption that it’s okay to blow up Appalachian mountains, and okay to blow up 502 ridgelines and peaks and get away with it." Other artists at the meeting included Randy Travis, Ben Sollee, Big Kenny Alphin, Delbert McClinton, Dierks Bentley, Gloriana, James Otto, J.D. Souther, Matraca Berg, Jeff Hanna, Michelle Branch, Kid Rock and Patty Griffin. (Read more)