Saturday, December 12, 2009

Report: New rule on coal dust in underground mines will include lower limit for exposure

The Courier-Journal of Louisville reports this morning that the Labor Department's efforts to eradicate coal miners' black-lung disease will include a lower limit on the amount of coal dust in an underground mine, contrary to earlier suggestions.

A story that combined material from an unnamed staff reporter and The Associated Press reported on a visit to the state capital of Frankfort by Joe Main, head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, ended this way:

"MSHA announced earlier this week that it planned to shorten the timeline for adopting the new rule to better protect miners from coal dust. The original plan was to have a rule ready by April 2011, a timeline that drew criticism from mine safety advocates. The new date for the proposed rule is September 2010. Lowering the exposure limits would be part of the proposed rule, said Main, a former miner and ex-safety and health official" for the United Mine Workers. "The current limit is 2 milligrams per cubic meter of air. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has recommended that the limit be reduced to 1 milligram."

On Monday, MSHA's update on the issue removed references to lowering the limit, and under repeated questioning from Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazatte, Main declined to say whether the rule would include a lower limit. We'd still like to see a direct quote from him on the issue.

UPDATE, Dec. 14: Teresa Mullins of, after covering Main's visit to Lebanon, Va., wrote a story that outlined the plan and ended with this paragraph: "Also being considered is a recommendation by NIOSH to lower the legally permissible level of exposure to coal dust, which is currently two milligrams per cubic meter of air." (Read more; subscription-only site)

Police say Appalachian doctor was killed by man frustrated in search for prescription drugs

The shooting death of a doctor at an isolated Eastern Kentucky clinic has driven home the desperate nature of the region's problems with prescription drugs. Police say Dr. Dennis Sandlin "was shot and killed by a patient seeking pain pills at the Leatherwood/Blackey Clinic," reports Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The man became angry, clinic employees said, after he was asked to take a drug test as a requirement for a prescription."

One of Sandlin's sisters "said she hopes her community will start to recognize the dangers its health care providers are facing," Hjalmarson reports. "Friends have told her that some doctors have to call police several times a week because patients seeking drugs get belligerent and out of control. . . . Doctors across Kentucky are so frustrated with the dangers of providing pain medication that some are not providing the service at all, a committee under the University of Kentucky's Kentucky Ambulatory Network is finding." (Read more)

Studies agree: Climate-change bill would help U.S. agriculture in the long run

University studies of the House-passed bill to limit climate change generally agree that American agriculture "would gain more than it would lose" in the long run, Charles Abbott of Reuters reports on a review of the studies by Kansas State University.

"All of the studies said that costs of production would rise and in the short run per-acre profitability may decline, but, for the most part, the declines will be modest," Abbott writes. "On the plus side, the bill exempts agriculture from emission caps, has provisions to ease the transition to higher fertilizer prices and offers the chance of revenue from development of a carbon-offset market. In such markets, polluters who find it too pricey to cut their own emissions could pay farmers to store carbon in soil or by growing trees." (Read more)

KSU's Department of Agricultural Economics reviewed studies by Texas A&M University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Missouri, Iowa State University, Duke University and the Agriculture Department. Here is the report.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Veterinarian started a hay bank, found much greater needs as recession worsens horse crisis

When Oregon veterinarian Scott Hansen founded Sound Equine Options, he envisioned the non-profit organization as a hay bank, but he quickly learned that the horse crisis goes farther than he thought. Now SEO serves as a relief fund for horse owners in need, Jacques Von Lunen of The Oregonian reports. The group offered its first free euthanasia clinic two weeks ago and has other programs in the works.

The number of abandoned and neglected horses has been on the rise during the recession, but Hansen says his group's service isn't meant to be a way out for horse owners who can't afford hay. The group only accepts severely ill and suffering animals and reserves the right to refuse service to any horse it deems adoptable upon arrival, Von Lunen reports. During the recession, though, "adoptable" has taken on a broader meaning.

Even affluent owners are cutting vet expenses, and "People on the bottom financially are really putting off" vet care, Hansen said. The group also hopes to establish a roster of vets who certify rescues and create a network of foster homes for horses, and still plans to expand its hay bank, Von Lunen reports. "It just seemed that (euthanasia) was what we could really help out with more than others," Kim Mosiman, Hansen's practice manager, told Von Lunen. The Oregon Horse Welfare Council says funded rescues is key because even well-meaning rescuers can become overwhelmed. (Read more)

In first ruling of its kind, judge says wind farm threatens endangered bats, need special permit

We reported in October about a rare green-versus-green battle between environmentalists over a West Virginia wind farm that might threaten endangered Indiana bats. Now a federal judge has ruled that Chicago-based Invenergy can complete 40 windmills it has begun to install on an Appalachian ridge in Greenbrier County, but cannot move forward on plans to install 122 turbines along a 23-mile stretch without a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maria Gold of The Washington Post reports. (Post graphic by Gene Thorp)

"Like death and taxes, there is a virtual certainty that Indiana bats will be harmed, wounded, or killed imminently by the Beech Ridge Project," District Judge Roger W. Titus wrote in a 74-page opinion. "The development of wind energy can and should be encouraged, but wind turbines must be good neighbors." The lawsuit is the first court challenge to wind power under the Endangered Species Act, Gold reports, but as wind and solar farms rapidly expand nationwide, similar battles are playing out. (Read more)

Rural Ga. schools wonder if they have the money to meet new standards for math, English, science

New graduation standards may hit rural Georgia schools particularly hard, say rural school officials. School officials in several middle Georgia counties told Andrea Castillo of The Macon Telegraph one challenge for rural schools is a smaller tax base, limiting the academic and cultural resources the schools can offer. Georgia has the third-highest rural student population in the country, Castillo reports, citing information from a Rural School and Community Trust report we noted in November. More than 500,000 Georgia students attend rural schools and account for more than a third of the state’s student population.

Starting with current sophomores, all Georgia high schoolers will need to complete four years of math, English and science courses, Castillo notes. Previously, students could choose between a college preparatory or a technology/career preparatory diploma with varying course requirements. Trey Seagraves, assistant superintendent in Crawford County, worries the new requirements will cause iyts already low graduation rate to drop even lower.

"A lot of times when you have a high poverty rate and the community is economically disadvantaged, parents may not have resources to prepare students for school," Seagraves told Castillo. "I don’t think it’s a matter of not wanting to, it’s not being able to." Still other educators explained that rural school districts provide their own advantages. "You know the children. You see the families, even if you don’t see them in the school," Lawanda Gillis, director of curriculum and instruction and Title I director in Dodge County, told Castillo. "You see them in the grocery store or church. You don’t have that in larger towns." (Read more)

Grocery consolidation, globalization felt on farms

Consolidation and globalization of grocery chains is having a profound effect on competitiveness in agriculture, says an agricultural economics professor. "The increasing domination of markets by major retailers and food manufacturers, the major consolidation and rise to power of large international grocery chains is really a cataclysmic change in the food marketing sector," Richard Sexton of the University of California, Davis, said at a recent forum sponsored by the non-profit Farm Foundation.

The forum brought together "industry, academia and U.S. Department of Agriculture economists together to consider structural change and competition in U.S. agriculture and food markets," Agri-Pulse reports. Farm Foundation President Neil Conklin told Agri-Pulse that the Department of Justice was also at the Washington forum because it needs to understand what’s happening in agriculture before joint USDA/DOJ Antitrust Division workshops begin next March on whether new anti-trust and regulatory measures are needed to curb anti-competitive pressures in agriculture.

"Grocery retailers are the dominant players in the food chain today," Sexton said. "I don’t think we know very much about them, how they set prices, how they market their products, and very importantly, we know very little about how their actions affect the markets, including the upstream participants in those markets." (Read more, subscription only)

Defining 'universal service' in telecommunications could pave way for rural future or roll clock back

UPDATE, Dec. 19: As long expected, the Federal Communications Commission this week proposed using part of the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes rural telephone service, "to meet a congressional mandate to give every U.S. home access to high-speed Internet service," Cecilia Kang reports for The Washington Post. "The program raises about $7 billion annually from fees on long-distance phone service, and the idea of redirecting those funds has upset rural phone carriers, which have come to rely on the subsidies." The proposal was among several aimed at making broadband universally available. (Read more)

The idea of universal telecommunications service has come to signify a moral right "of a nation's citizenry to be provided with access to basic technological goods and services like electricity, telephone and, now, broadband," Sharon Stover and Nick Muntean write for the Daily Yonder. But universal service hasn't always held that connotation, the University of Texas researchers write, and they say Congress should consider revising the legal definition of the term to include broadband access and consider several important elements.

Between 1894 and 1912, many telephone companies raced to set up their own networks and overcome Alexander Graham Bell's market advantage, but Bell refused to connect his network to competitors. The only way to reach subscribers from competing exchanges was to subscribe to both networks, an option that was only affordable to businesses. That brought the first call for universal service, or interconnection of the networks, instead of dual service. In 1934 the Communications Act formalized the status of Bell's American Telephone and Telegraph as a regulated monopoly, and calls for universal service dissipated.

The current concept of universal service came from a second attempt by AT&T in the 1970s to fight against competing long-distance providers. The 1996 Telecommunications Act revised the 1970s-era definition to require that the Federal Communications Commission ensure that such basic telephone services should be available "at just, reasonable, and affordable rates," and stipulating consumers in rural areas be provided with telecommunications services at a level of quality and at rates "reasonably comparable" to those available in urban areas.

As lawmakers consider expanding universal service to include broadband, "If proprietary, privately-held infrastructures are favored over net neutrality and shared infrastructure with multiple ownership types ... the 21st century version of universal service might become eerily similar to that of the early 20th century," Strover and Muntean write. They say universal service must be used to bring access to previously overlooked citizens, and "We must ensure that universal service does not again simply become an empty slogan that legally protects and perpetuates the status quo." (Read more)

Ski country reporter's firing ignites debate about advertising's role in editorial decisions

The relationship between news, commentary and advertising, usually closer at smaller news outlets, is the focus of a controversy over the firing of a Colorado reporter who criticized a local ski resort that then pulled its ads from the Summit Daily News. Susan Green, a columnist for The Denver Post, writes that the reporter, Bob Berwyn, was fired because his Nov. 19 column led Vail Resorts to stop advertising in the paper. Jim Morgan, publisher of the Daily News, responded in a column that "circumstances symptomatic of a pattern of behavior documented in reviews over the course of time" were responsible for the decision. (Vail Resorts photo by Jack Affleck)

Berwyn's column alleged that ski resorts intentionally misconstrue weather reports as marketing gimmicks. The column didn't mention Vail Resorts by name, but referred to a Twitter post by an unnamed top resort executive displaying snow on his front porch. Rob Katz, the company's chief executive officer, has since explained that the tweet was his, but argued that none of the resorts were open at the time, so he wasn't suggesting snow was on the slopes. Berwyn told the Post that Katz called immediately to complain, and publisher Morgan told him he "had a lot of groveling to do." After standing by his column, Berwyn says he was fired two weeks later. Katz says the company only pulled its advertising after news of his discussions with Berwyn and Morgan, about not being contacted for the column, were made public.

"It's unfortunate but, especially in this economy, some advertisers feel like they can flex their muscles when there's commentary that they don't like," Ed Otte of the Colorado Press Association told the Post. "Newspapers need to withstand these kinds of threats." In his response column, Morgan wrote that the newspaper doesn't discuss personnel matters, but said he should have spoken to the Post off the record to provide more insight.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Panel rejects narrow definition of 'journalist,' sends federal shield law bill to full Senate

A shield law made it out of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today, perhaps removing the major obstacle to putting protection for reporters' confidential sources into the federal statute books. The committee rejected amendments, strongly opposed by journalism groups, that would have sunset the bill in 2013 and made it apply only to a "salaried employee" or "independent contractor" of a news organization.

UPDATE, Dec. 11: The latter amendment was sponsored by Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California. After it was defeated, Durbin voted against the bill. Because Durbin is the Senate majority whip, he could block consideration of the bill by the full Senate. Durbin has agreed to stop pushing a provision in the amendment that would deny the shield to anonymous or pseudonymous posters, but says he wants to clarify that the shield applies only to news outlets, a term that may have to be further defined to get the bill before the Senate.

The bill defines journalists broadly, "including bloggers, citizen journalists and freelancers — and relies on court tests to determine whether sources deserve protection," The Associated Press notes. "The journalist is defined by the nature of activity engaged in, rather than by the organization that employs the reporter. . . . The bill does not give journalists absolute authority to protect sources. Those rights can be overridden in national security cases. ... A federal judge would weigh the public's right to know versus national security claims made by the government."

The bill "has been pushed by journalistic organizations for at least two decades," reports John Eggerton of Multichannel News. "It was held up by the Obama administration until a compromise was struck on some national security issues, and then by Republicans, who thought the balance was still too far in favor of journalists and argued the compromise had been between people who already supported the bill, not Republicans with remaining issues." (Read more)

The bill was approved 14-5. It now goes to the full Senate. The House has passed a different version but supporters are likely to ask the House to accept the Senate version, which contains language agreed on by the Justice Department, intelligence agencies and the bill's supporters.

Every state but Wyoming has some sort of source protection, or reporter's privilege, in statute or case law. For more from the Society of Professional Journalists, click here. For background on reporters' privilege from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, click here.

AEP says pilot carbon-capture-and storage facility costing less than half as much as recent estimates

American Electric Power, the country's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, says the first commercial-scale CO2-capture project, at its Mountaineer plant in West Virginia, has “exceeded expectations” and the company "will be able to retire 25 percent of its coal-burning power plants and install advanced carbon-capture equipment on the remaining 75 percent" by 2025, Becky Smith reports in The Wall Street Journal. “This still is an extremely expensive undertaking, but the answer is near at hand,” Morris told Smith.

On the Journal's Environmental Capital blog, Keith Johnson says the economics cited by Morris are "especially striking." Morris estimates that the cost of removing CO2 and storing it in a secure place will add only 4 cents per kilowatt-hour to the cost of elecriticity. That's a lot less than estimated earlier this year by Harvard University’s Belfer Center. "They figured the first generation of clean coal plants would add 8 cents to 12 cents per kilowatt hour," Johnson writes. "Only when clean coal is up and running around the world would the additional costs come down to between 2 cents and 5 cents, Belfer estimated."

Johnson says AEP may have made a breakthrough, but could also be following "a strategy to make sure that Washington invests heavily in clean-coal technology and offers cash premiums for storing the stuff, even as policy makers are threatening drastic environmental regulation of big polluters." (Read more)

Researcher at a top agriculture school says not to blame animal agriculture for climate change

A researcher at the University of California, Davis says a popular perception that consuming less meat and dairy products will help stop climate change is simply not true. Frank Mitloehner, a UC Davis associate professor and air quality specialist, says promoters of events like "meatless Mondays" seem to be well-intentioned but are not well-schooled in the complex relationships among human activities, animal digestion, food production and atmospheric chemistry. "Smarter animal farming, not less farming, will equal less heat," Mitloehner said in UC Davis release. "Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries."

Mitloehner says most of the public's confusion about the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by livestock comes from a 2006 U.N. report that said, "The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents). This is a higher share than transport." The two sentences were included in the report's summary but nowhere in the body of the report. Mitloehner maintains the U.N. erred when it calculated livestock's emissions all the way from farm to table, but in figuring transportation's role pnly counted fossil fuels burned while driving. He says raising cattle and pigs for food accounts for about 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, while transportation creates an estimated 26 percent.

Mitloehner does advocate advancing meat-production methods in developing countries to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, but says developed countries "should focus on cutting our use of oil and coal for electricity, heating and vehicle fuels." (Read more)

GAO says little surface-mined land gets developed

Surface-mine operators say replacing hills and mountains with flat or relatively flat land provides needed land for development in Central Appalachia, but the mines actually provide little in the way of post-surface mine development, says a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

GAO also found "while the area of Appalachia affected by surface coal mining has increased, it has also become more concentrated in a few coalfield counties," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. Ward first reported about the low percentage of surface mine land used for development a decade ago, and we recently noted a Lexington Herald-Leader story about the issue in Kentucky.

The report, commissioned at the request of several lawmakers, offered no recommendation for action, but did include a wealth of data about mountaintop removal, Ward writes. Among the highlights: approved permit land that had never been reclaimed in West Virginia increased from 184,000 acres in January 1990 to 245,000 acres in July 2008; acres under open permits have become more concentrated in both Kentucky and West Virginia; and only 12 of 212 permits issued in West Virginia from 2000 to 2008 proposed a post-mining land use of industrial or commercial development. (Read more)

'Grand Dame' of Kentucky GOP, rural woman who was close to George H.W. Bush, dies in accident

Velma Childers, once called the "grand dame" of Kentucky's Republican Party, died Wednesday following a car accident in her hometown of Pikeville. She was 79. Childers, who served on the Republican National Committee for Kentucky and on the Kentucky Republican Party’s executive committee for 23 years, was a close friend of former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara.

"She was a very outstanding lady," Pike County Coroner Russell Roberts told Deborah Yetter of the The Courier-Journal in Louisville. "We’ve lost a good citizen of Pike County." Roberts said police told him Childers was driving southbound on U.S. 23 when a car pulled in front of her. (Read more)

"Velma Childers was a special person and our dear friend, and I am sure thousands of others will say likewise," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. He got to know Childers when he was The C-J's political writer and she was ousted from the state party committee in 1991 for supporting the successful candidacy of Democrat Brereton Jones, a former West Virginia Republican, for governor of Kentucky. She remained close to the Bush family and attended the elder former president's birthday parachute jumps.

Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at First Baptist Chuch of Pikeville. Visitation will be at the J.W. Call Funeral Home Chapel after 6 p.m. Friday. For a story by Dori Hjalmarson, Pikeville bureau reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, click here. (Photo from Herald-Leader)

Recessionary budget cuts are hard on rural elderly

What is happening to the standard of life for the elderly in your rural communities? It's time to take a look, based on a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberally oriented Washington research group. It says at least 24 states have cut back on programs for the elderly during the recession, Kirk Johnson of The New York Times reports. Hundreds of millions of dollars more in cuts are on the table for next year.

Census data show the "country’s most rapidly aging places are not the ones that people flock to in retirement, but rather the withering, remote places many of them flee," Johnson writes. As young people continue to leave rural places, "the elderly who remain — increasingly isolated and stranded — face an existence that is distinctively harder by virtue, or curse, of geography than life in cities and suburbs," Johnson reports. A lack of public transportation, medical care and reliable cellphone service also complicate life for the elderly in rural America.

"Some people who study rural America say the tough economic times and new budget woes could make it too difficult for many rural stoics to hang on," Johnson writes. "But others suggest the fortitude of the rural elderly simply runs too deep for that." Teresa Radebaugh, the director of the Regional Institute on Aging at Wichita State University, told Johnson, "The people will remain, because they’re rooted and anchored to the land. They’ll stay no matter what." (Read more)

USDA pushing climate bill but hasn't explained how to keep up production as cropland goes to forest

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "ventured gingerly" into the climate change debate at a news conference called for that purpose Wednesday, DTN reports. Vilsack again explained agricultural benefits from climate change legislation will far outweigh any additional costs, while USDA economists also briefed Congress on the likely effects of the House-passed climate bill on Wednesday and Thursday.

The USDA's work brings to light two questions about the secretary's assertions, DTN writes. First, "how USDA plans to link the program’s benefits to ‘normal’ crop and livestock production since perhaps 85 percent of the expected benefit is seen as coming from planting trees on crop and pastureland." The second question revolves around how USDA will identify winners and losers in the program and keep U.S. agriculture production efficient in the future.

By 2013, USDA estimates the price of carbon allowances will reach about $27 per ton of CO2 equivalent and 27 million acres will have been planted with trees, DTN reports. By 2050, USDA says carbon allowance values could increase to $70 per ton of C02 equivalent and push an additional 60 million acres of forestation; 35 million would come from cropland, a 15 percent decrease from the amount now in crops, and 24 million acres would come from pasture, about a 9 percent decrease from the baseline. (Read more, subscription required)

Not all farmers are convinced the carbon-sequestration practices advocated by USDA and the House bill will be profitable, Mark Steil of Minnesota Public Radio reports. Among their concerns are the uncertainty of sequestration research, limits in the legislation, and the increased cost of doing business as electric rates rise. (Read more)

Southeast Ohio man hopes to transform dairying into a more localized industry with better milk

The American dairy industry has been sacrificing taste for cheap prices and long shelf life, says one dairyman hoping to reinvent the industry. Warren Taylor, right, who owns and runs Snowville Creamery in Pomeroy, Ohio, and aspires to be "the Che Guevara of the American dairy industry," says he's trying to make milk the way it was made 40 years ago, John Burnett of National Public Radio reports. (NPR photo by Burnett)

"I built Snowville Creamery to prove to the American dairy industry that the reason our children have had a 30-year continuous decline in their consumption of milk is not entirely Coke and Pepsi's fault, but because the dairy industry has been delivering a continuously declining quality of milk, in terms of its freshness and taste," Taylor told Burnett. Taylor's milk is sold 48 hours out of the cow, pasteurized at a lower temperature than the industry standard, delivered no farther than eight hours from the dairy and is not homogenized.

Most importantly, Taylor says, his milk comes from cows that are fed grass and hay. "This is in stark contrast to the vast majority of milk in America which is made from cows confined in barns, partly so they can be milked three times a day, and are fed a diet that is predominantly corn and soybeans," he told Burnett. Taylor is one of about 5 percent of American milk producers grazing their cattle on grass, Burnett reports.

The dairy industry maintains his claims of better taste are in the eye, or at least tongue, of the beholder. "We all know the placebo effect is quite powerful. If you're paying $6, $7 or $8 a gallon for milk versus $3, you might think it tastes better simply because it costs more," Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, told Burnett. Taylor's milk sells for about $3 a half-gallon, but he says after recently expanding to 80 outlets, the latest in Washington, D.C., the business became profitable for the first time this month. (Read more)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Opponents of mountaintop-removal mining gain support, but their cause has much room to grow

Opponents of mountaintop-removal mining gained more support in 2009 than in the previous decade, but they have yet to mobilize the millions of supporters they want, The Associated Press reported this week. Social networking, protests and celebrity support are just a few of the strategies they have used to advance the anti-MTR message, but they continue to struggle to overcome the collective indifference of average Americans. This section of Vicki Smith's story stood out to us:

Although the practice may seem tailor-made to stoke public outrage, it lacks a cuddly mascot. Its victims are not photogenic polar bears or spotted owls; they are people and places.

Mountaintop-removal mining occurs in sparsely populated parts of Appalachia, places tourists don't visit. It is rugged, unglamorous country, filled with valuable natural resources, yet slow to inspire passion.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Americans voiced strong opinions on whether oil companies should drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. People cared because the debate pitted $4-per-gallon gasoline against Alaska's majestic, snowcapped mountains.

But there is no sticker shock at the light switch. The cost of electricity has grown slowly and steadily. Tolerably, even. (Read more)

Tennessee is national hotbed of animal rescues

Tennessee relied on the The Humane Society of the United States more than any other state in the last two years to respond to animal rescue missions, Anne Paine of The Tennessean reports. The increased use of the nonprofitgroup stemmed from a lack of facilities and funding in rural communities to respond to animal cruelty, she writes. The Humane Society assisted on nine rescue missions in Tennessee during the period; the No. 2 state had five.

"Tennessee just doesn't have the infrastructure to address animal cruelty," Leighann McCollum, the Tennessee director of the Humane Society, told Paine. Forty of Tennessee's 95 counties have no government-funded animal control program, and many that do only have dogcatchers who have no authority to investigate animal cruelty. On Thanksgiving Day, the group rescued 84 food-deprived horses and mules from a Cannon County farm.

"They have all those resources we don't have," Dickson County Sheriff Tom Wall told Paine. "After they came down here, I went on the Internet and joined, and set up an automatic deduction out of my paycheck for them." The group relies mostly on donations to fund its $2 million annual budget. In the upcoming legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers are expected to attempt to amend several state animal cruelty laws to better protect all animals. (Read more) (Tennessean video)

1 in 5 water systems violated rules in last 5 years; almost all serve fewer than 10,000 people

More than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the last five years, The New York Times reports. "Since 2004, the water provided to more than 49 million people has contained illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage," Charles Duhigg writes. The majority of drinking-water violations since 2004 have occurred at water systems serving fewer than 20,000 residents. Look them up here.

Duhigg reports that fewer than six percent of the water systems that broke the law were ever fined or punished by state or federal officials. In many instances, contaminations were one-time events and posed little risk to public health, but hundreds of other contaminations persisted for years, he writes. The Times "compiled and analyzed millions of records from water systems and regulators around the nation, as part of a series of articles about worsening pollution in American waters, and regulators’ response."

Environmental Protection Agency officials said Tuesday they plan to focus financial and technical assistance on water systems that serve fewer than 10,000 people, in which 96 percent of all health-based drinking water violations occur, Trayn Lutz of Greenwire reports for the Times. The new plan was met with grumbling from lawmakers about a shortage of details. Not everyone beleives new regulations will have much power. "The same people who told us to ignore Safe Drinking Water Act violations are still running the divisions," one mid-level EPA official told Duhigg. "There’s no accountability, and so nothing’s going to change." (Read more)

U.S. settles Indian lawsuit over energy royalties

The federal government announced Tuesday an agreement to settle a 13-year-old class-action lawsuit by paying $3.4 billion to settle claims that it mismanaged the energy-production royalties in American Indian trust funds. The lawsuit centered on hundreds of thousands of disputed land trust accounts that date back to the 19th century, Charlie Savage of The New York Times reports.

Tribal-law specialists described the lawsuit as one of the most important in the history of legal disputes involving the government’s treatment of Indians, and President Obama described the agreement as an "important step towards a sincere reconciliation." Before the agreement becomes final Congress must enact legislation and the federal courts must then sign off on it, Savage reports. Administration officials said they hoped those steps would be completed in the next few months.

"This is an historic, positive development for Indian country,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Savage, "and a major step on the road to reconciliation following years of acrimonious litigation between trust beneficiaries and the United States." Each member of the class-action lawsuit will receive a $1,000 check with the rest of the money to be divided according to land owned. (Read more)

'Fracking' expands gas supply, threatening coal's power-plant market and perhaps groundwater

We've reported about advancements in the natural-gas drilling practice of hydraulic and chemical called fracturng that is opening up previously inaccessible U.S. reserves, most recently here and here, and major newspapers are starting to pay closer attention, especially since gas offers an expanded source of energy. Some experts say recoverable U.S. gas reserves could now be bigger than the immense Russian reserves, Steven Mufson of The Washington Post reports, and the "fracking" process has led to a land rush in areas like southern New York, which lies at the northern end of the vast Marcellus Shale formation, one of several being fracked.

The new supplies would leave the U.S. less vulnerable to disruptions from Gulf Coast hurricanes and less dependent on imports, Mufson reports. Ready supply of natural gas at stable prices may also deal another blow to proposals for new coal-fired power plants, and gas plants, which can be shut on and off more easily than coal or nuclear, could supplement wind and solar facilities. "Natural gas can serve as a bridge fuel to a low-carbon, sustainable energy future," former Colorado Sen. Timothy Wirth, now head of the United Nations Foundation, told Mufson.

Expanded gas drilling isn't without its skeptics and opponents. Many environmentalists "have sounded alarms about the chemicals that drillers use to fracture the rock and the danger of natural gas or other substances contaminating water supplies," Mufson writes. In September, we reported the environmental concerns regarding fracking. New York has declared a moratorium on drilling until the state's Department of Environmental Conservation new regulations. "There are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed," Bruce Nilles, a lawyer at the Sierra Club, told Mufson, but he added new natural gas supplies could be a "game-changer" in the battle against coal-fired power plants. (Read more)

UPDATE, Dec. 24: The leading news organization on fracking is ProPublica, the non-profit group headed by Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. He take umbrage at criticism from Investors' Business Daily and defends ProPublica's reporting, here.

Kentucky's climate change discussion can provide example for advancing the global warming debate

In an excellent example of moving a global discussion to a local level, a Kentucky forum on climate change yesterday was marked by repeated warnings that cheap, coal-fired electricity is becoming a thing of the past, and Kentuckians must do their part to prepare for rising electricity costs. Much the same is true for much of rural America, especially customer-members of rural electric cooperatives, which get 80 percent of their juice from coal.

"Electricity prices will go up without [carbon-dioxide emissions] regulation," said Justin Maxson of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, based in Berea, Ky. "But they will go up even more with regulation." Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council said climate change could not only cause energy costs to rise, but also cause the coal industry to wither and Kentucky's poor to wind up in even more dire economic straits.

However, Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., which convened the forum, presented a different scenario in which Kentucky could "land in a sort of economic catbird seat as a place with limited climate change, and could benefit if it enhances education and infrastructure to gain businesses that other states lose," Cheryl Truman of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. (Read more)

Under either scenario, the day's common theme was that Kentucky's traditionally cheap coal-generated electricity rates are going to increase, and the only question is by how much. FitzGerald and John P. Malloy, E.On-U.S. vice president of energy delivery, both spoke of the need for demand-side changes in electricity consumption. While the future of renewables and carbon-capture and sequestration technology for coal-fired power plants may or may not alter the supply-side of electricity consumption, both men said Kentuckians will need to abandon the wasteful consumption that has eliminated much of the state's cheap electricity advantage. Because the state gets 91 percent of its electricity from coal, it has some of the nation's lowest electric rates, but its average bills are only a bit below the national median.

"The good news is that we waste a lot of electricity now because it’s cheap, and higher prices will provide more incentives for conservation and developing alternative energy," Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen writes. "That will reduce the need for costly new power plants and help Kentucky transition away from coal as reserves are depleted." Eblen points out that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce was discussing many of the same issues just down the hall from the climate conference. A state senator joked with him during a break that the two groups were looking at the issues from different perceptions as well as different rooms.

Local conversations like the Kentucky climate forum can help advance the global warming debate. Maxson pointed out that rural people stand to benefit from a cap-and-trade system in which they would be paid for healthy stewardship of farms and forests. Eblen's thesis that the "underlying truth was clear to everyone: change is here, and Kentucky must deal with it," can be applied to local communities and states across the country.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

EPA plans to regulate selenium, a coal pollutant

The Obama administration is planning to "require more than 600 coal-fired power plants to clean up — perhaps even eliminate — wastewater discharged into lakes, rivers and other waterways," Environmental Health News reports. "The national standards would replace a patchwork of state regulations that EPA officials say are too lax to protect fish and wildlife from toxic metals and other elements, particularly selenium, in the plants’ wastewater. Some states allow the plants to emit selenium at levels hundreds of times higher than EPA’s water-quality standards, while others don’t even require monitoring for it."

The new regulation would come from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012. Selenium occurs naturally in coal and is most prevalent in bituminous coal, used in power plants. It reaches the environment through "scrubbers, which clean contaminants out of the air, and ash ponds, which store waste from coal combustion," Sarah Coefield reports. (Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

Coefield's object example is the Gibson power plant in Southern Indiana (avove), where a lake is "next to a national wildlife refuge [and] a prime fishery for bass and an attractive rest spot for hundreds of species of birds, including endangered least terns. But the manmade lake, built by one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants to hold its wastewater, contains high levels of selenium that jeopardize the birds and render fish unsafe to eat." Coefield'sd detailed story is here.

Climate-bill backers talk too much about jobs, not enough about climate change, liberal writer says

"Congress is finally ready to address climate change, but the American public seems headed in the opposite direction," The Nation says in introducing an opinion piece from its Washington editor, Christopher Hayes. He notes recent polls that show fewer Americans "think global warming is happening at all . . . think it's because of human activity [and] think it's a 'very serious problem'."

Hayes offers possible reasons: "The past few years have been fairly temperate. The economic crisis has pushed issues perceived as not immediately vital to the back burner. And a good portion of the decline in belief in the climate science comes from sheer partisan polarization: for certain Americans in the era of death panels, birthers and Glenn Beck, if Barack Obama says the world is warming, then it must not be."

He makes no reference to the stolen e-mails of climate scientists, as he should have. That controversy "has given new life to the skeptic camp that had been largely relegated to the sidelines during this year's legislative fight and, in the minds of opponents, handed them a potent new weapon against the climate bill," E & E Daily (subscriber-only) reports this afternoon. Michael McKenna, a Republican lobbyist won energy issues, told E&E, "It allows elected officials, it allows media, it allows guys like me access to the science debate again. For a very long chunk of time, the science debate was thought to be toxic. It was settled, it was done, let's move along. This has given folks who want to talk about the science a very easy access point." UPDATE, Dec. 10: "E-mails being cited as 'smoking guns' have been misrepresented," reports.

McKenna's point could actually be an argument for Hayes' main point, that the climate-change bill has been sold too much as a jobs bill and too little as prevention of "catastrophic climate change." He acknowledges that "people don't care enough about the climate to motivate any broad support, that immediate concerns like jobs dwarf abstract ones like carbon dioxide, and prophecies of doom have a strong chance of backfiring and causing paralysis, but in so overwhelmingly focusing their rhetorical energy away from the central argument about climate, the good guys have created a vacuum that the armies of reaction have rushed to fill. . . . The large, unwieldy coalition committed to making sure we don't do catastrophic damage to our fellow humans around the globe needs to make sure we put climate back at the center of the climate debate." (Read more)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Labor Dept. targets black-lung disease but no longer aims to lower limit on coal dust in mines

The Obama administration's strategy to eliminate black-lung disease apparently will not include a lower limit on the amount of coal dust in underground mines, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his Coal Tattoo blog. Ward notes that the Department of Labor said in May that it planned to propose a regulation on "Occupational Exposure to Coal Mine Dust (Lowering Exposure Limit), but an announcement today was titled "Occupational Exposure to Coal Mine Dust (Lowering Exposure)."

"The word 'limit' is gone. And that’s significant," Ward writes. "Six months ago, [Labor Secretary Hilda] Solis told miners, the coal industry and the public that her agency was going to lower the limit. Now, lowering the limit is just one of several options that are being considered." Ward's post concludes with a video of Mine Safety and Health Administration boss Joe Main "explaining why he believes MSHA may be able to end black lung without reducing the legal exposure limit."

UPDATE, Dec. 8: Ward and others question Main online but are unable to get an answer to questions like this one: "Is MSHA also committed to lowering the permissible exposure limit for coal dust?" Read Ward's report on the chat here.

Eastern Kentucky woman honored for advocacy of organic gardening

This year's Kentucky Farm Bureau Farm Public Relations Award went last week to a Middlesboro woman who has "become a regional celebrity for promoting organic gardening, nutrition and agriculture education," Farm Bureau said. Pat Biggerstaff, a Maryland native who has lived in Middlesboro for over 20 years, was honored with a plaque and $300 at the organization’s convention. (University of Kentucky photo)

Her advocacy for organic gardening led to a weekly newspaper column in the Middlesboro Daily News, a television program produced by Lincoln Memorial University in nearby Harrogate, Tenn., and three books. "If everyone did as much to promote agriculture in limited agricultural counties, farmers would be much better off," Bell County Farm Bureau President John Brock Sr. wrote in nominating Biggerstaff for the award, which goes to "a Kentuckian who has contributed significantly to generating a better public understanding of agriculture," according to a Farm Bureau news release. (Read more) You can read a 2005 UK College of Agriculture feature about Biggerstaff here.

EPA says greenhouse gases threaten health but does not declare carbon dioxide dangerous

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said today that heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere are a threat to huiman health, but she did not do what some expected: declare carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, a dangerous pollutant. An endangerment finding "could pave the way for the government to require businesses that emit carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases to make costly changes in machinery to reduce emissions -- even if Congress doesn't pass pending climate-change legislation," Jeffrey Ball and Charles Forelle of The Wall Street Journal reported this morning.

Jackson's announcement "stems from a Supreme Court ruling which ordered the agency to determine the impact of carbon emissions not only on the environment, but on public health," CNN reports.

"An endangerment finding would allow the EPA to use the federal Clean Air Act to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, which are produced whenever fossil fuel is burned," the Journal explains. "Under that law, the EPA could require emitters of as little as 250 tons of carbon dioxide per year to install new technology to curb their emissions starting as soon as 2012." EPA has said it will only require permits from facilities that put out 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, but the reporters say that effort to avoid slamming small businesses with new costs is expected to be challenged in court. (Read more) (WSJ graphic)

'Climategate' complicates Copenhagen, but doesn't undercut global-warming science, experts say

Last week we briefly analyzed "Climategate," the name global-warming skeptics use to describe the stolen e-mails between world-renowned climate scientists. Now the controversy is providing added context for the global climate negotiations beginning today in Copenhagen, Andrew C. Revkin and John M. Broder of The New York Times report. As global leaders converge to discuss a new climate treaty, the e-mails have led to renewed attacks on the basic science of climate change.

"The uproar has threatened to complicate a multiyear diplomatic effort already ensnared in difficult political, technical and financial disputes that have caused leaders to abandon hopes of hammering out a binding international climate treaty this year," the Times reporters write. Despite the public outcry, an array of scientists and policy makers have told the reporters that nothing so far disclosed in the e-mails undercuts decades of peer-reviewed science. "Even some who remain skeptical about the extent or pace of global warming say that the premise underlying the Copenhagen talks is solid: that warming is to some extent driven by greenhouse gases spewing into the atmosphere from human activities like the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation," Revkin and Broder write.

Their key example is Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado, "who has been highly critical of the United Nations climate panel and ... branded many of the scientists now embroiled in the e-mail controversy part of a climate 'oligarchy'.” Pielke told the writers there is no real dispute that unusual warming is occuring, because it is widely and independently measured, and “The role of added carbon dioxide as a major contributor in climate change has been firmly established.”(Read more)

Len Peters, a chemical engineer who is secretary of the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, told Jim Bruggers of The Courier-Journal in Louisville that the e-mails appear to have been taken out of context and exploited by people who don't understand give and take among scientists. “Now, are there some things we don't know about climate change? Absolutely,” Peters said. "But we know something is happening, and man certainly seems to be having some impact on the climate." (Read more)

In his "Morning Meeting," Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute also passes along several resources for local journalists covering the Copenhagen conference and climate change.

E-mail raises questions about role of Kentucky's biggest coal company in state mine official's firing

In November we reported the former head of Kentucky's mine-permit division said he was fired because he refused to approve permits under a policy he said was illegal. Now an internal e-mail sent by an Alliance Coal executive has raised additional questions about the company's role in Ron Mills' firing. Most of the questioned permits were for underground mines ploanned by Alliance. The e-mail, sent by Raymond "Rusty" Ashcraft, Alliance's manager of environmental affairs and permitting at the company's Lexington office, informed his colleagues of the firing just minutes after Mills had been notified, John Cheves reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The controversial rule allows a coal company to mine without showing that it has the legal right to enter as much as a third of the land in its plans, and is the subject of a lawsuit the Kentucky Resources Council is preparing to file. KRC Director Tom Fitzgerald obtained a copy of Ashcraft's email and provided it to the Herald-Leader. The e-mail, sent at 9:24 a.m. on Nov. 13, also said Mills would be replaced by his deputy on an acting basis. Mills told Cheves in an interview he was fired just before the e-mail was sent and his replacement was not named until the afternoon.

"Ashcraft seemed to know before I did that I was going to be fired," Mills told Cheves. "Obviously, somebody in the administration felt compelled to call him and tell him. But why? Why are they calling coal companies about their decisions to hire and fire the people in my position?" State Energy and Environment Secretary Len Peters said last week he alone made the decision to fire Mills, and Kerri Richardson, spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Beshear, told Cheves, "As for how Rusty got information on Mr. Mills being fired, I have no idea. I don't have any information for you on that." (Read more)

In October we reported here and here that Joe Craft, president and chief executive officer of Alliance Resource Partners L.P., headed a $7 million group donation to the University of Kentucky Athletic Association to name a new men's basketball team dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge.