Saturday, March 06, 2010

Vilsack tells row-crop farmers he's 'a little nervous' but appears to make a good impression

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "appeared to hit a home run" with his speech at the Commodity Classic meeting of row-crop farmers, the largest such audience to which he has spoken, Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant writes in an e-mail to her subscribers. "Vilsack says farmers don’t get enough thanks for what they do, and he believes USDA should be spearheading efforts to help the public realize the importance of agriculture," Delta Farm Press reports.

The former Iowa governor, whose efforts to put tighter limits on commodity-program payments to wealthy farmers have been defeated by the farm lobby and its allies in Congress, was "feeling a bit nervous about speaking to production agriculture," Agri-Pulse reporter Stewart Doan said in an audio report. Doan's observation was based on Vilsack's minor flub and his ad-lib reaction to it. He lauded the farmers for "the surpluses you create in trade that allow us to create wealth in this communi -- in this country. So I think I'm speakin' to a lot of gold-medal winners here today and that's why I'm a little nervous."

Agri-Pulse has a recording of the 30-minute speech, other reports on Commodity Classic, and stories on other recent speeches by Vilsack and his recent appearance before an appropriations subcommittee in which he outlined a "different direction as it relates to rural development." For that report, by Jon harsch, click here. For a video from Delta Farm Press of Vilsack's remarks to reporters, click here.

GM to keep more than half of dropped dealers

General Motors, the carmaker with the most dealerships and the largest percentage of rural dealers, says it will keep 661 of the 1,100 it planned to drop last year. Letters going out to the dealers say they will be required to prove "adequate financing and operating capital, as well as positive customer satisfaction reviews," Dana Hedgpeth of The Washington Post reports. The move "could provide economic relief for hundreds of communities nationwide," write Jerry Hirsch and Tiffany Hsu of the Los Angeles Times.

Industry experts argued last year that GM needed to drastically reduce its dealer network, the industry's largest, but Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of auto information company, told the Times that keeping or reinstating the dealers "is unlikely to hurt GM's financial performance." He said, "It doesn't really cost GM that much to have a dealer that is not very successful. . . . A large number of dealers gives you coverage in rural America," he said. "Where are those people supposed to buy vehicles?" (Read more)

GM did not name the dealers who will get the letters, but said it would call them next week. Most of the dropped GM dealers submitted their claims to arbitration. About 400 of the 789 dealers being dropped by Chrysler Corp. "have filed arbitration claims, and Chrysler said it expects the arbitration hearings to start at the end of March or early April," the Post reports.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Colorado jail won't let inmates read local papers

Local newspapers are contraband in the jail in Garfield County, Colorado (Wikipedia map). In fact, the only newspaper inmates at the Garfield County Jail in Glenwood Springs can read is USA Today, Troy Hooper of the Aspen Daily News reports. "It’s for the safety of our inmates," Steve Hopple, the jail’s commander, told Hooper. "I know that’s hard to quite fathom. But as our population grows, we run out of space for special-needs inmates and those special-needs inmates’ safety can be placed at risk."

Hopple said "sexual predators and inmates convicted of crimes against children, for example, can be targeted by other prisoners seeking vigilante justice," Hooper writes. The jail fears information about those inmates in local papers make them bigger targets. As for the endorsement of USA Today, Hopple said it provides "well-rounded national news and it’s fairly comprehensive." (Read more)

Prisons are disproprtionately rural. Does the one near you allow local newspapers behind bars, or not? Why or why not?

Kentucky pair's multimedia tobacco story wins Pictures of the Year International award

Alvin Stamper, the winner of the 2009 Garrard County Tobacco Cutting Competition, and most of the recent ones, cuts and spears burley tobacco. Photo by David Stephenson.

Pictures of the Year International has honored David Stephenson, Kentucky Kernel photo adviser and former Lexington Herald-Leader photographer, with first place in its "News story - multimedia" category for 2009. The winning project, "Cutting through the competition," below, is a multimedia report by Stephenson and Herald-Leader reporter Amy Wilson about a tobacco-cutting contest in a state that no longer relies on the crop. It originated from their preparation for Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues seminars in October about storytelling.

IRJCI photo: Stephenson looks on as Beattyville Enterprise Editor Edmund Shelby interviews Enterprise employee Cheryle Walton during the first workshop of Foothills in Focus, a project to help weekly papers in Appalachian Kentucky adopt multimedia. Stephenson started the instruction with audio, which is essential for good video. The Foothills in Focus project is funded by the McCormick Foundation.
Cutting Through the Competition from David Stephenson on Vimeo.

Georgia universities propose eliminating 4-H

The ongoing struggle to balance state budgets may claim a popular program among rural youth in one Southern state. "The University System of Georgia plans to present to state officials a plan to cut or eliminate 4-H in an effort to save almost $59 million of the $300 million it plans to cut this year," Michelle Floyd of the Newtown Citizen reports. State Sen. John Douglas told Floyd the proposal appears to be a negotiation tactic by university presidents, who hope to trim the amount they must cut, but has backfired in the legislature.

Douglas said the legislature should look at cutting high salaries for top university officials instead of popular programs with broad impact like 4-H. "It seems that the primary goal of both the USG and [the University of Georgia] at the moment is to protect huge salaries while threatening the people of Georgia with cuts to very popular programs," he told Floyd. In addition to eliminating 4-H across Georgia, the plan could close five 4-H camps and half of Georgia’s extension offices. (Read more)

Two rural senators say transportation budget is too focused on urban areas

Senators voiced bipartisan concern Thursday that the Obama administration's budget request for the Department of Transportation focuses too heavily on urban areas. Republican John Thune of South Dakota and Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska said "they feared the competitive application processes would not set an equal playing field" for rural areas, Josh Voorhees of Environment & Energy Daily reports. Begich suggested DOT have rural projects compete against each other for a portion of the cash, ensuring that they had a fair chance to win funding.

"I don't want to call it a carve-out because I want to make sure that it's a fair system that is competitive," Begich said at yesterday's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing. "But if it's Kotzebue competing against Los Angeles, we lose." Thune, the top Republican on the panel's subcommittee in charge of surface transportation, "previously called the White House's efforts to boost transit options as part of its livability effort unrealistic for rural states like his own," Voorhees reports.

"It's clear that livability really applies to rural areas as much as it does anywhere else," John Porcari, DOT's deputy secretary, said in an attempt to soothe some of the senators' concerns. Porcari added one of the initiative's goals was a return "to the quality of life that many of us enjoy in small towns." (Read more, subscription required)

Thursday, March 04, 2010

New rules governing 'organic' labels encourage advocates of natural food

New rules issued by the Department of Agriculture require that livestock must graze on pasture for at least four months a year to qualify for an organic meat or dairy label. The animals also must get at least 30 percent of their feed from grazing. The Associated Press reports that natural food advocates believe these new rules are proof that the Obama administration is willing to set higher standards for labeling food as organic.

Organic advocates also believe a new day has arrived at USDA because the department decided to audit its National Organic Program because of self-admitted problems with reliability and transparency. Kathleen Merrigan, a USDA deputy secretary, called the moves a "down payment" on future reforms of organic practices. She said she expects more rules in the coming months.

Merrigan and Miles McEvoy, the USDA's deputy administrator of the National Organic Program, enjoy strong reputations in the organic industry. "These are people who believe in organics, real organics, and aren't hostile to organics," said Mark Kastel, the co-director of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, an advocate for small organic farmers. (Read more)

Census began this week in rural areas, where counting residents is inherently problematic

About 56,000 workers for the Census Bureau began hand-delivering census forms Monday to rural residents at about 12 million addresses across the U.S. The forms for rural residents are being distributed two weeks before mailing of surveys to urban areas because of problems inherent in counting rural residents. Irregular addresses and more travel time between addresses are two of the issues that rural census-takers must address.

Joe Quartullo, area manager at the Philadelphia Regional Census Center, told The Baltimore Sun: "There are challenges in rural areas and urban areas." Language barriers, for example, tend to be more of a problem in urban neighborhoods, but travel time between addresses is greater for rural areas.

EPA boss says strip mines damage water quality, pledges help for small, rural water systems

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson told a Senate subcommittee Thursday that strip mining affects water quality, Environment & Energy News (subscription only) reports. "As we learn more and more from outside scientists and inside scientists, we know that there are clear water quality impacts that come from filling in streams -- pretty intuitive -- and from the valley fills that result when you have to take this tremendous amount of overburden," the term for material above coal seams, Jackson told the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.

Jackson spoke at a hearing on a bill introduced by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that would sharply curtail mountaintop-removal mining in Central Appalachia. She was asked about other topics, and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), "who said tougher clean-water standards are pinching rural communities in his state," Ledyard King reports for the Billings Gazette. "The cost of meeting higher standards was the top concern raised at a Montana Rural Water Systems conference that Tester addressed last month, according to the senator's office."

Jackson said EPA will "renew its efforts" to help rural communities afford water-system improvements, King reports. The administrator "said she understands the financial hardships small water systems face. She mentioned that the agency has some flexibility, for example, to make loans to eligible communities and then forgive them so they don't have to repay anything." (Read more)

In first suit of its kind, enviros sue poultry giant Perdue over Cheasapeake Bay pollution

Environmental groups in Maryland have filed suit against the poultry industry for polluting the waters that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. The Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance alleges that harmful levels of pollution are flowing from a drainage ditch from Hudson Farms in Berlin, Md., Timothy B. Wheeler of The Baltimore Sun reports. The farm raises 80,000 chickens a year under contract with poultry giant Perdue, which is also named in the lawsuit.

"The Pocomoke River is already impaired with nitrogen, phosphorus, E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria," Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips told Wheeler. "That's exactly what we have pouring off this facility, and the Pocomoke River is carrying it to the Chesapeake Bay." When the group gave the farm two months notice of its intent to sue in January, the Maryland Department of the Environment said the pollution was from the Ocean City sewage treatment plant, not chicken farms. Tuesday the department told Wheeler it is investigating whether Hudson Farms is polluting.

The lawsuit is the first targeting Maryland's chicken industry for water pollution, Wheeler reports. "The Chesapeake Bay is in trouble enough already," Phillips said. "If we have to go after it one polluting point-source at a time, that's what we'll do." Perdue demanded a public apology after state regulators blamed chicken manure, and "threatened to sue the environmental groups for alleging that it has any responsibility for the farm," Wheeler writes. (Read more)

House Agriculture Committee rejects additional limits on wealthy farmers' subsidies, insurance

As expected, yesterday the House Agriculture Committee "rejected President Barack Obama's proposals to reduce crop subsidies to higher-income farmers and federal support for crop insurance," reports Charles Abbott of Reuters. Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said "I think we have overwhelming support in the House not to open up the Farm Bill" until the current one expires in 2012.

"The 2008 farm law is the first to deny benefits to the wealthiest Americans," Abbott notes. "It says crop subsidies will go to people with no more than than $500,000 a year in adjusted gross income (AGI) from off-farm sources or $750,000 on-farm AGI. The administration wanted to lower the income cutoff over three years to $250,000 off-farm AGI and $500,000 on-farm AGI. Some 30,000 people would be affected. The White House also proposed a $30,000 cap on the annual direct-payment subsidy, down from the current $40,000, and cuts in federal subsidies to the privately run crop insurance system. (Read more)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

As higher education goes up in rural counties, unemployment goes down

While unemployment in rural, urban and exurban counties has risen and fallen at roughly the same rate during the recession, the rural rate has remained higher in most months. Why? Education may be the biggest reason, Roberto Gallardo and Bill Bishop write for the Daily Yonder. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the unemployment rate in January for those over 25 years with less than a high-school education was 15.2 percent while the rate for those with a bachelor's degree or higher was only 4.9 percent.

The link between education and employment is even stronger in rural areas, Gallardo and Bishop write. The Yonder chart, below, shows the percentage of residents in rural, urban and exurban counties with at least a bachelor's degree. The three bars on the left represent counties with an unemployment rate lower than the national average, and the three bars on the right represent counties with a higher unemployment rate than the national average. (Read more)

FCC: More than double rural broadband money

The Federal Communications Commission's new National Broadband Plan could include up to $25 billion in new federal spending for high-speed Internet lines with $9 billion of that set to bring broadband to rural areas faster. The plan, proposed by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski would include funding for "high-speed Internet lines and a wireless network for police and firefighters as part of a broader plan that appears to be a win for wireless companies," Amy Schatz of The Wall Street Journal reports.

The likelihood of Congress approving that amount of spending amid heightened concerns about federal deficits is unknown, Schatz writes, but "the FCC proposal will represent a detailed outline of the Obama administration's ambitions for expanding Internet service to all Americans." FCC reports about 4 percent of American households currently don't have high-speed Internet access, "mostly because they live in rural areas where it is prohibitively expensive for companies to offer service," Schatz writes. The $9 billion rural broadband investment would add to the $7.2 billion investment from the stimulus act.

"The plan will also suggest creating a new broadband account in the federal Universal Service Fund, an $8 billion annual program funded by ratepayers which subsidizes phone service in rural areas and for low-income Americans," Schatz reports. "The new fund would be devoted to funding broadband in areas that don't have high-speed Internet service now." (Read more)

Move to stop Saturday mail faces rural opposition

The U.S. Postal Service announced Monday it would again move to close Saturday delivery, a move that could affect rural Americans across the country. Postmaster General John Potter said the end of Saturday delivery is critical to reducing the service's massive debt, Donna Leinwand of USA Today reports. "We know we're going to have less mail in 2020 than we have today," Potter, who promised to submit the formal proposal by the end of the month, said. "We can't freeze wages. We can't freeze fuel costs." (Read more)

The end to Saturday delivery faces major hurdles at the Postal Regulatory Commission and in Congress, Brian Montopoli of CBS News writes. The first legislators in line to block the move will likely come from rural districts where the Internet is not as prevalent and access to broadband connections among those with Internet is far from universal. USPS has cited the increased use of the Internet as one factor in a decrease in mail volume. The decision could also have serious implications for rural newspapers using mail delivery. Mail subscribers would not receive their Saturday paper until Monday, the Erie Times-News in Pennsylvania notes.

NASA offers time-lapse view of mountaintop mine

If you use the aerial/satellite view in online mapping programs and know something about the landscape of Central Appalachia, it's not hard to pick out areas that are being mined and some that have been mined. But rarely do we get a time-lapse view of the expansion of a big operation, like the Hobet Mine in southern West Virginia, near Madison. The folks at NASA's Earth Observatory have done just that, with a series of images that begin and end with the pictures below. The first shows the mine in 1984, shortly after it opened; the next one shows it last year, with helpful notations of reclaimed and permitted areas.

Earth Observatory's Rebecca Lindsey wrote this description: "Below the densely forested slopes of southern West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains is a layer cake of thin coal seams. To uncover this coal profitably, mining companies engineer large—sometimes very large—surface mines. . . . In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency intervened in the approval of a permit to further expand the Hobet mine into the Berry Branch area (white outline) and worked with mine operators to minimize the disturbance and to reduce the number and size of valley fills." Go to this page to click through year-by-year images of the site and Lindsey's full article. Go here for a longer version of this item, on our Appalachian Coal page.

Utah readies attempt to take over federal lands, expects legal challenge, hopes for good ruling

The latest development in the ongoing battle over federal lands in the West is one state's attempt to trump the feds. "The Utah House of Representatives last week passed a bill allowing the state to use eminent domain to take land the federal government owns and has long protected from development," Nicholas Riccardi of the Los Angeles Times reports. Several state lawmakers said they welcomed the possible court decision that would result from the law.

"I love America, and I'm a peaceful guy," Republican Rep. Chris Herrod, one sponsor, told Riccardi, "but the only real option we have is rebellion, which I don't believe in, and the courts." Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance termed the attempt "an ideological fantasy," and told Riccardi, "Everybody knows this isn't going to happen. The federal public lands are the thing that makes the American West so great."

But not everyone agrees with Groene. "In the Intermountain West, particularly in rural areas, residents have long complained that federal preservation of land has prevented development that could provide reliable jobs and bolster the tax base," Riccardi writes. The legislators want to seize and open two roads, previously closed by the federal government, through national forest land to encourage development of high-end cabins along the corridor, and open "a swath of federal land outside Arches National Park where the George W. Bush administration, on the eve of the 2008 election, authorized oil and gas exploration," Riccardi writes. The Obama administration previously reversed the Bush decision. (Read more) Herrod also told Brandon Loomis of The Salt Lake Tribune the land was needed for school development.

As wind steals their electricity market, natural-gas firms want it to pay when it doesn't deliver

Texas produces more energy from wind than any other state, but a growing feud between wind and natural-gas interests in the state is reflecting an emerging national trend. Wind power is exempt from state regulations that force utilities to pay for energy that a source fails to deliver. Gas companies say that's not fair, Russell Gold of The Wall Street Journal reports, but wind utilities say they can't control the weather and should not be held accountable for windless periods.

The fight has taken an added sense of urgency as increased wind-energy production in Texas is displacing gas consumption to generate electricity, projected to drop 18.5 percent by 2013, Gold writes. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas forecasts the amount of electricity Texans will need the next day, and orders generation for that power starting with the cheapest source, which is usually wind. Older natural gas plants are generally the most expensive source and are the last sources ERCOT turns to, Gold reports. Fossil-fuel companies that don't deliver the supply of electricity they promised face daily financial penalties, but wind is exempt because of its unpredictable nature.

"My philosophy is that whoever causes the problem should be responsible for fixing the problem," says Kevin Howell, president of Texas operations for NRG Energy Inc., the state's second-largest power provider. "Wind shouldn't cause problems that other people have to fix." Wind advocates argue argue while new forecasting techniques make it easier to predict in advance when wind could provide power, they can't control nature, Gold writes. The battle isn't just contained to Texas; fossil-fuel companies in the Midwest and Wyoming are pushing for wind to be held to similar standards they face. (Read more)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Marijuana confiscations and teen use on rise, and so are Mexican-cartel pot farms on public lands

Two key indicators of marijuana usage were up in 2009; was one factor the increasing role of Mexican cartels in marijuana production, a significant industry in some rural areas? Here's what we know:

The fiscal 2011 budget request from the Drug Enforcement Administration says marijuana seizures doubled from 1,539 metric tons in fiscal 2008 to 2,980 metric tons in fiscal 2009, which ended Sept. 30. Meanwhile, reported use of pot by teens also increased from 2008. "Several factors play into this number, and in any given year the amount of drugs seized by DEA can fluctuate," DEA spokesman David Ausiello told Ryan J. Reilly of Main Justice. But that's a pretty big increase. One official from the Marijuana Policy Project, a lobbying group that advocates legalization of marijuana, told Reilly he suspected the increase was a result of drug seizures from cartels. (Read more)

Part of the cartel growth may be attributed to Mexican drug gangs adopting an age-old domestic pot-growing strategy of using public land. "Pot has been grown on public lands for decades, but Mexican traffickers have taken it to a whole new level: using armed guards and trip wires to safeguard sprawling plots that in some cases contain tens of thousands of plants offering a potential yield of more than 30 tons of pot a year," Alicia A. Caldwell and Manuel Valdes of The Associated Press report. AP interviews with drug enforcement agents across the country pinpointed Mexican gangs as "largely responsible for a spike in large-scale marijuana farms over the last several years." (Read more)

As drug seizures and cartel activity are increasing, new data from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America reveals marijuana use among teens is also on the rise. The 2009 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, sponsored by MetLife Foundation, shows the number of teens in grades 9-12 who had used pot in the last month had grown by 19 percent, from 32 percent in 2008 to 38 percent in 2009. The group called for earlier intervention by parents as a key deterrent. (Read more)

USDA wants to expand conservation reserve land

The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to maximize enrollment in the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program, Secretary Tom Vilsack says. The proposal would reduce U.S. cropland by 1.5 percent if successful, Charles Abbot of Reuters reports, and "the amount of land involved, around 5 million acres, could produce more than 150 million bushels of wheat, 200 million bushels of soybeans or 700 million bushels of corn, based on recent abandonment rates and the Agriculture Department's projected yields for the three crops this year."

"It is my goal to ensure that we maximize enrollment -- and holding a general signup is an additional step we can take to enroll acres in this program," Vilsack told sportsmen at a weekend convention in Iowa. The reserve pays an annual rent to owners who agree to idle fragile cropland for 10 years or longer. Around 4.5 million acres in contracts expire Sept. 30, with an additional 10.6 million acres scheduled to expire over the next two years. (Read more)

UPDATE (3/4): Vilsack was on the defensive Tuesday after Democratic Sen. and fellow Iowan Tom Harkin alleged the agriculture budget would actually result in a 4-million acre cut to federal conservation programs. Vilsack admitted the program probably "won’t enroll the full amount of acreage, 12.8 million, allowed for the Harkin-authored Conservation Stewardship Program," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. Vilsack explained the budget does include a cut to the program, because "the administration is asking for less money than Congress authorized, but the total spending and acreage would actually increase from this year to next," Brasher writes. (Read more)

America's least healthy counties are mostly rural

Last month we reported a new study from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation detailing the health levels of every county in the U. S. The rankings suggested that rural counties tended to be less healthy, and now the Daily Yonder has broken down the data to support that notion. "Healthier counties are urban/suburban, whereas least health counties are mostly rural," the researchers found. "About half (48 percent) of the 50 healthiest counties are urban or suburban counties, whereas most (84 percent) of the 50 least healthy counties are rural."

The Yonder explains the data isn't very useful for comparisons across state borders because different states used different measures to compute the health levels, but it does note the five most healthy and least healthy counties in each state in a map, below, and provides charts comparing the percentage of urban and rural counties on the two lists in each state and a list of the healthiest and least healthy counties in every state broken down by rural, urban or suburban designation. (Read more)

Senators ask education secretary to help rural schools, create Office of Rural Education

Twenty-two Democratic senators from mostly rural states have sent a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan imploring him to give rural schools a fair shot at the department's competitive funding programs. Senators from Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin signed the letter voicing concern "that some of the department's policy prescriptions (such as charter schools and even extended-day programs) just don't work in really remote areas that have trouble supporting even one school," Alyson Klein of Education Week reports.

The senators suggest the department provide technical support to help rural schools better compete for competitive grants, and call for the Department of Education to create a Office of Rural Education, "to help look at policies from the standpoint of rural districts," Klein writes. "Arne continues to seek the advice of rural school superintendents, principals, teachers, and students in order to create a balanced national education plan," John White, a spokesman for the department, told Klein. (There's been a federal Office of Rural Health for a long time.)

Duncan has met at least twice with rural superintendents, Klein reports, and came back from his visit to all 50 states with a better understanding of the challenges rural schools face. The department says its push to include more discretionary funding hasn't lead to a major decrease in formula funds, but it will look for ways to help rural schools in competitive funding. One example of the department reaching out to rural schools can be found in the proposed rules for the $650 million Investing in Innovation Grants that include a special priority for rural schools, Klein writes. (Read more)

Monday, March 01, 2010

EPA may ban pesticide spraying near schools, hospitals to prevent drift of harmful chemicals

The Environmental Protection Agency may soon move to ban pesticide spraying near schools, hospitals and child care centers. The agency is considering the issue after receiving a petition from farm-worker and public-health advocates, Sasha Khoka of National Public Radio reports. Part of the evidence the agency will consider comes from seven "pesticide drift" cases involving school buses in the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley of California over the last year.

"Any incident involving pesticide drift is problematic," Mary Ann Warmerdam, a former California Farm Bureau lobbyist who now heads the state's Department of Pesticide Regulation, told Khoka. "It's illegal, and we have to do better. Having said that, we do have the human condition to contend with, and mistakes do happen." An average of 37 pesticide-drift incidents a year over the past few years have made people sick in California, Khoka reports.

Some officials are concerned an even greater number of cases go unreported. "Everywhere I go to all the little rural communities, everybody has a story to tell about being drifted on by pesticides — that they were outside barbecuing or they were having a birthday party," Teresa de Anda of Californians for Pesticide Reform told Khoka. It's so common, "people don't report it."A 2004 California law requires growers to pay medical bills for pesticide-drift victims who don't have health insurance or workers' compensation. EPA is "also considering new labeling guidelines for chemicals to warn against the dangers of pesticide drift," Khoka reports, and accepting public comment on both proposals this month. (Read more)

Could climbing icy road cuts be new ecotourism?

A combination of winter weather and roadbuilding may have launched a new niche in tourism for mountainous areas. Brian Sohn and Josh Justice of Pike County, Kentucky, are "leading the way in taking advantage of the environment that has been created, namely the massive rock cuts created by the construction of roads like the new U.S. 119," to promote ice climbing in Eastern Kentucky, Russ Cassady of the thrice-weekly Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville reports. (Cassady photo: Justice climbs a man-made cliff between Williamson, W.Va., and Pikeville)

"To me, it represents the potential we have in this area for ecotourism," Justice told Cassady. "It's our greatest natural resource. Coal's not a renewable resource. I think that ecotourism could be a part of our comprehensive economy here." The sport hasn't gained wide appeal in the region yet, but the climber did report they recently discovered evidence at one site indicating other climbers had been there recently.

In cold weather the high rock faces of the mountains cut to make room for the road become covered with ice, as water drains down and freezes. Some of the safety concerns of ice climbing, a dangerous sport, are alleviated by the geology and engineering of the road cuts. "With the safety issue kind of dealt with, I was willing to try it out," Sohn told Cassady. (Read more) And others may, too, now that AP has run the story. Does your locality have road-cut climbers?

'Clean coal' project wants legislature to make electric utilities buy its more expensive power

Coal-state lawmakers have been quick to champion "clean coal" technologies, but now one of the top coal states is trying to decide if the added cost of electricity from one technology is worth the investment. That has created an unusual schism between coal interests and one of their major lobbying allies, rural electric cooperatives, in Kentucky.

Supporters of a $2 billion coal-gasification project want the Kentucky legislature to force utilities to purchase the higher-priced electricity it would generate," Roger Alford of The Associated Press reports. "Reluctant lawmakers said they fear the proposal would lead to electric rate increases for Kentucky residents and businesses."

Kentucky has some of the lowest electricity prices in the country, but has been criticized for wasting that advantage through inefficient use. Officials from the Cash Creek project in Western Kentucky, which would convert coal into synthetic natural gas that would then be burned to generate electricity or sold through a gas pipeline, warned lawmakers that if they didn't force utilities to pay the higher rates Kentucky would not see any coal gasification. A Pike County representative told Alford the higher rates in the proposal gave him heartburn.

"The Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives and utility companies have already begun lobbying to defeat the legislation, even though it hasn't yet been filed," Alford reports. Dennis Cannon, spokesman for the state's rural electric co-ops, told Alford, "The issue we look at is what's best for our customers. It appears that from what we have heard, electricity would be more costly than from other sources available to us." (Read more)

Calif. efforts to make electricity from manure slip as the waste becomes a growing pollution source

The concentration of livestock production has made manure a greater threat to water supplies, and in the biggest agricultural state, efforts to turn the waste into energy aren't working out as growers hoped. More regulation may be in the offing.

Looking back at four decades of water-cleanup efforts, David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post reports,"The country simply has more dung than it can handle: Crowded together at a new breed of megafarms, livestock produce three times as much waste as people, more than can be recycled as fertilizer for nearby fields. That excess manure gives off air pollutants, and it is the country's fastest-growing large source of methane, a greenhouse gas." (Read more) Brownfield Network reports that the EPA may require confined animal feeding operations to report releases of hydrogen sulfide, perhaps the most odiferous gas from manure. (Read more)

Dairy farmers in California thought they could turn the manure concentration into an advantage by using the waste to generate electricity, but "Efforts to convert cow pies into power have sparked controversy," P.J. Huffstutter of the Los Angeles Times reports. "State air quality control regulators say these 'dairy digester' systems can generate pollution themselves and, unless the devices are overhauled, are refusing to issue permits for them." The generators used to convert the methane into electricity produce key ingredients in smog: oxides of nitrogen, called NOx for their chemical notation.

"The board has been clear that when we're faced with these sorts of trade-offs between reducing greenhouse gases and reducing NOx, we're going to choose NOx," Dave Warner, director of permit services the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, told Huffstutter. He added that the farmers, who began installing the systems only to be refused a permit, "should have checked in with us first, before buying their equipment."

One dairyman, Ron Koetsier, abandoned his system after being told he'd need to spend hundreds of thousands more dollars to bring it in line with smog regulations. "They have a point. I want clean air," he told Huffstutter. "But it doesn't make financial sense for me keep doing this. I don't see how they can turn methane gas into electricity in California, given these rules." (Read more)

Sunshine Week, March 14-20, to highlight local heroes in advocating open government

Sunshine Week, the annual event to promote open government and freedom of information, will be March 14-20 this year. The event's Web site describes participants as "print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know."

The 2010 Sunshine Week will highlight "Local Heroes" who have played significant roles in fighting for open government in the United States, especially unsung heroes. This week the American Society of Newspaper Editors will announce the "Local Heroes" on the site, which also includes useful information for news-media participants, such as highlights from programs of previous years. Sunshine Week is funded primarily by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation but also has received major organizational support from the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Society of Professional Journalists and others. (Read more)

Defenders of program for disadvantaged schools object to feds' push for career-oriented standards

Some education advocacy groups are criticizing the Obama administration's proposal to tie Title I funding for disadvantaged students to states’ adoption of reading and math standards that prepare students for college or a career. States would be required to "either join with their counterparts in developing rigorous, college- and career-ready standards, or work with institutions of higher education to set standards that would ensure high school graduates are ready to enter postsecondary study or the workforce," Alyson Klein of Education Week reports. The proposal is part of the administration's overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The National School Boards Association said in a statement the proposal "amounts to an unnecessary overreach by the federal government to coerce states to adopt a particular approach or be shut out of future funding for key programs." The senior education committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures told Klein there is no evidence that college- and career-readiness standards will lead to better student outcomes, and the proposal was an example of "federal overreaching." States must already agree to establish accountability systems in order to tap Title I funding under the current law. (Read more)

Title I funding is of particular interest to rural schools, which are hurt by the formula that gives additional weight to poor urban schools, writes The Rural School and Community Trust. The advocacy group has provided an Excel chart of 2009 Title I funding for every school district and their calculation on how the funding equation affected that district's grant. The group also advocates for the simpler funding equation outlined by the Center for American Progress in its recent report. What states have particular interest in rural education funding? RSCT reports North Carolina (677,00), Texas (560,380), Georgia (525,000), Ohio (449,700) and Virginia (376,900) lead the country in rural enrollment.