Friday, April 02, 2010

Minnesota has one really old black bear

A 36-year-old bruin has survived to be possibly the oldest wild black bear on record, reports Doug Smith for The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis. She was first caught and outfitted with a radio collar in 1981, when she was 7. Since then, Bear No. 56 has survived 29 hunting seasons and avoided cars on highways and clashes with rural residents. (Photo by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

The average age of a bear killed by a hunter in Minnesota is 3.7 years. About 80 percent of No. 56's 26 cubs died by age 6. And the oldest bear ever killed by a hunter in the state was 31, based on 35 years of data using teeth to determine the age of those killed by hunters.

"Very few bears live past 25," said Dave Garshelis, a Minnesota DNR bear research scientist. "This is really old for a wild bear. She has found a way to beat the odds." Said Garshelis: "We hope she dies naturally, which would make a nice ending to the story." (Read more)

Tennessee farmer carries subsidies, GOP leaders as baggage as he seeks Tea Party support

The Republican candidate in northwest Tennessee's 8th Congressional District is Stephen Fincher, a gospel-singing cotton farmer from Frog Jump. He would almost be the perfect Tea Party candidate, except he gets about $200,000 in farm subsidies per year, reports Amy Gardner of The Washington Post. Fincher has wooed Tea Party followers, but also has won the support of Republican party leaders, which makes the Tea Party folks distrust him. Some support an independent candidate, Donn James, and that could keep Republicans from taking the seat of retiring Democratic Rep. John Tanner.

"Jim Tomasik, a leader of the Mid-South Tea Party in Cordova, Tenn., is heading perhaps the most organized effort to portray Fincher as a welfare-farmer who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from other subsidy-receiving farmers," Gardner writes, quoting him: "If Republicans are going to complain about subsidizing General Motors, that's a drop in the bucket to farm subsidies. But they're backing candidates who are taking large amounts of money from the federal government. That's hypocritical." (Map:

"Fincher said that without that money, his farm would have shut down years ago," Gardner reports. "He also said the subsidies come with conditions, such as when he was required to spend thousands of dollars building an earthen terrace to control erosion. And without the money, he said, American farmers couldn't compete with countries that subsidize fuel and fertilizer more generously than the United States." Fincher said, "People are quick to say with their mouth full, 'Well, the American farmer is on the dole,' " Fincher said. "But a loaf of bread is two bucks when it could be 10 bucks. I know what it is with the government in my business. We would be all for not having government in our business, but we need a fair system."

The race is an example of the choices facing Tea Party activists and Republicans, Gardner writes."In many cases, they will have to decide between purity and pragmatism, between ideals and organization. And their choices will provide clues to the long-term fate of the movement. Will mainstream Republicans, with their bigger budgets and more polished candidates, harness the tea party's energy at the expense of home-grown activism? And for whom would that be a victory -- the Republicans, the tea party or both?" (Read more)

Local Tex. officials want to restrict rural billboards

A Texas county commissioners' court has voted for more restrictive billboard regulations than the Texas Department of Transportation has for rural areas of the county, reports Don Bommer of the San Antonio Express-News. The Comal County officials said the state rules are not restrictive enough to control the proliferation of billboards in rural areas.

Commissioner Jay Millikin said he would not favor a complete ban on billboards. "Interstate 35 is already cluttered with billboards, but I would like to see more restrictions on state and county roads," he said. "If a business is nearby I could understand the need, but they should not be allowed to be put up a billboard out in the middle of nowhere on public roadways." (Read more)

Residents who get mail only through P.O. boxes should get Census forms by hand after May 1

Some residents who get their mail via post office boxes are concerned they won't be counted in the census because they haven't gotten their forms yet, report Adam Young for the Harlan Daily Enterprise in Kentucky and Sandra Baltazar Martinez for the Santa Fe New Mexican. The Census Bureau is not mailing the forms to boxes, so officials say they've hired workers to hand-deliver the questionnaire to the residents.

"It's also possible that in rural areas, Census workers haven't finished dropping off the questionnaires,"  Verónica Reyes, New Mexico's Census media specialist, told Martinez. The Census also has an "Update/Leave" campaign scheduled to run until today, where workers will drop off the forms in rural areas and in places where housing units do not have a city-style address.

Reyes also said residents should wait until April 12 to receive the form, or they can call and request the form or stop by a Census center to pick one up. As of April 19, however, the Census will start compiling a list of addresses from where forms have not been received. These people should expect a Census worker to arrive at their home.  (Read more)  But that should not happen before May 1, so if someone claims to be a census taker befiore that day, “I’d say they’re probably not from the census,” Linda Chambers, manager of the Better Business Bureau in Bowling Green, Ky., told the Daily News.

In southeastern Kentucky, "Bell County is one of those areas where the number of people who receive their mail by post office boxes is unusually high," Young reports from the region's largest town, Middlesboro. "As a result, thousands of people could go uncounted." (Read more)

New book examines unintended effects of breeding and stocking rainbows, 'an entirely synthetic fish'

When the government perfected its ability to successfully breed rainbow trout for prime recreational fishing, there were downsides, the book An Entirely Synthetic Fish. Andres Halverson, a former reporter who boasts a Ph.D. in ecology, "probes the history of the artificial rearing and stocking of rainbow trout around the world," Steve Raymond writes in a review for The Seattle Times.

"Over the decades, rainbows have been bred to grow faster, mature earlier, and breed at different times of year," Halverson writes. "Culturists have tried to select for disease resistance, fecundity, and even such things as color, shape and fighting ability." In a 1939 report the government's chief fish culturist declared it was now possible to produce "an entirely synthetic fish." Since then rainbow trout, above, have been stocked in all 50 states and every continent except Antarctica. (Environmental Protection Agency photo)

"Rivers, lakes and reservoirs were poisoned to make way for rainbows, and rainbows were planted in many alpine lakes previously lacking fish," Raymond writes, but "The result often was disastrous for native fish species and other life." When biologists sought to determine if stocking lakes actually helped fishing they found, "stocking hatchery rainbow severely depressed native populations and actually resulted in fewer trout for anglers." Halverson's book doesn't ignore the plight of anglers and the communities that depend on the river trout, who are now fighting back as the government looks to cut back the trout population. He agrees with the anglers that it's not fair that their taxes and license fees should pay to eradicate trout. He also cautions that the advocates for cutting trout population today closely resemble those who argued for stocking a century ago, and ""they, too, were sure they were doing the right thing for the world." (Read more)

Illinoians fight wind farm, say it hurts their health

A group of residents who live near an Illinois wind farm are not happy with their new living conditions and have sued DeKalb County and the 75 landowners who leased land for the 126 turbines. "It's gone. The country way of living is gone," Susan Flex, who lives with her husband and their nine children in Waterman in DeKalb County, told Julie Wernau of the Chicago Tribune.

Many of the angry locals say the 400-foot tall turbines harm their health. They blame the noise from turbines for sleep loss and the strobe-like flashes produced by the whirling blades in sunlight for everything from vertigo to migraine headaches, Wernau reports. In December, an expert panel, which included doctors hired by the American Wind Energy Association and the Canadian Wind Energy Association, concluded there is "no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects." But Dr. Nina Pierpont, a board-certified pediatrician in Malone, N.Y., who has spent the last four years studying so-called Wind Turbine Syndrome, told Wernau not enough studies have been conducted to rule out any connection between turbines and health complaints.

NextEra Energy Resources, which owns the wind farm, is seeking to dismiss the suit it says is based on "vague allegations of hypothetical harms." DeKalb County has a population of just over 100,000 and is more densely populated than most areas hosting wind farms. "As you move to more heavily populated areas, you would see more — I don't want to say opposition — but you would certainly have more people having questions and issues that needed to be resolved," Steve Stengel, a spokesman for turbine-owner NextEra , told Wernau. Local Steve Rosene knows the groups' opposition to the wind farm might not be popular. "This is a very politically correct thing going on right now, and to say you're opposed to a renewable energy source is like saying you don't like mom and apple pie," he said. "I used to go out in my front yard in a swing and just watch the sunset." (Read more; story also includes a somewhat unnerving video of the effects of turbine-blade shadows)

Rural school advocacy group to help rural educators compete for federal innovation grants

As schools prepare applications for "Investing in Innovation" grants from the Department of Education, some officials are concerned that rural schools might be at a disadvantage due to lack of resources for support in the process. Now The Rural School and Community Trust wants to help by providing "customized technical assistance for rural school districts seeking i3 grants," says a news release from the organization. The program will be funded by a $1.4 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The Trust is planing on-site workshops and other outreach efforts to ensure that rural applicants are informed of the requirements and process, and says it will "assist rural school applicants in identifying promising innovations, completing applications, and building long-term capacity to complete competitive grant applications in the future." Dr. Doris Terry Williams, executive director of the Trust, said in the release, "Our partnership with the Kellogg Foundation will provide vital support to strengthen rural districts’ capacity to secure funding for innovations aimed at reducing dropout rates, increasing graduation rates, and improving teacher and principal quality in high-needs schools."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the partnership in a statement: "Rural schools and their partners know what works in their communities. I have seen examples of great innovations happening in rural schools, and we want to see these ideas shared and replicated. The Department has reached out to the philanthropic community to discuss ways to increase support for high-need schools. We must work together to ensure all schools can compete for the millions in federal discretionary grants that are available to grow programs that work regardless of their size or location."

For more information about the program visit its Web site here.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

EPA says few or no valley fills of mountaintop mines will be able to meet standard issued today

The Environmental Protection Agency took unprecedented steps today to reduce the environmental damage from mountaintop-removal coal mining by making it much harder to put the blasted rock and dirt into valley fills that bury and pollute watercourses.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said there are "no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet this standard," but "The people of Appalachia shouldn't have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them. This is not about ending coal mining, it is about ending coal mining pollution." She noted that EPA recently negotiated changes in the permit for the huge Hobet Mine in West Virginia, which she said will not have valley fills.

EPA is basing its rule on the electrical conductivity of streams, increased by the release of salts and other dissolved solids from mines. Agency scientists determined that streams with more than 500 microsiemens per centimeter, a measure of salinity, are impaired. That is about five times normal levels.

A Kentucky environmental official "said the EPA's action raises serious questions about the future of mining in Eastern Kentucky," The Courier-Journal reports. (Read more) "Industry groups blasted the new regulations, calling them job-killers that would further depress one of the country's poorest regions," Patrick Reis reports for Environment & Energy Daily (subscription only).

UPDATE, April 2: The leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for senator from Kentucky, who have clashed over coal issues in the past, issued statements that were not all that different. Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo issued a press release calling EPA's move a selective "declaration of war on Kentucky's coal industry," adding, "If this ruling were applied to other industries like farming, road construction, commercial development and housing, it would shut down our economy. This anti-coal decision by the EPA Administrator does not reflect what is necessary to protect the health of Kentuckians, but her own deep seated bias against the coal industry." Asked for his view, Attorney General Jack Conway said in an e-mail, “We need to mine coal responsibly and that the EPA should not legislate. That is the role of Congress and yesterday’s announcement demonstrates that Washington does not understand the importance of coal to Kentucky’s economy. . . . I will not support any measure that will cost Kentucky jobs and make it more difficult to keep electricity rates low for our working families, including cap and trade legislation.”

UPDATE, April 5: In one of the two studies EPA included in its announcement, the agency focused on "direct damage to streams that are buried and on pollution downstream from valley fills," Ken Ward Jr. reports for The Charleston Gazette, but the the report also "warns that damage to ecologically important forests is greater than some routinely cited statistics suggest." Previous EPA studies have projected that 1,200 miles of streams would be lost to valley fills and associated mining activities from 1992 to 2002, Ward writes, but the new report explains those numbers don't account for loss of other headwater ecosystems. (Read more)

The Lexington Herald-Leader also concluded in a Sunday editorial that "Kentuckians who care about the future should thank EPA" for its new guidelines. Heartland Institute fellow Ross Kaminsky disagrees, writing the new guidelines are "the inevitable outcome when government puts environmental radicals in charge of writing regulations."


New York dairy farmers say lack of competition among milk buyers is hurting their industry

At the New York state stop of a nationwide tour of Justice Department officials to hear complaints about antitrust issues in the agriculture industry, farmers placed much of the blame for the dairy crisis at the feet of milk processors. At a meeting in Batavia attended by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Christine A. Varney, the Obama administration's top antitrust investigator, farmers pointed to the growing gap between prices consumers pay for milk at the market and the price they are paid by the milk processors as the main reason for dairy industry trouble, Phil Fairbanks of The Buffalo News reports.

"Our farmers are getting paid less and consumers are paying more," Sen. Charles E. Schumer said at the meeting. "Someone's walking away with all the money." Varney, a Syracuse native, mostly listened to the farmers' complaints, but at one point assured them the administration "will not let you down. We know the problem you're facing." Farmers said a consolidation of milk processors has led to a lack of competition for the milk being produced in upstate New York. "It's a disaster," Schumer said, "not only for the our farmers but for our rural communities." (Read more)

Health care reform makes Indian Health Care Improvement Act permanent

The impact of health care reform on Native Americans is being widely praised by Indian advocacy groups, primarily because it includes the re-authorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA). The National Indian Health Board claimed "victory" and Montana Sen. Jon Tester told Indian Country Today, "The law will modernize health service delivery in Indian country, improve access to quality care, and fulfill the government’s trust responsibility to provide adequate health care."

Activists have been trying since the 1976 inception of the IHCIA to permanently reauthorize the act, which expired in 2000.  According to the Department of Health and Human Services, improvements to Indian health care will include:
  • Authorization for hospice, assisted living, long-term, and home- and community-based care.
  • Ability to recover costs from third parties to tribally operated facilities.
  • Establishment of a Community Health Representative program for urban Indian organizations to train and employ Indians to provide health care services.
  • A requirement that the Indian Health Service establish comprehensive behavioral health, prevention, and treatment programs for Indians.

Rural Ga. lawyer shortage worsens in recession

You don't often hear someone complain that the world doesn't have enough lawyers, but that may be the case in some rural areas. The State Bar of Georgia reports more than 28,200 actively practicing lawyers in the state, but roughly 69 percent of them practice in the core Atlanta metro counties. The remaining 8,700 lawyers are sprinkled across the other 154 counties, 35 of which have fewer than four practicing attorneys, Péralte C. Paul of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. While doctors are often given incentives to practice in rural areas out of school, lawyers share little of that help.

The shortage reflects a long-standing problem in rural Georgia: "Dwindling populations and the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs over several decades, coupled with a lack of economic diversity, leave little room for a thriving services sector," Paul writes. Harvey Newman, a public management and policy professor at Georgia State University, explained, "As populations continue to decline in many rural parts of the state, what they have is such a small population that they don’t support much economic activity of any kind." new lawyers, who on average graduate with loans of $71,400 to $91,500, tend to cluster in the state’s metro areas, which boast a more dependable stream of clients.

The recession has only worsened the rural poor's lack of access to government-funded legal aid, an attorney with the Georgia Legal Services Program told Paul. The 39-year-old organization provides legal aid to low-income Georgians outside of metro Atlanta. Cost of representation also remains a significant barrier to many rural Georgians. “Cost is always an issue, and it’s certainly become an issue in a bad economy,” Josh Bell, an attorney in Whigham in South Georgia, told Paul. (Read more)

It's Census Day; return rates vary; look up yours

Today is Census Day, the date to which the decennial count is pegged. Response rates vary widely across the country. As of today, federal officials rank South Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, North Dakota and Iowa as the top five states in returning the census, but households have until mid-April to mail the forms back, Monica Davey of The New York Times reports. Residents of rural Wolford, N.D., wont need the extra time, as each of the approximately 50 locals who received a questionnaire have already returned it.

"Why wouldn't you send it back?" Jim Wolf, who has been mayor of Wolford so long he doesn't remember what specific year he entered office, asked Davey. "It's a rural community, and I guess we go by the rules." Wolford residents who haven't yet received their forms because the U.S. Census Bureau won't mail the questionnaires to post office boxes have begun to complain about the delay. (Read more)

Not all rural areas are enjoying the same success as Wolford in census return rates. Issaquena County, Miss., has an estimated one person for every 166 acres of land, and in 2000 joined the rest of the Mississippi Delta as one of the "most challenging and undercounted census tracts in the state," Shaila Dewan of the Times reports. Only 21 percent of households in the county have returned their census forms, compared to 52 percent nationally. Community groups have tried a number of strategies to increase census awareness, but officials say they will almost certainly have to go door-to-door to get a semi-accurate count. (Read more)

The Census Bureau has a searchable database of census return rates by zip code. The Times map below breaks down participation rates by county.

Rural unemployment soared in January, exceeding rates in urban and exurban counties

The rural unemployment rate increased to 11.2 percent in January, passing the rate in both urban and exurban counties. The rates in urban and exurban counties, respectively, were 10.6 and 10.4 percent, Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo report in the Daily Yonder. Mackinac and Baraga counties in Michigan had the highest rural unemployment rates at 31.2 percent and 28.6 percent respectively. Slope and Williams counties in North Dakota had the lowest at 2.4 percent and 2.5 percent respectively.

The two counties with the highest and lowest rural unemployment rates refected a trend throughout the recession. "Rural unemployment has been lowest in the Great Plains," the reporters write, and "the rates have been the highest in Michigan, the Southeast and along the West Coast." However, unemployment deepened and spread in rural America in January. Compared to December's rates high unemployment counties, those with rates about 15 percent, emerged in California, Oregon, Utah and Arizona while spreading across the South and Michigan.(Read more)

The Yonder includes a number of helpful charts including one breaking down the rural, urban and exurban unemployment rates in each state and another with the 50 counties gaining and losing the most jobs since January 2009. The map below shows the unemployment rates in each U.S. rural county. An enlarged version can be seen here.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

'Children of the Mountains' wins a Peabody Award; so do shows on OxyContin and W.Va. textbooks

The hour-long ABC documentary "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains," broadcast on "20/20" in February 2009, was a winners in the 69th George Foster Peabody Awards for electronic media, announced today by the University of Georgia.

"A powerful documentary shot in the hollows and house trailers of Appalachia reminds us that not all critical problems lie in 'developing' nations," the Peabody board says on its Web site. The program, reported and narrated by Kentucky native Diane Sawyer, tracked the travails of children who were the victims of irresponsible adults in four Eastern Kentucky communities.

The documentary stirred complaints that it represented those subcultures as the dominant culture in Central Appalachia, and amplified an unfounded stereotype with a segment about a largely irrelevant case of incest. But it also made residents and journalists in the region think about their own responsibilities to address its problems, and the show's revelation of "Mountain Dew Mouth" prompted action from drink manufacturer PepsiCo and the state of Kentucky to protect children's oral health. For our commentary on the show, click here.

Two other Appalachian documentaries won Peabodys: "The OxyContin Express" by Current on Vanguard TV, and "The Great Textbook War" by Terry Kay Productions on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. The board said of the former, "With tales of drug-dealing MDs in Florida and Appalachian 'pill-billies,' the documentary makes clear the enormity of the prescription-drug epidemic." Of the latter, "This thoughtful, balanced and gripping radio documentary shows how a 1974 battle over textbook content in rural West Virginia foreshadows the 'culture wars' still raging," the board said.

Farmland prices rise as few owners look to sell

As fewer farmers look to sell their land, those who do are enjoying a price boom driven by demand. When one farm in Eastern Illinois recently went on the market, the sinking price of corn didn't prevent stiff competition for the mostly tillable, 78-acre parcel with a 180-bushel average corn yield, Katie Micik of DTN reports. "Illinois appraisers estimate sellers listed 30 to 40 percent less land in 2009 than in 2008, and that’s turned what some thought could have been a soft market into a seller’s dream," Micik writes.

Interest in owning farmland is growing, Micik reports, and has even attracted the attention of pension funds and insurance companies like it did in the 1970s. Sixty people showed up for the farm auction Micik observed, and 26 registered to bid. Murry Wise, CEO of Westchester Group, which ran the auction, told Micik, "There’s one trend that’s painfully clear: More people are willing to buy farmland than are willing to sell," and he thinks there’s more capital chasing farmland now than in any year he’s been in the business, which is driving up values nationwide. (Read more)

Rural school group says Obama plan for federal education policy is too urban-focused

The Obama Administration's announced revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act do little to fix the problems rural schools faced under the current law, says a rural school advocacy group. Earlier this month the administration released "A Blueprint for Reform," announcing the kinds of changes it will seek in the re-authorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, last amended by No Child Left Behind. While the document includes more language about rural schools than most similar government education treatises, "There is almost nothing in Blueprint that addresses the real needs of high-poverty rural schools, and the programs outlined are clearly designed for high poverty urban schools where circumstances and resources are very different from those found in most rural areas," The Rural School and Community Trust says.

The plan shifts focus in determining school competency from state test scores to college and career readiness, and pushes states to participate in regional or national collaboratives to develop common standards and assessments. "Beginning in 2015, only states that implement standards common to 'a significant number of states' will be eligible for formula grants related to assessments," RSCT says. The group voices particular concern over the plan's emphasis on test scores in teacher evaluation, saying those tests are biased against poorer children and the requirement will push the best teacher to higher-income schools. (Read more)

RSCT also examines each reference to rural schools in the plan and concludes, "Mention of rural schools in Blueprint could give the illusion that something is actually being done for rural schools. But the requirements proposed in Blueprint are designed for urban situations and simply helping rural districts access these programs will not offer much that will make a difference for rural poor children and youth."

Gas companies looking to go greener to alleviate concerns about hydraulic fracturing and water

As more questions emerge about the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, natural-gas companies are searching for ways to make the process more eco-friendly. Environmental groups and some residents of gas-producing areas have become concerned that fracking, where millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected deep into the ground to crack open gas-bearing shale, allowing gas to flow to the surface, uses too much water and could contaminate water supplies, Ben Casselman of The Wall Street Journal reports.

"The industry says that fracturing has never been conclusively linked to water contamination, and that gas extraction uses less water than coal mining, nuclear power and other types of energy production," Casselman writes, but a U.S. House committee is investigating fracking's environmental impact and some congressional Democrats have called for federal regulation of a process now handled by states. To alleviate concerns, companies are "trying to develop non-toxic alternatives to the substances usually used in the fracturing process to kill bacteria, reduce friction and prevent mineral build-up," Casselman writes.

Oil-and-gas service companies such as Baker Hughes Inc. and Schlumberger Ltd. are experimenting with environmentally friendly chemicals initially developed for offshore drilling, Halliburton Co. is using ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, and some smaller companies claim to have solved the problem with their own remedies. "There's a lot of companies trying to get into the business," Jack Stabenau, a former Halliburton manager recently hired to head water processing company Water Tectonics Inc.'s new oil and gas division, told Casselman. "I've literally had people send me stuff that they've been working on in their garage." (Read more)

Western farmers fear swarms of grasshoppers

Federal officials expect more grasshoppers to hatch this summer than any year since 1985, and farmers are bracing for the havoc they could wreak on crops and pastureland. In 1985, "Hungry swarms caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage that year when they devoured corn, barley, alfalfa, beets—even fence posts and the paint off the sides of barns," Stephanie Simon of The Wall Street Journal reports. The dire predictions come after a federal survey of 17 states last fall found critically high numbers of adult grasshoppers in parts of Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Since each female lays thousands of eggs, "The population could be very, very high this year," Charles Brown, who manages grasshopper suppression for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told Simon. One Wyoming farming reported a $30,000 loss in profit last summer from the grasshopper infestation, but says he's been warned that this year's swarm will be even worse. Grasshoppers ideally thrive in the West at densities of about eight mature insects per square yard, Simon reports, but last year hot spots reached as many as 15 per square yard and peak infestation areas can easily hit 60 per square yard!

"Wyoming has allocated $2.7 million for suppression efforts, including aerial spraying of the pesticide Dimilin, which is fatal to maturing grasshoppers," Simon writes, but the state's congressional delegation says that may not be enough and wants federal support. Brown says USDA is aware of the problem, but used up nearly all its $5.6 million grasshopper budget during the annual population count last fall and and has no money to spray swaths of federally-owned range and grassland. The best hope for farmers may be a late cold spell in May or June that could kill a large portion of the nymphs. (WSJ chart) (Read more)

Rural 'dropout factories' offer challenges, rewards

A 2004 report first labeled schools that systematically produce dropouts as "dropout factories." Almost one-fifth of the 2,000 schools with that designation are in rural areas, but most of the focus on reducing dropout rates has been placed on urban schools, where the overall graduation rate for the class of 2006 was 58.7 percent compared to 73.1 percent in all rural schools, Mary Ann Zehr of Education Week reports. Working on the dropout crisis in rural areas can be more rewarding, says Thomas C. West, the University of Chicago researcher who wrote the dropout factory report: Rural schools have fewer students and "you can put more emphasis on what’s going on in their lives."

South Carolina leads the country with 50 rural schools on the dropout-factory list, and Georgia and North Carolina trail closely behind. Almost half of the 50 in South Carolina have fewer than 500 students, Zehr reports. "We have generational poverty, a lack of aspirations," Michael Lucas, the superintendent of the 10,400-student Oconee County School District, which has two schools on the list, told Zehr. To help combat the dropout problem, the district is working to ensure that children read by third grade, spent federal economic-stimulus aid this school year on hiring "adequate-yearly-progress coaches" who monitor struggling students and track them down if they miss school, and allows students who fail a class to make it up online as part of a credit-recovery program.

Tamassee-Salem Middle and High School, one of the dropout factories in Oconee County, has been recognized for its efforts to combat the problem. U.S. News & World Report gave it a bronze award for being one of South Carolina’s best high schools in 2007, and the next year "the school was one of 25 in the South to receive a Pacesetter award from the High Schools That Work initiative of the Southern Regional Education Board," Zehr writes. "Unfortunately, people take the dropout-factory label as a stigmatizing term rather than a helpful term," West told Zehr, noting that the point of the label is to get policymakers to focus on the problem. "Some schools need total reform; some may just need a lot of help. Some are doing well, but a couple of kids [in them] need extra help." (Read more)

North Carolina getting more passenger trains

North Carolina, which had more rural residents than any other state but Texas in the 2000 census, is also blessed with several passenger railroad routes, and one of them is about to get more traffic. On June 5, a state agency will add a third daily train between the state's two largest cities, Charlotte and Raleigh, "leaving each city at midday," reports Bruce Siceloff of the News & Observer in Raleigh. "North Carolina recently won $545 million in federal stimulus grants to beef up and speed up the state's passenger rail service. Plans include faster trip times and more frequent trains, with the scheduled addition in 2012 of a fourth daily round-trip" between Charlotte and Raleigh. (Amtrak map)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

When big employers move out, small towns struggle to pay the bill for sewage treatment

Small towns across the country are struggling to pay for federally required upgrades to sewage-treatment facilities because major employers have left town. In Buffalo, Mo., residents approved a $3.4 billion bond issue two years ago to comply with a federal order to upgrade the city's treatment plant with the expectation that its largest employer and biggest water user, Petit Jean Poultry, would pay back the bulk of the loan. But the factory shut down in October 2008, months before the upgrade was completed, leaving the community with the bulk of the bill and 500 fewer jobs to help pay it back, Peter Urban reports for Greenwire in The New York Times.

Many such towns are in similar binds; the cost of a wastewater treatment system varies little with the amount of water used, because the major costs are plant and personnel. "It costs as much, really, to treat a smaller amount as it does to treat a larger capacity," said Barbara Jones, interim city manager in Mount Airy, N.C., which in the last two years has increased water and sewer rates by more than a third and frozen capital improvements to make up lost revenues from a series of textile factory closings. "So much of it is fixed costs, including the bonds that were taken out just a few years prior to increase capacity."

Chris Hornback, senior director of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, told Urban that factory closings typically hit smaller communities harder; in larger ones, more users can make up for lost revenue more easily. "Larger communities can spread the cost of these losses out during economic downswings; small communities are more likely to struggle," Hornback said. Federal support for local water systems has dropped dramatically since the 1980s, leading groups like NACWA to blast Congress for "authorizing a 'costly and increasing wave of mandates' while essentially abandoning any effort to provide 'meaningful financial assistance' to local governments," Urban writes. (Read more)

Partnership hopes to improve and expand Appalachian forests and fight climate change

A new carbon-offset program may help replenish Appalachian forests while helping to fight global climate change. The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Kentucky, Rural Action in Ohio and Appalachian Sustainable Development in Virginia have joined to create the Appalachian Carbon Partnership, says a news release from the groups. The program pairs individuals, families, groups and businesses with family forest owners who are practicing sustainable forest management and storing additional carbon in their forests.

The project's Web site provides a calculator for interested parties to estimate their greenhouse gas emissions from travel, home energy use, and other everyday activities. Participants can then purchase carbon offsets from a corresponding family forest to become carbon neutral. The Web site estimates the average American family can reach that goal for $285 a year. Participating landowners are required to develop a management plan in consultation with a certified forester or state forester that will qualify them for forest certification through the international Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. They must maintain their forest certification for a minimum of 15 years from the date of enrollment. Landowners will also be required to report the species and diameter of any trees harvested or lost yearly.

"We created the Appalachian Carbon Partnership to promote sustainable forest management," Scott Shouse, the program's manager, said in a release. "We are tapping into the growing market for carbon offsets to provide the economic help family forest owners in Central Appalachia need to implement sustainable management on their land. The money from the offsets goes directly to family forest owners who have made long-term commitments to practice sustainable forest management, which will benefit families and forests for generations to come."

Time to clear up recent news reports about the role of animal agriculture in climate change

Reporting on climate science has been anything but smooth, and evidence suggests some news media have misreported the relationship between animal agriculture and global warming. Since 2006, many outlets have cited a "United Nations study which found that livestock production is responsible for about 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions—a larger share than comes from all planes, trains, and automobiles combined," Curtis Brainard writes for Columbia Journalism Review. That study was back in the news last week when Dr. Frank Mitloehner, an animal scientist at the University of California at Davis, undermined those claims at an American Chemical Society meeting.

The report, "Livestock’s Long Shadow," calculated its impact over the entire life cycle, including "emissions from things like fertilizer production and land-use change in addition to those from cow burps and manure," Brainard writes. The researchers didn't do likewise for transportation but compared the two. Now one of the original study's authors says Mitloehner is correct. "I must say honestly that he has a point – we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport, we just used the figure from the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]," UN Food and Agriculture Organization livestock-policy officer Pierre Gerber told the BBC.

So, animal agricultuire's role was overstated. But some news outlets have incorrectly understood Mitloehener to have dismissed the whole study, and have "left the impression that he believes there is no link whatsoever between livestock production and warming," Brainard reports, citing examples. So where is the true middle? "Mitloehner does not think curtailing livestock production would make no dent in warming," Brainard writes. "He just thinks it would be an insignificant dent and that there are far more effective ways to reduce emissions." (Read more)

Meanwhile, a House of Commons investigation has found "no evidence to support charges that the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit or its director, Phil Jones, had tampered with data or perverted the peer review process to exaggerate the threat of global warming," MSNBC reports, with help from The Associated Press and Reuters. (Read more)

Coal states try to block EPA on greenhouse gases

As the Environmental Protection Agency moves to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, several states are trying to block those efforts. At least 25 legislators in 17 states have introduced measures aimed at halting or limiting EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, Robin Bravender of Environment & Energy Daily reports. Five of the bills came from Democrats, and at least seven such measures have been adopted. Legislators in Illinois, Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah have "passed measures encouraging Congress to step in and block EPA climate rules or for the agency to halt its regulatory plans," Bravender writes, and lawmakers in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Washington and West Virginia are considering similar resolutions.

"I believe that Congress should adopt legislation if we're going to regulate greenhouse gases from stationary sources," Illinois state Rep. Dan Reitz, a Democrat and former coal miner whose bill passed the House, told Bravender. "We should be able to do that within the context of a bill and not do it within the regulatory measures that are out there right now."

The other side: "Under the Clean Air Act, they've been given the right to do that," Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who filed a motion to reconsider Reitz' resolution after it passed, told Bravender. "States don't need to upset all that pre-existing law." Glen Andersen, a program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures, points out that states that rely heavily on coal are more likely to adopt resolutions to block EPA. "I think it's partially just states seeing the potential costs based on what their [fuel] mix is," he told Bravender. E&E also includes a breakdown of each of the 25 bills before state legislatures. (Read more, subscription required)

Once upon a time there was a perfect bull . . .

Jeanne Marie Laskas writes in Smithsonian magazine about a Red Angus super bull named Revelation, his owners (Donnell Brown and the R.A. Brown Ranch of Throckmorton, Tex.) and the highly technical business of breeding top-notch cattle. (Photo by Karen Kasmauski: Brown holds picture of Revelation)

The bull was exceptional and becoming much sought-after for his semen, but "one warm October morning in 2007" he was "inert as a lump of clay. The bull could not get up. Donnell bent over to find that its right rear leg had been mangled, most likely in a fight with another bull, a battle for turf or just a boyish tussle for fun. Revelation was crippled, and a crippled bull is worthless. A crippled bull produces less and weaker sperm. A crippled bull is sent straight to the packinghouse."

Well, not right away. Not this bull. "Revelation was like Barbaro, the racehorse. If ever there was an animal worth going the extra mile for, it's Revelation." So Brown and his partners tried to save the animal, but ultimately failed, and he became steak and hamburger. Laskas tells Revelation's saga in detail from his care, his slaughter and his almost-cloning to the cowboys and communities involved along the way. Read the story.

'Pic' Firmin, a small-town editor who advocated civil rights in Mississippi during the 1960s, dies

Merritt "Pic" Firmin, 69, a leading rural editor of the civil-rights era in Mississippi, died of cancer late Saturday at his home in Gulfport. (1970 photo)

From 1966 to 1975, Firmin was managing editor of The Delta Democrat Times in Greenville, "one of the few Mississippi papers that reported intolerance and wrote editorials urging change," The Associated Press reports. The paper was owned by Hodding Carter Jr., whose son Hodding Carter III told AP that Firmin "cared passionately about bringing his own region into line with the principles that created the country, and the moral teachings of all religions central to America. He followed my father's tradition in that respect: to speak loudly and carry a big stick."

In 1976, Firmin became editor of The Sun and The Daily Herald in Biloxi and then executive editor of the merged Sun Herald. Before he retired in 1991, the American Society of Newspaper Editors named the paper one of the 10 best small dailies. "I can't think of a better journalist who has a lower profile outside of the state in which he lives, when you compare expertise and accomplishments," Will Norton, dean of the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism, who worked with Firmin in Greenville, told AP. (Read more)

Dairy bubble(s) of another kind raise a stink in east-central Indiana

Lauren Etter of The Wall Street Journal does a great job covering the business of farming, which often lends itself to colorful and unusual stories. Sometimes, those stories tell larger stories about the business and its ramifications. Her latest, from near Winchester, Ind., is one of those. It begins, "Like many of his neighbors, farmer Tony Goltstein has to deal with the aftermath of the dairy bubble. But besides his mounting financial troubles, Mr. Goltstein also must contend with bubbles the size of small houses that have sprouted from the pool of manure at his Union Go Dairy Farm. Some are 20 feet tall, inflated with the gas released by 21 million gallons of decomposing cow manure. But he has a plan. It requires a gas mask, a small boat and a Swiss Army knife." Etter then tells us that the seven-year saga of the bubbles, which can be seen in satellite photos (MapQuest image), "traces the recent boom and bust of U.S. dairy farmers."

The physics of the problem are that a plastic liner became detached from the bottom of a sewage lagoon, manure got under it, and gas from it formed the bubbles seem behind Golstein here (Etter photo). Now the bankrupt farmer has asked for state permission to puncture the bubbles, but that worries his neighbors, and a state environmental official is wary. "Not knowing how much volume of gas is there and how much pressure is on it, we're concerned with just cutting a hole," Bruce Palin, assistant commissioner of the Office of Land Quality, told Etter, who notes, "Last year, a hog farmer in Hayfield, Minn., was launched 40 feet into the air in an explosion caused by methane gas from a manure pit on his farm. He sustained burns and singed hair." (Read more)

UPDATE, April 2: The state has given the farm permission to release the gas as long as it uses a vale or valves to control the release, Seth Slabaugh of The Star Press in Muncie reports.

Monday, March 29, 2010

For more than 40 years, former nun from New York has helped communities in Appalachia

"Marie Cirillo came to Appalachia 43 years ago to help educate locals and give them job skills after deciding she couldn't do it as a Catholic nun in the Midwest. The 80-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native remains a community developer here three generations later, having influenced natives as well as a president's daughter," Georgiana Vines writes for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Caroline Kennedy, who worked on a 1973 video project with Cirillo in Tennessee's narrow Clearfork Valley, east of Interstate 75 and just south of the Kentucky border, told Vines simply, "She's a saint." We agree, and no short blog item can do justice to the work she has done. Read the story. (News-Sentinel photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess)

Skepticism of government limits response to census in rural Texas

"Getting rural Texans to mail back their census forms is much tougher compared with their urban counterparts," reports Eric Aasen of The Dallas Morning News. Major urban and suburban counties have response rates around 65 percent, "while rural counties often had response rates below 55 percent," and some around 40 percent.

"Residents in the country say they’re skeptical of government," Aasen reports. "They either have no interest in filling out the forms or are answering just some of the census questions. Others in rural areas are simply hard to find. And residents near the Mexican border face language barriers or are afraid of divulging information."

The Census Bureau Web site says Texas is one of the least responsive states so far, with only 27 percent of census forms mailed back as of today. The national figure was 34 percent. (Read more) To track your community's response rate through a page on the site, click here.

Lack of abbatoirs strains local-food movement

The horse industry isn't the only agricultural sector suffering from a lack of slaughterhouses. Local food advocates say a shortage of abbatoirs is a huge obstacle to the emerging movement. "Independent farmers around the country say they are forced to make slaughter appointments before animals are born and to drive hundreds of miles to facilities, adding to their costs and causing stress to livestock," Katie Zezima of The New York Times reports. These farmers are consequently scaling back plans to expand production. (Times photo by Mattthew Cavanaugh: A slaughterhouse for goats and sheep in Athol, Mass.)

"It’s pretty clear there needs to be attention paid to this," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Zezima. "Particularly in the Northeast, where there is indeed a backlog and lengthy wait for slaughter facilities." Vilsack's Department of Agriculture reports the number of slaughterhouses nationwide dropped from 1,211 in 1992 to 809 in 2008 while the number of small farmers has increased by 108,000 in the past five years. Brian Moyer, director of the nonprofit farm advocacy group Rural Vermont, described the problem to Zezima as an hourglass. "At the top of the hourglass we’ve got the farmers," he said. "The bottom part is consumers, and in the middle, what’s straining those grains of sand, is the infrastructure that’s lacking."

The Agriculture Department is encouraging farmers to band together to form local cooperatives or mobile slaughterhouses, and is financing some mobile units and helping build a regional facility near the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, Zezima reports. "The mobile units have been popular for poultry, and many farmers are trying to replicate the system with larger animals," Zezima writes. Some local opposition exists to the location of abbatoirs. "We’re not against slaughterhouses," Vince Galluccio, who helped organize successful opposition to a proposed slaughterhouse in Woodstock, Vt., told Zezima. "But you wouldn’t open up a discotheque next to a church." (Read more)

Tennessee, Delaware win first Race to the Top

Just two of 15 finalists, Tennessee and Delaware, won funding from the Department of Education's Race to the Top program today. "By announcing only two winners in the first round, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held to his repeated vow that only a tiny number of states with extremely bold plans would receive money in the competition, which aims to promote educational innovation by rewarding a few states for exemplary progress in areas President Obama considers crucial to education reform," Sam Dillon of The New York Times reports.

UPDATE, March 30: The two states won because of strong support from local districts and teachers' unions, Michele McNeil of Education Week reports. But in another post, she notes what her colleague Alyson Klein pointed out to her: "Tennessee and Delaware just happen to be the home states of two powerful, Republican lawmakers the Obama administration is trying to court in its bipartisan push to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del. Both are the ranking minority members in the subcommittees in their respective chambers dealing with K-12 policy, and both are considered leading moderate voices on education who have worked well with Democrats in the past."

The news surprised Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen. "We put in for half a billion dollars with no expectations whatsoever of getting all that money," he said. "We got it all." Jennifer Brooks of The Tennessean reports, "The state plans to give half the money to the school districts and use the rest for other programs." Districts will make proposals to the state over the next 90 days. "Tennessee had to commit to raise school standards, to overhaul the way it evaluated teachers and held them responsible for students' performance, and to hold the state responsible for fixing failing schools." (Read more)

Delaware is getting about $100 million. The competition awarded states for a variety of education overhaul initiatives, including improving test standards and quality, developing computerized systems to track student academic progress, improving teacher recruitment and evaluation, turning around failing schools and fostering the growth of charter schools. Several states with large rural populations voiced concerns that they were at a disadvantage in the competition because charter schools didn't or wouldn't work in such areas, the Times notes. (Read more)

New coal-fired plants on hold amid impending emissions regulations, competition from gas

Last week's announcement of the cancellation of a Nevada coal-fired power plant in favor of one that will burn natural gas may be the latest example of shrinking demand for coal-fired energy. Nearly two dozen coal plants are scheduled to go online in the next three years, but plans for virtually all new projects have disappeared as electricity demand decreases and Congress considers carbon-dioxide emissions regulation, Mark Peters of Dow Jones Newswires reports. "The Sierra Club says developers haven't broken ground on a new unit in more than a year, and the list of canceled plants continues to grow," Peters writes, with the Blackstone Group L.P.'s Sithe Global Power in Nevada being the latest casualty.

"Last year brought the largest annual addition of coal-fired generation in nearly two decades as projects planned several years ago were finished," Peters writes, but development of additional units faces serious threats from cheap, plentiful gas. In the future, "You're only building one kind of [central station] power plant, and that's natural gas," Kevin Book, managing director of the Washington, D.C., consulting firm Clearview Energy Partners, told Peters.

Many of the coal projects being built were approved before the recession and subsequent drop in electricity demand, which fell 5 percent in the last two years but has begun to recover. Some new plants will replace old ones scheduled for retirement, Peters writes, and other plant closures are expected as the Environmental Protection Agency adopts and enforces stricter rules for mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. Many are looking to Congress for leadership on the future of coal, Peters writes. Theresa Pugh, director of environmental services for the American Public Power Association, explains, "This is the biggest challenge I have ever seen in any industry." (Read more)

Local opinions mixed after state board approves largest utility-scale wind farm in Ohio

A proposal to build the largest utility-scale wind farm in Ohio has been approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board, but local opinions remain mixed on whether the board included enough protection for the communities affected. The Buckeye Wind Project, proposed by Everpower Wind Holdings Inc., will cross six townships and spread across about 9,000 acres of rural land in Champaign County in western Ohio, Matt Sanctis of the Dayton Daily News reports.

Officials estimate the 50-turbine farm could power as many as 32,000 to 33,000 homes a year. The siting board included several provisions designed to alleviate local concerns, including requirements that Everpower establish an informal process to receive project-related complaints from the public; decommission the facility, and individual turbines, at its own expense; repair all affected roads and bridges after construction and decommissioning; and repair any damage to agricultural land, including field tile. Still, one local group that had protested the farm said it still might file an appeal and seek a second hearing.

Julie Johnson, a member of Union Neighbors United, questioned aspects of the decision, including a provision that only construction and maintenance personnel should receive additional training to recognize potential issues such as protection from ice being thrown from turbine blades. Opponents also fear turbines won't be far enough from homes, Sanctis reports. Supporters of the project voiced relief that construction could finally move ahead, with the local jobs it could possibly bring. (Read more)

Towns in Arizona, only state to close a state park so far, look for donations to keep others open

Earlier this month we reported the growing trend of states closing or severely trimming budgets at state parks to fill holes in state budgets. Arizona appears to be the leading state in that trend, but has recently seen an uptick in private donations to keep some of its parks open, Nicole Santa Cruz of the Los Angeles Times reports.Since 2007, the Legislature has reduced park funding by almost 80 percent, closed five of the state's 30 parks and scheduled six more for closure by June. One park, Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction, was temporarily spared when retired airline captain Taylor Sanford Jr. wrote a check for $8,000, the estimated cost of keeping the park open for one month.

While 400 state parks across the country have been scheduled for closure in the last year, Arizona is the only state to actually close any so far. The closures have been a "devastating blow for some rural areas," Santa Cruz writes. Residents of Apache Junction, which city's economic development director describes as "hiking, horses and Harleys," is fighting to keep Lost Duntchman open but faces a $12,000 gap between the money currently raised and the $25,000 needed to keep the park open during the quiet summer months.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans says partnerships like the one his community forged between individuals, corporations and the Tonto Apache tribe to keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open "will become more common as states continue to wrestle with budget shortfalls," Santa Cruz writes, and he said the plan "spells a real sea change in terms of how certain public functions will have to be funded." Bob Burnside, mayor of Camp Verde, which is fighting to keep Fort Verde State Historic Park open, explained that these parks are part of the town's fabric: "Can you imagine being in New York and telling your kids you're going to take them out West to see the cowboys and Indians, and they're not there?" (Read more)

Md. bill would make census count inmates where they came from, not places where they are held

In a fight that is likely to be repeated in many other states, the Maryland House of Delegates gave a preliminary approval last week to a bill that would prohibit the census from counting prisoners in the counties where they are detained unless they resided there before their imprisonment. The bill is similar to one the Maryland Senate previously approved and "could come to a final vote in the House within days," Andy Rosen reports for The bills are opposed by rural lawmakers whose districts may be disadvantaged if prisoners housed there are counted elsewhere, because the census is used to redraw legislative districts.

"It’s a blatant attempt to pad urban districts like Baltimore City that lost representation in the last redistricting," House Minority Whip Chris Shank, a Republican whose district houses 8,000 inmates at three correctional facilities near Hagerstown, told Rosen. "Shank proposed an amendment that would have imposed similar restrictions on people living in military barracks and college campuses, but it was defeated by a vote of 45-92," Rosen writes. Bill sponsor Joselyne Pena-Melnyk, a Democrat whose district contains part of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area and the capital of Annapolis, said the legislation is not designed to affect state funding, and it would only provide a more accurate count of where people live.(Read more)

Bristol reporter wins another national award for series on natural-gas mess in southwest Virginia

Daniel Gilbert, left, of the Bristol Herald Courier, circulation 33,000, has won another national award for his investigation of the mess Virginia and its natural-gas companies have made of a law and program to develop the state's coalbed methane and pay royalties to those who have a claim on it. Last month he won the first community-journalism prize in the National Journalism Awards; today he won the category for newspapers under 100,000 circulation in the Investigative Reporters and Editors contest.

"Gilbert tackled a subject that many would find incomprehensible," the judges wrote. "Using extensive open records requests and building his own database, Gilbert not only found a state escrow fund of $25 million that could not be accessed to pay land owners but also gas and oil companies that never paid into the fund. He found reporting errors and redundancies that showed the fund was losing money and he brought it all home with engaging interviews with shortchanged land owners. The series led to the first audit of the decade-old escrow fund, more attention by the department that runs it and $700,000 in back payments by oil and gas companies and pending state legislation to make it easier for people to get paid." For more on the series, click here. For the latest story, here.

The award certificate for local-circulation weekly newspapers went to the Lake Oswego Review, in a suburb of Portland, Ore., for a series of stories revealing that the local police lieutenant had been "forced to leave a job 17 years earlier after he sexually assaulted a woman while on duty; was arrested on charges of assaulting his wife and driving drunk; and that powerful friends saved his career," the judges said.

Finalists in the small-daily circulation category won by Gilbert were Eric Eyre of The Charleston Gazette for revealing how a state official funneled grant money to her son and tried to cover it up; Duaa Eldeib of the Daily Southtown of Chicago for exposing what IRE called "irresponsible and corrupt" spending by a regional school superintendent; and The News-Democrat of Belleville, Ill., for reporting on a state prison; and Melissa Nann Burke of the York (Pa.) Dispatch for her investigation of a local charity that paid a family $2.5 million to run it. The York Daily Record was a finalist for the IRE Freedom of Information Award for its creation on an open-records Web site and related investigations, including one of the same charity.

Some other IRE awards went to journalism with strong rural implications. The highest award, the IRE Medal, went to The New York Times for its "Toxic Waters" series and KHOU-TV's stories on discrimination and corruption in the Texas National Guard.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

States with less generous Medicaid programs face new burden under health-insurance reform law

The new health reform law has caused individuals to celebrate its benefits, but there may be a delayed hangover among officials in states with less generous Medicaid programs, mainly in the South, who will have to find ways to pay part of the bill. "The law may be as much of a burden to some state budgets as it is a boon to uninsured consumers," The New York Times' Michael Luo reports.

In 2014, Medicaid will begin expanding to cover the uninsured. In 2017, states will have to start contributing to the cost and pay 10 percent of it by 2020. The state-by-state burden is indicated by this Times map, which shows what percentage of those who were uninsured in 2007-08 would qualify for Medicaid in 2014.

"States with the largest uninsured populations, like Texas and California, might be considered by its backers the biggest winners to emerge from the law, because so many additional residents will have access to health insurance. But because those states are being required to significantly expand their Medicaid programs, they are precisely the ones that will face the biggest financial strains, in many cases magnified by existing budget shortfalls," Luo writes. "In contrast, states like Massachusetts and Wisconsin, which already have extensive health care safety nets, do not expect to spend much more money, while still taking in billions in federal grants." (Read more)

UPDATE, April 2: The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute says "reform is a great bargain for Georgia," if state officials plan effectively for it.
For more information and resources, see The Rural Blog's Rural Health and Reform page or a similar page on the Web site of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.