Saturday, April 10, 2010

Disaster, worst in nearly 40 years, likely caused by methane and dust; maybe by higher output

The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster has become the worst in the U.S. in almost 40 years, following today's announcement that the four missing miners were found dead in the mine. The death toll of 29 is the largest "since 38 perished in a coal-dust blast on Dec. 30, 1970, at Finley Coal's No. 15 and No. 16 mines on Hurricane Creek near Hyden, Ky.," Ken Ward Jr. and Andrew Clevenger of The Charleston Gazette report. "It is the West Virginia coal industry's worst workplace disaster since 78 miners died in the November 1968 Farmington explosion. In February 1972, 125 residents of Buffalo Creek in Logan County died when a coal slurry dam there collapsed and flooded their hollow."

Investigation of the disaster could take a year or more, but President Obama has asked for a special report on it within a week. "It's clear that more needs to be done" on mine safety, he said Friday. Today, he said of the 29, "What we can do, in their memory, is thoroughly investigate this tragedy and demand accountability. All Americans deserve to work in a place that is safe, and we must take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that all our miners are as safe as possible so that a disaster like this doesn’t happen again." (Read more) The Mine Safety and Health Administration "remains fundamentally weak in several areas, and it does not always use the powers it has," Michael Cooper of The New York Times writes. The Times has short profiles of some of the dead. David Farenthold of The Washington Post profiles a crew of miners who died.

"All week, mine safety advocates and political leaders have promised detailed investigations and said they would re-examine mine safety laws and enforcement practices in the wake of the disaster," the Gazette notes. "Federal and state regulators had cited the Upper Big Branch operation repeatedly for ventilation problems and for allowing the buildup of coal dust," the Gazette reports. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship told stockholders in a letter that media suggestions that the disaster was caused by "a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded." Still, Frank Ahrens of the Post reports that the mine's production "had kicked into overdrive in the past several months, as the company strove to keep up with increasing demand for the mine's valuable type of coal, which is used to make steel."

"Officials believe that all 29 miners were killed by the incredible force of the blast, which experts say was likely a methane explosion made far worse by coal dust," Ward writes with Davin White in a story about the aftermath of the disaster in the mining communities of southern West Virginia, where most of the good jobs are in coal. It's the latest example of why Ward he is the nation's best coal reporter. For the best evidence of that, read his Coal Tattoo blog.

To donate to the Montcoal Mining Disaster Fund, go to the West Virginia Council of Churches website,

Friday, April 09, 2010

What will mine disaster mean for coal industry?

Will Tuesday's mining disaster at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia lead to stricter regulation of the coal industry? On that question, the coal industry and its critics are as polarized as ever. According to Anne C. Mulkern and Patrick Reis of Environment & Energy News, a coalition about 60 groups sent an e-mail to reporters saying, "Coal Mine Owner Puts Profits Before Safety." The group cited a number of reports about Massey's safety violations, fines paid by the company and controversial comments from CEO Don Blankenship.

Mining interests said the explosion was unlikely to translate into a significant shift in regulatory policy. The past two years have been the safest on record for coal mines, said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. "I don't think there are facts on the table that will persuade this Congress or this administration to destroy an industry that's as important to the economy as this one is," Popovich  told E&E, adding, "That's more fantasy on the part of green critics than it is a realistic expectation."

For more of E&E's analysis of the possible fallout for the industry, click here.

Author tells groups to ignore county lines and work together for economic good of the area

Author and economic developer Kim Huston, right, told county officials in Western Kentucky Monday to erase “invisible county lines” and promote the area as a whole. Huston, born and raised in Bloomfield, Ky. (pop. 900) and now living in nearby Bardstown (pop. 10,374), has collected short stories about her life in her book Small Town Sexy.

She spoke to the Lake Barkley Partnership for Economic Development, which includes county elected officials, the local Chambers of Commerce and area tourism representatives. According to a report in The Times Leader of Princeton, Huston said the notion of 120 counties in Kentucky is "absolutely ridiculous," observing that tourists do not pay attention to the boundaries of the community through which they travel. “Nobody really cares, unless it’s us,” she said.

Huston is president of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency, which oversees the county’s tourism, Chamber of Commerce, Main Street Program and economic-development efforts. Economic development, she told the group, is about much more than searching for large industries.  "It’s not your father’s smokestack-chasing anymore. Those days are over." (Read more)

Rural-education researcher says Obama planners don't understand rural schools

The Obama administration's plan to reform the No Child Left Behind Act uses the word "rural" 18 times,  but that doesn't mean the Blueprint for Reform addresses those concerns, writes one rural-education researcher. Among the proposal's rural initiatives are plans to "maintain and strengthen" grant programs for rural districts, update the way it classifies districts as rural (the current rural formula grant programs exclude larger rural districts, such as those in the Southeast and Appalachia), and fund technical assistance to rural districts as they apply for competitive funding. "But these priorities aren’t all that rural," Caitlin Howley, a senior manager for education and research in the Appalachian Regional Office of ICF International, writes for the Daily Yonder.

Howley agrees with the The Rural School and Community Trust's position, reported here, that the only truly rural initiative in the Blueprint is more time for rural teachers to become "highly qualified." The other rural-related provisions are "of ambiguous benefit to rural places," Howley writes. She points to lack of resources to apply for competitive funding and ill-fitting school turnaround plans as particularly worrisome in rural school districts.

The Blueprint also ignores repeated complaints from rural educators that the number-weighting system used to determining Title I funding disadvantages their districts, Howley writes. Education Department officials recently told rural educators they would be interested in fixing that problem. More input from rural educators is what the Blueprint needs to be successful in rural areas, Howley concludes. "We can say that although there's more 'rural' in the law than ever before, it could be more meaningfully rural," she writes. "To get the rural part of the new legislation right, we’ll need the insights of people who are from and of rural places." (Read more)

Small farms say food-safety bill will be a burden

A food-safety bill in the Senate has gained bipartisan support and is expected to pass easily when Congress returns from recess next week. Large farms have mostly supported the bill, which would "require more FDA inspections of farms, food production and processing facilities, give the agency enhanced authority to order recalls, and force better recordkeeping as food moves from farms to store shelves," Jean Spencer of The Wall Street Journal reports, but small farms "worry the measure's fees and inspection requirements would be ruinously expensive and are pushing for exemptions."

"I know people who have been small farmers for 25 to 30 years who are looking to get out of the business because food safety is becoming so alarmist," Mary Alionis, whose eight-acre Whistling Duck Farm in Grants Pass, Oregon, sells produce to farmers markets and restaurants, told Spencer. Deborah Stockton, executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, a coalition of small farmers, added, "Small farm groups seriously have problems with this bill. We are not afraid to stand up to it."

Sponsors hope the bill will help "prevent widespread outbreaks of food-borne illnesses and give the FDA more resources to trace those that occur to their source," Spencer writes. Large farmers have mostly agreed that the costs they would incur from added regulation would be small compared with the potential financial damage of a product recall. Small farmers and advocates of the local food movement, which some fear would be hurt by the bill, argue these producers should have less restrictions, a decision that large producers say is unfair. (Read more)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Massey boss Blankenship gets profiled big time, but we've been following him for a while

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been very much in the news since Tuesday's explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., but this isn't his first experience with national news media. Blankenship is "a man who has cultivated a larger-than-life reputation over the years as a fearless and combative businessman," Ian Urbina and John Leland of The New York Times write. David Montgomery and Dan Zak of The Washington Post add, "Now, at 60, Blankenship, a millionaire who grew up poor in coal country, is facing perhaps the greatest challenge of his career. As he directs his company's response to the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine, his pugnacious profile seems to have softened a bit."

Previous coverage on the Rural Blog of Don Blankenship 

Institute director and a still-practicing rural journalist enter Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame

Among this year’s seven inductees to the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame are Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, and Jim Phillips, longtime news director of the two radio stations in rural Grayson, Ky.

Cross, right, said in remarks at the induction luncheon that he was being recognized largely for his work at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, where he worked for more than 26 years, the last 15½ as political writer, but was nominated by one of the people he serves as "extension agent for rural journalists" – Sharon Burton, editor and publisher of The Farmer’s Pride, Kentucky’s statewide agricultural newspaper, and the weekly Adair County Community Voice in Columbia. "That’s the most satisfying part of this honor," he said. For his remarks, click here. Cross started out as a rural journalist, at the Clinton County News and WANY Radio in Albany, and later edited, managed or helped manage weekly papers in Monticello, Russellville and Leitchfield. In 2001-02, he was national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, and in 2004 became director of the institute, which is based in the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications.

Phillips, right, has also had careers in both newspapers and broadcasting, but he went the other direction, moving to WGOH Radio after more than 15 years as editor of The Journal-Enquirer, the local weekly. He has been at the station, now joined by WUGO-FM, for more than 41 years. "God has given me a journalistic career I could not have imagined," he told the crowd at the induction luncheon. "I’ve just loved every minute of it." He said he had to get back to Grayson because he had a newscast to do this afternoon. Another inductee, Jack Lyne of Site Selection magazine, also has rural roots; he grew up in Russellville, where he was inspired and mentored by the local editor, Al Smith, who did likewise for Cross and many other Kentucky journalists. "When it comes to Kentucky journalism, Al’s got more assists than John Wall," the Kentucky basketball star, Lyne said. He also credited others in Russellville who pushed him toward excellence and emphasized hard work.

Other inductees were Neil Budde of the DailyMe, formerly of Yahoo! News and the Wall Street Journal Online; Liz Everman, longtime anchor for WLKY-TV in Louisville; and two posthumous honorees, Fred Paxton of Paducah-based Paxton Media LLC and Lois Ogden Sutherland, founder of the journalism program at Northern Kentucky University.

Development and pollution threaten the Appalachian Trail

Development and air pollution are among the serious threats to the Appalachian Trail, says a new report from the National Parks Conservation Association. Development is of particular concern in the Mid-Atlantic section of the trail, which runs about 2,178 miles from Maine to Georgia, Cecelia Mason of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports. "In the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania you have some of the fastest growing communities in the country," Ron Tipton,  NPCA senior vice president for policy, told Mason during a brief hike arranged for media near Harper's Ferry, W.Va.

Air pollution's negative effects on the trail are twofold: diminished views and negative health effects for hikers. "There are times in the Great Smoky Mountains through which the trail passes where the National Park Service puts out an advisory saying it’s unsafe to hike," Tipton said. Increased energy development from power lines for transmission and turbines for wind power also posed significant challenges for the trail, the report says. (Read more)

Midwest still leads in wind production; Southeast added no new projects last year

Iowa led the country in percentage of electricity derived from wind last year but still ranks second behind Texas in total wind-power capacity, says the latest report released by the industry's trade group. The data from the American Wind Energy Association revealed Iowa produced 14.2 percent of its electricty from wind in 2009, and Texas led states with 9,000 megawatts of wind power production, Peter Behr and Jenny Mandel of Environment & Energy Daily report. Nationwide, over 10,000 megawatts of capacity from wind was added in 2009 and almost 2 percent of all U.S. electricty came from wind.

"Jobs, business opportunities, clean air, energy security -- wind power is delivering today on all those fronts for Americans," Denise Bode, CEO of AWEA, told reporters. "Our annual report documents an industry hard at work and on the verge of explosive growth if the right policies -- including a national renewable electricity standard -- are put in place." The report shows wind development remains concentrated in the Great Plains and Pacific Coast states, while the Southeast came up empty on the map of new wind projects. (Read more)

Rural counties that voted strongly for McCain are likelier to have low census-return rates so far

Why do census return rates vary so widely? One factor appears to be the rurality of the county. Statistical analysis by the Daily Yonder shows that as of April 5, purely rural counties had a 56.9 percent return rate, while the national rate was 60 percent, Roberto Gallardo reports. Conversely, urban counties and those with small cities both have return rates above the national average: 62.5 and 61.2 percent, respectively.

What other factors did the analysis find? Only 42 percent of counties that voted more strongly for John McCain had census return rates above the national average. "In other words, the more votes McCain received in a county in 2008, the fewer census forms that county has returned by April 5, 2010," Gallardo writes, calling the relationship statistically significant. Just under a third of counties with poverty rates above the national average are also above the national average in Census return rates, but 67 percent of counties that are whiter than the national average have return rates higher than the national rate. (Read more) (Yonder map, data as of April 5)

Natural-gas industry unhappy with proposed broad scope of EPA study of hydraulic fracturing

An Environmental Protection Agency study into the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking-water supplies could examine the entire "lifecycle" of the process, say preliminary documents outlining the study's scope. The oil and gas industry has voiced strong disapproval, saying the plan goes too far, Abraham Lustgarten of ProPublica reports. Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is a drilling technique where thousands of gallons of a pressurized mixture of water, sand and other materials are injected into wells that turn horizontal, creating small cracks in dense shale and releasing gas.

Fracking has garnered attention as the process has been used to open vast U.S. shale gas reserves while reports of drinking water contamination associated with the drilling have popped up across the country. In the documents EPA said looking at the impact from the start to the end of the process "can help policymakers understand and make decisions about the breadth of issues related to hydraulic fracturing, including cross-media risks and the relationship to the entire natural-gas production cycle." Lee Fuller, vice president of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said a formal response to EPA that the plan "goes well beyond relationships between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water."
EPA began public hearings today in Washington to nail down the scope of the study. Under the Bush administratiion in 2004, it examined fracking in a study that has been criticized for its limitations. "When we did the 2004 study we were looking particularly for potential for impacts from hydraulic fracturing fluid underground to underground sources of drinking water," Cynthia Dougherty, EPA’s director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, told Lustgarten. "So it was a much narrower focus." The new study is to be completed by the end of 2012. (Read more)

Ky. judge sets criteria that may force disclosure of anonymous commenter in defamation suit

A Kentucky judge has ruled that The Richmond Register "does not have to turn over the name or contact information of an anonymous commenter accused of posting defamatory statements on its Web site," Jason Riley reports for The Courier-Journal of Louisville. But the ruling "may only be a temporary victory for the newspaper and anonymous posters," because the judge "adopted a multi-part test that, if certain criteria are met, would allow for the poster to be identified."

Citing a federal case and cases form other states, Circuit Judge Jean Chenault Logue said the plaintiff has  to make a reasonable effort to locate and notify the anonymous commenter, give appropriate time for the commenter to respond, submit sufficient and specific evidence of defamation, "and prove that the information being sought is necessary for the lawsuit to proceed," Riley writes. "She said notice may be given through a court order requiring the Internet service provider for the newspaper to notify the commenter of the pending lawsuit, if the service has that capability."

The plaintiff's lawyer said the commenter has been notified by newspaper stories and online postings about the lawsuit. The lawyer for the newspaper declined to comment. The case began after the plaintiff was ejected from a local mall on grounds that the dress she had bought there the day before was too short. "The poster, whose comment appeared Aug. 13, 2008, under an online story headlined, “You can buy it at the mall, but you can't wear it there,” claimed to have the true story behind Clem's eviction — that she had exposed herself to a woman and her children who remarked on the dress," Riley reports. That prompted the lawsuit. (Read more)

As luck would have it, the case is in the same county, Madison, where use of the Internet by newspapers will be the subject of a day of programming on June 25 during the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors at Eastern Kentucky University. The presenters will include First Amendment lawyer Jean Maneke of Missouri, who will discuss legal aspects of the Internet. For more details, from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, click here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Lawmaker wins initial approval of Tenn. horse-slaughter bill over opposition from Willie Nelson

Following a war of words between a legislator and singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, right, a Tennessee legislative subcommittee voted 7-6 today for a bill that would allow the state to establish horse slaughter and processing plants if they are again permitted in the U.S. The vote was a victory for Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, below, who "had upbraided Nelson for his opposition to killing and processing horses for meat ... during an agriculture committee meeting last month," Anne Paine writes for The Tennessean.

In an article submitted by e-mail to the Nashville newspaper, Nelson said Niceley "wants folks to believe it is more humane to allow buyers to travel around our great country purchasing healthy, wanted horses then haul them to Tennessee to be slaughtered for human consumption. ... At auctions where horse rescue operators are trying to save lives, killer buyers routinely outbid them." Nelson supports a permanent federal bans on horse slaughter here and shipment of U.S. horses to meatpackers in other nations.

Niceley told Paine he likes Nelson's music, but "People like Willie have caused more horse pain and more suffering, and they're well intentioned." Paine writes, "Niceley said his bill is needed because without processing plants, there are more unwanted horses that could die as a result of neglect." (Read more)

House Agriculture Committee chairman says he's looking to reduce direct payments to farmers

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee said he's starting work on the 2012 Farm Bill and will look to cut direct government payments to farmers. "In my opinion, that money should be used to support the average, middle-sized commercial farmer, because they're the people that produce most of our food and I think that's the part of the system we really want to protect," Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota told Dan Gunderson of Minnesota Public Radio. Peterson said he hoped to use the money saved by cutting direct payments to create a better safety net.

"Peterson said he will not increase overall spending on farm programs, adding he is willing to cut the farm bill only if all government programs are trimmed," Gunderson writes. Peterson noted 80 percent of the Farm Bill spending goes for food stamps and nutrition, programs which no one wants to cut. He said work on the 2012 bill should begin this spring. (Read more)

Spoof of rap video promotes New Hampshire

A YouTube video parodying a popular rap song while promoting interesting facts and attractions of one of the country's more rural states has gone viral. The video "Granite State of Mind," which parodies rapper Jay Z's song "Empire State of Mind" to showcase some New Hampshire pride, was posted by Christian Wisecarver, who works for a video production company in Hampstead, and has received over 840,000 views in one week.

Except for one ill-placed expletive, the video is an "otherwise stellar rundown of all things New Hampshire, including everything from geography and landmarks to hot spots and newsmakers," Carol Robidoux of the New Hampshire Union Leader reports. "You know, the original was sort of begging to be parodied, the music is so catchy. It really started when I was listening to the lyrics of the Jay-Z video -- it just started to come together in my head," Wisecarver told Robidoux. (Read more)

UPDATE, April 10: A more traditional treatment of the charms of the Granite State was written a few years ago by Steve Taylor, a journalist who had become state agricultuire commissioner: "100 Things You Should Do to Know the Real New Hampshire." This week, Taylor was given the top alumni award from the University of New Hampshire. Read about him and the award.

Oklahoma jury says Tyson defrauded growers

A McCurtain County, Oklahoma, jury has awarded $7.3 million to 10 chicken growers who sued Tyson Foods Inc. alleging that the company defrauded them through "a series of deceptive and coercive business practices," Randy Ellis of The Oklahoman reports. Tyson officials termed the decision a "runaway verdict" in a news release a said the company believes it has "strong and numerous grounds" on which to appeal.

The trial was the first of several scheduled in McCurtain County from a May 2008 suit by 50 chicken growers. The case was split into several smaller trials to "keep court proceedings from becoming unwieldy," Ellis reports. Attorney Tony Benson, who helped represent the chicken growers, voiced hope that the verdict would send a message to the poultry giant: "I heard several comments that it was a long time coming, and maybe this will make Tyson change the way it has been treating its growers." The growers claimed Tyson coerced them into operating at less than break-even costs, by using verbal and financial pressure to persuade them to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars to construct newer-styled chicken houses, Ellis reports.

"Throughout the trial, the jury was presented with a tabloid-style rumor mill of mostly fabricated evidence that had absolutely nothing to do with the plaintiffs’ claims in the lawsuit," Tyson said in its release. The company also used the release to remind the community of its economic investment in the are in light of the still pending trials: "We are very concerned about the legal climate in McCurtain County, and we are assessing all options available to us to address this injustice and to prevent it from happening again." (Read more)

Mine disaster coverage focuses on Massey's safety record and its CEO's controversies

Most national news coverage of the explosion that killed at least 25 West Virginia coal miners and left four others missing has shifted to the safety record of the mine and Massey Energy, with some mentions of other controversies involving CEO Don Blankenship, left.

Four years ago, after a series of mine disasters, Congress passed the first sweeping changes to mine safety laws in 30 years, but those reforms weren't enough to protect the miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal in Raleigh County, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. So what happened? "It tells me one of two things," longtime mine safety crusader Davitt McAteer of Wheeling Jesuit University, who ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton years, told Ward. "One, the law isn't being enforced or, two, the law didn't go far enough." McAteer, an academic partner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, appeared on all three major broadcast networks' evening news programs.

The mine was written up more than 50 times last month for safety violations, and 12 of those citations involved "problems with ventilating the mine and preventing a buildup of deadly methane," Steve Munson, Jerry Markon and Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post write.  Two miners who asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs told The New York Times the mine had been evacuated three times in the past two months because of dangerously high methane levels.  In total, the mine has been cited 112 times since the start of the year.

After state and Massey officials delayed revealing names of the dead, upsetting relatives, "Some of these tensions boiled over around 2 a.m. Tuesday when Mr. Blankenship arrived at the mine to announce the death toll to families who were gathered at the site," the Times' Ian Urbina reports. "Escorted by at least a dozen state and other police officers, according to several witnesses, Mr. Blankenship prepared to address the crowd, but people yelled at him for caring more about profits than miners’ lives. After another Massey official informed the crowd of the new death toll, one miner threw a chair. A father and son stormed off screaming that they were quitting mining work. And several people yelled at Mr. Blankenship that he was to blame." (Read more)
"Even aside from its abysmal safety record, Massey, and its leader . . .  are almost cartoonishly villainous in the way they approach everything from the environment to union rights to media scrutiny," Dylan Matthews, a Harvard student and Post researcher, writes. A 2005 memo from Blankenship to his underground mine superintendents has also received renewed media attention. "If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal," Blankenship wrote. Overcasts, which carry forced air across passageways, are "critical to proper mine ventilation," Andrew Leonard points out on A second memo sent out a week later said safety was the company's "first responsibility" and any interpretation that the first memo deprioritized safety was incorrect, the Times noted.

In his first public comments Blankenship told MetroNews of Morgantown, "Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process. There are violations at every coal mine in America and UBB was a mine that had violations. I think the fact that MSHA, the state and our fire bosses and the best engineers that you can find were all in and around this mine and all believed it to be safe in the circumstances it was in speaks for itself as far as any suspicion that the mine was improperly operated." Blankenship has since appeared on several national television shows. Some coverage has noted his controversial involvement in West Virginia judicial elections and his denial of global warming.

MSHA hasn't gone without potential blame for the disaster. A government audit released last week said the agency is "is not properly tracking the retraining of its veteran inspectors and is facing a mounting backlog of appeals of health and safety violations from mining companies," O'Keefe reports for the Post. Speculation that the disaster could spur new mine safety reforms has run rampant, but lawmakers cautioned Tuesday it was too early say for sure, reports Mannix Porterfield of the Beckley Register-Herald, the local newspaper in Raleigh County.

The coverage includes some useful and illuminating resources. The Times has a multimedia graphic showing the mine map, the surrounding terrain and where bodies have been found. WSAZ-TV in Huntington is live-streaming all news conferences at the mine on its Web site. The Gazette has created a special Web page for ongoing coverage of the disaster, and Ward has extensive coverage on his Coal Tattoo blog. MSHA has also created a Web page for relevant documents about the mine's safety record.

Here's a little rural journalism, in a big-city paper, about the disaster: Author Denise Giardina, writer in residence at West Virginia State University, writes on the Times op-ed page, "we are a national sacrifice area. We mine coal despite the danger to miners, the damage to the environment and the monomaniacal control of an industry that keeps economic diversity from flourishing here. We do it because America says it needs the coal we provide. West Virginians get little thanks in return. Our miners have historically received little protection, and our politicians remain subservient to Big Coal. Meanwhile, West Virginia is either ignored by the rest of the nation or is the butt of jokes about ignorant hillbillies." (Read more)

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Republicans, worried about undercounts in conservative areas, urge census participation

"Some Republicans are worried that an anti-government surge among conservatives will lead to lower participation in the U.S. census, which they fear could reduce the number of Republican seats in Congress and state legislatures," Naftali Bendavid reports for The Wall Street Journal.

"Conservative activists this year have argued it is unconstitutional for the census to ask anything beyond the number of people in a household. This year's census form also seeks information on race, gender and age, among other things, and filling it out is required by law. The census has asked similar questions for decades," Bendavid writes. "In a counter move, Rep. Patrick McHenry (N.C.), the top Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees the census, posted a message last week on, a popular conservative Web site, pleading with conservatives to fill out their forms."

McHenry had reason to act. "Some of the most conservative states have among the lowest response rates so far," Bendaviod reports. "About 48 percent of households in Texas and 53 percent in Alabama have mailed in their forms so far, for example, while the response rate in Massachusetts, a more-liberal state, is at about 57 percent. The national participation rate for the 2010 census is at about 56 percent." (Read more)

Appeals court: FCC can't require net neutrality

A U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday against the Federal Communications Commission in its attempt to require network neutrality. The policy would require "broadband providers to give equal treatment to all Internet traffic flowing over their networks," The Associated Press notes. The court ruled that the FCC lacks authority to require companies to adhere to such policies, and the ruling could have major implications for the commission's national broadband plan, which requires recipients of federal funds to adopt net neutrality.

"The agency needs clear authority to regulate broadband in order to push ahead with some of its key recommendations, including a proposal to expand broadband by tapping the federal fund that subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural communities," AP reports. The case centered on Comcast's challenge of a 2008 FCC ruling that prohibited the company from blocking service to broadband subscribers who used an online file-sharing technology known as BitTorrent, requiring large amounts of bandwidth. (Read more)

The ruling stems from an FCC decision in 2002, during the Bush administration, to reclassify broadband as an information service rather than a telecommunications service. "Marvin Ammori, the lawyer who argued the case on behalf of Free Press, says that the commission can change broadband's classification as long as it has a 'reasoned basis' for doing so," reports Wendy Davis of Online Media Daily. "But any attempt by the FCC to treat broadband as a telecommunications service will almost certainly be met with opposition and court challenges by Internet service providers." (Read more)

Meth labs and deaths mushroom in Oklahoma

The number of methamphetamine labs and related deaths are on the rise in the state that was the first in the country to pass a law limiting access to one of the drug's key ingredients. Data from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control reveals 743 meth labs were discovered in 2009, up from 148 in 2006, Julie Bisbee of The Oklahoman reports. The rate of deaths from meth overdoses more than doubled, rising from 27 in 2008 to 51 in the first nine months of 2009.

"It’s always a game of cat and mouse," Darrell Weaver, director of the bureau, told Bisbee. "Law enforcement adapts, and criminals keep finding a way to work around it." In 2004 Oklahoma became the first state to reduce access to pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient used in over-the-counter decongestants, by limiting the amount of the drug customers can  buy each month. Congress later followed the state's lead and made the restrictions federal law. Initially, the number of meth labs dropped, but the popularity of the "shake and bake" method, which requires less equipment to make meth, has production back on the rise.

"The ingredients for a 'one pot' lab can be found at discount stores for under $25," Bisbee writes. Some law enforcement officials say the problem won't be solved until pseudoephedrine becomes a prescription-only drug, Bisbee reports. "This is a problem that’s honestly not being seen in a lot of places," Tulsa Police Department spokesman Jason Willingham told Bisbee. "Until that happens we’ll be known as the meth capital of the world." (Read more)

In forests in the Eastern U.S., it's feast or famine: too many deer, not enough woodpeckers

Forests across the Eastern U.S. are starting to recover from centuries of use and abuse, but still face man-made hurdles.  By the late 1800s, much of the woodland that stretched from Maine to Texas had been cut down for agriculture and timber, but as farms were abandoned old seeds sprouted and "unlike many other environmental mistakes, this one began to fix itself," David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post reports, in another of the paper's series of stories related to the 40th anniversary of Earth Day later this month.

The forest is growing back but is still burdened with too many deer, too little fire and armies of invasive bugs, Farenthold reports: "In some places, scientists are trying to fix man-made flaws that could eventually destroy forest ecosystems. In others, the test is whether the government and private interests can save the forest from becoming suburbs and strip malls." While the forest had reached 68 percent of its former range by 1997, "All woods ain't woods," said Stephen W. Syphax, a National Park Service official. To help revitalize forests, small fires are set to burn out undergrowth, an essential task to foster native birds such as the red-cockaded woodpecker. (Photo by Michael McCloy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

State restocking programs have also revitalized deer populations that once reached record lows with the decline of forest land. The programs have been so successful that the deer, which eat almost everything and who face few predators, have taken over the forest, Fahrenthold reports. "Right now, the [deer] are hunted by people and Volvos," William J. McShea, a wildlife ecologist at the Smithsonian Institution, told Fahrenthold. Because of that, he said, "There's no future to that forest. It's like it's died, but it doesn't know it yet." Some have suggested reintroducing native wolves and mountain lions to serve as natural predators for the deer, but public safety concerns have left those plans on the back burner. (Read more)

Program to have state and local police enforce immigration laws has had problems

A program designed to allow local police to enforce federal immigration laws has serious flaws and may not be accomplishing its intended goal, says a new report released by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general. The report says state and local police officers authorized to enforce the laws are "not adequately screened, trained or supervised, and the civil rights of the immigrants they deal with are not consistently protected," Julia Preston of The New York Times reports. The report was a sweeping review of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement program commonly known as 287(g) after the clause in immigration law that established it.

The program operates through agreements with about 60 county and state police forces, and allows local officers to question immigrants about their legal status and detain them for deportation. The report describes the program as "haphazardly administered, with local agencies detaining and prosecuting immigrants with little oversight from federal agents and significant inconsistencies from place to place," Preston writes. It concludes, "In the absence of consistent supervision over immigration enforcement activities, there is no assurance that the program is achieving its goals." Top ICE officials have said the program is designed to deport immigrants with serious criminal records, but the report concluded it lacked measures to determine if immigrants were serious offenders.

"Since the audit was conducted, ICE has fundamentally reformed the program," agency spokesman Richard Rocha told Preston, "strengthening public safety and ensuring consistency in immigration enforcement across the country by prioritizing the arrest and detention of criminal aliens, fulfilling many of the report’s recommendations." The inspector general "acknowledged many of the program’s improvements, but the report said many of the most serious problems remained unresolved," Preston reports. (Read more)

Food interests fight to kill ethanol tax credits

Ethanol's run of government support may be in jeopardy, as a coalition fights to end the extension of biofuel tax credits set to expire at the end of the year. The opponents, who mobilized after congressional representatives from Illinois and Missouri began an effort to extend the credits, include the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the American Meat Institute, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, environmental organizations and pro-taxpayer groups, Bill Lambrecht of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The groups say their chances of ending ethanol's government support have improved from previous failed attempts because of new spending rules in Congress designed to limit government giveaways. They say ethanol makes food more expensive; studies have shown it plays a relatively small role -- less, for example, than energy prices.

"It's their Achilles heel," Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense, said of ethanol's dependence on government support. "Normally, if you mandate something, that takes care of it. Or you subsidize it, and that takes care of it. Or you block imports to protect it, and that takes care of it. With ethanol, we've done all three." The 45-cent-per-gallon credit for blending the corn-made fuel with gasoline actually goes to the oil industry and not the ethanol producers, but industry advocates say oil will look to foreign ethanol markets if Congress removes the credit.

Gary Clark, director of market development for the Missouri Corn Growers Association, told Lambrecht the tax credit has a significant impact on prices that both ethanol producers and corn farmers are paid, and if it is allowed to expire the per-bushel corn price could drop 15 to 25 cents. "If they were to lose that much, it would put many, many growers at or below the cost of production," he said. The ethanol industry is planning a national ad campaign when Congress returns from the Easter break. "If you believe in renewable fuels and you believe it reduces our dependence on imported crude oil and you believe that it helps jobs and the economy, you do not want this to expire," Republican Missouri Rep. John Shimkus told Lambrecht. (Read more)

Rural Texas schools caught between politicized state board and national policies that don't fit

Schools in Texas, which has more rural students than any other state, are caught in a "growing power struggle" between state school officials who are imposing politically driven textbook standards and federal education officials whose offer of extra money comes with strings that state officials reject and that local officials say leaves them out, reports Michael Birnbaum for The Washington Post.

Birnbaum starts his story with a Tea Party gathering in Madisonville hearing from a state school board member (who lost his renomination bid in the recent primary election) making assertions that historians say are dubious and advocating "social-studies standards that set Texas apart from other states because, among other changes, they recast sections on the American Revolution to put more emphasis on Christianity and less on the writings of Thomas Jefferson."

Texas was among 10 states that did not apply for Race to the Top funds from the U.S. Department of Education. To Madisonville School Superintendent Keith Smith, the state's "version of local control takes away just as much power from him as the federal kind," Birnbaum reports. "He said the tug of war about standards and states' rights is just a distraction from more basic questions of equity in statewide school funding," and that many Race to the Top ideals, such as charter schools, don't apply to his town, which has 4,159 people at the 2000 census. The local schools sometimes are at odds with the state, too; they "scrapped a state-approved reading curriculum and bought their own after tests suggested that they needed to do better." (Read more)

Mine disaster takes on historic proportions

Yesterday's coal-mine disaster in West Virginia killed at least 25 miners, making it the worst in the U.S. since 1984, and four more haven't been accounted for, so the disaster could surpass one in Utah that killed 27 more than a quarter-century ago, The Charleston Gazette reports.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced the death toll at a 2 a.m. briefing. The disaster is bound to focus fresh attention on mine safety and Massey Energy, the big and often controversial company whose Performance Coal subsidiary runs the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal in Raleigh County. For local coverage, from The Register-Herald in Beckley, click here. (New York Times map)

"The disaster comes just four years after a series of mine accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky -- including one that brought criminal prosecution of a Massey subsidiary -- killed 19 workers and prompted the first reform of U.S. mine safety laws in 30 years," Ken Ward Jr. writes for the Gazette, with Gary Harki and Kathryn Gregory. "Mine safety experts who were in contact with state and federal investigators said initial reports are that the explosion involved methane that built up inside a sealed area of the mine or that leaked through mine seals. Such a scenario would be a repeat of the 2006 Sago and Darby disasters in West Virginia and Kentucky, which claimed 17 lives and prompted regulators to take a closer look at the safety of the vast sealed areas of underground coal mines for the first time in years." (Read more)

Hamlet feuds over federally funded phones

Shannon Dininny of The Associated Press took the Lake Chelan ferry (dotted line on MapQuest image) to Stehekin, Wash. (we presume AP didn't spring for a float plane) to do a story that began: "This remote outpost in the rugged Cascades is so cut off from the outside world that it has no roads leading to town and little telephone service. The 80-or-so locals relish the isolation and pristine beauty and sell it as an escape to tourists. So when a telephone company attempted to install basic service for a handful of people who sought it, many longtime residents blasted the idea. Siblings found themselves on opposite sides of the heated dispute. Neighbors shouted obscenities across the ferry landing. About 20 telephone lines were eventually installed at a cost of $13,000 per line a year — all paid for by the federal government," with money from a surcharge on long-distance calls. The Universal Service Fund is "a huge leak of ratepayer dollars, and someone has figured out how to put a funnel under that leak. They're just opportunists," tourist-ranch operator Cliff Courtney told Dininny. (Read more) UPDATE, July 12: The phone company, Weavetel, collected more money per line from the USF, $17,763, than any other in 2009, Nate Anderson of Ars Technica reports.

Monday, April 05, 2010

At least 7 dead at Massey mine; rescuers seek 19

"Rescuers began a race against the clock late Monday night, trying to find 19 miners who remained unaccounted for at a Massey Energy mine after a huge explosion rocked the Southern West Virginia operation and killed at least seven workers," Ken Ward Jr. and Kathryn Gregory report for The Charleston Gazette. (Photo by The Associated Press)  "Details remained sketchy for hours after the disaster, which occurred at about 3 p.m. at Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal Co.'s Upper Big Branch Mine-South in Raleigh County." (Read more)

Your local legislative race could attract some unusual campaign contributors this fall

More outside money could be coming to state legislative races in your area, if your state has a chamber where a change of party control could make a difference in next year's post-census congressional redistricting, Brody Mullins reports for The Wall Street Journal.

"Labor unions, corporations and wealthy individuals are preparing to break spending records to influence the November elections," Mullins writes. "Both parties are focusing on about 100 key races in 16 states that could tip the balance of power in statehouses." (Read more)

Politicians brag on community colleges, but don't want to pay for them

Community colleges have recently experienced an uptick in political attention as lawmakers champion them to boost graduation rates and help the U.S. emerge from the recession. However, community-college leaders remain worried that they won't receive financial backing commensurate with the new attention. "It's a difficult, challenging time for us," George Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, told Eric Gorski of The Associated Press. "But in the longer term view, we've never seen the image of community colleges as high as it is right now. Overall, I'm optimistic for the future." The nation's 1,200 community, technical and junior colleges enroll more than 6 million students, just under half the country's college population, Gorski reports.

"Sinking tax revenues at state and local levels have forced public colleges to cut courses or schedule them around the clock, slash summer sessions, eliminate academic programs and even restrict enrollment," Gorski writes. A survey of 128 community college systems released last week showed a slight improvement from last year's data, with 52 percent reporting reductions in their operating budgets this year. The number with cuts exceeding 10 percent more than doubled. "You put all these factors together, it's sort of a perfect storm," Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University, told Gorski. "One would predict our graduation rates will decline, not increase, from the community colleges. We'll move backwards."

An estimated 35 percent of community college entrants earn a certificate or associate's degree within six years, Gorski reports. The House version of student-loan reform passed last fall would have brought $10 billion to community colleges for "job training, building projects and initiatives to get more students out the door with degrees or certificates," Gorski writes, but the version signed last week provides just $2 billion to community colleges for job training only. "A significant portion of higher education is hunkered down, trying to wait out the storm," said Robert Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College, where President Obama held his student loan bill-signing ceremony. "We've taken the approach that while things will get better, they will never get back to the way they were. We're going to have to find new ways to do our work." (Read more)

Forecasts of declining rural population make responses to census more important

Rural areas may need to be particularly diligent in returning census forms. One Iowa researcher is predicting further population declines for many rural areas of the state, and that finding could apply to other states. When the government released its 2009 population estimates last month, it revised downward some estimates for rural Iowa counties, Jens Manuel Krogstad of The Des Moines Register reports.

Sandra Charvat Burke, a researcher with Iowa State University's Community Vitality Center, told Krogstad that data suggests results from the 2010 census will show Iowa's rural population to be far lower than previously thought. Some prognosticators still think a slight uptick in rural Iowa population may be possible as "data from the first half of the last decade showed slight population increases in areas of southern Iowa that had been in decline for more than a century," Krogstad writes. Hope lies with retiring baby boomers who move to rural areas, boosting population and the local economy. (Read more)

New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis sees a trend of decline in both rural and urban America. "Armed with fresh numbers, America will be forced to confront the harsh reality that a great many urban and rural areas have passed a tipping point and appear destined for long-term decline," he writes. "We will have to embark on a touchy national conversation about how — and whether — these failing places will receive public and private investment." (Read more)

Response to homelessness in Washington town ranges from food bank to 'Greyhound solution'

One Washington town is fighting its growing homeless population and those who provide services to it, providing an example of the special challenges of dealing with the homeless in rural areas.(MapQuest image)  Leaders of Sultan, 2000 census population 3,344, say the approximately two dozen homeless, many of whom hang around town during the day, "hurt business and tourism and give the town an unsavory feel," Lynn Thompson of The Seattle Times reports.

In recent months local law enforcement has stepped up efforts to issue trespass notices to homeless and arrest repeat offenders and  actively discouraged people who want to help them. "It's almost like they're making it illegal to be homeless in Snohomish County," Dave Wood, service director for Sky Valley Volunteers of America, which runs Sultan Food Bank, told Thompson.

Advocates say rural homelessness presents challenges that differ from urban areas: "There are few shelters or transitional housing outside of cities, fewer social-service programs or job-training opportunities, and a long commute to drug, alcohol and mental-health services," Thompson writes. Ken Stark, the county's human-services director, says "Smaller communities struggle because they don't have resources, but larger cities resent the assumption they should provide all the services and accept all the homeless."

Seven percent of U.S. homeless live in rural areas, which accounted for 20 percent of the 2000 population and rural communities that effectively address their homeless populations "get organized, use their resources in strategic ways and develop plans for each individual," Barbara Poppe, executive director of U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told Thompson. Still, advocates say many small towns use the "Greyhound solution" by giving the homeless a bus ticket out of town. Local business owners have applauded Sultan's crackdown on the homeless, which police Chief Jeff Brand chooses to instead classify as "transients." (Read more)

Animal agriculture takes on the Humane Society

The animal-agriculture industry is escalating its efforts agaunst the Humane Society of the United States. "The Humane Society is pushing ahead, state by state, for laws against such things as 'puppy mills' and intensive confinement of animals in factory farms," Matt Campbell of the Kansas City Star reports, while the agriculture industry argues "unnecessary rules" advocated by the Humane Society will "will drive up prices, cause food shortages and force farmers out of business."

"Ultimately, the Humane Society wants to make it more difficult to produce livestock on the scale that this country requires to meet demand," Don Lipton, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Campbell. The Humane Society, which calls itself a mainstream voice with a mission "to celebrate animals and confront cruelty," has 11 million supporters who contributed nearly $87 million in 2008. One of the organization's favorite strategies is buying stock in publicly held corporations so that it can introduce shareholder resolutions for more humane animal treatment. The group has won recent victories with announcements from companies like Wendy's, Sonic Corp. and Subway that they will start to buy cage-free eggs.

Livestock-industry officials say that no farmer who wants to be profitable would willingly harm his animals, and that caging chickens and keeping sows in crates — two policies which the Humane Society has railed against — keep the animals from injuring themselves and other animals. The Center for Consumer Freedom, which bills itself as a research organization on food, beverage and lifestyle issues, last month launched a Web site challenging many of the Humane Society claims, Campbell reports. The group accuses the Humane Society of "soaking up money from people who mistakenly believe the national organization helps support their local dog and cat shelters," Campbell writes. He notes the "Humane Society acknowledges that it does not run local animal shelters and does not make a lot of grants." (Read more)

Meanwhile, "The national 4-H organization is catching heat for allowing the Humane Society . . . to make a presentation at the National 4-H Conference in late March," Ken Anderson reports for Brownfield Network. "Some of those who sat in on the HSUS presentation say the material was more focused on HSUS’ goals related to animal rights and animal welfare." 4-H said on one of its Facebook pages that HSUS’s proposal for its presentation met the conference guidelines and “did not present any indication of anti-animal agriculture views or positions.”