Saturday, June 19, 2010

Labor Dept. cracks down on child labor on farms

"The Obama administration has opened a broad campaign of enforcement against farmers who employ children and underpay workers, hiring hundreds of investigators and raising fines for labor and wage violators," Erik Eckholm reports for The New York Times. That's just the beginning, and the Labor Department will make farm labor a priority, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the daughter of a migrant farmworker, told Eckholm. The department "announced a large increase in the fines that farmers can face for employing children, to as much as $11,000 per child, from around $1,000."

"Across the country, hundreds of thousands of children under 18 toil each year, harvesting crops from apples to onions, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch detailing hazards to their health and schooling and criticizing the Labor Department for past inaction," Eckholm writes, adding that his visit to the blueberry fields of eastern North Carolina, above, "indicate that the changes, for this crop and this region, are real." (Photo by Angel Franco)

EPA delays decision on increasing ethanol in gas

The Environmental Protection Agency says it wait until September to decide whether more ethanol should be mixed with gasoline. That brought complaints from the ethanol industry. The South Dakota-based American Coalition for Ethanol suggested in a press release that the oil industry has unduly influenced the process, and the Renewable Fuels Association called the delay "a dereliction of duty." The American Petroleum Institute called it proper.

Friday, June 18, 2010

USDA proposes sweeping rules to discourage meatpackers from abusing producers of livestock

The Department of Agriculture today proposed big changes that it said would protect livestock producers from "unfair, fraudulent or retaliatory practices" by meatpackers. "Concerns about a lack of fairness and commonsense treatment for livestock and poultry producers have gone unaddressed far too long," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release, which said the rules would, among other things:
   * Provide further definition to practices that are unfair, unjustly discriminatory or deceptive, including outlining actions that are retaliatory in nature, efforts that would limit a producer's legal rights or representations that would be fraudulent or misleading.
   * Establish new protections for producers required to provide expensive capital upgrades to their growing facilities, including protections to ensure producers have the opportunity to recoup 80 percent of the cost of a required capital investment.
   * Prohibit packers from purchasing, acquiring or receiving livestock from other meatpackers.
   * Establish a fair and equitable process for producers who choose to use arbitration to remedy a dispute and require clear and conspicuous print in the contract to ensure producers are provided the option to decline arbitration.
   * Provide poultry growers with a written notice of a company's intent to suspend the delivery of birds under a poultry growing arrangement at least 90 days prior to the date it intends to suspend the delivery.
   * Improve market transparency by making sample contracts (except for trade secrets or other confidential information) available on GIPSA's Web site for producers.
   * Improve competition in markets by limiting exclusive arrangements between packers and dealers.
For more details, go to this USDA Web page.

"The 2008 Farm Bill required USDA to carry out specific rulemaking to improve fairness in livestock and poultry marketing," notes Rita Jane Gabbett of MeatingPlace. Vilsack told her and other reporters that some producers were afraid to participate in workshops held on the issue "for fear of retaliation" by packers. "He characterized recent court decisions upholding the need for a producer suing a processor for unfair practices to also show harm to the regional market as akin to having to show that the theft of your car impacted all your neighbors." He said companies who are "treating folks right ...  shouldn't be negatively impacted by these rules at all. But it certainly is a message to those who have maybe in the past taken advantage of folks that this is not going to be tolerated." (Read more)
"Producer groups praised USDA's dramatic proposals," Gabbett reports in a follow-up story. "R-CALF USA, which represents a group of cow/calf operators and feedlot owners ... specifically praised the proposed rule that would enable a producer to prove a violation of the Packers and Stockyards Act without the need to also prove predatory intent, competitive injury or likelihood of competitive injury."

The Campaign for Contract Agriculture Reform "praised the USDA proposals across the board," Gabbett reports. "These new rules will help greatly to level the playing field for contract poultry growers," Berryville, Ark., poultry grower Mickey Box said in a news release. "For too long, the chicken companies have been able to force farmers to sign unfair contracts that make it nearly impossible for us to make ends meet." Mike Weaver, president of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias, said "The rules provide balance and fairness so that growers aren't always worried that the company will yank away their livelihoods without any notice or just cause."

The National Chicken Council called the plan "one-sided, unrealistic and not in accordance with court rulings." It said the regulations were "clearly drafted to satisfy a small number of activist growers and will do nothing to enhance the business of the great majority of broiler producers who are satisfied with the current system."

A spokesman for the National Meat Association "questioned the proposed ban on packers trading livestock," calling it "sweeping and arbitrary," Gabbett reports. "The American Meat Institute had the harshest words," saying "USDA is attempting to turn the clock back on the livestock and meat marketing practices that have made the U.S. meat production system the envy of the world." (Read more)

Silicon Hollow Association forms to promote information technology work in southeastern Ky.

For several years U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of southeastern Kentucky's 5th District and others have promoted the idea of "Silicon Hollow," an Appalachian version of Silicon Valley, as a place for outsourcing information technology and computer science services. Now the effort has an organization, the Silicon Hollow Association, which says it will launch live on the Internet at 11 a.m. EDT Monday.

The broadcast will be available at this site  or the group's home page. In addition to the 30-minute introduction of the SHA, two discussion forums will also be broadcast live starting around 1:15 EDT. The keynote speaker for the luncheon will be Henry Torres, left, director of the Interactive Teaching and Technology Center at Arkansas State University. Torres was instrumental in the founding of Rural Sourcing Inc., a software outsourcing company on which the Silicon Hollow Association is modeled.

Community colleges caught in economic vise: Budget cuts and more demand for education

In announcing his American Graduation Initiative last summer, President Obama said community colleges would be the key to increasing college graduation rates and training workers to boost the economic recovery. Now, a year later, expectations have been scaled back. "The graduation initiative fell out of a bill to remake the student loan industry," Ali Eaves of reports. "What ultimately passed for community colleges — $2 billion in federal funds to go out in the form of competitive grants between 2011 and 2014 — was seen by many as something of a consolation prize."

"The lousy economy has wedged community colleges between two sides of a vise: On one side, financial support from state and local governments is declining, and on the other side, enrollments are soaring as more middle-class families find they can't afford four-year tuition and laid-off workers go back to school to retrain," Eaves writes. Community colleges are generally funded from three different sources: tuition, property taxes and appropriations with tuition being the only source over which colleges can exercise much control.

Facing dwindling budgets, colleges are taking new steps to cut costs, including "reducing the number of courses they offer, cutting summer sessions, eliminating programs and capping enrollment," Eaves writes. "While these measures help balance budgets, they also make it harder for students to get into the classes they need and to graduate on time." Jim Jacobs, the president of Macomb Community College, which hosted Obama for his announcement last year, now thinks the funding system is broken."In terms of the percent of the revenues that support us, we’re down to 22 percent of our funding coming from the state," he told Eaves. "Ten years ago, it was near 35 percent. What’s mitigated that impact in the past is a reliance on increasing revenues through property taxes. But given the housing market, we’re in a freefall." (Read more)

As broadband expands, some need to learn how to use computers before the Internet

As the government looks to bring more high-speed Internet access to rural America, computer literacy programs may be needed in some areas to increase adoption of computers, much less the Internet. Many rural communities have computer-literacy programs for adults; one that gets good reviews from its clients is in Aubrey, Tex., Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe of the Denton Record-Chronicle reports. It might seem like a routine story, but it's probably one that will prompt some people to enroll in the program.

"About 57 percent of rural Texas households have a computer with some kind of Internet access, according to 2009 data compiled by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration," Heinkel-Wolfe writes. That number jumps to 63 percent when considering households that have access somewhere like a library or at work. "Across the rural United States, slightly less than half of all adults 55 and older report being able to go online."

While skills needed for basic computer usage and Internet usage may not be exactly the same, the organizers of the Aubrey program say those little differences don't mean much to newcomers. "For the beginner, and the victims of the tech divide, the computer and the Internet are the same," Aubrey Area Library Director Kathy Gilson told Heinkel-Wolfe. (Read more)

Pennsylvania drilling regulation moves ahead as regulator vows to crack down on violators

Pennsylvania officials approved Thursday a proposal to prevent pollutants from natural-gas drilling wastewater from further tainting waterways and drinking water. "The rule would put pressure on drillers to reuse the wastewater or find alternative methods to treat and dispose of the brine, rather than bringing more truckloads of it to sewage treatment plants that discharge into waterways where millions get drinking water," Marc Levy of The Associated Press reports. The proposal was approved by a 4-1 vote by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. (Read more)

In testimony before the vote, Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger told a state Senate committee that "companies flocking to Pennsylvania to exploit the rich Marcellus Shale natural gas reserve must stop well blowouts, gas migration and water pollution," Levy reports. "He said he has seen examples of negligence and accidents and cited his agency's actions to withhold new permits, stop a company's operations or seal wells when safety is compromised."

"We need this industry to get the message from us that we expect that safety is not going to be sacrificed when those decisions have to be made, and there will be serious consequences" if it is, Hanger said. Hanger's 90 minutes of testimony came at a hearing called in response to a gas-well blowout this month that spewed drilling wastewater into the air for 16 hours. (Read more)

Drilling moratorium may have broader effect on Gulf communities than oil-well blowout

The BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico may end up affecting coastal communities not immediately in the oil's path, due to the Obama administration's six-month moratorium on all deepwater drilling. "The securities firm Raymond James & Associates predicts that the moratorium could last well into 2011, directly jeopardizing 50,000 jobs and potentially gutting blue-collar communities that rely heavily on the economic activity that comes with deepwater work," Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times reports. President Obama and BP announced Wednesday the company had voluntarily agreed to create a $100 million fund to compensate such rig workers.

"Just as the demise of auto plants and steel mills in the Upper Midwest devastated entire towns, an extended drilling ban could eventually have a similar effect in the Gulf Coast," Raymond James said in a report Monday. The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association warned many of the affected rigs will look to drill in other countries, putting at risk the 800 to 1,400 jobs per rig, including third-party support personnel. "The halt in drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet came in response to the still-unchecked gusher of oil that followed the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers," Zeller writes. "The goal was to give the government time to review the rules and oversight of such wells, and the shutdown was welcomed by many Americans who have watched the environmental disaster unfold."

Last week Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu warned the moratorium could "potentially wreak economic havoc on this region that exceeds the havoc wreaked by the spill itself." President Obama justified the moratorium during his Oval Office address Tuesday, saying "I know this creates difficulty for the people who work on these rigs, but for the sake of their safety, and for the sake of the entire region, we need to know the facts before we allow deepwater drilling to continue." (Read more)

FCC moves ahead with broadband redefinition

The Federal Communications Commission moved ahead with its plan to regulate broadband Internet service with a 3-2 vote Thursday. "The vote formally begins a period of public comment on an FCC proposal to overturn a previous commission ruling that classified broadband transmission as a lightly regulated information service," Edward Wyatt of The New York Times reports. The reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service is seen as a key step in FCC's national broadband plan which would bring high-speed Internet access to more rural areas. The commission said the change was needed after a federal court of appeals in April invalidated ruled FCC couldn't mandate network neutrality under the previous approach.

"The commission has said it intends to exempt broadband service from most of the regulatory options it has under the stricter designation, keeping only those regulations that are necessary 'to implement fundamental universal service, competition and market entry, and consumer protection policies,'" Wyatt writes. Opponents of the move say it gives FCC the power to regulate rates charged to consumers by broadband service providers, but Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the commission, denied FCC has any intention to do so.

Genachowski said the commission was seeking comment on three possibilities: "Keeping regulation as it is, imposing a full telecommunications regulatory regime, and a 'third way' approach of limited regulation," Wyatt writes. In her dissenting statement, Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker said the proposal "will place the heavy thumb of government on the scale of a free market to the point where innovation and investment in the ‘core’ of the Net are subjected to the whims of ‘Mother-May-I’ regulators." (Read more)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Climate change beginning to disrupt agriculture, threatening food security, experts say

Climate change is beginning to disrupt agriculture around the world, four experts said yesterday at a panel discussion sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The disruption comes at a time when global population is forecast to grow by half in the next 40 years and "the price of major grains like rice and wheat were already projected to also increase by roughly 50 percent," Darius Dixon of Environment & Energy News reports on ClimateWire, citing panelist Gerald Nelson, an agricultural economist and fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. "With the added environmental stresses expected of climate change, prices could instead double, according to IFPRI."

Dixon reports, "Panelists stressed the need for funding aimed at mitigating the damage to agricultural resources around the world potentially affected by climate change," already being seen in accelerating cycles of drought and rain. "Climate variability has already affected rains, droughts and temperatures in several parts of the United States, said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies." She noted "significant reductions in rainfall across large portions of the Northwest and Southeast. Idaho, Washington, Montana, Georgia and Florida had some of the most drastic changes in rainfall on the map."

On the other hand, "Increased soil moisture in some areas could potentially harbor insects and other pests," Dixon reports. Also, "The reproductive development in many important grains is a process sensitive to temperature, said Paul Gepts, a professor of agronomy at the University of California, Davis. One of the potential side effects of climate change is a trend toward milder winters in some regions. Vital plants, Gepts said, require a cold winter in order to properly develop their seeds for the next season."

The panel also included R. Cesar Izaurralde, a fellow at the Joint Global Change Research Institute. All the panelists "reaffirmed the belief that ripples in agricultural stability inevitably lead to civil unrest and a substantial threat to national security." (Read more, subscription required)

Corps stops fast-track process for mine permits

The Army Corps of Engineers, as expected, announced today that it is suspending the streamlined permit process for surface coal mines in Appalachia. The move is part of the Obama administration's stricter regulation of mountaintop-removal mines and others that fill the headwaters of streams with material blasted from above and between coal seams. Until now, such mines had been authorized through the corps' Nationwide Permit 21.

The corps said in its press release that it "determined after a thorough review and consideration of comments that continuing use of NWP 21 in this region may result in more than minimal impacts to aquatic resources. Activities that result in more than minimal impacts to the aquatic environment must be evaluated in accordance with individual permit procedures." Thus did the corps adopt, under pressure from the administration, the arguments of strip-mining foes who have been fighting NWP 21 in court for years.

"U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin had already nullified the use of NWP 21 in the southern district of West Virginia prior to the Obama administration’s announced plans, and oddly enough, the administration also filed a notice that it planned to appeal Judge Goodwin’s decision," Ken Ward Jr. writes on his Coal Tatoo blog for The Charleston Gazette. His blog item has several links to previous items and stories that provide useful background on the subject.

Feds, BP doing better at controlling flow of information than flow of oil in Gulf, AP exec says

Local law enforcement and BP officals are continuing to bar from public property journalists attempting to report on the oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, despite repeated calls from the journalism community to allow full access. "Adm. Thad Allen, the federal government's point person for the response, issued a May 31 directive to BP PLC and federal officials ensuring media access to key sites along the coast," Tamara Lush of The Associated Press reports.

While BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles followed up with a letter to news organizations, saying the company "fully supports and defends all individuals' rights to share their personal thoughts and experiences with journalists if they so choose," those well wishes have "done little to curtail the obstacles, harassment and intimidation tactics journalists are facing by federal officials and local police, as well as BP employees and contractors," Lush writes.

"We think a lot of the restrictions are way tighter than they need to be," said Michael Oreskes, AP senior managing editor. "So far, I think the government has done a better job of controlling the flow of information than of controlling the flow of oil in the Gulf." Oreskes sent a letter, demanding better media access and outlining incidents where media weren't allowed to report on the story, to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday. (Read more)

The Society of Environmental Journalists devoted its June 16 tipsheet to the controversy with many stories about media being denied access and steps being taken to increase transparency surrounding the blowout. Here is a Columbia Journalism Review story by Curtis Brainard.

Enviros seek limits on methane from coal mines

In a petition filed Wednesday four environmental groups called for the Environmental Protection Agency to begin regulating emissions of methane from coal mines. The petition seeks standards for emissions of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, from all new mines. "Existing mines that wanted to expand or modify their operations also would be subject to the new standards," Patrick Reis of Environment & Energy Daily reports. The petition was filed by WildEarth Guardians, Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The petition also asks EPA to set pollution standards for non-greenhouse gas pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxide gases," Reis reports. An EPA spokeswoman told Reis the agency is reviewing the petition and would respond at a later date. The groups said they hoped EPA's "endangerment" finding last year that declared methane, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases a threat to human health would help their cause. "Let's put that endangerment finding to use now," Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth told Reis. "Let's not just say it's an endangerment, let's work to minimize that endangerment." (Read more, subscription required)

Southwest Virginians sue natural-gas firms, alleging theft in scandal Bristol paper exposed

A group of Southwest Virginia landowners has filed twin class-action lawsuits against two leading energy corporations, accusing them of stealing the landowners' natural gas. "The federal lawsuits charge that the Pittsburgh-area companies Consol Energy and EQT Corp. have illegally exploited provisions of the 1990 Virginia Gas and Oil Act," reports Daniel Gilbert of the Bristol Herald Courier, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize medal for public service for revealing the scandal. "The plaintiffs argue that they should be paid for all of the coalbed methane gas the companies have produced from beneath their lands, past and future."

"The two lawsuits will be followed by a series of class-action complaints seeking damages against energy companies for underpaying royalties owed to landowners in all of the gas-producing counties of Southwest Virginia," Gilbert writes. Don Barrett, one of the groups' lawyers, told Gilbert, "What we are talking about here is breathtaking thievery. The system’s broken in Virginia, unlike any other place in the country. And that’s what they make courthouses for." A Consol spokeswoman told Gilbert it was against company policy to comment on pending litigation. (Read more)

You can see our previous items on the Herald Courier's Pulitzer Prize win here and on the original stories here.

Transportation Dept. gets rural views on roads

Federal transportation officials came to rural America last week for the latest stop on their national listening tour to gather input in advance of the reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program. The rural perspective on issues like road safety was the focus of the meeting in Bismark, N.D., and was headlined by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Leslie Wollack of the National League of Cities reports. LaHood "warned that with limited resources, all states will need to set priorities," Wollack writes.

"The other stops on this reauthorization tour have been metropolitan cities, so it was particularly important to talk about the issues in rural America," Connie Sprynczynatyk, executive director of the North Dakota League of Cities, said. "The need to maintain connectivity and the need for the longer planning horizon that we get with a multi-year highway bill were two recurrent themes throughout the afternoon." The surface transportation program lapsed in September "remains in limbo due to a lack of national consensus on a new direction for transportation programs and a shortage of transportation revenues," Wollack writes. LaHood said after the meeting, "Rural America will not be left out." (Read more)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

EPA estimates Kerry-Lieberman energy bill would cost households $80 to $150 a year

Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the Senate cap-and-trade bill proposed by Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman says the bill will cost households between $80 and $150 annually over the next 40 years. The senators say the long-awaited EPA modeling, along with President Obama's push for an energy bill during last night's Oval Office address, will help boost Senate momentum for passing a climate bill, Robin Bravender of Environment & Energy Daily reports.

"This model confirms what we have known all along, and what Senator Lieberman and I have been saying to you would be the final result of this legislation," Kerry said. "A well-designed climate change and energy legislation is good for American consumers." Not everyone agreed with the analysis. "The American people overwhelmingly oppose an increase in the gas tax -- yet, it's included in this legislation," Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, told Bravender. "We can argue about how high the costs of this legislation will be, but no one denies that the consumer will end up with less money in their pockets after this legislation is signed into law." (Read more, subscription required)

Foes of old animal-ID program oppose new one

In February we reported the U.S. Department of Agriculture had abandoned the Bush-era National Animal Identification System that would have tracked livestock from "birth to the butcher shop" in favor of a narrower and more low-tech system, but USDA has a new idea and many of the groups who opposed the Bush program are rallying against it. The new program, named Animal Disease Traceability, would apply only to animals involved in interstate commerce and would use use of metal tags to trace the movement of animals from state to state instead of the radio-frequency ID tags used in the NAIS program, Richard Oswald and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder.

The first USDA meeting on the program was held last month in Kansas City, where the message was USDA "doesn’t want to meddle in intrastate sales and that it's most interested in cattle," Oswald and Bishop write. USDA said its goal was to create a standard numbering system so a single cow could be traced back to its herd of origin within five days. USDA is also trying to avoid many of the objections raised against NAIS, including using a system owned entirely by states and tribal nations instead of a private database that may have allowed meatpackers and animal-rights groups access to herd information.

But those who opposed NAIS see the new program as a slippery slope. "I’ve been studying the antics of Washington bureaucrats for 50 years and I know this is just another ploy to give farmers and ranchers a feeling of security, when all the while they are in the process of coming back with a much more draconian plan," independent agricultural journalist Derry Brownfield recently wrote. "The name has been changed and descriptive words have been eliminated and replaced with other objectives, but government continues to push towards turning the control of our livestock industry over to the multinational meatpackers. The coyotes howl along the trail but the wagons keep rolling along." USDA will host two more meetings about the program on June 24 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and on July 1 in Fort Worth, Tex. (Read more)

UPDATE, July 2: The agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut funding for the program.

Florida's rural high schools get an athletic division

Citing unequal competition between urban and small rural schools, the Florida High School Athletic Association has created a new division in eight sports for rural schools with fewer than 500 students. Invitations to join "Rural Division II" will be sent to the 32 rural schools with the smallest enrollment, reports. If any of those schools decline their invitations, invitations will be sent to the next smallest rural school until 32 teams accept. Rural Division II schools will compete in their own playoffs in boys' and girls' basketball, baseball, football, softball and girls' volleyball, and boys' and girls' soccer. (Read more)

The call for the rural division arose after years of rural schools facing urban ones with similar enrollment but vastly different talent levels. Most of the small urban schools are private and attract student-athletes from populations of 250,000 or more, Pat McCann of the The News Herald of Panama City reports. "We’re excited about it, we just think it would help keep it on a competitive playing field," Ponce de Leon High School girls basketball coach Tim Alford told McCann. "Our last trip to the Final Four we played a team that had six Division I signees on one high school team. They had beaten the Class 6A team that won the state championship 51-21."

In addition to having a qualifying enrollment, schools must also be in a rural area as designated by the Florida Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development. Some schools are expected to decline invitations due to long travel distances to play other teams in the division. "Seriously, it’s like an AAU tournament when you go down there [to play urban schools]. Those teams have (signees) from Louisville and Kentucky," Port St. Joe High School boys basketball coach Derek Kurnitsky told McCann. "We just coach the kids in the neighborhood. I commend the FHSAA and what they’re doing to try and make it at least fair." (Read more)

Rural families stand to lose more from expiration of more generous child tax credit

If amendments to the child tax credit authorized by the economic stimulus package are not made permanent over three million low-income rural face stark drops in tax credit their families receive, says a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in conjunction with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. "Rural children will be over 20 percent more likely than children in urban and suburban areas to be affected — because their families are more likely to have modest incomes," researchers Arloc Sherman and Marybeth Mattingly report.

Prior to the stimulus, a family's first $12,550 in wages did not count toward the child credit, but the stimulus lowered that threshold to $3,000 for 2009 and 2010. President Obama has proposed making the change permanent, but if it is not, more than 10,000 rural children in each of the 44 states with reliable data studied would face reductions in the credit with over 100,000 children being affected in 11 states, Sherman and Mattingly write. The change extended the tax credit to an estimated 2.7 million low income families and increased the amount of the credit to low-income families who previously only received a partial credit.

If the change is allowed to expire, and the $12,550 threshold returns, a family will not be eligible for a full credit unless its earnings are at least $26,183. "The Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center estimates that more than 18 million children aged 0-16 whose parents work will lose all or part of their child credit if Congress lets the improvement expire," the researchers write. Rural America is home to 15 percent of all U.S. children but 18 percent of children who would face a credit reduction if the change expires. (Read more)

Pell Grant reform boosts rural community colleges

Of the 860 U.S. community colleges or college districts, 64 percent are rural, and rural community colleges enroll 37 percent of all two-year college students, compared to 31 percent for urban community colleges. Now the extension of the Pell Grant program to allow students use during all three semesters (spring, summer and fall) instead of two of the three has provided new opportunities for rural community college students, Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, writes for the Daily Yonder.

The extension to three semesters, authorized by the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 is particularly helpful for rural students as prior research from the Rural Community College Alliance and the MidSouth Partnership for Rural Community Colleges revealed "rural community college students incur roughly 6 of every 10 loans among all first-time, full-time U.S. community college students," Katsinas writes. Enrollment at all community colleges has jumped by 2.2 million, roughly 30 percent, in the last five years with rural community colleges seeing the largest increase at 42 percent compared to 21 percent at urban community colleges and 27 percent at suburban ones.

Bevill State Community College, a four-campus community college district that serves a sprawling, sparsely populated area of west-central Alabama, reports enrollment so far this summer is up 13 percent from 2009 with over one-sixth of the record enrollment using the new year-long Pell Grant. Preliminary enrollment at the Pickens County campus is at 249, up from 106 in summer 2009. Three-fourths of the189 students enrolled this summer are using a Pell Grant.

"Rural America’s stake in expanding Pell Grant funding cannot be overstated," Katsinas writes. "This program expands opportunities and changes lives, and will help our nation increase the number of Americans with baccalaureate degrees. Simply put, it’s the most important, effective human resource development program our country has, one that’s vital for rural renewal and innovation." (Read more)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Onshore drilling accidents, not just Gulf blowout, add to scrutiny of oil and gas industry

Much of the nation's focus is still pointed to the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, but recent accidents at onshore drilling sites are also causing trouble for the oil and gas industry. "With BP’s massive oil spill already prompting questions about the safety of offshore drilling in deep waters, a key growth area for the sector in recent years, the natural-gas accidents are bringing new scrutiny to a business that may be even more important to the local oil-and-gas economy," reports Brett Clanton of the Houston Chronicle. Incidents include two recent accidents at drilling operations in the Marcellus Shale in the Eastern U.S. (see item below) and two fatal gas-pipeline incidents in North Texas.

"It’s not clear whether those incidents will draw onshore gas operations into the push for tighter regulation that the offshore industry already is facing amid the unfolding disaster in the Gulf," Clanton writes. "But they do represent another setback for an industry desperate to repair its image and to reassure Americans that domestic oil and gas resources can be developed safely." Michelle Foss, chief energy economist and head of the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas' Jackson School of Geosciences, explained, "Right now, the industry just can’t afford any more mistakes."

"It just demonstrates that we’re at a point where the extraction of fossil fuels is very risky, whether it’s deep-well drilling under the ocean or hydraulic fracturing, that our dependence on fossil fuels comes with some significant risks," Larisa Ruoff, of Green Century Capital Management, a Boston-based investment advisory firm that is trying, through shareholder proposals, to push oil and gas companies to disclose more about risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, told Clanton. Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corp., the nation’s second-largest gas producer, told Clanton he doesn't believe the incidents will have any long-term impact. "You want to have no accidents ever, but as long as humans are involved and you’re dealing with great unknowns underneath the earth, you’re going to have some surprising things happen," he said. "The question is what do you do with it? If BP had been able to control that spill in a day, we wouldn’t be talking about the BP incident today." (Read more)

Marcellus Shale gas-drilling accidents raise fears

The June 3 well blowout at a Marcellus Shale drilling operation in rural Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, has attracted the ire of lawmakers and locals worried about the safety of the industry. Those fears were exacerbated last week when drillers near Moundsville, W.Va., "hit a pocket of methane in an inactive deep mine, causing an explosion and fire that flared 50 feet high for four days, destroyed a drilling rig and burned all seven workers on the well pad," Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

"We're horrified by the possibilities of that happening here," Debbie Borowiec of Upper Burrell, Pa., where two gas wells are planned near 67 homes, told Hopey. "The more research we do the more horrific it is, and I don't think a lot of people know what's going on." The state Department of Environmental Resources said wastewater that escaped during the Clearfield County blowout contaminated a nearby spring, but did not affect any creeks or streams. "We now have a worst-case scenario at the Clearfield County site where there is evidence of a catastrophic release of gas and contaminated water from Marcellus well drilling," Conrad Dan Volz, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, told Hopey.

The blowout's "silver lining, which will likely not reassure locals, is that it happened in a rural, relatively unpopulated area, Volz said. "If that accident had occurred in a populated area, like Lincoln Place in Pittsburgh, it would have had a serious impact on human health without a doubt," he added. Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, cautioned against any rush to action following the accidents saying, "To call for a moratorium at a time when family incomes are in decline and they need a good supply and a fair price on gas to heat their homes is not a good policy, especially when there are good people developing the resource." (Read more)

Shift from coal to gas for electric generation is well under way, says Siemens president

The market for new natural-gas electric generating stations is going strong because coal is on its way out, says the president of one engineering firm. This week Siemens Power Generation Group announced that it "has won contracts to supply five new high-efficiency gas plants to Progress Energy at two sites in North Carolina that have old coal-fired generators," Matthew W. Wald of The New York Times reports on the paper's Green blog. "It is also replacing old gas-fired plants in Florida." The six Progress plants are among the 11 coal-fired plants the company owns that do not have scrubbers. Progress says it will eventually close all 11.

"I think they came to the conclusion with all the uncertainty, and the likelihood that the rules for pollutants like mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides will be further tightened, it’s not worth spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the back end," of an old power plant, Siemens President Randy Zwirn told Wald. "Per kilowatt-hour generated, the new gas-fired generators will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent and nitrogen oxides by 95 percent from levels produced by their coal-fired predecessors" Wald writes. "Nearly 100 percent of sulfur dioxides will be eliminated, and all of the mercury."

Siemens is supplying equipment for some of the few coal plants under construction around the country, but Zwirn said, "I don’t know of any negotiations we have currently going on for new coal plants." Siemens says it's building natural-gas facilities in areas not expected to need more power generation until 2018 or 2020, which suggests they will be used to replace some existing generation. "Load growth is currently not the driver for new capacity additions," Zwirn told Wald. "I think we’re beginning to experience the beginning of a fleet restructuring here in the U.S. that’s driven by regulation." (Read more)

Georgia film maven hopes agriculture can become the Peach State's next movie star

In recent years Atlanta has become a major hub for Hollywood talent, with entertainment production increased by 400 percent since the Georgia Legislature passed a tax incentive for the film industry in 2008. Now the state's top entertainment-industry adviser is looking to turn agriculture into the next big star, Jill Vejnoska of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Shay Bentley-Griffin, president and CEO of Atlanta-based Chez Group, who has cast more than 225 TV and feature film projects, already serves on the governor’s Film and Entertainment Advisory Board and was recently appointed to the state Agricultural Advisory Commission.

Bentley-Griffin, a third-generation farmer who sought out the agriculture post, already has writers working on some ideas and is planning to start her own production company. "There is struggle and there are great success stories out there," Donnie Smith, who oversees the agriculture commission, told Vejnoska. "Farmers love and protect the land. There are tremendous stories to tell, and we think we can benefit from her film expertise." When Smith asked her if the appointment "means we could see Georgia agriculture-themed documentaries, commercials or even TV series and movies (picture it in lights: “Vidalia: There’s No Crying in Onion Growing”), she replied, "It could be all of above." (Read more)

A proper sendoff: A column about a local character who helped define his community

One of the best things a rural journalist can do is write an appreciation of a signiifcant local person who has recently did but to whom justice couldn't be done in a typical obituary. Paul Roy of The Independent Herald in Oneida, Tenn., did that last week for his community and William C. "Jumby" Terry, a business and political fixture in coal- and timber-rich Scott County for decades.

Roy writes about the last time he saw Jumby, "physically feeble, but mentally as bright-eyed and alert as I had seen him in the past few years," and the first time, 34 years ago, when he tried to get him to invest in a second newspaper for the county. "He wanted to know who was going to be involved in this new venture, what the true purpose was, who came up with the idea, etc., etc. It was my interview and I hadn’t asked a single question!" Jumby "had a running feud of several years" with one of the prospective investors, so he "opted out, but within just a few years (and many times afterwards), he said he wished he had got in on the ground floor. I wish he had, too."

And while the two became friends, Roy knew where to draw the line: "I learned early to say no thanks when Jumby would say, “Come with me, let’s ride around awhile.” I did that a few times, and had no intention of continuing the practice. When Jumby wanted me to go for a ride, he actually wanted to convince me of something and he wanted time to be on his side. Behind the wheel of his car, his ever-so-slow moving car, he was in control. And he had no intention of letting me out until he got whatever it was off his mind and into mine!"

Roy's column brought Jumby back to life in a way that only he could, because of his personal experience with him. But such personal experience isn't required to write an appreciation, and it doesn't have to wait until someone dies. Local characters make a community what it is, and often define it, pieces like this are part of the basic job of a local paper, holding a mirror up to the community. To read it, click here.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Babbitt, Interior boss for 8 years, says EPA should handle offshore drilling

Bruce Babbitt, who was President Bill Clinton's only secretary of the interior, said yesterday that his old department is incapable of regulation offshore oil drilling and the task should logically go to the Environmental Protection Agency. Babbitt, a former governor of Arizona, spoke on "Platt's Energy Week," a talk show on WUSA-TV in Washington.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is breaking the Minerals Management Service into separate offices responsible for issuing offshore-drilling permits of offshore drilling, collecting revenue from the wells and enforcing safety regulations, but Babbitt, right, said, "I think Salazar is basically rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic."

Patrick Reis of Greenwire notes, "MMS is under fire for cozy relationships with industry and reports of sex, pornography viewing and drug use" during the previous administration, as well as streamlining reviews of offshore drilling, which continued until the Deepwater Horizon blowout. "Babbitt said the industry has 'essentially been self-regulating' for years, across both Democratic and Republican administrations but that the more serious problems did not take hold until President George W. Bush took office." Babbitt said, "The corruption that has crept into the agency is a relatively recent phenomenon coming out of the deregulatory ethic that crept up during the Bush administration."

Meanwhile, Reis reports, "A coalition of 101 environmental groups and scientists said today that Salazar has failed to reform that corruption and should be fired for it." In a letter to President Obama, the signers said "Salazar has either embraced or failed to reform many of the destructive policies of the previous administration" and has failed to ensure that his department's policy decisions are based on science. (Read more, subscription required)

Deadly flash flood in Arkansas raises questions about how remote is too remote

Many tourists to remote areas are attracted to such locations partly for their isolated nature, but after a flash flood in a remote Arkansas campground killed at least 19 people over the weekend, some are asking if that isolation is such a good thing. "The absence of a modern communication network made it virtually impossible last week to quickly warn campers of an approaching downpour, which led to flash floods that tore through the Albert Pike campground" in Langley, Ark., John Eligon reports for The New York Times. Bob Lewis, Langley’s fire chief, said constructing a cell phone tower near the campground had already been discussed, but "even instant communications may have proved inadequate last week." Eligon writes.

John C. Nichols, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman, said "The most effective warning system for remote outposts like this are old-fashioned face-to-face alerts," Eligon writes. "Law enforcement authorities and volunteers in the area are usually called upon to carry out evacuations." The rains came too quickly for adequate warnings last week and even the volunteer campground host found himself first fighting for survival. Federal and local officials say they did everything they could to warn campers of last week's flood, but acknowledged they would review procedures.

"People still like to get away," Capt. Mike Fletcher of the Arkansas State Police told Eligon. He said he did not expect the flood to deter outdoor enthusiasts: "This is a very rare occurrence. You can’t fight Mother Nature." Nichols added, "If you want the sensory overload, you go to Disney World. You can communicate with as many people as you want there." Sill others like Atlanta, Tex., native Richard Brown, who has a TV satellite dish on his Albert Pike cabin, favor more connectivity. "I don’t want to cut off from the outside world," he told Eligon. "I may be a hillbilly, but not that bad." (Read more)

In fight over disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals, not all agree on what disclosure is

Environmentalists and several congressional Democrats are pushing to require natural-gas drilling companies to disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations, but even if they succeed another battle may be on the horizon to define how much information disclosure entails. "Fracking" is a decades-old drilling technique that involves blasting sand, water and a cocktail of chemicals into the ground to create small cracks in rock formations, releasing natural gas. It has become more prevalent in opening vast gas reserves in deep, dense shale formations. "Industry maintains the practice is safe and well-regulated by states, but environmentalists and some congressional Democrats worry that the technique will pollute underground water supplies," Katie Howell of Environment & Energy Daily summarizes.

Earlier this month we reported Wyoming had passed the strictest fracking regulations to date, requiring companies to submit a list of chemicals used along with their concentrations to regulators as part of the permitting process. Trade secrets in the list will remain confidential. Other states, including Colorado, require companies to keep an inventory of chemicals used and release the list only in case of an emergency or accident.

Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee earlier this year he "would be willing to disclose the chemicals included in fracturing fluids -- just not under federal regulation," Howell writes. Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette, the primary author of the "FRAC Act," which would require drillers to disclose fracturing chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act, refutes industry claims that most states already require disclosure and says just three states have guidelines strict enough to be considered true disclosure. "It's pretty simple what's disclosure and what's not," Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Howell. "What's good enough is what's in the FRAC Act." (Read more)

Horse farming: Agriculture or not?

The equine industry faces uncertainty as the broader agriculture industry decides how horse farming should be defined. "There is no universal definition of livestock or official classification of horses by the federal or state governments, so their treatment by both has varied across different issues," reports Natalie Voss of Business Lexington in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region. "For some experts, 'livestock' refers only to animals produced for use as food or fiber by humans. For others, any animal raised off the land for profit is an agricultural product and therefore livestock." The way horse farms are classified determines "how they are taxed, how they hire workers, and even the kind of government aid they are eligible for after natural disasters," Voss writes. (Photo: Kentucky Equine Education Project)

Wide variance in the type and size of horse operations also makes classification more difficult. Some farms are strictly commercial while others, mostly smaller ones, are "backyard horse owners, keep their animals as pets with no expectation of selling their beloved family members," Voss writes. In Kentucky cattle farms do not have to pay sales tax on feed or equipment because they are classified as livestock operations. Horse farms aren't afforded that same luxury.

Owners of horses used for racing, breeding or draft are allowed similar federal income-tax deductions, based on the age and use of the animal, compared to cattle owners. But horses not used for racing, breeding or draft cannot be claimed. "People provide services that improve the market value of the product, the horse, yet we don't capture that very well in our industry," Bob Coleman, extension horse specialist and professor at the University of Kentucky, told Voss. (Read more)

Illinois Basin coal industry may benefit from stricter regulation of Appalachian coal

With environmental and mine-safety legislation pending in Congress, the future of coal mining in Central Appalachia may never have been more uncertain, so mining in the Illinois Basin may stand to benefit. "Illinois coal, once considered too dirty to be burned by utilities, is on the rise after the worst U.S. coal disaster in 40 years," Mario Parker of Bloomberg reports. "The Illinois Basin is poised for growth and we fully expect to see an environment over the next several years with companies vying for that market," John Hanou, vice president of coal research at Edinburgh-based Wood Mackenzie Consultants Ltd., an energy advisory firm, told Parker. "It looks rosier than Central Appalachia."

"St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp., the nation’s largest coal producer, holds the most reserves in Illinois," Parker writes. "Arch Coal Inc. and Alpha Natural Resources Inc., the second- and third-biggest coal companies, respectively, have expressed interest in Illinois deposits to circumvent the safety and regulatory challenges in the Eastern U.S." Arch has said it doesn't plan to bring its Illinois properties into production for several years, as they still aren't as profitable as Powder River Basin coal in Wyoming, rival executives expect Peabody to move faster, Parker reports.

Illinois Basin coal has the third-highest energy content of any regional U.S. coal deposit, but releases four times the sulfur dioxide as Appalachian coal. "The Clean Air Act put a huge disadvantage on the Illinois coal industry, and it saw a significant decline in production as a result of that over time," Warren Ribley, director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, told Parker. The Illinois Coal Association reports only 3,500 workers are now employed by coal in the state, down from 10,000 in 1990. But now "scrubbers" that remove sulfur dioxide are more common at coal-fired electric plants.

Environmentalists remain wary of a shift in production from one coalfield to another rather than a move toward renewable energy sources. "This country needs to move beyond coal," David Graham-Caso, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, told Parker. "As that transition happens, there needs to be very careful regulation of any coal mining, whether it be in Appalachia or the Illinois basin." (Read more) For a U.S. Geological Survey report on production and depletion of coal in both basis, click here. (USGS map)

Mammoth Cave prepares for inevitability of ailment that is killing bats by the millions

Officials at Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, the world's longest known cave system, have feared the spread of white-nose syndrome among U.S. bat populations, and tensions are high as the disease moves closer. The syndrome, which has killed more than 1 million bats since 2006, was recently found in Dunbar Cave near Clarksville, Tenn., 80 miles southwest of Mammoth Cave National Park in Southern Kentucky, Laurel Wilson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

Traci Hemberger, a wildlife biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said white-nose syndrome reaching the Bluegrass State is inevitable now, especially since it has been found in Tennessee. "We've been on alert for a number of years," Mammoth Cave public information officer Vickie Carson told Wilson. Park officials are "drafting a response plan that will help keep the disease from arriving as well as outline how to minimize the spread if it does make an appearance," Wilson writes. (Read more) You can see our most recent white-nose item here.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fewer reporters track federal agencies; USDA, Mine Safety and Health Admin. leading examples

Fewer and fewer reporters in Washington cover federal agencies, and two of the biggest examples are the lack of attention to agencies that have a big impact in rural areas: the Department of Agriculture and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, in the Department of Labor. They're leading examples in a very long but good story by Jodi Enda in the June-July issue of American Journalism Review.

"Not one newspaper has a reporter who works in the newsroom of the Department of Agriculture, which, with a staff of 104,000, is one of the government's largest employers. Trade publications and bloggers pick up a bit of the slack but have neither the audience nor the impact of more traditional media outlets," Enda reports. "One Washington-based newspaper reporter covers the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversees mines in every state in the country, on anything close to a regular basis."

The lack of ag-department coverage was cited to Enda by Clark Hoyt, "who is completing a three-year stint as the New York Times' public editor in mid-June and was formerly Washington editor for now-defunct Knight Ridder," for which Enda once worked and is now McClatchy Newspapers. Hoyt told her The Des Moines Register "had a powerhouse Washington bureau" that won four Pulitzer Prizes 1968 and 1985 for "stories that grew out of intense coverage of the Agriculture Department."

But today, the coverage is more issue-oriented and less agency-oriented. The Register's only remaining employee in Washington, Philip Brasher, who is often at the cutting edge of mainstream reporting on farm issues, was "not on (the) radar" of Agriculture Department Communications Director Chris Mather when Enda interviewed her. Brasher didn't return Enda's "repeated phone calls," she reports. But just down the hall at the Gannett Co. Inc. bureau on New York Avenue, James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal in Louisville spoke at length with Enda, and got quoted at length.

"The Courier-Journal historically has had a great interest and desire to cover the coal mining industry and safety issues related to coal mining. That commitment hasn't diminished at all in recent years," Carroll said. "With MSHA, we try to revisit issues that nobody else is covering," such as coal dust in mines that gives miners black-lung disease. (Photo: Carroll lectures at "Carrying the Capitals to Your Community," an Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues seminar on how to cover Washington and state capitals from afar.)

Carroll says there's no substitute for a reporter in Washington, but the only other mainstream reporter who keeps close tabs on MSHA, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, "doesn't view his location as a disadvantage," Enda reports, quoting him: "If I were in Washington, I might have different and higher-level sources in the agency that I went to lunch with or had drinks with or something, but a sense of perspective outside the Beltway is not necessarily a bad thing."

Ward, left, does something a reporter anywhere can do: "He reads the Federal Register," where agencies publish new regulations and the details surrounding them. "You can read the regulations," Ward says. "You can file FOIA requests. You can do that from afar." And you can cover USDA and its rural-development programs that way, too. And there are big stories beyond the usual items about federal grants to localities. "Rural America continues to suffer," Mather told Enda. "The poverty level is higher, the education level lower. It's suffering because people are leaving those communities. They don't have water treatment systems that work; the schools aren't what they used to be."

Enda concludes, "It could be a great story: Where are these people going? What kind of jobs can they get? Are they putting pressure on the social service system? Who's doing the work they left behind? What's the impact on the cities and suburbs that receive them? What about the schools? Does this migration affect the nation's food supply? Agriculture--like mining--might be a hard sell to readers of large, urban papers whose closest connection with rural America often is a neighborhood farmers market. But it is up to reporters to connect the dots, to explain the impact of rural poverty on the food that makes its way to grocers in Manhattan or Los Angeles, for example, or of mining issues on electricity and climate change nationwide." (Read more)

Fewer metropolitan reporters follow statewide candidates, giving opportunity to rural journalists

Walter Shapiro of Politics Daily says he sees fewer and fewer reporters on the campaign trail as he covers races for governor and the U.S. Senate, especially in rural areas. His current examples are Kentucky, South Carolina and Massachusetts, but we expect it applies in most states. Sounds like there are more opportunities for rural reporters to break statewide and even national news.

"What we are witnessing in this election cycle is the slow death of traditional statewide campaign journalism," Shapiro writes. "Traveling with candidates (particularly in states like South Carolina and Kentucky where personal campaigning matters) gives you a sense of nuance about who they are as people and politicians. . . . Newspapers like the Louisville Courier-Journal and The State, South Carolina's largest paper, have dramatically de-emphasized in-depth candidate coverage because they are too short-handed to spare the reporters." In Massachsetts's special election early this year, almost all the coverage was from the Boston area, Shapiro reports.

He concludes, "At a time when Americans are obsessed with politics, it is both sad and strange that the great narratives of on-the-road campaign journalism have become as imperiled as midlist novelists and itinerant poets. Only a memorable political year like 2010 can produce one-of-a-kind statewide candidates like Nikki Haley, who is overwhelmingly favored to win the June 22 [South Carolina gubernatorial] runoff, and [Kentucky Republican Senate nominee] Rand Paul. Too bad that they are not big enough stories to lift the leading South Carolina and Kentucky newspapers out of their economically determined decline toward irrelevance." (Read more)