Saturday, August 14, 2010

N.Y. Times starts energy series with a look at mountaintop-removal mining, and an alternative

The New York Times begins a series called "Beyond Fossil Fuels" today with a story about mountaintop-removal coal mining that focuses on Coal River Mountain near Whitesville, W.Va., the plan to mine the mountain and environmentalists' counter-proposal: a 164-turbine wind farm that they say would create more long-term benefit. The report also includes a four-minute video. (Associated Press photo of nearby Kayford Mountain with Coal River Mountain in background)
Reporter Tom Zeller Jr. writes that the wind-farm idea is unlikely to prevail over Massey Energy's premits to mine the mountain, but "For many renewable-energy advocates outside the region, the struggle at Coal River Mountain has become emblematic of an effort across the country to find alternatives to fossil fuels." And he notes, "Proponents say that changes in state and federal mining regulations could tilt things in their favor." (Read more) We first reported on the idea in late 2008.

Court ruling may keep sugar-beet growers from planting genetically modified crops next year

A federal judge struck down the Department of Agriculture's approval of genetically modified sugar beets yesterday, posing potential problems for growers. The decision by District Judge Jeffrey White of San Francisco "appears to effectively ban the planting of the genetically modified sugar beets, which make up about 95 percent of the crop, until the Agriculture Department prepares an environmental impact statement and approves the crop again, a process that might take a couple of years," Andrew Pollack reports for The New York Times.
"In the past the sugar industry has warned there might not be enough non-engineered seeds available. However, the judge ruled that crops currently in the ground can be harvested and made into sugar, so the effects will not be felt until next spring’s planting season. Beets supply about half the nation’s sugar," Pollack notes. The ruling came in a lawsuit by the Center for Food Safety, which opposed genetically engineered crops. (Read more)

Former senator's death in crash focuses national attention on role, risks of air service in rural Alaska

The death of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens in a single-engine airplane crash has illustrated how dependent the roadless areas of Alaska are on air service, both public and private, and raised new questions for Alaskans about the risks. "The people who know it best, the pilots who daily crisscross the wilderness here and the safety experts back in the state's largest city, say travel by air is getting safer," Craig Medred and Joshua Saul write for Alaska Dispatch from Dillingham, where Stevens' plane was headed. (National Transportation Safety Board photo of the plane)

Stevens, famed for funneling federal money to his state, had something to do with improving its air safety; his funding included better airports, safety programs and "and a greater emphasis on safe operation, something advocated by Stevens," a World War II army pilot who lost his first wife in a 1978 plane crash that he survived.

"An Alaska-ignorant national press attracted to the 49th state by Stevens' death has been focused on the flight safety issue in the wake of the crash," Medred and Saul write. "To the average American reporter, the single-engine airplane is an exotic machine, something right out of the movie 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' even if the airplane is to many in rural Alaska the local taxi. People die in plane accidents in Alaska the way they die in automobile accidents in the rest of the country." The story examines why Stevens' plane may have crahsed. (Read more)

A 1972 plane crash killed the state's sole congressman, Nick Begich, and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, "seared the political establishment in Washington, and caused a 40-year shift in Alaska's balance of power," Jason Horowitz recalls for The Washington Post.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Carbon dioxide could be used to make 'green cement,' reducing need for underground storage

Conventional wisdom about the future of coal says that in a carbon-regulated political environment, power plants will need to be able to capture and store their carbon emissions. Now more companies and investors are questioning that idea. "They are supporting technologies that will separate and then trap carbon emissions in a series of 'beneficial products' that can be shipped to markets and sold at a profit," John J. Fialka of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "That, they assert, will avoid the need for much of the carbon capture and storage infrastructure now on energy planners' drawing boards."

Brent Constantz, who is among the most outspoken advocates of this approach, "believes that what he calls 'green cement,' which starts as a milky precipitate made from injecting carbon dioxide from power plant emissions into seawater, can be made and sold at a profit," Fialka writes. Constantz' scenario has a second benefit for reducing carbon emissions; he says green cement would then take part of the market share for concrete production from traditional cement makers, which are the nation's third largest source of CO2 emissions.

"Constantz's company, Calera Corp. of Los Gatos, Calif., recently appeared on a list of six winners of $106 million in federal stimulus grants awarded by the Department of Energy to demonstrate the 'beneficial use' of CO2," Fialka writes. Elaine Everitt, a project manager for the National Energy Technology Laboratory, which selected the winners, told Fialka the department still thinks CCS is the future of coal-fired electricity, but Fialka notes agency officials worry that not all areas have the right geology to store CO2.

Constantz told Fialka DOE's current preoccupation with CCS projects is a "big scam" created by lobbyists from the oil industry. "For every dollar set aside for CCS, you will need to set aside $2 to take care of liability issues," Constantz said. He also has criticized the concrete industry, saying it has the "Phillip Morris problem" addressing its carbon emissions, similar to tobacco companies' struggle with acknowledging cigarettes cause cancer. Calera has received "$7 million from Australian authorities to build a pilot plant to make building materials out of emissions from a power plant that uses some of the world's dirtiest coal," Fialka writes. (Read more, subscription required)

Industry watches as noted California weekly newspaper adopts 'low profit' status

In May we reported that the Point Reyes Light in rural western Marin County, California, was sold to a group of journalists, educators and community leaders who hoped to operate it as a "low-profit limited liability company," known as an LLLC, or L3C. Now the eyes of many in the newspaper industry are pointed at the Light to see if the L3C model, which allows the paper to operate as a for-profit but accept tax-deductible donations and foundation money, could help newspapers elsewhere, Mark Fitzgerald reports for Editor & Publisher. (Census Bureau map)
The Light, circulation about 3,000, has attracted a disproportionate amount of attention for a newspaper its size after winning the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, Fitzgerald writes. The new ownership group said the L3C model was their only choice after a competing weekly entered the market. "We were networking with different appraisers who told us, you’re market isn’t even big enough for one for-profit paper," biologist Corey Goodman, one of the new owners, told Fitzgerald.

"With an L3C, a high net worth individual could donate to a newspaper and get a 50 percent tax break," Fitzgerald writes. "And the newspaper is allowed to turn a profit, so long as its primary purpose is to advance some public benefit." The problem is the Internal Revenue Service has been reluctant to "recognize reporting on the news as the kind of social or educational benefit necessary to qualify for tax-deductible donations," Fitzgerald writes. Still, Kim Butler, the Vermont attorney who set up the Light's L3C, believes this structure will work for newspapers across the country.

While the Light is the first newspaper to use L3C status, it hopes to model its structure after the Poynter Institute in Florida. "Frankly, we were taking a cue from how the Poynter Institute operates the St. Petersburg Times in terms of its social and educational purposes," Butler told Fitzgerald. Goodman explained, "Kim told us if the only thing we were doing is operating that newspaper, it’s not going to fly. Like the Poynter Institute, you have to have publications and other educational things. Well, that’s exactly what Mark and I want to do." (Read more)

Environmentalists shift focus from coal burners to curbing Western coal production

The collapse of the climate bill and increased export of coal to Asia has led some environmentalists to shift their focus from coal-fired electricity to curbing production of the fuel in the Western U.S. "Groups including the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians, a New Mexico-based environmental group, are challenging the legality of a series of new leases the Bureau of Land Management has begun issuing" for Powder River Basin coal in Wyoming and Montana, Mark Peters reports for Dow Jones Newswires. "They say the leases could open up as much as 5.8 billion tons of coal reserves for mining, ensuring the basin's dominance for years to come. The environmentalists claim the BLM isn't properly taking into account the impact of burning the coal on the climate."

"We are interested in getting to the heart of the problem," Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director of WildEarth Guardians, told Peters. "What goes on in the Power River Basin is of national interest." In what marked a rare Powder River Basin challenge, a coalition of environmental groups sued in federal court last month to stop the first of what's expected to be a series of BLM lease decisions, Peters writes. WildEarth has also sued Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "over the lease process as a whole, alleging it neither fosters competition among coal producers nor requires a comprehensive assessment of the environmental impacts," Peters writes.

"Coal producers warn a slowdown in replacing their reserves could eventually hamper U.S. electricity supplies," Peters writes. "Last week, Alpha Natural Resources Chief Executive Kevin Crutchfield described the opposition effort as in its infancy, not seeing any impact on mining in the near term." Environmental groups say increasing exports to Asia are of particular concern because they undercut domestic effort to reduce emissions. "That is a very serious line in the sand," Bruce Nilles, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, told Peters of increased exports. (Read more)

Interior Department document details plans for possible new national monuments

The Interior Department has released additional pages of a leaked document, which identified potential sites for new public monuments. The list released this spring led to complaints from Republicans and several local officials that the Obama administration was trying to lock up public lands by creating new monuments, Patrick Reis of Environment & Energy Daily reports. House Republicans received pages 15 through 21 of the internal memo that identified 14 Western U.S. sites eligible for monument designation in February, and had called on the department to release the rest of the document with a disclosure resolution in the House Natural Resources Committee.

"The newly released pages detail the Bureau of Land Management's goals for expanding its National Landscape Conservation System and endorse expanding NLCS holdings through legislative efforts," Reis writes. All sites listed at in the West, butne passage early in the document, which you can read here, says unspecified sites in the East should be considered for monument designation, which can be done solely by the president.

The document calls for such action if legislative efforts for new conservation designations fail, but says "BLM recognizes that public support and acceptance of preservation status is best achieved when the public has an opportunity to participate in a land-use planning or legislative process." Still, Utah Republican Rep. Bob Bishop was not satisfied with the qualifier. "Thousands of Westerners whose livelihoods depend upon access to our public lands stand to be affected by these decisions, and yet this document blatantly goes out of its way to exclude their input or participation," Bishop said. "If there was any question about whether or not this administration has declared a war on the West, these new documents are evidence enough." (Read more, subscription required)

Paul downplays E. Ky. drug problem, draws fire

After being taken to task recently for comments on farm subsidies and mine safety, Kentucky Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul has again taken a stand that may prove controversial for Kentucky voters. Paul told The Associated Press that the drug problem in Eastern Kentucky was not "a real pressing issue." The comment in late July "expands on his previously stated position in favor of cutting federal funding for undercover drug investigations and drug treatment programs," the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "Many officials say both are badly needed in Appalachia, a hotbed for marijuana growers and drug dealers selling prescription pills and methamphetamines."

Democratic nominee Jack Conway favors using federal money to tackle the region's drug problem, as Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers has done. Paul told AP that Eastern Kentucky voters are more concerned about fiscal and social issues. "They're socially conservative out there, so am I. Jack's not. They're fiscally conservative. I am. Jack's not. ... I think we'll swamp him." In 21 Eastern and Southern Kentucky counties, local officials reported 114 overdose deaths during the first two months of this year, Karen Engle, head of the Operation UNITE anti-drug task force, said recently.

Operation UNITE was started  in 2003 by Rogers, who has endorsed Paul. It is funded by $2 million from the state and $4.3 million from the federal government, largely through Rogers' earmarks. "Paul has pledged not to request earmarks, and he said he isn't worried that voters would be upset about losing Operation UNITE," the Herald-Leader reports. Paul said of UNITE, "I don't think most people in Kentucky have heard of it." Jackson County Judge-Executive Tommy Slone, a Republican, said while many local voters are worried about socially and fiscally conservative issues, Paul's comments discredit their concerns about drugs. "Apparently [Paul] just doesn't know, or he wouldn't make that statement" about drugs not being a pressing issue, Slone said. "It'll hurt him if he says that because there's a lot of people up here that's been affected by these drugs." (Read more)

UPDATE, Aug. 14: Paul's campaign tells the Herald-Leader's Bill Estep that he does consider drugs a serious problem. Here is the story.

Wells Fargo becomes latest bank to restrict financing of firms removing mountaintops for coal

Last month Wells Fargo became the sixth major bank to restrict financing for mining companies that practice mountaintop removal. Since May, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have enacted policies to restrict mountaintop-removal financing as the Environmental Protection Agency moves to increase regulation of the controversial mining practice, Cameron Scott of the San Francisco Chronicle reports on The Thin Green Line blog. Also the "need to get better, rather than worse, PR since the financial industry ran the global economy into dust," appears to have factored in the decisions, Scott writes.

"We are seeing a sector-wide shift away from an increasingly controversial practice that is devastating Appalachian communities and the mountains and streams they depend on," Rebecca Tarbotton, Executive Director of Rainforest Action Network, which has campaigned against mountaintop-removal financing, said. She added: "Bottom-line, as access to capital becomes more constrained it will be harder for mining companies to finance the blowing up of America's mountains." (Read more)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Appellate court decides park service requirement violates free speech

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last week the National Park Service requirement that groups obtain permits for public gatherings, demonstrations or "expressions of views" at parks was unconstitutional. The case Boardley v. Department of Interior arose when Michael Boardley sued the park service in 2007 after being told he would need a permit to distribute "gospel tracts" at the presidential monument in western South Dakota’s Black Hills, The Associated Press reports. The three-judge panel ruled the government can’t require permits for "expressive activities within designated 'free speech areas,'" or other public forums at the 391 national parks.

"Within 'free speech areas,' the government has exceedingly little basis for hushing 'lone pamphleteer[s]' ... in the name of peace and tranquility," the court wrote in its decision. The park service did not return calls for comment about the decision. "The First Amendment is the only permit a Christian or any American needs to engage in free speech on public property. ... Certainly, it made no sense to enforce unconstitutional regulations that deny free speech at the foot of Mount Rushmore — a place where four men who championed America’s freedoms are immortalized in stone," Nate Kellum of the Alliance Defense Fund, which represented Boardley, told AP. (Read more)

The decision was somewhat ironic considering the park service's "role in tracking the nation's history and its efforts to preserve civility in national parks," Kurt Repanshek writes for National Parks Traveler. "How significant the ruling proves to be remains to be seen," Repanshek writes. "According to a survey by a reporter for the McClatchy Newspapers, there are relatively few permits issued annually across the National Park System. While about two dozen are issued in Sequoia National Park every year and upward of 100 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the bulk of those are to church groups that want to hold services in the parks." (Read more)

South Carolina town moves to ban illegal immigrants from living in city limits

A small South Carolina town thousands a miles from the Mexican border has become the latest community to pass a controversial illegal immigration law. The city council of Summerville, S.C., population just over 37,000, gave initial approval Wednesday to ban illegal immigrants from living within the town limits, Bruce Smith of The Associated Press reports. "The problem is not just in the border states, it's right here," Councilman Walter Bailey told Smith just before the council voted 4-2 to give first approval to the ban, which would also, in most cases, keep illegal immigrants from working in the town

The ordinance is up for final approval next month. About 100 people attended the meeting, and of the 20 who addressed the council and equal number spoke for and against the ordinance, Smith writes. Victoria Middleton, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina, "warned the council that there are questions about the constitutionality of the ordinance, adding immigration is not a local issue," Smith writes. Baily didn't back down following the ACLU warning, saying, "I'm offended by the intimidation of the ACLU. If they want to challenge us to a lawsuit, I accept that challenge." (Read more)

The local newspaper, the Summerville Journal Scene, publishes on Wednesday and Friday and as of this posting hadn't updated its website since the council approved the ordinance. In July, when the ordinance was tabled for a month for further review by the town's attorney, Jenny Peterson of the Journal Scene reported at least one opponent of the ordinance said Summerville should enforce existing county laws prohibiting businesses from hiring illegal immigrants rather than trying to pass its own ordinance. (Read more)

S.C. community newspaper group files first criminal charges for violation of state's open meeting law

The first charges under criminal provisions of South Carolina's open-government law have been filed following a complaint from a community newspaper group regarding a secret meeting in Holly Springs. "Judge William H. Womble Jr. found probable cause for violations of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act at a secret meeting June 16 during which Holly Springs fire commissioners voted behind closed doors to terminate Fire Chief Lee Jeffcoat," Jay King reports for Hometown News, which publishes nine weekly newspapers in upstate South Carolina. King was the only reporter present at the June 14 meeting but was ejected from the proceedings despite explaining the open-meetings law to officials there.

In his affidavit describing the event, King asserts "that the commissioners 'willfully' committed a crime against King as a media representative and the citizens of Spartanburg County by violating several provisions of the FOIA, specifically that the commission took a secret vote, that the meeting was not open to the public, that the commission failed to give proper notice, and that the commission failed to take proper minutes of the meeting," King writes. Bill Rogers, the executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, said the signing of the summons for the four public officials at the secret meeting to appear in court was "a historic occasion and will send a strong message across South Carolina." Violating the FOIA is a misdemeanor and is punishable by a $100 fine or up to 30 days in jail for the first offense. (Read more)

The fact that the first criminal charges under the state law came from reporting by a community newspaper wasn't lost on King. "I really don’t want to appear to be tooting my own horn, but it should be remembered that only a community newspaperman found out about the illegal Holly Springs Fire Commission meeting of June 16 and was the only media representative present during that meeting," King wrote in a separate editorial. "Naturally because the issue has created such an uproar, other local print and broadcast media have reported on the situation in Holly Springs to a greater or lesser extent, but the truth of the matter is they will forget about this community once this situation resolves itself. Thereafter, only the community journalist will bother to continue covering commission meetings." (Read more)

Does Ohio Farm Bureau-Humane Society agreement signal deals in other states?

In July we reported the controversial agreement between Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and the Humane Society of the United States to alter some farming practices. Now those concessions may be signaling a major change in modern agriculture as so-called "factory farming" becomes less popular. The agreement "is a rare compromise in the bitter and growing debate over large-scale, intensive methods of producing eggs and meat, and may well push farmers in other states to give ground," Erik Eckholm of The New York Times reports. "The rising consumer preference for more 'natural' and local products and concerns about pollution and antibiotic use in giant livestock operations are also driving change."

"Farmers in Ohio have accepted the agreement with chagrin, saying they sense that they must bend with the political and cultural winds," Eckholm writes. While groups like the Humane Society say keeping chickens in cages, one of the issues at the heart of the agreement, is cruel, farmers maintain their caged chickens are content and less prone to disease than barnyard flocks. "If our chickens aren’t healthy and happy, they won’t be as productive," Ohio egg farmer Tim Weaver told Eckholm. For now the United Egg Producers, a national trade group, maintains that egg prices would rise by 25 percent if all eggs were produced by uncaged hens.

"Formally, the new Ohio agreement only makes recommendations to a state livestock standards board, and getting opponents to recognize the authority of that board was an important achievement," say Farm Bureau officials. "We all know change is coming," Keith Stimpert, a senior vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, told Eckholm. "But is this how we’re going to deal with these issues, on a state-by-state basis?" he asked. For its part, the Humane Society is already picking its next targets and will likely push permit referendums in Washington and Oregon. (Read more)

Ohio coal-fired power plant to be converted to wood-burning despite concerns

One might expect environmental groups to applaud an energy company's decision to shelve a coal-fired power plant, but that is not the case in Ohio where FirstEnergy Corp. has gained approval to convert one into a biomass wood-burning facility. In a comment-free vote Wednesday, the "Public Utilities Commission of Ohio approved a 12-page order sweeping aside arguments from environmentalists and a wind industry trade group that burning trees to make power is not sustainable," John Funk of The Plain Dealer reports. The decision certifies the R. E. Burger power plant in Shadyside will be considered a renewable energy facility.

"If it is not sustainable, they are not going burn it," PUCO Chairman Alan Schriber told Funk. "Wood is renewable. That is what the law says." A coalition of environmental groups, the Ohio Consumers' Counsel and the America Wind Energy Association have protested the proposal for 18 months, saying it would lead to widespread deforestation and is not really sustainable. FirstEnergy spokeswoman Ellen Raines said the plant will be able to burn a mixture of green wood chips, wood pellets and briquettes and something very similar to charcoal after a $200 million renovation. (Read more)

Jennifer Miller, the conservation program manager for the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club, told Funk that while FirstEnergy is the first to announce a preference for biomass, it is not the only company to do so. "American Electric Power, Dayton Power and Light and Duke Energy Ohio have similar though smaller projects pending or already approved. Plus, an unregulated company has won approval to build a plant burning only biomass in southern Ohio," Funk wrote in a story previewing the vote. "We think PUCO has a responsibility to look at sustainability issues," Miller said. "Trees are 'carbon sinks.' If we burn down too many trees to make electricity, we have not helped the environment. And we have concerns that the Burger plant encourages FirstEnergy to do little in terms of solar or wind." (Read more)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Proposal would create a new level of the Internet where net neutrality would not apply

Friday we reported conflicting stories about a possible Google and Verizon "policy agreement" that would deliver a significant blow to advocated of net neutrality, the principle that all users have the same access. Now it appears both stories are partially correct. Google and Verizon announced this week a proposal that would keep existing public landlines free and open but would also create a second level of the Internet where telecommunication companies could charge higher rates for services that required more bandwidth to be carried over their lines, Michael Scherer of Time reports.

While Google said the shared policy would ensure the continued operation of a free and open Internet, net neutrality advocates were quick to lambast the proposal. "Unlike the future Googles, the present Google can afford prioritization service that will block out competitors," Andrew Schwartzman, the policy director of the Media Access Project. "It locks in the incumbent's advantage." In addition to the new prioritized wired network, the Google-Verizon proposal also included no limits on companies imposing tiered service on wireless networks.

"We welcome all efforts to promote openness on the wireline Internet," The Open Internet Coalition said in a statement, "but believe that any satisfactory agreement must also include protection for wireless Internet users to access websites and applications of their choice." In a conference call with reporters, Google president Eric Schmidt "minimized the import of the prioritization that would be allowed under the proposal, saying Google would continue to distribute all of its content over the existing Internet, not any premium subscription service," Scherer writes. The proposal will now circulate on Capitol Hill where no Congressional action is expected until 2011 at the earliest. (Read more) also reports on net neutrality. Reporter Marian Wang points out that Google and Verizon have no business arrangement or agreement about this proposal.  The CEO for Google, Eric Schmidt, has complained that the media has called this a deal, when according to Schmidt, it's a policy that both companies have agreed to follow. (Read more)

Wheat-eating insects are Montana farmer-senator's opponent during recess back home

While many legislators will spend their summers campaigning or fund raising, one plans to do what his family has always done: farm, which is a refreshing change from the usual Washington, D.C., lifestyle, The New York Times opines. Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, left, "is the third generation of his family to operate an 1,800-acre farm near Big Sandy, Mont., where the Testers grow organic spring and winter wheat," the Times reports. "He is spending the first week of his vacation in his combine, trying to gather the wheat before the sawflies get to it."

"It brings me back to reality," Tester told local station KFBB-TV this week. "The combine doesn’t care if you’re a senator or not. It breaks down whenever it wants to break down." Tester and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley are the only farmer senators left from what was once a Congress dominated by farmers. "If more members had a life outside of campaigning and lawmaking, it might help put petty political disputes in a little perspective," the Times writes. "Sit high up in the cab of a combine, stare out at an endless vista of swaying grain, worry about wheat futures and drought — your opponent a leaf-eating insect — and, suddenly, it should seem a little ridiculous to block an important piece of legislation back in Washington just because it would give the other party a victory." (Read more)

Financial overhaul could hurt farmers who use derivatives to cushion swings in markets

While the financial reform bill may have been aimed at risk-taking bankers, it may have unintended effects on family farmers, one writes in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. She is Betsy Jensen, a Minnesota wheat and soybean farmer, a farm business management instructor at Northland Community and Technical College, and the managing editor of Prairie Grains magazine. Jensen explains that she uses derivatives to protect herself against wide fluctuations in crop prices. "On the purchasing side, I also use derivatives to protect myself from swings in the cost of fertilizer, fuel and other staples," Jensen writes. "While reading through the Dodd-Frank act these past few weeks, I’ve been wondering: Will the regulations on swaps make it more difficult for me to hedge against market swings in prices for crops and supplies?"

The financial reform act states "sometime later this year it will become unlawful to enter into swaps 'in excess of such amount as shall be fixed from time to time' by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission," Jensen writes, but asks "what will that amount be, and when will we find out? What is meant by 'from time to time'?" She accepts that the intent of the reform is not to intentionally restrict family farmers like her from trading futures and even notes that the trading commission may develop special protections for them, but she still questions what unintended effects the law will have on agriculture.

She points out the effect on speculators, who buy and sell wheat or corn without taking physical control of the crops, as one area of concern. "Farmers love speculators when they are buyers, helping push prices higher, and we despise them when they are sellers, driving prices down," Jensen writes. "Regardless of their position in the market, I am well aware that the system would not function without them — there wouldn’t be enough liquidity, or money, in the market." Jensen concludes that she hopes the trading commission takes such concerns into consideration when clarifying the reform, because, "I may not be able to manage Mother Nature, but I can manage my risk with derivatives." (Read more)

Scientists say reclamation does not eliminate the impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining

A group of scientists presenting research at last week's Ecological Society of America conference said mountaintop-removal coal mining has done irreversible damage to Appalachian ecosystems no matter what steps companies and the government take to restore mined lands. "The scientists, visiting from several universities, spoke about myriad effects of mountaintop mining on ecosystems, from changes in the flow of streams to reductions in bird populations," Vivian Nereim of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. By compacting soil and clearing forests, mountaintop removal increases flooding risks and the process reduces water quality in streams and wells, the scientists said.

Coal industry officials were quick to discredit the findings. "We have a number of studies ... that have indicated post-mining impacts are minimized," Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, told Nereim. "They're clearly different in many cases, but certainly they're not terminal, nor are they negative. You've got to give this some time." Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the research ignored the economic benefits. "The law does not seek to ban mountaintop mining because Congress understood the importance to the economy," he told Nereim.

Dr. Margaret Palmer, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland, told Nereim reclamation efforts don't address some of the most serious effects of mountaintop removal, pointing to "stream creation," an allowable mitigation practice. "They shape drainage ditches into the shape of streams," Palmer told Nereim. "There is no such thing as stream creation in any sort of science." (Read more)

Environmentalists say damaged lands are good places to generate solar power

Many environmentalists have been vocal in their opposition of renewable energy projects that might have adverse effects on the environment. A Southern California solar project is paving the way for building on polluted or abused land. "Thousands of acres of farmland here in the San Joaquin Valley have been removed from agricultural production, largely because the once fertile land is contaminated by salt buildup from years of irrigation," Todd Woody reports for The New York Times. "But large swaths of those dry fields could have a valuable new use in their future — making electricity."

The proposed Westlands Solar Park would generate as much electricity as several big nuclear power plants during peak production periods, and, unlike many solar facilities, has the support of environmentalists. "It’s about as perfect a place as you’re going to find in the state of California for a solar project like this," Carl Zichella, who until late July was the Sierra Club’s Western renewable programs director. "There’s virtually zero wildlife impact here because the land has been farmed continuously for such a long time and you have proximity to transmission, infrastructure and markets."

"Recycling contaminated or otherwise disturbed land into green energy projects could help avoid disputes when developers seek to build sprawling arrays of solar collectors and wind turbines in pristine areas, where they can affect wildlife and water supplies," Woody writes. The Environmental Protection Agency and National Renewable Energy Laboratory are examining a dozen landfills and toxic waste sites for wind farms for solar power plants. The Bureau of Land Management has begun an Arizona program to repurpose landfills and abandoned mines for renewable energy.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in December to protect nearly a million acres of the Mojave Desert from renewable energy development, but included language that would provide tax incentives to companies who build renewable energy projects on disturbed lands. Still the projects face hurdles. "Right now, Westlands is a concept we strongly support," Brian McDonald, director of renewable resource development for Pacific Gas & Electric, told Woody. However, he added that with such reuse projects, "the proof is in the pudding — on the surface, they tend to look simple but they realistically have a lot of hurdles to overcome to build them out." (Read more)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

To fight chronically short supply of teachers, rural schools recruit local students for future slots

In the face of state and federal mandates to turn around struggling rural schools, districts are turning to programs designed to hand-pick candidates for rural teaching slots that will soon open and train them to thrive in a geographically isolated environment. "Rural schools have long struggled to recruit talent, researchers say, especially small, remote schools and low-performing schools in high-poverty communities," Mary Schulken of Education Week reports. "Amid high stakes for rural districts as part of a national push to turn around low-performing schools, initiatives aimed at high-quality homegrown talent have emerged across the country."

Examples of such programs include one in the Ozarks where "a teacher corps under the auspices of a regional nonprofit offers scholarships to rural Missouri college students who will return to their hometowns as teachers and school leaders," Schulken writes. The University of South Dakota has redesigned its teacher-preparation program to include a rural-teaching track, and North Carolina State University has created a leadership academy, which "targets veteran teachers in a corridor of low-performing school districts and prepares them to serve as principals who can turn around that record," Schulken writes.

Chris Berger, the superintendent of a 1,000-student, three-school district in the Missouri Ozarks, estimates his district loses five to 10 of its 80 teachers each year. He told Schulken the best strategy for fighting low retention rates is to "find local talent" and build on it. That's the goal of the Ozarks Teacher Corps, which has recruited 18 rural Missouri college students to go back to their hometowns or nearby to fill teaching jobs. "The students, juniors and seniors, get $4,000-a-year scholarships and membership in the Rural School and Community Trust’s Schools Innovation Network, which provides support and resources for rural teachers," Schulken writes. "The students in turn must agree to teach in a rural school at least three years."

John White, the deputy secretary for rural outreach for the U.S. Department of Education, said the department is watching the Ozarks program as a possible model to fill nationwide rural teacher shortages. "What these young people are being exposed to is not just how to teach," Gary Funk, president of the Corps, told Schulken. "They will be exposed to economic, political, and cultural issues in the community where they live and will be teaching." (Read more)

We remember the rural side of Patricia Neal

Memorial services are being held today in Knoxville for Patricia Neal, the Academy Award winning actress who grew up in the East Tennessee city after spending the first three years of her life in a Kentucky coal camp. She often spent summers with her Aunt Maude in Williamsburg, Ky., and won the best-actress Oscar for the 1963 cowboy drama Hud, but said her favorite role was as a radio reporter who turned a rural radio talker (Andy Griffith) into a national political figure in 1957's still-relevant A Face In the Crowd (above). She starred in Bright Leaf (1950), a film about the North Carolina tobacco industry, and returned to her rural Appalachian roots as the matriarch in "The Homecoming: A Christmas Story," the 1970 TV special that spawned "The Waltons."

Most of this week's stories about Neal focus on her tragic personal life; we'll stick to the rural route. David Thomson of The Guardian may make too much of Neal's Kentucky connections, but makes an interesting rural point as he writes, "Though Kentucky is written off by American sophisticates as just too damned remote, the state plays an important part in movie history. Starting with D.W. Griffith, moving on to Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty and George Clooney, the only other state I can think of where out-of-the-way-ness is offset by a grand cast of actors is Nebraska. This isn't just a trivial pursuit. It's a way of suggesting that sometimes large, pretending ambitions can come out of the rural hinterland." (Read more)

The Knoxville News-Sentinel has plenty of coverage and a handy list of links to other stories, and the Lexington Herald-Leader's Rich Copley has an appreciation. Keith Runyon, opinion editor of The Courier-Journal, reprints the story he wrote in 1973 about "Patsy" Neal's homecoming to Knoxville and Williamsburg. UPDATE, Nov. 29: On the 93rd birthday of my recently departed mother, who grew up and worked in an near Knoxville, and admired Patricia Neal, I discovered that Obit Magazine highlighted a Neal obituary by Gigi Anders. To read it, click here.

Farmers say they stand to lose much if locks are closed to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes

Illinois farmers will be hurt significantly if locks between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes are closed to prevent the spread of invasive Asian carp, two farm-group officials write. "Those calling for a complete hydrological separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River Basin -- in other words, shutting down the locks, closing off the waterways and terminating barge shipping -- are proposing a 'solution' that could do much more harm than good," Tim Lentz, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, and Philip Nelson, president of Illinois Farm Bureau, write in a piece published by the Peoria Journal Star.

"Certainly the spread of Asian carp is serious," Lentz and Nelson write. "By continuing to evaluate and improve our species control mechanisms, we can mitigate the damage that this invasive fish could cause. But closing the Chicago Area Waterway System to manage Asian carp is by far one of the most expensive and economically challenging options." Lentz and Nelson go on to suggest even if the locks are closed the spread of carp to the Great Lakes might not be prevented. "Illinois farmers depend on a vital waterway transportation system to feed Illinoisans, Americans and citizens of our global marketplace," Lentz and Nelson conclude. "We urge the continued operation of the Chicago Area Waterway System locks, as well as a more realistic solution to dealing with the Asian carp population." (Read more)

Southeastern Kentucky town supports petition to prevent surface coal mining nearby

The City Council of Lynch, a tiny town between tall mountains in southeastern Kentucky, voted this week to support an effort to have broad swaths of the mountains declared off limits to surface coal mining. The Lands Unsuitable for Mining petition being circulated Kentuckians for the Commonwealth "seeks to protect the water which feeds the Lynch and Benham reservoirs," Nola Sizemore of the Harlan Daily Enterprise reports. "The petition will also protect the historic buildings and the view of mountains which encircle Lynch and Benham." KFTC says five permits for surface mining near the town are under review. (click MapQuest image for larger version)

"A Lands Unsuitable for Mining petition only covers strip mining that has not received technical approval from the state or federal government," Roy Silver, a member of KFTC, told Sizemore. "It does not prevent deep mining. It doesn’t affect any permit which has already been technically approved." One of the pending permits would cover land above the Portal 31 underground mine museum near Lynch. "If they defeat us, It’s downhill for everybody else," Lynch Mayor Ronnie Hampton told Sizemore. "Everybody downstream is looking at us on this issue." (Read more)

Much rural reporting in that recognized by annual awards from Society of Environmental Journalists

The 2009-2010 winners for ninth annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment, given by the Society of Environmental Journalists, include several of rural interest that swept the investigative-reporting category. Charles Duhigg's "Toxic Waters" series for The New York Times won first place; read our previous coverage of the series here. Abrahm Lustgarten, Joaquin Sapien and Sabrina Shankman of ProPublica won second place for their series of stories on the risks of natural-gas drilling. You can read coverage of that series here. Third place went to Ron Seely of the Wisconsin State Journal for his series "Who's Watching the Farm?" It "took on the big factory farm lobby, exposing weaknesses in government regulation and enforcement that are putting important water resources — and the citizens who rely upon them — at risk," SEJ said.

Kera Abraham of the Monterey County Weekly received first place honors in the Small Market Print Reporting category for the series "Green vs. Green: Environmentalists Duke It Out." You can read her stories about both sides of various environmental debates here, here and here. Other winners of rural interest included reports on coal: The documentary "Coal: Dirty Past, Hazy Future," from Michigan Public Radio and The Environmental Report, which won second place in the Beat/In-Depth Radio Reporting category, and the two-part series "Powering a Nation: The Coal Story" from Sara Peach, Jenn Hueting, Monica Ulmanu, Chris Carmichael of the University of North Carolina, which won the Student Reporting category. (Read more)

USDA plan would pay slaughterhouse inspectors overtime for donning, doffing safety gear

U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors at livestock and poultry slaughterhouses stand to gain about 15 minutes of overtime pay per eight-hour shift under a new proposal from USDA to comply with a Supreme Court ruling about "donning and doffing." The Food Safety and Inspection Service "is proposing to amend these regulations to provide that the eight hours of inspection service includes the necessary time for inspection program personnel to put on required gear and walk to a work station and the necessary time for inspection program personnel to return from a work station and remove required gear. Any time over those eight hours is overtime charged to an establishment," USDA writes in the official Federal Register notice. The proposal is open for public comment until Sept. 8.

Slaughterhouses would have the option of paying the overtime fees or shortening production time to avoid the added cost, though most are expected to pay the overtime, Rita Jane Gabbett of Meatingplace reports. "Slaughter facilities cannot start operations until FSIS inspection personnel are at on-line inspection work stations, except for very small slaughter establishments where there are no donning and doffing activities for inspectors," Gabbett writes. "Meat and poultry processing facilities that do not slaughter can begin operations without inspectors at their work stations." USDA estimates the overtime would cost about $4,345 annually per online inspector at fiscal 2011 rates, and since the industry reported annual revenue of almost $67.2 billion in 2009 the cost would be "insignificant." (Read more, subscription required) But the change could spur efforts by employees to press for payment for for "donning and doffing."

Monday, August 09, 2010

Study suggests key steps to maintaining rural identity while promoting growth

While rural landscapes across the country vary widely, many rural communities face the dilemma of how to support growth while maintaining their rural identity. A new report, "Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities," commissioned by the International City/County Management Association under an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, seeks to answer those questions, syndicated columnist Neal Peirce reports. The report's first step to smart rural growth is supporting "your legacy, the rural landscape you have today, by keeping working lands (farms, forests, mines) viable and by conserving natural lands," Peirce writes.

Peirce describes controversy in his hometown of Bridgewater, N.H., regarding zoning laws and concludes it is "typical of the challenge so many rural American communities feel today: How to keep a rural quality of life, preserve our landscapes, sustain our small towns and cities, even while positioning ourselves for better jobs and family futures?" The report's lead author, Matthew Dalbey, writes that the second key to smart rural growth is helping "existing communities by preserving and investing in such historic mainstays as small-town Main Streets," Peirce writes. The third key is creating attractive neighborhoods and communities that will entice young people into staying in the community.

"Focus first, the new report urges, on a community's 'heart' -- a vibrant, walkable Main Street and compact, 'neighborly' residential neighborhoods around it," Peirce writes. "Encourage local businesses and rebuild on underutilized close-in lots. And if there's pressure for residential development outside of town, try to cluster it rather than allow large-lot single family subdivisions." To counter the common "It's my property and I can do with it as I please" mentality, Dalbey "suggests a raft of balancing tools, including 'right to farm' policies, conservation easements, purchase of development rights, and valuing land for taxation at its current use rather than at its purported 'highest market value,'" Peirce writes. (Read more)

Young doctors, lured to rural areas by financial incentives, may not stay past their required time

Through the stimulus package and health-care reform the Obama administration invested more than $1 billion in the National Health Services Corps, which lures recent medical-school graduates to underserved areas with the pledge to pay off school loans. However, doctors completing their Corps obligations are struggling with the decision of whether to stay rural. While nearly 5,000 recent medical school graduates accepted Corps grants to pay off tuition and school loans averaging $150,000 per student, and the program hopes to attract 2,800 more graduates next year, experts say they expect retention to be a problem, Darryl Fears of The Washington Post reports.

One trying to decide is Sarah Carricaburu, one of two in her Northwestern University class "who chose to become a family practitioner," not a highly paid specialist, which "the school is known for producing," Fears writes. She told him, "When I told one of my professors that it was what I wanted to do, he said, 'You're too smart for that.' I just always felt that I really wanted to help people who wouldn't otherwise get help." (Post photo by Michael Williamson)

But now she says she doesn't know if she will stay past her three-year obligation at the Southern Albemarle Family Practice in Esmont, Va., where her office has just one computer with Internet access, and it's dial-up. "I grew up in the age of electronic medical records," she told Fears. "Coming here was like stepping back in time. I would like to stay in a community health-care setting, but here I didn't feel like I had the resources to do my job. You're cut off." Carricaburu said if the Corps wants to improve rural retention rates, making rural offices more friendly to technologically savvy young doctors will be key. Her decision won't just affect her personal career; she is not only the only full-time physician in Esmont (MapQuest image) but the only one in southern Albermarle County.
"Through the health-care overhaul, the Obama administration has worked to lighten their load with doctors such as Carricaburu, but nobody at the clinic is sure that the situation will work out," Fears writes. Carricaburu told Fears she admires her colleagues in Esmont, but she is simply not like them. "The other doctors are older. They learned stuff on the job," she said. "That's not how I was trained. I feel like I'm going backward." (Read more)

Mary Schurz, retired publisher in media family, dies

Mary Schurz, retired editor and publisher of The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky., and part of the family that owns Schurz Communications, died today at her home in Danville following a long illness, the newspaper reports. She was 71.

Schurz became publisher of the 10,000-circulation daily in 1978, after the company bought it from the local owners, and became chairman and publisher emeritus in 2006, when her nephew, Scott Schurz Jr., took over. She was a native of South Bend, Ind., home base for the company, which "owns newspapers and other media interests from California to Maryland and from Alaska to Florida," the paper reports. "She had a prestigious career, serving for many years on the board of directors of The Associated Press, the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association and other national trade groups, was a past president of the Kentucky Press Association, and was one of 65 editors selected in 1985 to be nominating jurors for the Pulitzer Prize." (Read more)

UPDATE, Aug. 10: In an editorial, John Nelson, the Advocate-Messenger's managing editor for the past 13 years, quotes from the late Jim Schurz in a 2006 story about his sister’s retirement: “Her devotion to the newspaper, the employees and the community has been total. In return, no publisher has enjoyed the loyalty of her staff more than Mary.” Nelson writes that she left these lessons: "Work hard. Strive for accuracy. Be fair. Be humble. Care about your community. Be fearless. Stand up for what you believe." Good signposts for any journalist. "A former reporter herself, she understood that the news is not always pleasant, not always easy to obtain, and with little regard for the financial burden, she stood ready to fight the good fight for the rights afforded the press by the First Amendment." (Read more)

Judge says Northern Rockies states must agree on gray wolf's status; for now it's endangered

We most recently reported on the controversy surrounding the northern gray wolf's endangered-species status in November, when few Idaho hunters managed to kill wolves in the state's first wolf hunting season since a federal judge removed the endangered-species designation in Montana and Idaho. Last week another judge overturned the delisting, saying "Northern Rockies wolves must all be treated as a single population," Kari Lydersen reports for The Washington Post. Opponents of the listing, who say the wolves have grown too populous and pose a threat to livestock, pointed at Wyoming as the reason the controlled hunts in Montana and Idaho were unsuccessful. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

"Wyoming law allows the unregulated hunting of wolves throughout most of the state if they are taken off the endangered list," Lydersen writes. "So while the federal government delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho last year after those states agreed to management plans that included controlled wolf hunts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service kept Wyoming wolves on the endangered list." Tom Strickland, assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, explained, "Unfortunately, we're not in a position to reward [Montana and Idaho] for their responsible behavior, because Wyoming is the outlier." Montana and Idaho officials, legislators and ranching groups said they will seek to reverse the ruling by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy. (Read more)

Local reaction to the decision in Montana centered on disapproval of Wyoming's role in the controversy. "In light of Judge Molloy’s decision, that means that Wyoming’s temper tantrum over wolves is directly impacting the way that we in Montana are able to manage our wildlife," Tim Aldrich, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, told Eve Byron of the Helena Independent Record. "We don’t believe this is acceptable behavior coming from a neighbor, especially a neighboring state with an immensely appreciated wildlife resource of its own." (Read more)

Mine-disaster probe centers on methane monitors

UPDATES, Aug. 10: "This weekend's testing of two methane monitors from the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia has not detected any evidence of tampering," Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports. "A source familiar with this weekend's testing says there was no evidence found that the monitors had been tampered with or disabled just before the massive explosion in April. That assessment was confirmed by Ronald Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, who has been briefed about the testing." (Read more)

"Methane monitors worn by miners registered a sudden surge in potentially explosive gas — from 0 percent to 5 percent — in the minutes around the April explosion ... the company said Monday. The company said the high methane reading indicated that an inundation of methane caused the explosion and remained elevated afterward," Kris Maher reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The latest evidence is consistent with Massey's theory that a sudden inundation of methane gas, possibly through a crack in the mine floor, could have initiated the explosion. Such cracks can develop during mining, which causes geologic shifts, especially in heavily mined areas."

The investigation into the April explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's mine in Montcoal, W.Va., is focusing on "alleged maintenance lapses of critical safety devices that monitor explosive gas levels, including one that was secured by a plastic zip tie," The Wall Street Journal reports. "Since 2008, Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine was cited at least 17 times by federal mine inspectors for failing to keep methane monitors in proper working condition," Kris Maher writes for the Journal.  A representative of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said the agency "is concerned any time a mine is cited for improperly working methane monitors—even one citation is too many."

The U.S. attorney in Charleston is looking into alleged maintenance lapses and reported tampering with methane monitors that shut down mining equipment if methane levels get too high, Maher writes. Federal officials confirmed that two methane monitors taken from near the area where the explosion occurred were scheduled to be tested Saturday to examine their working condition. "Some alarm somewhere should have gone off, and we have no record of that," Ron Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, who is leading the state's investigation into the accident, told Maher of the methane levels in the mine prior to the explosion.

Massey said it has "no evidence of bridging out of methane monitors" as alleged in news reports. "The company noted that shortly before the explosion, three foremen conducted examinations and reported zero or nearly zero methane, but that high levels of methane were found hours after the accident," Maher writes. "Federal and state officials say the explosion itself could have caused the high levels of methane recorded afterward." (Read more)

Rural Ozarks icon Mitch Jayne dies at 82

Prominent author, musician and humorist Mitch Jayne died last week at 82 in Columbia, Mo. "Jayne was the author of five books, a weekly newspaper column published in the rural Ozarks for 20 years, and more than a dozen bluegrass songs recorded by The Dillards," which he co-founded, the Columbia Daily Tribune reports.

Jayne began his career teaching in one-room schools, where he recorded much of the material for his book "Home Grown Stories & Home Fried Lies," about his students’ use of Elizabethan English. In 1962, he joined Douglas and Rodney Dillard in forming The Dillards, who earned critical acclaim and a recurring role as the Darling family on "The Andy Griffith Show" for their blend of "hard-driving melding of electrified bluegrass and rock," the Daily Tribune reports. Jayne's popular radio show, "Hickory Holler Time," was broadcast on KSMO in Salem and featured local news, bluegrass music, "The Snake and Tick Market Report," and a variety of satirical sketches. (Read more)

Jayne lived each of his 82 years "looking at the world through the eyes of an awe-struck 15-year-old" and by his own rules, his friend Ronnie Ellis of CNHI News Service writes. "Here’s the problem writing about Mitch. No matter what I write and no matter what you imagine, Mitch was more," Ellis writes. "One of his songs has this line: 'Promises are words they use for things they never do. Mountains are promises come true.' Mitchell F. Jayne was a promise come true." (Read more)