Saturday, August 21, 2010

Firm in egg recall supplies the other; FDA says rules killed in Bush era would have prevented it

The second company to recall millions of eggs gets hens and feed from the first company, which has been fined millions of dollars for health violations and is owned by a man who has been "involved in legal cases that have forced him to settle with the federal government for hiring illegal immigrants, for tolerating sexual harassment at his company, and has faced a litany of animal cruelty charges," Emily Friedman of ABC News reports.

Jack DeCoster's Wright County Egg Farms in Galt, Iowa, supplied Hillandale Farms in West Union and Alden, though Hillanale did not say that in its press release announcing the recall, The Des Moines Register reports. "DeCoster owns a hatchery in Minnesota and leases the Alden site to Hillandale, Philip Brasher writes. "Minnesota health officials said today that they have linked seven salmonella illnesses to Hillandale eggs and seven to eggs sold by Wright County Egg." (Read more)

Brasher reports today that Food and Drug Administration "officials said this week that the salmonella outbreak could have been averted had the agency imposed new safety rules before last month. The rules include biosafety measures, refrigeration standards and testing requirements for young hens as well as older birds. The rules were first proposed by the Clinton administration and then revived by the FDA last year, but the industry was given until July 9 to get into compliance. The DeCoster operation was previously following less-stringent industry guidelines, a spokeswoman said." (Read more)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Many rural groceries in Midwest are closing

We've previously reported on the decline of rural groceries, and one advocate says the decline has become a full-blown crisis. "These businesses are closing at an alarming rate," David Proctor, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University, writes for the Daily Yonder. "Almost daily another small-town, independently-owned store shuts its doors and closes up shop." In Iowa nearly 43 percent of groceries in towns smaller than 1,000 people have closed, and Kansas has lost nearly one in five rural groceries since 2006.

"Rural grocery stores are part of the economic engine that sustains rural communities," Proctor writes. "They are a significant source of local taxes, powering the creation and maintenance of civic services and amenities. They provide essential, stable jobs – butchers, cashiers, managers, and stockers – at a time when we are desperate for employment opportunities." Proctor explains that his research has shown many rural areas lacking full-scale groceries are "facing a crisis of access to healthy foods" such as fresh produce.

Proctor identified seven key challenges facing rural grocery owners: competition with big-box stores, operating costs, labor issues, governmental regulations, lack of community support, low sales volume and meeting suppliers' minimum purchase requirements. Among those challenges, competing with big box stores was most prevalent, with 80 percent of respondents identifying it as a challenge. "Big-box wholesalers have moved into the grocery business and now many offer large grocery sections as part of their stores," Proctor writes. "Rural store owners view these stores as competition that threatens their very survival." (Read more) (Yonder chart)

Tipsheet has help for covering oil pipeline spills

The million gallons of oil spilled into Michigan watersheds, including the Kalamazoo River, from a Enbridge Energy Partners pipeline last month, showed how dangerous oil pipelines spills can be, and such spills might be more common than you think. Environmental Protection Agency data shows "tens of thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines crisscross the U.S., and they spilled more than 2 million gallons of oil in 2009 alone," the Society of Environmental Journalists reports. These pipelines tend to run through rural areas, making SEJ's tipsheet for covering pipeline threats of particular value to rural journalists.

"For the Enbridge spill in Michigan, there was extensive evidence of looming problems," SEJ reports, adding that finding evidence that there were problems before a spill is difficult, but key in coverage of such events. The Associated Press reported shortly after the spill that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration met with Enbridge officials in February regarding problems with corrosion monitoring and other issues in this pipeline. Since May the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials has held four hearings about pipeline risks. Minutes from each of those hearings (May 20, June 29, July 15 and July 21) can provide valuable information for journalists.

Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, much of the information about pipeline locations on government websites was taken offline, leading many journalists to say that reporting on pipelines was nearly impossible, but there are several resources that can be useful in tracking down pipeline information, SEJ reports: County-level maps, which may not include all pipelines and are valid as of 2007, are available from PHMSA. Searching EPA's Enforcement and Compliance History Online database can help journalists "get a feel for where pipelines are located and whether they have had any past officially-acknowledged problems," SEJ says. The Pipeline Risk Management Information System contains data where "various companies acknowledge certain pipelines or related facilities known to have problems, and outline their proposed plans of action to remedy the problems." (Read more)

Rural folk less likely to think of pets as children; we thought we knew that, but research confirms

Rural and urban perspectives often differ. One such area is pets, and research confirms what some of us have thought for a long time, that "People who regard pets as children tend to have a city background, for example, while those in rural areas have a more practical attitude," Robert Preidt of HealthDay reports for USA Today. The research at Indiana University South Bend was presented Sunday in Atlanta at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting.

"To think of pets as just another animal is not uncommon in rural areas, which makes sense given the utilitarian relationships people in rural areas are more likely to have with a range of different animals — from farm to wild animals," David Blouin, lead author and IUSB assistant professor of sociology, said in an ASA news release. Regardless of location, though, pet owners are less likely to think of their animals as children after they have actually children of their own, the study found. (Read more)

Lessons from past cause skepticism among farmers about recent wheat price increases

On the surface Russia's ban on grain exports in the face of a devastating drought may seem like good news for U.S. farmers as wheat prices skyrocket, but lessons from the recession have left some wary. "As planting time approaches next month, they are balancing the possibility of greater income against the failed promises of the past, when bonanzas turned bust, sometimes at terrible cost," Kirk Johnson of The New York Times reports. "Even many who plan to plant more wheat are begrudging and hesitant — fearful that global dynamics could shift again before next year’s harvest." Wheat prices heat a two-year high recently, up 57 percent from less than three months ago.

"The market says plant more," Eugene Schroder, who farms about 4,000 acres in southeast Colorado, told Johnson. Still Schroder said he "feared that wheat prices were being driven by speculators, as was the case a few years ago, just before the recession, when the price soared and then crashed," Johnson writes. Schroder explained, "What is this wheat market? I don’t have a clue, and I’m a professional wheat farmer. There’s a complete lack of transparency." If good weather holds up over the next few weeks, Schroder plans to quadruple the number of acres for wheat.

Even before the Russian ban, U.S. wheat planting expectations were higher than last year. Now "a quirk of crop insurance, which locks in grain prices for policies based on a window that was set in the last few weeks — after Russia announced the ban on grain exports on Aug. 5 — could accelerate the trend, farm experts said, or prompt farmers in other parts of the country to give wheat another look," Johnson writes. Even with those factors, a wheat boom may not be in the offing. Last year fewer acres of wheat were planted nationally than any year since 1971.

Lessons from the past also factor in farmers' skepticism. "In 1972 and 1973, in the spirit of thawed tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the United States sold hundreds of millions of bushels of wheat to the Soviets after another disastrous crop failure there," Johnson writes. "And the response could well be same, too — overreaction and overproduction, leading to a glut and a crash in prices." (Read more)

'Listening tour' gathering information for effort to reconnect Americans with the great outdoors

In April President Obama established the America's Great Outdoors Initiative "to develop a conservation agenda worthy of the 21st Century and to reconnect Americans with our great outdoors." Now the Obama administration has launched a listening tour in which cabinet officials will gather feedback across the country about strategies to reconnect Americans with the outdoors. The tour has already stopped in 13 cities, with five more scheduled and more stops expected. You can find information about the five upcoming tour stops below or visit the initiative's website here.

Wally Lage, widely known rural newspaper executive from Missouri, drowns in Maine

Wally Lage, one of America's most prominent rural newspaper executives, drowned last night in Maine, where he was attending an annual gathering of newspaper executives. Lage, 66, was vice president and chief operating officer of Rust Communications of Cape Girardeau, Mo., a family-owned company that publishes The Southeast Missourian and several other newspapers. He "drowned after stepping off a private boat" in Harpswell, reports Steve Mistler of The Forecaster, a local weekly: "The Sheriff's Department said several witnesses saw Lage slip from the wharf. One person jumped into the water to find him, but Lage never resurfaced. The Sheriff's Department said Lage may have become caught beneath a float, where his body was discovered about 30 minutes later. The incident occurred around 9:30 p.m., after sunset and in limited moonlight." (Read more)

"Lage began his newspaper career in 1969 with Winsor Newspapers in Canton, Ill.," The Southeast Missourian's Bob Miller reports. "By age 25, he was publisher of the Boonville Daily News and publisher of free publications in Jefferson City, Mo., and Columbia, Mo." He was president of newspaper operations for Paxton Media Group LLC, based in Paducah, Ky., and general manager of The Paducah Sun, a 25,000-circulation daily. The Paxton family owns the Paducah television station, which is in the same market as Cape Girardeau. Lage joined Rust, another family-owned company, in 1993. As he did in Paducah, he oversaw acquisitions and startups of many daily and weekly papers, totaling about 50 for Rust. He was inducted into the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame in 2008. (Southeast Missourian photo)

"Wally was a remarkable newspaperman and a great friend," said Jon Rust, co-president of the company. "He will be greatly missed. We've been hearing from people from Seattle to Maine about his death. He touched the lives of many people." Lage is survived by his wife Dori, four children and seven grandchildren. (Read more) Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Former USDA official Sherrod says NAACP important for rural African Americans

UPDATE, Aug. 21: Sherrod will meet with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Tuesday to discuss a job offer, CNN reports.

Shirley Sherrod, the former Department of Agriculture Rural Development director in Georgia who delivered a message to an NAACP banquet and ended up the subject of a heavily edited video by blogger Andrew Breitbart, writes for the NAACP blog about her experience and her conversation with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous: "As he has done in public, Ben movingly apologized for the fact that the NAACP was initially hoodwinked by Breitbart and Fox into supporting my removal. I told him what I want to tell you. That's behind us, and the last thing I want to see happen is for my situation to weaken support for the NAACP. Too many people confronted by racism and poverty count on the NAACP to be there for them, especially those in rural areas who often have nowhere else to turn."

While a teenager, Sherrod's father was murdered in Baker County, Georgia (pop. 3,637). The crime was witnessed by three people, but a grand jury did not indict the white suspect. Sherrod vowed to stay in Georgia and fight racism. Said Sherrod: "I didn't yield when, just months after my father was killed, they came in the middle of the night to burn a cross in front of our house with my mother, four sisters, and the baby brother my father never got to see still inside. And I'm surely not going to yield because some Tea Party agitator sat at his computer and turned everything I said upside down and inside out. "

Sherrod said she learned much from her parents. Among the most important lessons she learned from her mother: "We mustn't try to live with hate in our hearts." (Read more)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

AP, foundation offer campaign finance information

The Associated Press and the Sunlight Foundation, which was created to improve government transparency, are sponsoring a series of webinars to help reporters deal with the new rules governing campaign finance in this year's elections. The last one will be held from 4 to 5 p.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 18. To register, click here.

At the last webinar, on Monday, Bill Allison of Sunlight said they expect lots of spending by outside interests because of the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations and unions to spend directly on advertising that advocates the election or defeat of a candidate, as long as the spending is independent of the candidate. Allison said most corporations are likely to spend through other entities to avoid damaging their brands with voters. (UPDATE, Aug. 18: Media companies are giving. Hubbard Broadcasting of St. Paul gave $100,000 to Minnestota Forward, a new independent-expenditure group "that is supporting several Republican and Democratic candidates," Joe Strupp reports for Media Matters for America, and News Corp., the parent of Fox News, just gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. Party.)

Some interest groups are already running ads, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has released a list of districts in which it will advertise. Many are represented by rural Democrats. The outside spending will also occur in state legislative races where control of chambers is at stake, as Tom Humphrey of the Knoxville News Sentinel reports. And don't forget Internet ads, which the Natural Resources Defense Council is coupling with radio in an effort to get six moderate senators to support a bill on climate change. UPDATE, Aug. 20: finds fault with outside groups' ads on both sides in the California governor's race.

Advertising purchases of more than $10,000 that name a federal candidate, and the names of contributors of $1,000 or more toward the effort, must be reported to the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours. Independent expenditures, which advocate election or defeat, must be reported to the FEC within 48 hours (or 24 hours close to the election). See Another source of information about all campaigns buying broadcast ads is the political public-inspection file at stations and cable-TV companies. Developing relationships with people at these outlets may enable you to get the information over the telephone without having to go to the station.

Other topics covered in the webinar include: changes wrought by the Supreme Court decision; where to find campaign-finance data, including some sites we had not heard of; how money is raised, and what that says about a campaign; why spending is also important to track; and the relationship of lobbying to campaigns. As Sharon Theimer of AP said, this is not just a document-driven beat, but a source-driven beat. This writer has decades of experience covering political campaigns and is available to help rural journalists; just e-mail

Sons' play makes rural editor think of heroes and write an editorial praising them

In rural and community journalism, sometimes the best editorials are those that make a point by using the personal experience of the writer, who is usually known to most of the community. A good example of that was last week's editorial (presented as a column, as rural editors often do) by Ryan Craig of the Todd County Standard, for several years judged Kentucky's best small newspaper.

When his sons dressed up as superheroes, it made him think of two other local children whom he called heroes in a headline because they made a video that got "a governing body to spend $35,000 to do something that had never bene done before in Todd County . . . make the playground at North Todd Elementary handicap-accessible," he wrote in his piece. Read it here (PDF)

Eastern Ky. residents sue coal company after widespread July flooding

The severity of flooding in Pike County, Ky., last month was  increased by surface mining operations, alleges a lawsuit from 126 Harless Creek residents. "The flooding occurred July 17 on Harless Creek, downstream from where Cambrian Coal Corp. and AEP Kentucky Coal Inc. had mining operations, according to the lawsuit," Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "Violations by the companies played a substantial role in 'massive amounts of water' running off the mine sites and turning Harless Creek into a 'raging river' that washed away homes and vehicles in the narrow hollow, the lawsuit says." (H-L photo of Pike County flood)

"The lawsuit comes against the backdrop of an argument by some Eastern Kentucky residents that four decades of mining activity, including clearing areas of native forests and compacting the ground during reclamation, have worsened flash flooding," Estep writes. Coal companies counter no scientific link exists between surface mining and flash flooding, and they work to limit effects of mine sites by reclaiming them responsibly. Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, disagreed with those claims, saying "studies have long linked surface-mining activities to a higher incidence of flash flooding," Estep writes.

FitzGerald explained, "Congress recognized the potential for higher peak runoff from mined areas and included in the 1977 surface-mining law such protections as controls on runoff and a requirement to begin replanting part of a site as mining continues nearby," Estep writes, but he notes subsequent administrations have weakened those protections. Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, told Estep, "Our hearts go out to the people affected by the recent hard rains and flooding," some of whom work in the coal industry, but said without scientific proof surface mining caused the flood the Harless Creek residents would be better served looking elsewhere for the cause. (Read more)

Programs demonstrate oral health care strategies beyond traditional dentistry

Much focus has been placed on poor oral health, particularly among low income children, since the move for health care reform began, and now some areas are increasingly looking to resources outside of dentist offices to address the problem. The Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency has added dental clinics to its patient care regimen, and in "Storm Lake, Iowa, school and home health nurses are giving oral exams and fluoride treatments to children as part of a broader-based program known as Early Smiles," Candi Helseth reports for the Rural Monitor Newsletter.

A 2008 issue brief from the Center for Studying Health System Change listed "low rates of dental insurance coverage, limited dental benefits available through public insurance programs and a lack of dentists willing to serve low-income patients" as key barriers to dental services. MDFMR faculty member Dr. William Alto began the group's oral health program in 2003 after becoming frustrated by the lack of oral care he saw among his regular patients. "In the last six years, we’ve seen more than 2,300 patients for oral health needs," Alto told Helseth. "Our residents have found cancers, lesions and other oral health problems that need medical care. We encourage our residents to do an oral exam with every medical exam."

While the Iowa Early Smiles program is primarily aimed at children, participants report a positive effect no parents and other family members who also look to improve their oral health care. "We’ve had such positive responses from the community and the increased awareness has really helped our outreach," Early Smiles project director Veronica McFadden told Helseth. "We worked with the university (Buena Vista University at Storm Lake) to create oral health puppet plays that university students wrote. They’re educational and funny, and the humor in them appeals to the adults too. The community likes them so much that I’ve gotten donations to expand the plays to other topics. We’ve even been asked to bring them to places like the Latino Festival. We’ll go wherever we can get our message out." (Read more)

Research paper offers suggestions for turning around Appalachian economy

The economic problems of Central Appalachia reflect the problems of other rural communities with economies based on extracting natural resources across the world. To address those issues, the region must undergo a fundamental change to focus on sustainable economy activities, writes one Appalachian researcher. "A reliance on exporting a few things to generate income to import many things has created enormous problems around the globe, particularly in rural, resource-dependent regions like central Appalachia," Anthony Flaccavento, founder of Appalachian Sustainable Development, writes for the journal Solutions. In his paper Flaccavento examines examples of the shift toward a sustainable economy in Appalachia before offering suggestions for his economic model for the region. (Solutions photo of mountaintop removal mine by Paul Corbit Brown)

The emerging sustainable economy enterprises in the region "vary in scale and stage of development, but, in general, they are more ecologically sustainable because of the way they are produced and the greatly reduced transport distances to market," Flaccavento writes. "They use asset-based strategies, building and adding value to the ecological, cultural, and human strengths of the region. They cultivate self-reliance for producers and the broader community. And they build cooperative networks that help overcome isolation, estrangement, and problems of scale." He points to three areas (food and farming, forestry and green building) as fields where sustainable economic endeavors are catching on in Appalachia.

"By 2009, there were more than 20 local healthy-food initiatives in the region, encompassing a range of crops, products, and business models," Flaccavento writes. For instance, the Appalachian Community Economic Network’s commercial kitchen initiative, launched in 1994, has helped launch or expand 250 food businesses that have generated over $6.5 million in annual sales. Flaccavento points to the Forest Opportunities Initiative, launched in 2008 by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, as an example of sustainable economic development in the forestry industry. You can read previous Rural Blog coverage of that program here. Green building initiatives, which arose in the region out of affordable housing efforts, emphasize "energy conservation and efficiency, along with the use of regional, sustainably produced wood and other materials and renewable energy sources such as geothermal, solar, and wind," Flaccavento writes.

As central Appalachian economies work through a time of transition, Flaccavento offers six principles of sustainable economies they should follow. Sustainable economies are locally rooted, fit within the ecosystem, are more self reliant and resilient, are more just, have infrastructure that increases the value and marketability of their products and are engaging and empowering, Flaccavento writes. He suggests economic strategies should be examined through the lens of two questions: To what degree does our strategy, policy, technology, or enterprise sustain or restore the ecosystem’s capacity to sequester carbon? and How effectively do our strategies and policies accelerate the development of diverse, resilient, wealth-building local economies?.

Achieving these goals will "require greater investment in the emerging sustainable economy that supports this new way of thinking about prosperity and economic health," Flaccavento writes. "Such investment will need to be flexible and patient, what Tom Miller of MACED has called 'nurture capital,' and it will need to come from both within and outside the region, from foundations and investors. The transformation of regions like central Appalachia, which have historically fueled growth and affluence in other places, will be essential to achieving this new prosperity." (Read more)

Rural areas have fallen farther behind urban areas in one measurement of prosperity

The United States has long had trouble living up to the promise in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," but today's inequalities have more to do with prosperity than race, gender or religion, a leading rural health advocate writes. "Our health seems to depend not only on how much we have, but also on how much those around us have," Wayne Myers, founder of the University of Kentucky Center for Excellence in Rural Health, writes for the Rural Monitor Newsletter. "No one knows how economic inequality shortens life, but it does. Clearly it is more dangerous to be poor in a rich country than to be poor in a poor country."

Myers points to the "Gini Coefficient," a formula developed in the 1800s to measure "the inequality of distribution of most anything within a population." Myers argues the change in the coefficient between 1979 and 1999 in urban versus rural areas shows "the rich urbanites got really rich while the poor urban and city people stayed poor." He explains, "The reason for this growth in disparity is that almost all of the growth in America’s economy in recent years has been in the high-income sectors, and these are generally in urban populations."

Rural America has long had wide variances in income levels within regions, but to fix rural economies the gap between rich urbanites and their poor rural neighbors must be fixed, Meyers argues. "It has been stated that Americans seek to level opportunity whereas Europeans are more inclined to level income," Myers writes. "To the extent higher education relates to opportunity, though, we are even pricing opportunity out of reach. Poor people of average ability can no longer go to college. I believe it is bad economic policy to let the gap between our rich and our poor become as wide as those of Mexico and China. I know it is bad health policy." (Read more)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

$1.8 billion in broadband awards announced today

Ninety-four companies, groups, universities and other entities in 37 states won broadband investment money today from the federal economic stimulus package. The awards announced today total $1.8 billion, perhaps the largest single group announced at one time, and went mostly to rural areas.

The money comes through the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) – to expand broadband access and adoption across the country." Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release, "The broadband projects announced today will give rural Americans access to the tools they need to attract new businesses, jobs, health care and educational opportunities." (Read more)

The largest award went to "establish or upgrade broadband connections at nearly 500 health care and education sites" in Arkansas, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. Many of which are matched in part by private or state funds; a North Carolina grant will be matched by $25 million in earnings from the state's share of the national tobacco settlement, Jeff Drew of the Triangle Business Journal reports. North Carolina got four other grants. The 10 largest state-specific awards:
  1. University of Arkansas, $102,131,393
  2. California Broadband Cooperative Inc., $81,148,788
  3. MCNC (nonprofit), North Carolina, $75,757,289
  4. State of Oklahoma, $73,998,268
  5. State of Mississippi, $70,055,000
  6. Merit Network Inc. (Michigan's Upper Peninsula and adjoining Minnesota and Wisconsin), $69,639,291; see
  7. Horizon Telecom Inc., Ohio, $66,474,247
  8. Central Management Services, Illinois, $61,895,282
  9. Trillion Communications Corp., Alabama, $59,258,545
  10. Virgin Islands Public Financing Authority, $58,888,469
The next largest award went to Hughes Network Systems, $58,777,306 for a national project. In Kentucky, two awards were given to Windstream Corp., totaling $58,762,826, which would make it the 12th largest award. Altogether, Windstream (formerly Alltel) was awarded over $64 million. Windstream "has won funding for 12 out of 30 projects for which it requested funding," Joan Engebretson of Connected Planet reports.

"An application for $348 million made by Qwest for projects throughout its serving area is still pending — and according to comments made by RUS administrator Jonathan Adelstein, the company will either win all of the funding it requested or nothing," Engebretson writes. "Some companies, such as TDS Telecom and Windstream, made separate applications on a state-by-state basis, but Qwest put its funding request into one single application. 'We only award an entire service area applied for,' Adelstein said." (List of winners PDF and Excel)

Rural areas turn back to midwives to help address shortages of obstetrician-gynecologists

An old tradition may be turning into a more common solution for the rural shortage of  obstetrical services: midwifery. Data from the American College of Nurse-Midwives shows "The number of family medicine physicians and ob/gyns delivering babies in rural areas continues to decline, but nationwide, from 1996 to 2006 when the most recent data was collected, the number of births attended by certified midwives increased by 33 percent, reaching a record high of 317,168 in 2006," Candi Helseth reports for the Rural Monitor Newsletter.

The original midwifery model focused on rural outreach when Frontier Nursing Service founder Mary Breckinridge opened the first American midwifery school in Eastern Kentucky's Leslie County in 1925. Today, the Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing, an outgrowth of the original FNS, still has a rural focus, "with its operation of a college that offers graduate level nursing-related degrees and a rural health service that includes five clinics, home health, and a 25-bed critical access hospital where CNMs deliver babies," Helseth writes. While midwifery is most commonly associated with birthing, the midwife model of care focuses heavily on prevention and education, Helseth reports.

"We guide women, educate them, counsel them and empower them. We provide evidence-based care. And we consider pregnancy and birth a normal process," Juliana Fehr, who heads the Nurse Midwife Initiative at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., told Helseth. "We want them to have their babies the way they choose." One challenge facing midwifes is regulations that vary widely from state to state. "The medical system needs to include midwives with nurse practitioners, physicians and other medical providers as part of a health care network that works in collaboration as a team providing a safe place for the woman and baby," Fehr told Helseth. "The major gap in those teams right now in many states is the midwife. Too often, she’s still not there." (Read more)

Radio show harkens back to days of country columnists by visiting 7 counties in rural Georgia

Before large newspapers cut much of their rural coverage and circulation, columns like Charles Salter's "Georgia Rambler" in the 1970s Atlanta Journal were more common. Salter visited a different rural Georgia town for each column and asked locals, "Who is the most interesting person you know?" For a late July episode of the wonderful radio show "This American Life" from Chicago Public Media, producers set out to duplicate Salter's idea, sending seven reporters to eight Georgia counties to ask the same question.  Ira Glass, the host of the show, said they got too many stories to tell on the one-hour program, so they selected the seven best.

Among the highlights was a local debate in Meriwether County as to whether President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a fan of the local moonshine near his Warm Springs home during Prohibition and the "Soundoff" column in the Summerville News of Chatooga County, which suggests locals are supremely concerned with Krystal hamburgers. For the show's final segment, Salter's son Chuck, now a senior writer at Fast Company magazine, revisits the subject of one of his father's more memorable columns 33 years later to examine what effect the construction of a lake he was fighting ended up having on his farm.

You can stream the entire "Georgia Rambler" episode on This American Life's website here or access the show's complete radio archives for its weekly themed podcasts detailing stories from around the country.

Is this diversity? Rural students are among the most excluded from highly selective universities

An essay on the website Minding the Campus, by Russell K. Nieli, explores the question of diversity among students at highly selective universities. Nieli posits that elite schools consider diversity only when it includes racial diversity, which unfairly excludes "numbers of born-again Christians from the Bible belt, students from Appalachia and other rural and small-town areas, people who have served in the U.S. military, those who have grown up on farms or ranches, Mormons, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, lower-middle-class Catholics, working class 'white ethnics,' social and political conservatives, wheelchair users, married students, married students with children, or older students first starting out in college after raising children or spending several years in the workforce."

Nieli primarily bases his commentary on a book by Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life.  They found that participation in high school ROTC, 4-H clubs, or the Future Farmers of America (now simply the FFA, and not limited to future farmers) was "found to reduce very substantially a student's chances of gaining admission to the competitive private colleges," Nieli writes. "The admissions disadvantage was greatest for those in leadership positions in these activities or those winning honors and awards."  Espenshade and Radford say excelling in these activities is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower chance of admission. Their conclusion: It not only does not help kids, it hurts them, to be leaders in the groups often found in rural high schools.

"Farm boys from Idaho would do well to stay out of their local 4-H clubs or FFA organizations — or if they do join, they had better not list their membership on their college application forms," Nieli writes. "This is especially true if they were officers in any of these organizations. Future farmers of America don't seem to count in the diversity-enhancement game played out at some of our more competitive private colleges, and are not only not recruited, but seem to be actually shunned. It is hard to explain this development other than as a case of ideological and cultural bias." Nieli received his Ph.D. in political philosophy from Princeton University and currently works for Princeton's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. (Read more)

New York Times columnist Russ Douthat also weighed in recently on the discussion of the Ebenshade and Radford book. He suggested that "the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or 'Red America.'" And because the highly educated and liberal lack contact with rural, working-class America, it "generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what's being plotted in the heartland." Douthat concedes that universities are not going to narrow the cultural divide, but advises, "If such universities are trying to create an elite as diverse as the nation it inhabits, they should remember that there's more to diversity than skin color — and that both their school and their country might be better off if they admitted a few more R.O.T.C. cadets, and a few more aspiring farmers." (Read more)

Bureau of Land Management has no plans to postpone desert races after weekend tragedy

A desert off-road race from Las Vegas to Reno, Calif., is still scheduled for Friday even as federal officials reviews their safety policies for such races after eight spectators were killed a similar event in Southern California Saturday. "Officials with the Bureau of Land Management, which permits more than 100 off-road races a year on desert land it oversees, said they are confident that adequate safeguards are in place for the Nevada race," Phil Wilson of the Los Angeles Times reports. "But critics of the agency called the decision reckless, saying the bureau lacks the manpower and desire to ensure the events are safe."

"Eight people were killed and 10 others seriously injured in Saturday's California 200 off-road race in Lucerne Valley after a truck lost control after a jump and plowed into the crowd gathered within feet of the racecourse," Wilson writes. The promoter of the California 200, Mojave Desert Racing, is scheduled to host another race in September in the same area on BLM land, and federal officials say there are no plans to postpone that event. In the aftermath of the accident Mojave Racing has been criticized for allowing spectators too close to the cars. (CBS News screen shot of accident aftermath)

Casey Folks of the Best in the Desert Racing Assn., which is promoting the Nevada race, said his firm doesn't allow spectators as close to the race as they were at the California 200. "We don't really have the spectator problems that they have in Southern California," Folks told Wilson. "Our racecourse is pretty much closed." The Nevada BLM office said Folks' firm has an excellent safety record. "Motorized recreation is an accepted use of public lands. And I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but we're here as a multiuse agency to provide recreation opportunities when appropriate," Leo Drumm, coordinator for the Nevada office's off-highway vehicle program, told Wilson. "It's part of our mission. It's what we do. Some people would like us to stop it all together, but that is not what we intend to do." (Read more)

To keep parks open, states seek corporate sponsors

Amid increasing budget pressures from the recession, Georgia is among a handful of states looking to corporate sponsorship to help fund state parks. "According to preliminary survey results from the National Association of State Park Directors, a growing number of states are trying out or considering corporate sponsorship or exclusive distribution deals as a way to help close budget gaps," Melissa Maynard of reports. "State parks have traditionally resisted any type of commercialization, says Phillip McKnelly, the association’s executive director, and the interest in pursuing corporate partnerships is a relatively new phenomenon driven by the severity of funding crises in state park systems."

In Georgia Verizon Wireless will sponsor the annual Boy Scouts volunteering in state parks by providing "funding for tools and supplies as the scouts perform service projects around the state," Maynard writes. In exchange, the park service will recognize Verizon in publicity materials and on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources website. "Every interstate has these huge brown signs that tell you ‘Red Top Mountain State Park,’" department Commissioner Chris Clark told Maynard. "And at the bottom, we'd love to have 'Chick Fil-A,' or whatever else, as a simple way of marketing."

Clark told Maynard he hopes the sponsorships may eventually allow the department to improve services like wireless Internet service and expand its programming. Many park advocates say the turn to corporate sponsorship is welcomed if it keeps parks opens and as long as it's done tastefully. "There is general agreement that people don't want to see a NASCAR approach to branding the parks," Andy Fleming, executive director of Friends of Georgia State Parks, told Maynard. "Everybody understands that there's a line that we don't want to cross, in terms of compromising the naturalness of the experience. But the reality is that there's a big gap between the amount of funding and the needs of the system." (Read more)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Help your readers, listeners and viewers understand the different forms of Islam

The controversy over building a huge Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, exacerbated by President Obama's remarks on the subject, has exposed a serious lack of knowledge among many Americans about Islam. Contrary to suggestions that the main imam behind the project might have links to Islamic radicals, he is a leader of the Sufi sect, "which in terms of goals and outlook couldn’t be farther from the violent Wahhabism of the jihadists," author William Dalrymple writes for The New York Times from New Delhi.

Dalrymple sees in the U.S. "a dangerously inadequate understanding of the many divisions, complexities and nuances within the Islamic world — a failure that hugely hampers Western efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism and to reconcile Americans with peaceful adherents of the world’s second-largest religion. Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors."

That is putting in terms that most Americans can understand, so we encourage newspapers to reprint the article and broadcasters to look for ways to enlighten their audiences. The stakes are high, as Dalrymple notes: "Many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith. Had the George W. Bush administration been more aware of the irreconcilable differences between the Salafist jihadists of Al Qaeda and the secular Baathists of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the United States might never have blundered into a disastrous war, and instead kept its focus on rebuilding post-Taliban Afghanistan while the hearts and minds of the Afghans were still open to persuasion." (Read more)

Vilsack defends meat-market rules, says 'vast majority' of farms to be exempt from estate tax

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "defended proposals to reinstate the estate tax, despite concerns raised at an Iowa State Fair roundtable about the need for more rural capital and incentives for young farmers," Kathie Obradovich reports for The Des Moines Register:
Vilsack, the former Iowa governor, said he thinks the estate tax will be restored. The key is having appropriate exemptions for people who want to pass their farm down to a family member or someone else, he said. He expects to see a large enough exemption to cover the “vast majority” of farms and ranches in the country, he said. At the same time, however, he said there’s a need for the 2012 farm bill to focus on improving opportunities for young farmers.
Iowa State University economist Mark Edelman "warned about a lack of rural capital, which he attributed in part to uncertainty over the economy," Obradovich reports, noting arguments "that plans to roll back the Bush tax cuts have contributed to investor angst. Edelman said more rural capital will be needed, particularly invested in biofuels projects, to spur major job creation in rural America." Obradovoch noted that argument is also made by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has been visiting Iowa as a prospective candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Iowa's caucuses are the nation's first presidential voting and the state is a swing state in the general elections. (Read more)

UPDATE, Aug. 18: Ken Anderson of Brownfield reports that Vilsack defended proposed new rules to govern relationships between meatpackers and livestock and poultry producers, saying he wants to “make it so that small producers that can produce the same quality are not penalized—that they’re able to play the game and play in the game. This is not designed to take away premiums. We still think that those will happen—and they should happen for high quality. But we just want to make sure that if folks are capable of producing high quality, that they get treated fairly.” Anderson's post has audio from Vilsack and Iowa cattle feeder Bill Couser, who opposes the regulations. Read and listen here (subscription or registration may be required). (Brownfield photo)

Ranchers say 2c per pound of beef at retail could save independents, boost cattle country towns

Many have wondered what it will take to reverse the decline of small, independent livestock producers, but according to some advocates the answer to that question is just two cents more per pound for meat at retail. "Adding two cents on every pound in the meat counter would keep ranchers from losing money and turn slaughterhouse jobs from work into a living," Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder reports. "Two cents a pound at the grocery would fundamentally change the economies of thousands of rural communities."

Bill Bullard of R-CALF, a ranchers' organization, explained during last week’s meeting of the Organization for Competitive Markets in Omaha the share of each food dollar that goes to ranchers has dropped from 63 cents in 1980 to 43 cents in 2009. As cattle raising has become less profitable, more and more ranchers have left the business, Bishop reports. Bullard said the U.S. has been losing 1,000 ranchers a month since 1980. The answer to turning around the industry according to advocates would be just one cent per pound of meat at retail, Bishop writes, adding "One cent would change a money-losing business into one that breaks even." (R-CALF chart; click for larger image)

The second penny in the formula would go to workers at meatpacking plants. Despite rising food prices, Lauritsen told Bishop, meatpacking plants are under pressure to cut hourly wages. If one cent per pound of retail beef went directly to workers' wages, Lauritsen said average wages could go from $13 per hour to $16. "I will tell you, brothers and sisters, that that would make a dramatic change in a person's lifestyle," he told the convention. "It would change the main street Cherokee, Iowa. It's life changing money and it's only a penny."

Mark Lauritsen, international vice president for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 36 percent of U.S. meatpacking workers, told Bishop that as more ranches fail, less meat is sent to slaughterhouses. "We’re joined at the hip," Lauritsen toled the OCM crowd, which was largely older ranchers and farmers. Since 1960 the meatpacking industry has become more concentrated, with the largest 12.1 percent of feedlots finishing more than 16,000 cattle and marketed nearly three-quarters of beef cattle in 2008, Bishop writes. (Read more)

Study shows big differences among crops in levels of federal subsidy

The fact that different crops receive different amounts of federal support in the form of crop subsidies isn't a secret, but a new report hoping to quantify those differences shines new light on the regional influences affecting farm policy. The report, from the Congressional Research Service, shows "cotton and rice, two crops grown primarily in the South and in California, have the most generous support levels, while barley and soybean growers have the least. Wheat, corn, sorghum and oats fall in the middle," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog.

"The study calculated the amount that loan rates – a basic price guarantee level – would have to be changed to equalize the commodities and found that the rate for soybeans would have to be raised by 7 percent, while the rate for rice would have to be cut by 33 percent. The corn would need to be increased by just 3 percent," Brasher writes. The study reports subsidies account for more than 30 percent of the total production cost of rice and cotton compared to 12 percent of corn and 3.6 percent of soybeans. The study reports rice farmers received $217 per acre, compared to the $40 per acre average for all crops. Soybean farmers received $9 per acre while corn farmers received $50 per acre.

The study didn't take into account other forms of government support, such as federal ethanol mandates that boost corn, Brasher notes. Regional politics have long influenced farm policy; "Southern farmers tend to be more resistant to limits on the amount of subsidies that an individual farmer can collect in any one year," Brasher writes. (Read more)

Railroads are not required to disclose to localities the hazardous chemicals they transport

While railroad companies may transport hazardous materials through thousands U.S. communities every day, those communities are not entitled to know what materials may be on the train. Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flatau said only the railroads are required to know what is in the cars they are shipping, which means local emergency workers, "who would respond to a leak, spill or fire, have no knowledge of what's being transported on those cars until an accident happens," Julia Hunter of Gannett News Service reports. Railroad authorities say keeping the contents of trains secret is a matter of national security.

"Advocates for the public argue the rail cars are clearly marked, and if terrorists wanted to find a car full of hazardous material, they easily could," Hunter writes. Fred Millar, a Washington-based consultant on hazardous-material transportation issues and national security, said, "They think that having the public know about the shipments of these cargoes is somehow a security breach. That is absolutely ridiculous. ... These are gigantic tank cars with placards on the side going to and from the same places. The only people being kept in the dark are the American public."

FRA said local officials could be provided a list of top chemicals transported on nearby railroads on an annual basis, but the agency doesn't release specific information. Binghamton, N. Y., Asst. Fire Chief Richard Allen Jr. said, "Because the response to each chemical is different, and the wrong response can exacerbate the situation ... teams could benefit from newly developed equipment that helps haz-mat teams distinguish what they're dealing with," Hunter writes. However, such equipment costs roughly $40,000, out of the price range of many local emergency departments. (Read more)

Vilsack gets a boost from political pundit Broder, tells him about economic-development approach

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is back home in Iowa today, visiting the state fair as part of the Obama administration's dispatch of cabinet-level officials to fairs across the country. He got a great sendoff Sunday, in a column by political bigfoot David Broder of The Washington Post.

"Over the years, reporters learn that here are a relative handful of the public officials with whom we deal who can be counted on to expand our understanding of events. These are the men and women who have probed deeply into the forces shaping the country -- or their part of it -- and often anticipate the challenges still to come, Broder wrote, saying Vilsack "planted useful thoughts every time I interviewed him. So I was surprised when Vilsack was cast as the fall guy in the ugly incident last month involving the forced resignation of an African American government employee who was accused by a blogger of reverse discrimination against a white farmer."

So Broder chatted with Vilsack to find out what else he had been doing as secretary, and learned that "his chief concern ... is the condition of rural America," which has bad trends that started long before the recession: "an aging, less educated and declining population with an average annual income $11,000 below that of their urban neighbors -- are not because farmers are hurting. Indeed, farm income is up 9 percent over last year, and farm exports are at nearly record levels. But most of those living in rural America are not farmers. And so the formula for boosting those counties includes an emphasis on exploiting their energy resources, creating local food markets for local products, expanding broadband and promoting outdoor recreation."

We've heard and reported all that, but our friend David also told us something about USDA's Rural Development program that we had not heard: "One feature Vilsack brought from Iowa is his plan to set aside a small portion of the economic development funds to be channeled into eight or 10 counties that have done their own bottom-up planning and to come up with a blueprint embracing all elements of the community." Vilsack told Broder, "I know it works." (Read more)

Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson also noted the Broder column in reporting Vilsack's visit, and posted some audio in which Vilsack recalled his first encounter with Broder, at a National Governors Association meeting where Vilsack read a letter from the widow of a hog farmer who had committed suicide. Broder, an Illinois native, wrote about it, and one of his Washington readers sent Vilsack a $10,000 check for the family. Vilsack said, "David Broder and I have always been good friends." (Listen to the audio)

Here is Vilsack's White House Blog post on his visit. Other upcoming state-fair visits announced so far: Small Business Administration Deputy Administrator Marie Johns in Indiana Aug. 18, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Illinois Aug. 20.

Unemployment in rural America down from June 2009, but so is number of jobs

The unemployment rate for rural America in June was lower than in June of 2009, making it the first month so far in 2010 with a lower rate than the previous year. The June 2010 unemployment rate for the country's 2,038 rural counties was 9.5 percent, down from 9.9 percent in June 2009. However, only 772 rural counties,. 38 percent of the total, actually added jobs in the last year, Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo report in the Daily Yonder.

"In total, there are 367,000 fewer jobs in rural America this June than in June of last year," the Yonder writes. "There are fewer jobs, but there are also fewer rural residents looking for jobs — 147,000 fewer this June than in 2009. As a result, the unemployment rate is going down." Bishop and Gallardo say they don't know why fewer rural Americans are looking for jobs, but speculate that some may have moved to urban areas while others have given up the search altogether. The rural counties that did gain jobs are concentrated in the Midwest, with 10 of the top 50 counties in job gains being located in Indiana. (Read more) (Yonder map)

Many coal-fired power plants still being built, despite concerns about greenhouse gases

An Associated Press review of Department of Energy records found that 30 traditional coal-fired power plants have been built since 2008 or are currently under construction. The dozens of new old-style coal plants "will cement the industry's standing as the largest industrial source of climate-changing gases for years to come," Matthew Brown reports for AP. "The construction wave stretches from Arizona to Illinois and South Carolina to Washington, and comes despite growing public wariness over the high environmental and social costs of fossil fuels."

The expansion marks the industry's larges in two decades and "represents an acknowledgment that highly touted "clean coal" technology is still a long ways from becoming a reality," Brown writes. Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at the University of California-Berkeley, explained, "Building a coal-fired power plant today is betting that we are not going to put a serious financial cost on emitting carbon dioxide. That may be true, but unless most of the scientists are way off the mark, that's pretty bad public policy."

"Utilities say they are clinging to coal because its abundance makes it cheaper than natural gas or nuclear power and more reliable than intermittent power sources such as wind and solar," Brown writes. "Still, the price of coal plants is rising and consumers in some areas served by the new facilities will see their electricity bill rise by up to 30 percent." Combined, the 16 plants that have gone online since 2008 and 16 more under construction will produce an estimated 17,900 megawatts of electricity, sufficient to power up to 15.6 million homes, Brown reports. The plants are projected to produce 125 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. DOE spokesman John Grasser acknowledged the new plants represent a missed chance to rein in carbon emissions, but told Brown of reducing coal's role in the energy market, "This is not something that's going to happen tomorrow. You have to do the required research and development and take steps along the way." (Read more)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rural America needs more farmers to regain social cohesion, farmer-columnist says

"Every opportunity in rural America is predicated upon smaller farms, more people on the land farming," farmer and New York Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg told Brian Mann of upstate's North Country Public Radio over the weekend.

Klinkenborg, who grew up in rural Iowa, said much of rural America needs "more people to form a society; there is no society in so much of rural America." He said farming in 600- to 1,000-acre tracts is useful for commodity farming and raising corn for ethanol, "but it doesn't make sense for actual food and it's not the best practice for the soil."

Klinkenborg writes an occasional, short column called "The Rural Life," usually drawn from his five-acre farm in New York's Columbia County, but he told Mann that he's "clearly not a farmer in any real sense. ... The real point is to be engaged in the life and death cycle of a farm, to be engaged in growing your own." He said the most important part of his rural life is living with animals. "Most Americans have given up that experience," he said. "It's a shame, because living with animals teaches you a huge amount about the boundaries of being human."

Klinkenborg said a main function of his column is to speak to the many people in New York City who dream of having a farm. "I'm there as a kind of proxy in life for a lot of people," he said. As an editorial writer, he said, his main rural mission is to write about "the choices we've made about how we grow food," many of which he said are not really choices, but "programmatic decisions" made by corporations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Click to read and listen)

Satellite companies vow to bring better broadband to more rural customers with improved technology

Two Internet companies are hoping to launch new satellites in the next year that will increase broadband speeds for underserved rural areas at a cheaper cost than wired alternatives. Satellite Internet providers "serve a little more than one million customers, most in rural areas that have no other options. Their services can be painfully slow and cost twice as much as high-speed broadband," Susanna G. Kim reports for The New York Times. Now WildBlue and HughesNet hope to change satellite Internet's reputation with state-of-the art services.

WildBlue’s new satellite "alone will have 10 times the capacity of its three current satellites combined," Kim writes. The companies say the new satellites "will enable them, at prices similar to what they now charge, to provide Internet service at speeds many times faster than they now offer — as fast, in some cases, as fiber connections," Kim writes. Arunas Slekys, vice president for HughesNet, told her, "One advantage satellite has is ubiquity. The cost of reaching you with a satellite dish is independent of where you are. Fiber or cable is labor-intensive and dependent on distance."

"There’s an unserved market" in rural areas, Slekys said. "And it’s not as though they have terrestrial or satellite. They only have satellite as a choice." Even with the improved equipment, users will face slight delays, about a half-second, as signals are transmitted the 22,000 miles from satellite to their personal computer, Kim reports. Customers who aren't able to point their dishes toward the satellite's locations in the southern skies won't be able to access the improved speeds, and dishes must be cleared of all snow during winter.

"Of its $2.5 billion share of the stimulus funds, the Agriculture Department is allocating just $100 million in grants to satellite companies," Kim writes. While the satellite companies say other stimulus money could have been used to reach many more customers if it had been allocated to satellite service, some question the reliability of satellite connections. "To compare what we do with what satellite does as a service is an apples-to-oranges comparison," Joseph Freddoso, president of nonprofit MCNC, which received $28 million to extend fiber to 420 North Carolina schools and libraries, told Kim. (Read more)

EPA starts civil enforcement against Iowa beef feedlots as part of crackdown on water pollution

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken a series of civil enforcement actions against eight beef feedlots in Northwest Iowa for violations of the Clean Water Act. The moves are "part of the agency’s continuing initiative that hopes to end harmful discharges of pollutants from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) into the area’s waterways," Lynda Waddington of The Iowa Independent reports. Karl Brooks, regional EPA administrator, said the agency has two goals, enforcing the Clean Water Act and educating about the benefits of cleaner water, and "Responsible livestock producers understand and work with the agency to advance both goals." (Read more)

The Iowa violations come after EPA announced in May it increase monitoring of CAFO pollution as part of a settlement with National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance, Tom Johnston of Meatingplace reported. "Under today's settlement, EPA will initiate a new national effort to track down factory farms operating without permits and determine for itself if they must be regulated," EPA said in a news release. "The specific information that EPA will ultimately require from individual facilities will be determined after a period of public comment. But the results of that investigation will enable the agency and the public to create stronger polluting controls in the future and make sure facilities are complying with current rules." (Read more)

W.Va. moves to circumvent EPA's new water rules designed to curb mountaintop removal

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued new water-quality guidelines late last week that the agency hoped would circumvent tougher rules that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed to would curb mountaintop-removal coal mining. "Under the new policy, the DEP would require more detailed toxicity testing downstream from mining operations and for the first time force mine operators to show that proposed mines would not have a 'reasonable potential' to cause 'significant adverse impacts' on aquatic ecosystems," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. "The state's policy, though, would largely base such decisions on methods that EPA scientists believe are not the most sophisticated available and without using a firm limit on electrical conductivity as a measure of stream health."

"DEP Secretary Randy Huffman urged EPA officials to defer to the new West Virginia guidance over more detailed federal agency reviews of Clean Water Act permit applications for valley fills and mining pollution discharges," Ward writes. Huffman added that he was not "trying to pick a fight" with the EPA, but told Ward if federal officials don't find his new policy acceptable, "I guess we'll have to see what happens." Environmental groups were quick to criticize the guidance. "It's essentially [the] DEP acting as a friend of the coal industry, instead of a regulator," Margaret Janes, senior policy analyst for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, told Ward. "This is a continuation of business as usual." (Read more)

On Friday EPA responded to West Virginia's announcement in a statement to Ward, posted on his blog Coal Tattoo, saying EPA's previous guidance was "supported by extensive science and consistent with the law." The statement continued, "We look forward to reviewing West Virginia’s new water quality guidance. In the meantime, EPA’s guidance stands and we will continue to use it to ensure that mining permits issued in West Virginia and other Appalachian states provide the protection required under federal law." (Read more)

EPA sets seven public hearings on coal ash

The Environmental Protection Agency has announced seven public hearings across the country for discussion of the proposals to regulate waste from coal-fired power plants. The first meeting is scheduled for Aug. 30 in Arlington, Va., and the last of the meetings is scheduled for Sept. 28 in Louisville, Ky. You can see the full list below and addresses for each of the hotels here:
  • Aug. 30 -- Hyatt Regency Crystal City -- Arlington, Va.
  • Sept. 2 -- Grand Hyatt -- Denver, Colo.
  • Sept. 8 -- Hyatt Regency Dallas -- Dallas, Texas
  • Sept. 14 -- Holiday Inn Charlotte (Airport) -- Charlotte, N.C.
  • Sept. 16 -- Hilton Chicago -- Chicago, Ill.
  • Sept. 21 -- Omni Hotel -- Pittsburgh, Penn.
  • Sept. 28 -- Seelbach Hilton -- Louisville, Ky.
The Louisville date was added after the other six hearings were initially announced, which Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council said made sense "given the region’s many coal-fired power plants and the big issues that are at stake for the public and industry alike," James Bruggers of the Courier-Journal reports. The Army Corps of Engineers reports some 29 coal-fired plants are along the banks of the Ohio river. Bruggers notes that Kentucky is first and Indiana third in the production of coal ash. (Read more)