Saturday, August 28, 2010

Live! This morning! Bluegrass on radio and 'net!

This morning at 11 a.m. EDT you can listen to one of the few live bluegrass-music shows on radio, from WPAQ in Mount Airy, N.C. "The Merry-Go-Round" will probably have a larger Internet audience than usual, because it was the subject of a feature story on National Public Radio this week by Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio. (Photo by Kelly Kress of Learn NC)

Matthew of The Art of the Rural blog asks, "What other local radio stations are our readers listening to, either on the radio or on the Internet?" Feel free to drop us a line or comment on our Facebook page; we would love to follow up with more features on these stations, and to add them to our Rural Arts Map."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Environmental groups find 39 more sites contaminated by coal ash

A new report from three environmental groups documents 39 additional coal-ash dump sites in 21 states are contaminating drinking or surface water with arsenic and other heavy metals. Experts from the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club found "at every one of the coal-ash dump sites equipped with groundwater monitoring wells, concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic or lead exceeded federal health-based standards for drinking water," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his Coal Tattoo blog.

Concentrations at the Hatfield’s Ferry site in Pennsylvania were as high as 341 times the federal standard for arsenic, Ward writes. "There is no greater reason for coal ash regulation than preventing the poisoning of our water," Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, said in a news release. "We now have 39 more good reasons for a national coal ash rule. The mounting number of contaminated sites demonstrates that the states are unable or unwilling to solve this problem."

The report also found "the total number of sites polluted by coal ash or sludge is now at least 137 in 34 states," Ward writes. "These sites account for 29 percent of the 467 plants that dispose of coal ash onsite or offsite." At least 18 of the 39 newly identified contaminated sites are located within five miles of a public groundwater well. "It is clear from this report that the closer we look the worse this problem becomes," Lyndsay Moseley, federal policy representative for the Sierra Club, said. "The only real solution is for the EPA to adopt federally enforceable protections as part of its push to improve public health. We’re talking about people’s lives here." (Read more)

Military says wind turbines are threat to radar systems

Wind energy advocates may have a new unlikely opponent: the U.S. military. "Moving turbine blades can be indistinguishable from airplanes on many radar systems, and they can even cause blackout zones in which planes disappear from radar entirely," Leora Broydo Vestel reports for The New York Times. Dr. Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of defense, recently told a House Armed Services subcommittee, "Although the military says no serious incidents have yet occurred because of the interference, the wind turbines pose an unacceptable risk to training, testing and national security in certain regions," Vestel writes.
(Wind turbines, Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian)

Because of its concerns, the Defense Department has emerged as a serious opponent to the Energy Department in its attempts to foster wind power development. "I call it the train wreck of the 2000s," Gary Seifert, who has been studying the radar-wind energy clash at the Idaho National Laboratory, an Energy Department research facility. "The train wreck is the competing resources for two national needs: energy security and national security." Last year about 9,000 megawatts of proposed wind projects were abandoned following complaints from the military and Federal Aviation Administration.

"Collisions between the industry and the military have occurred in the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon-Washington border and in the Great Lakes region," Vestel writes. "But the conflicts now appear to be most frequent in the Mojave [Desert], where the Air Force, Navy and Army control 20,000 square miles of airspace and associated land in California and Nevada that they use for bomb tests; low-altitude, high-speed air maneuvers; and radar testing and development." The Energy Department hopes updating radar software can fix the problem, others say more help is needed. "I can’t imagine a better example of everyone wanting to do the right thing and nobody doing it," Howard Swancy, an aviation consultant and former FAA official, told Vestel. "We need an infrastructure-size development plan." (Read more)

Newspaper editors: Has the time come to print anonymous letters?

UPDATE, Feb. 22, 2011: The Freeman Courier has reverted to its old policy. See new item.

During the June International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors conference Bill Reader, an assistant professor at Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, argued that newspapers should print anonymous letters to the editor. In the age of anonymous online commenting, newspapers continued reluctance to print unsigned letters is archaic and out of touch, Reader argued. In his presentation, Reader wrote that newspapers are in the midst of a cultural revolution whether they like it or not, and resources should be devoted to content of letters rather than authorship. (You can read the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issue's story on the conference here.)

The Freeman Courier of South Dakota took Reader's argument to heart in deciding to change its policy and allow anonymous letters. "If you’ve got something to say in print but don’t want your name attached, while we may not agree with your desire to hide behind anonymity, we will grant you that right," editors Tim and Jeremy Waltner write in the August ISWNE newsletter. The Waltners note their policy is an experiment and they reserve the right to change their minds, they must still be able to verify the identity of the author whether his or her name is printed or not and they still will not print potentially libelous statements.

In his first newsletter column as ISWNE president Jeremy Condliffe, editor of the Congleton Chronicle in England, argues in support of anonymous letters. "It’s true that some of you might be opposed to anonymous letters because you just feel it’s plum wrong, and unethical to run anonymous attacks, but, as was pointed out in Kentucky, doing this can give a voice to the voiceless," Condliffe writes. "I certainly print letters criticizing those in power that come from working class readers who don’t feel they have any other way of expressing an opinion."

Not everyone at the conference was persuaded by the anonymous letter argument. Marcia Martinek, editor of the Herald Democrat of Leadville, Colo., notes her paper has always received plenty of letters to the editor despite its policy that it only prints signed ones. Martinek writes in the newsletter her paper sometimes explores issues raised in anonymous letters it receives but for now "I’m not thinking of changing any of our policies. Most Leadvillites have the courage to put their names on their letters. I’m proud of that, and you should be, too." (Read the newsletter here)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Steps taken to slow the 'carp highway' into the Great Lakes

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has awarded a  $500,000 grant to the Great Lakes Commission to "investigate the best economic and environmental solutions for preventing non-native creatures from swimming into the Great Lakes via Chicago's canals and further disrupting the delicate ecosystem balance," according to a press release. The project is investigating ways for re-separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi, as the natural barriers between these two watersheds were removed during the last century. "This 18-month comprehensive study will lead to options for improving transportation, water quality, and flood management in the waterways, as well as stopping invasive species," David Ullrich, executive director of the binational Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, said. (Read more) (Bighead carp, photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife)

Attorneys from five Great Lakes states argued before U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow to close Chicago-area shipping locks to stop Asian carp before they reach Lake Michigan, the Chicago Tribune reported Monday. The states are asking Dow to issue an emergency injunction to close what Michigan's assistant attorney general Robert Reichel called a "carp highway." Department of Justice attorneys argue that the federal government and Army Corps have spent millions to track and control Asian carp. Sealing the locks, which also aid in flood control by releasing water back into Lake Michigan, presents a grave risk to area residents during heavy rains. Dow will consider the states' request for an emergency injunction after a three-day hearing in Chicago beginning Sept. 7. (Read more)

Asian carp is not the only problem in Chicago waterways.  "Alligator Bob," who has volunteered with the Chicago Herpetological Society for about 20 years, has rescued more than 70 alligators from Illinois and Wisconsin waterways. He doesn't give out his last name because people call him to take their unwanted animals. After being summoned to nab a gator seen sunning on the banks of the Chicago River, Bob said, "If I don't get it, the animal is going to die," adding that alligators won't survive Chicago winters. Bob caught a 3-foot alligator Monday in the Chicago River. (Read more)

Race to Top winner list raises questions of urban, geographic bias

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Tuesday the second round winners of Race to the Top funding demonstrated the boldest plans for turning around public schools, but they also share another factor: geography. "Of the dozen states that have won major grants to date in the two-part grant contest that is the Obama administration’s signature education initiative, 11 are east of the Mississippi and most hug the East Coast, including Florida and Georgia in the South and New York and Massachusetts in the North," Sam Dillon of The New York Times reports. "Among the winners, Hawaii is the lone geographic exception."

Educators in many of the states that didn't win or participate in the competition said "the competition’s rules tilted in favor of densely populated Eastern states, which tend to embrace more of the ideas that Washington currently considers innovative, including increasing the number of charter schools and firing principals in chronically failing schools," Dillon writes. Experts agreed "those rules have seemed a poor fit for the nation’s rural communities and sparsely populated Western regions." Duncan said of the prevalence of Eastern winners, "We went as far west as we could go. We want to work with Western states. Geography was irrelevant."

"This whole effort had more of an urban than a rural flavor," Armando Vilaseca, commissioner of education of Vermont, whose state did not participate in either round of Race to the Top. Delaware and Tennessee were selected as winners in the first round of competition, and the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island were selected as second round winners. Among the surprise losers were Colorado and Louisiana, which each "endured divisive legislative battles to change education laws in ways favored by the administration, to improve their chances of winning Race to the Top money," Dillon writes. (Read more)

Funding for broadband in North Carolina called a 'game changer'

We've been following the stimulus package broadband awards, several of which have gone to rural schools. Now some rural advocates say these awards could be key to altering "the playing field for rural schools and the communities they serve," Mary Schulken of Education Week reports on the Rural Education blog. "The grants and projects vary widely, from funding fixed wireless broadband in Michigan to providing mobile broadband access to rural Alabama," Schulken writes. "Yet all the projects focus primarily on unserved or underserved communities and in many instances will provide discounted service to anchor institutions in communities such as schools and libraries."

"The [Broadband Technology Opportunities Program] award is truly a game changer for North Carolina," Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina system, told Schulken of a $75.8 million grant announced last week for North Carolina from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Bowles, who chaired a rural prosperity task force 11 years ago that set blanket broadband access for students and households as a top priority, told Schulken the award was "the most significant event toward meeting this goal since it was crafted a decade ago."

"When the [stimulus package] broadband money was debated in Washington, not everyone thought spending money to connect rural communities offered as much promise as Bowles' remarks suggest," Schulken writes, pointing to a National Public Radio story from 2009. "Yet the money rolls, bringing jobs and, perhaps more significant in the long-term, bandwidth and speed," Schulken concludes. (Read more)

Maine among states with inadequate access for email open record requests

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting filed a state open records request for emails from 2005-2007 between the Public Utilities Commission chairman and representatives of wind company First Wind. PUC attorney Joanne Stenack told the center the request could be completed for $10,000, Naomi Schalit of the center reports. "The center then asked for a waiver of the $10,000 cost, under provisions in the state’s FOAA that allow waivers to be granted for noncommercial use of public information," Schalit writes. "They refused to grant the waiver and revised their estimate of the cost for the Center to get the information to $36,239.52." (Read more)

Now what seemed initially like an effort by the PUC to avoid complying with the request may actually be evidence of an archaic email system plaguing, not only Maine but other state governments across the country. "Here's the really surprising thing the Portland Phoenix has learned from just a little research into the matter: the estimate reflects the state's actual cost to extract the information from its e-mail archive, which is so cumbersome that it's next to impossible to actually use," Jeff Inglis reports for the Phoenix. Greg McNeal, Maine's chief information officer, told Inglis responding to a similar request would take one of his two e-mail technicians an entire year of full-time work.

"McNeal calls the backup mechanism 'archaic,' and says he has been lobbying to improve it for some time now, but the state lacks both funding and a working example to adapt to Maine's needs," Inglis writes. McNeal and state archivist David Cheever say the problem isn't unique to Maine either, which has "roughly 12,000 state e-mail accounts, with thousands upon thousands of actual messages, which must all be backed up in a way that must somehow or other be accessible to the public and yet secure from destruction," Inglis writes.

"Neither of them is aware of a state government that has a timely, inexpensive storage-and-retrieval method for state officials' e-mail messages," Inglis writes. Cheever said the state can't afford to experiment with other systems: "We don't have the money to be wrong," he told Inglis. Schalit told the Phoenix if the claim is true Maine's system is "mind-boggling for anybody who has an interest in history. If this is the kind of system they have installed for government business, there's something wrong with the system." (Read more)

Obama administration's shift of rural aid money angers some farmers

A record federal deficit and shifting priorities have led the Obama administration to shift some rural aid money from farmers to broadband providers, land-conservation efforts and nutrition programs, angering some in the agriculture industry. "To many farmers, the changes seem designed to satisfy organic-food devotees, first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity cause, weekend duck hunters, and small-town Internet users -- everyone, that is, except traditional farmers," Alan Bjerga of Bloomberg reports. Nebraska cattle rancher and crop insurance salesman Kris Luoma said to Bjerga of Washington policy makers, "A lot of them don’t know where their food comes from."

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "in July trimmed $6 billion in payments to crop insurers such as San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. for the next decade," Bjerga writes. "Now he’s looking at cuts of as much as $5 billion a year from an automatic payments program that compensates farmers even if they grow nothing." Bjerga characterizes Vilsack as the "chief messenger of this makeover, a turnabout for farmers who have known him as one of their staunchest advocates." Vilsack advocates diversifying rural economies, and if  done right, government programs will benefit everyone, including crop growers and ranchers who need thriving communities nearby.

"The last real attempt to cut subsidies, in 1996, led to a backlash -- and bailout checks for farmers after export declines and heat waves persuaded lawmakers to abandon cost-cutting," according to Bjerga. Now the $1.3 trillion annual deficit will make subsidy cuts stick, said Minnesota Democratic Rep. Collin Petersen, the House Agriculture Committee chairman. "Vilsack calls the deficit an incentive to revamp farm support and allocate funds to alternative energy and broadband projects, benefiting telecommunications companies such as New York-based Verizon Communications Inc. and ethanol producers, including Poet LLC of Sioux Falls, South Dakota," Bjerga writes. (Read more)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Some coal mining companies are forced to answer for mine safety

U.S. coal mines continue to violate safety laws despite an increase in enforcement following the April explosion that killed 29 West Virginia miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine. Recent surprise inspections from the Mine Safety and Health Administration revealed "miners had worked under an unsupported roof at a Tennessee mine, and sections of a West Virginia mine were closed after inspectors found numerous serious violations," Tim Huber of The Associated Press reports. "Serious violations turned up at two Kentucky mines, including an International Coal Group operation that was ordered to stop production last week until its ventilation plan was rewritten."

"It is appalling that our inspectors continue to find such egregious violations, especially with the explosion at Upper Big Branch still fresh in everyone's minds," MSHA director Joe Main said in a statement. "MSHA will continue to target mines with enhanced inspections where conditions merit such actions, particularly at mines that display a disregard to miners' safety and health." No Massey mines were included in the last blitz of inspections. ICG received 43 citations at it's Classic Mine in Eastern Kentucky. ICG said it had fixed the mine's ventilation plan and production resumed Monday. (Read more)

A coal company in Letcher County, Ky., was found at fault for disciplining a miner who had photographed the mine's unsafe practices, reports Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Charles Scott Howard used a video camera to document leaking seals at Cumberland River Coal Co. Band Mill No. 2 mine. After Howard showed the video to federal inspectors, the mine was closed. Soon after that, the company placed a disciplinary letter in Howard's file saying he had created unsafe conditions by bringing a camera into the mine. But Administrative Law Judge T. Todd Hodgdon said the letter was a pretext to discipline Howard because company managers were displeased that he had videotaped the seals causing the mine to be closed.
Howard told Estep that coal miners should work hard and help their employers be profitable, but that profit can't come at the expense of safety, "You gotta stand up for your rights," he said to Estep. "To lose a life over ignorance or fear of spending a little money is uncalled for." (Read more)

Landowners band together to cash in on natural gas boom

As natural gas drilling continues to trend upward with the popularity of hydraulic fracturing, more landowners are banding together to sell rights to the gas below their property. "The Ohio and Surrounding Counties of West Virginia Landowners Group includes more than 400 property owners and controls gas rights over 26,400 acres, stretching into Western Pennsylvania," Andrew Conte of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. Seizing on their joined power, the group reportedly turned down an offer in April from Chesapeake Appalachia worth more than $80 million up front, at $3,000 an acre, plus 18 percent royalties on the gas.

The Ohio/West Virginia group isn't the only coalition of landowners looking to cash in on the natural gas boom. The Friendsville Group, located in Pennsylvania's Bradford and Susquehanna counties with 1,384 members and 33,047 acres, negotiated a deal with Talisman Energy last year worth $181 million up front, at $5,500 an acre, plus 20 percent of royalties. "There's a lot of these large groups that are being put together," James McCune, a Washington County, Penn., lawyer who specializes in gas leases, told Conte. "If they're done correctly and if people get lucky, they can be a big benefit for people. But there are so many variables and so many differences in the tracts of land in a group of that size." (Read more)

Value of vaccinating hens for egg safety still undecided

In the wake of the country's largest ever egg recall the Food and Drug Administration has said the salmonella outbreak could have been avoided if new food safety rules were enacted earlier. Now some industry officials wonder if the food safety rules are enough since FDA declined to mandate vaccinating hens against salmonella as part of the rules, William Neuman of The New York Times reports. The vaccinations helped eliminate a salmonella outbreak in England over a decade ago.

American regulators said there was not enough evidence to conclude the vaccinations would prevent people from getting sick. Mandatory vaccinations would cost less than a penny per dozen eggs, Neuman writes. The new rules, which FDA said could have averted the outbreak, "include regular testing for contamination, cleanliness standards for henhouses and refrigeration requirements, all of which experts say are necessary," Neuman writes. FDA said the new rules do encourage farmers to use vaccinations if they believe it will help prevent salmonella infections.

The vaccines "are the only thing I’m aware of that really controls the problem from the inside out, at the source,” Ronald Plylar, the former president of a company that developed an early salmonella vaccine, told Neuman. Several industry officials told Neuman they believed the recall would force producers to begin vaccinating hens. While FDA said it considered mandating vaccinations very seriously, "We didn’t believe that, based on the data we had, there was sufficient scientific evidence for us to require it,” Dr. Nega Beru, director of the agency’s Office of Food Safety, told Neuman. (Read more)

Symposium to examine link between animal disease and human health

The early registration deadline for an international, multi-disciplinary symposium about connections between zoonotic diseases, animal agriculture and human health from the non-profit Farm Foundation is Sept. 1. The symposium is scheduled for Sept. 23-24 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D. C. "The recent H1N1 outbreak is one in a long series of disease outbreaks that has raised questions about the relationship between diseases, agricultural production systems and human health," Farm Foundation Vice President Sheldon Jones said in a news release. "An understanding of the risks and interactions is critical to health professionals working with humans and animals, policy makers and regulators. This symposium is designed to help build a systematic knowledge of those relationships."

The symposium is targeted at public health officials, epidemiologists, virologists, veterinarians, agriculture producer groups and media representatives. Speakers include Kevin Walker of Michigan State University, William Karesh of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Marguerite Pappaioanou of the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, Juan Lubroth of the United Nation’s Food Agriculture Organization and David Heymann of the Centre on Global Health Security, United Kingdom. The registration fee is $300 before Sept. 1 and $350 afterward. (Read more)

Rural co-ops no longer just for farms and electricity

Electric co-operatives and farming co-ops have long been staples of rural America, but now the co-operative model is now catching on in new industries. The model has "evolved into hybrids that combine two or more business interests, and it’s expanding into new and unlikely service sectors," Nancy Jorgensen reports for the Daily Yonder reports. One such area is buying co-operatives between farmers and local institutions like hospitals, schools or governments. Puget Sound residents also can turn to the co-op model for funeral arrangements.

Stephen Ronstrom, CEO of Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wisc., was recognized by the state of Wisconsin and the Wall Street Journal for buying local farm products for hospital meals. "Local food is good medicine for everyone," Ronstrom wrote in a 2008 newspaper editorial that got the ball rolling. "It preserves and expands family farms, provides jobs in production and processing, and keeps money in our community." Sacred Heart committed to spending 10 percent of its $2 million annual food budget on local food and in 2009 it joined with local farmers to form the Producers & Buyers Co-op.

"Institutional food buyers maintain long-standing relationships with suppliers, making it difficult for other producers to break into the market," Jorgensen writes. Buyers can also face limited product availability. "The co-op removes these barriers," Rick Beckler, Sacred Heart's director of hospitality services, told Jorgensen, "because the organization is itself a mid-tier value-added food chain made up of producers, processors, transporters, and institutional buyers." Two other hospitals have joined the co-op and the group is working to attract more buyers, including schools, universities, nursing homes and cafeterias. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Arizona private prison escape leads to questions about industry oversight

The escape of three Arizona inmates from a private prison which possibly resulted in two murders has led state regulators to reexamine the private prison industry's growth and degree of state oversight. "State leaders in recent years have pushed for more privatization and have blocked efforts to regulate the industry, which has invested heavily in local lobbying and contributed to political campaigns," Casey Newton, Ginger Rough and J. J. Hensley of The Arizona Republic report. Private prisons, like one near Kingman, Arizona , population just over 31,000, tend to be located in rural areas.

"The last fugitives in that escape were caught Thursday, and the state's prison director has promised changes to the private sites that house Arizona inmates," the reporters write. While many private prison advocates say they represent a cheaper option for states, "data suggest that the facilities are less cost-effective than they claim to be," Newton, Rough and Hensley report. "A cost study by the Arizona Department of Corrections this year found that it can often be more expensive to house inmates in private prisons than in their state-run counterparts."

The state Department of Corrections has varying levels of oversight for each of Arizona's private prisons with the department regulating facilities that house prisoners convicted in Arizona. The department does not dictate what type or prisoners private prisons accept from other states on behalf of the federal government or how they are secured. In that case private prisons report to Arizona only "names, security classifications and number of inmates housed at their facilities," the reporters write.

In the wake of the escape, members of both parties have criticized the five-tiered system which allows "some violent criminals to migrate to lower-security facilities for good behavior," the reporters write. Two of the three inmates who escaped from the medium-security Kingman facility had been convicted of murder. Gov. Jan Brewer told the Republic she still favored private prisons, but the escape was "unacceptable, and I am absolutely pushing for more accountability." (Read more)

Former USDA employee rejects offer to return to agency

Shirley Sherrod, former employee of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture who was fired last month, has refused an opportunity to return to the agency. She was offered the newly-created job of USDA deputy director of the Office of Advocacy and Outreach by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. She told CNN she needs to "take a break" from the furor surrounding her dismissal and rejected Vilsack's offer, even though he pushed "really, really hard" to get her to take the job.

She praised "new processes in place" to prevent discrimination and inappropriate firings at the department, but said she doesn't "want to be the one to test it," reports CNN. Sherrod is likely to serve in an unofficial advisory capacity to help address issues related to racism at the department. She said at a press conference, "We need to work on issues (of) discrimination and racism in this country, and I'd certainly like to play my role."

Sherrod was forced to resign after highly edited video of a portion of a speech she made was broadcast by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart on the internet. (Read more)

Sherrod grew up in Southwest Georgia and, as reported by Kathleen Hennessey for the Tribune Washington Bureau, it was not an easy life. Historians describe southwest Georgia as among the most difficult to integrate in the 1960s, writes Hennessey. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. left Albany having accomplished little. The murder of Sherrod's father moved her to spend her life working for racial justice.

Sherrod and her husband Charles Sherrod were among a dozen black families who formed a farming cooperative, New Communities.  Across the South in the 1970s and 1980s, black farmers lost their land and livelihoods while the USDA, historically a safety net for family farms, allowed them to fail. New Communities had applied for a loan from the USDA, but was denied without reason. Eventually, New Communities sold its land and closed.

After a class action lawsuit was filed in 1997, a judge awarded a $2-billion settlement against the USDA for discrimination. In 2009, an arbitrator ruled the department had discriminated against New Communities and  awarded $12.8 million. The Sherrods received $150,000 for "mental anguish."

Shirley Sherrod's life has been inextricably connected to the history of the region, and though her life has not been easy there, she chose to remain. (Read more)

Study highlights rural student mobility problems

Studies regarding student mobility -- how often students switch schools -- has usually been focused on poor urban areas, but new research suggests rural student mobility may be as big a problem. A recent analysis of five states by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning suggests "in a small rural district, it takes a lot fewer kids moving around to play havoc with your staff assignment, special education supports and even course offerings," Sarah Sparks of Education Week reports on the Inside School Research blog.

High student mobility can affect individual students as they struggle to adjust to news schools and other students as teachers and administrators work to catch up new students, Sparks writes. "Andrea Beesley, McREL senior director and lead author on the report, studied state-reported student mobility data for Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming," Sparks writes. "The research team found that in Wyoming and North Dakota, rural districts had higher student mobility than did cities, though the smaller school populations in these districts may skew the sample."

"'Hotspots' of high student mobility often coincided with districts with high poverty or Native American reservations," Sparks writes. "Yet much more than that we can't tell, because each state collects and reports its data on student mobility differently: different grade levels included, different ways to include students who leave and return several times, and practically no information on where a mobile student comes from or goes to when he leaves." Beesley explained, "No two of them do it the same way. Unfortunately it leaves you in the situation where in many cases you don't understand a lot about student mobility." (Read more)

Recall shows the downside of consolidation and lack of oversight in egg industry

The largest egg recall in U.S. history was amplified by consolidation in the egg industry and a gap in federal food safety regulations that left the facilities in question without proper oversight. United Egg Producers data reveals "just 192 large egg companies own about 95 percent of laying hens in this country, down from 2,500 in 1987," Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post reports. "Most of those producers are concentrated in five states: Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and California." To make matters worse neither of the two Iowa facilities at the heart of the recall had ever been inspected by Food and Drug Administration officials.

Egg industry consolidation's "magnified effect is illustrated by the current recall: Just two Iowa producers, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, have been implicated in a nationwide outbreak of Salmonella enteritidis, with the companies recalling 500 million eggs sold under 24 brands," Layton writes. The mega-producers have grown up in corn belt states, where abundant corn, can supply cheap feed to egg companies. These companies have gone largely without government oversight as neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship had ever inspected the two Iowa facilities either. (You can see our previous item on the recall here)

"It is shocking that nobody was in these facilities, but it also illustrates that egg-laying facilities have fallen into the crack between the government agencies that are responsible for food safety," Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Layton. USDA regulates the health of chickens, but not eggs, and Iowa, the leading egg producer, does not inspect egg-laying facilities like some other states. FDA historically has only inspected egg facilities if it suspects contamination, though a new agency rule that took effect in July should change that. "Food safety legislation pending on Capitol Hill would require the FDA to routinely inspect high-risk food facilities, including henhouses," Layton writes. (Read more)

Columnist: Google, Verizon proposal isn't without merit but has big flaw

Earlier this month we reported the proposal between Google and Verizon that would exempt wireless Internet services and second level of the Internet from net neutrality regulations. That agreement has some merits and has understandably been met by much outcry from net neutrality advocates, but is most confusing because of the parties involved, writes one technology columnist. "Many Web sites and telecom firms would probably support the policies, but it's odd that they are coming from these two in particular," Rob Pegoraro of The Washington Post writes, noting Google has long supported net neutrality regulation and Verizon "didn't have a problem buying up new spectrum under those obligations."

Still, the "proposal features some reasonable ideas," Pegoraro writes. "Chief among them is requiring transparency about network-management practices. The insistence of telecom firms that they don't -- or no longer -- discriminate against legitimate sites and services suggests that publicity alone might deter some abuses." Pegoraro doesn't dismiss the proposals' call for "additional online services" that would not be subject to net neutrality out of hand either, but notes "it would help if the companies better explained what they have in mind."

Pegoraro notes the one area the proposal has earned its negative backlash is that "Google and Verizon make a fundamental mistake in not treating wired and wireless connections alike." He notes two ways unregulated wireless service would constrain competition: "First, 3G coverage maps of carriers illustrate how many areas have just two or one choices for mobile broadband," he writes. "Second, long-term contracts mean most users can vote with their wallets only every two years."

"So why would we now want to subject companies that use a cable or wire to provide broadband to stringent regulations and leave out competitors that use public airwaves?" Pegoraro concludes. "Just because the government plays favorites this way all the time doesn't mean it should repeat that error."
(Read more)

Coal $ could flow through door high court opened

The West Virgina race for Congress between incumbent Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall and Republican Elliott "Spike" Maynard could be the first test case for the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that allows corporations, unions and non-profit organizations to spend unlimited funds to back or oppose candidates in federal elections.

The decision has stirred interest in the coal industry in playing a role in elections in Central Appalachian states, though no fund-raising and spending has yet been manifested. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, notes West Virginia already has a history of big energy campaign donations and Citizens United could lead to even more spending, Paul J. Nyden of The Charleston Gazette reports.

"Few companies seem willing so far to get too far in front, since this spending would bring a great deal of criticism with it, maybe even from some shareholders," Sabato told Nyden. "However, it's been suggested that energy companies may be among the boldest this year in testing the new court-permitted expenditures." Nyden notes, "Last month, Roger Nicholson, senior vice president of the Scott Depot-based International Coal Group, sent e-mails to other mining executives suggesting they take advantage of the decision allowing companies or unions to fund independent political committees."

Much of the coal spending is expected to be in support of Maynard, thought Rahall has received campaign donations from Peabody Energy, Consolidation Coal, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal, among other companies, Nyden reports. "Any of these groups that desire to put a great deal of money into advertisements trying to sway the outcome of the election must realize an individual like Nick Joe Rahall has performed so well for the citizens of his district that they have learned to trust and respect him," State Democratic Chairman Larry Puccio told Nyden. "Some ads on television will not change the commitment citizens have to Congressman Rahall or the commitment Rahall has to his constituents." (Read more)

In Kentucky, the Senate race between Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway has bene mentioned as a possible playing ground for coal money, supporting Paul and opposing Conway.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Philanthropist pushes to paint flaking bridge, raising lead-contamination issue for many localities

Does your community have an aging bridge, which not only looks bad but flakes toxic lead paint into the water and soil? It may be part of a national problem that has come to light in several communities around the country but has gained little national attention. That may be about to change, as one Kentucky philanthropist is putting his money and time into a cause that started with one old railroad bridge (above and below), at the northern entrance to his hometown of Bowling Green.

The CSX Transportation bridge over the inaptly named Barren River "had long been a local eyesore, as paint flaked into the river and onto its banks, but when local philanthropist David Garvin offered to restore the bridge in 2009 it became the symbol of a battle between locals and the railroad," Jon Hale writes for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. "More than a year later, the bridge still hasn’t been painted, but testing of the banks revealed lead contamination – and questions about how many bridges across the country might be in similar condition." (Photos courtesy of David Garvin)

“What started out as painting a Rust Belt image bridge has, in fact, uncovered a major national lead pollution problem on thousands of bridges across the Eastern United States,” Garvin told the Bowling Green Daily News, which has followed the case closely. He told the paper and the Institute that his sampling found lead levels at least seven times the limit for soil in a residential or play area. CSX has taken its own samples, and tests “could prompt the state to consider if it needs to look at the condition of other CSX bridges in Kentucky,” Robyn L. Minor of the Daily News reported Aug. 20.

"Concern has been raised in several states about contamination from lead paint on old bridges," Hale writes, citing examples in Minnesota, North Carolina and Connecticut. Read his story here.

Study highlights importance of support systems for rural entrepreneurs

Local support groups are among the most important factors in fostering rural entrepreneurship, says a new report from the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. The report's author Greg Wise, professor and community development specialist and director for the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin–Extension, reports "the most important factors in developing a culture for entrepreneurship include: building and supporting business skills among entrepreneurs; developing vital resource centers; creating community awareness of and support for entrepreneurs; and building networks and collaboration," says a Newswise release.

The report, "Wisconsin Inventor & Entrepreneur Clubs: Investment in an Innovative Approach to Entrepreneurship," examines the roles reveals entrepreneurial clubs "offer a place for individuals to share new ideas, develop networks, obtain support for their efforts and offer a place to explore new ideas and move them to reality," the release says. The report says Wisconsin's entrepreneurial clubs have become an important place for entrepreneurs "to share ideas, obtain information and make connections with other entrepreneurs." (Read more)

You can obtain a copy of the report by contacting IIRA here.

Proposed Muslim center shakes up Tenn. town

UPDATE, Aug. 31: Following likely arson of construction equipment, and gunshots heard during a CNN crew's visit to the Islamic center, "Nearby mosques have hired security guards, installed surveillance cameras and requested the presence of federal agents at prayer services," Robbie Brown of The New York Times reports.

Like New York City, the much smaller town of Murfreesboro, Tenn., is grappling with acceptance of a proposed Muslim community center. The center is not to be built in a neighborhood with an emotional resonance like the New York location, but the local Muslim planners have been surprised by the backlash. "We haven't experienced this level of hostility before ever, so it's new to us," Saleh M. Sbenaty, an engineering professor who is overseeing the mosque's planned expansion told Annie Gowen of The Washington Post. The Islamic center became a political topic during the recent Republican gubernatorial primary; Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey asked if Islam was a "cult." Sbenaty has lived in Murfreesboro for 30 years and is confounded by the reaction.

While some residents voice a begrudging acceptance -- "We have to allow them freedom of religion," -- the opposition is vocal. A 44-year-old correctional officer named Kevin Fisher is using the local alternative newspaper as his means of being heard, reports Gowen. The Tennessean reported in June that Fisher told the Rutherford County Planning Commission, "Why have a mosque nine times the size of Nashville's in the middle of a farming, residential community?" About 1,000 people representing both sides of the issue were at a recent rally in the Murfreesboro town square. Said Fisher, it was "a beautiful example of our democracy at work." Not everyone felt that way. Lema Sbenaty, Saleh Sbenaty's 19-year-old daughter and a Middle Tennessee State University student, told Gowen, "You could see the hatred in their eyes." (Read more)

A proposed mosque in Northern Kentucky has also prompted opposition, with one flyer asking citizens to call Florence city officials and "stop the takeover of our country." Joshua Wice, ocmmunity and business development director, said the property is properly zoned. "It's a permitted use and this is really a property rights issue," he said. Mark Hansel of the Cincinnati Enquirer notes that a 2000 federal law says, "No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution." (Read more)

TVA phasing out coal-powered plants in favor of nuclear-generated power

The Tennessee Valley Authority announced Friday it will begin shuttering part of its aging fleet of coal-fired power plants in favor of nuclear energy and energy conservation. TVA President Tom Kilgore outlined the 10-year plan, which would have TVA "idle at least 1,000 megawatts of coal generation, more than 7 percent of its biggest source of power, by 2015," Dave Flessner of the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. TVA directors also approved plans "to move ahead with reviving work on its unfinished Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Alabama and restructuring electric rates next spring to encourage limit consumption during peak demand periods," Flessner writes.

"We want to be a leader in cleaner energy and cleaner air, and that means we will have to be less reliant upon coal," Kilgore said. "That doesn’t mean that coal is going away, but we are looking at idling some of our coal units pretty soon." TVA got more than 60 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky in 2009. Until now, only one TVA-built plant has ever closed, the Watts Bar Steam Plant in Rhea County, Tenn., which closed in 1983.

"Some of the potential units on the chopping block could include the oldest units at the Widows Creek plant near Stevenson, Ala., the John Sevier plant near Rogersville, Tenn., and the Johnsville plant in West Tennessee," Flessner writes. Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the decision was "absolutely the right path for TVA," but added "We believe there are a significant number of older, inefficient, dirty plants, even beyond the 1,000 megawatts that TVA is committing to retire today, that TVA should consider phasing out." (Read more)

Testimony at livestock industry antitrust hearings 'defend a way of life'

Farmers across the country are encouraged to attend a Friday meeting in Fort Collins, Colo., where U.S. Department of Agriculture and Justice Department officials will take testimony on antitrust violations in the livestock industry. "To thousands of people, however, this hearing isn’t about rules and regulations or interpretations of century-old laws," Bill Bishop writes for the Daily Yonder. "They are driving hundreds of miles to Fort Collins to defend a way of life." The meeting has been called the "most important day in the history of the U.S. cattle industry and in rural America," by Bill Bullard of Montana-based cattle raisers group R-CALF, who is trying to get 25,000 people to come to the meeting.

"Everybody in rural America needs to understand that this can be a beginning of a new direction," Bullard said earlier this month. "This is our opportunity and everyone who has a stake in rural America needs to be in Fort Collins on that day." Bishop agrees with Bullard that the meeting has large implications for rural America as it represents a government reinvestment in antitrust action after the Bush administration saw it as "ham-handed, intrusive and so, well, 20th century," Bishop writes.

The meeting offers a rare blending of politics with "thousands of lizard-booted ranchers and Deere-owning farmers, most from red states, driving hundreds of miles to support a big government solution proposed by a Democratic president," Bishop writes. The National Farmers Union has asked farmers to abandon the red/blue dynamic so common to our country's political system Friday by wearing green shirts to the meeting. Perhaps most importantly, the Fort Collins meeting may represent just the beginning of the antitrust push in agriculture. Wal-Mart now controls 25 percent of the nation's grocery business, which some say is forcing consolidation among meatpackers. USDA and the Justice Department are set to hold its final hearing in December, this one on competition in the retail grocery business. (Read more)

Hog farmers warn of risks from reducing antibiotics

The Obama administration wants farmers to use fewer antibiotics in their livestock operations, but that approach isn't without its hurdles. Randy, Mark and Tom Hilleman raise hogs for Iowa cooperative Eden Farms, which markets pork to high-end restaurants under the condition hogs have not been given antibiotics for growth promotion. The approach brings its own challenges, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports, namely "Some of the black Berkshire hogs grunting and rooting around the Hillemans' barns are likely to get sick and die before they're ready for market. That's because it's sometimes impractical to treat them, the brothers say."

Following concerns that overuse of antibiotics in livestock is contributing to drug-resistant diseases in humans, "the Food and Drug Administration this summer proposed to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promotion but still allow drugs to be added to feed or water for purposes of preventing specific diseases," Brasher writes. Newly weaned pigs arrive at the Hillemans' farm when they are three weeks old and only receive"antibiotics while in the nursery and again for their first two weeks or so in the open-ended hoop barns where they spend most of their seven-month-long lives." Then the pigs only receive antibiotics if they are sick.

"If a sick pig doesn't get better on its own, it's likely to get a shot of an antibiotic, unless the animal is under the 100-day drug ban," Brasher writes. "If the hogs are given antibiotics then, they can only be sold as conventional hogs, and that means keeping a treated animal in a separate pen or marking it in some way to make sure it wasn't mixed with the hogs that will be marketed under the Eden Farms label." The Hillemans say  it's impractical for them to treat the pigs and handle them separately. For every 100 hogs they raise, two or three die of pneumonia or some other illness.
Some members of the Eden Farms co-operative have gone completely antibiotic free, but the Hillemans say not giving infant hogs antibiotics would be too risky. "Experts say that it's especially challenging to keep young pigs healthy without the use of antibiotics, since the animals are weaned at 3 weeks old or younger, much earlier than they would be in nature," Brasher writes. "That's so the sows can be impregnated and produce another litter as soon as possible." (Read more)

Suburban Chicago schools to build wind farm in rural Illinois and reap the financial rewards

Three suburban Chicago school districts are turning to a rural county 140 miles southwest of the city in hopes of balancing their budgets for years to come. "Empowered by recent legislation, Keeneyville School District 20, Carpentersville's Community Unit School District 300 and Prospect Heights School District 23 have joined together to build a 13-turbine wind farm that would sell energy to defray their own electrical bills," Robert Channick reports for The Chicago Tribune. The farm, to be built in Stark County, could bring in "$3 million in annual revenues for some 30 years — the expected life of the wind turbines."

The wind consortium is believed to be the nation's first scholastic wind farm, though several rural districts have on-site turbines to help supply electricity. "In 2007, Illinois adopted a net metering law requiring utilities to credit customers with renewable electricity generators for excess energy, further opening the door for other school districts, community colleges and municipalities to own and operate wind turbines to reduce costs," Channick writes, but urban districts said "installing the structures with their enormous blades proved impractical." A 2009 bill would have allowed urban districts to use offsite turbines to take advantage of the credit, but it was defeated after utilities objected to the plan.

The new legislation "in essence turns the schools into taxable energy wholesalers," Channick writes. The Stark County wind farm is expected to generate 65,000 megawatt hours annually, enough energy for about 5,000 homes, though the power purchase contract has yet to be negotiated. District 300, the third largest district in the state, which cut 114 teachers and $9 million from the budget, would get 80 percent of the revenue as it plans to invest the most money in the project. If the plan works it could catch on at other schools across the country. "It's totally unique, and the legislation that enables that project to work is also very unique," Kevin Borgia, executive director of the nonprofit Illinois Wind Energy Association, told Channick. "We really hope it does come together because it could be a big benefit for schools in Illinois and nationwide." (Read more)