Saturday, September 18, 2010

Farm Safety and Health Week is Sept. 19-25

National Farm Health and Safety Week, which begins tomorrow, recognizes the hazardous nature of agriculture and promotes awareness of safety solutions. For a list of farm safety and health professionals in your state, from the National Institute for Farm Safety, click here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Tenn. editor visits Ground Zero, shares the experience with his readers and takes a stand

Brad Martin, editor of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn., was inspired to devote a considerable part of his 9/11/10 newspaper to the events of 9/11/01. (The paper is dated Mondays but distributed Saturdays.) His front-page centerpiece was the tale of a New Jersey couple he met while touring Ground Zero. Like many in the New York region, their 9/11 story became increasingly harrowing but ended well. Now they lead tours around the site for tourists to "experience the personal effect of it." Click for PDFs of the front page, the first jump page and the second jump.

In an editorial, Martin reflected on his visit to the neighborhood to see nearby buildings that survived (St. Paul's Church), the new construction (55 of 190 floors of the Freedom Tower) and the location of the proposed Isalmic center and mosque, two blocks away:  "By the time we'd made it around the big block, my interest in seeing where a mosque might be built had waned. Controversy? Not here. We saw no protests. ... The whole place was a peace park. I can only imagine what the crowds will be like next September. ... I know what the mood will be like. Somber. Reverent." Martin's view of the proposal? "This country was settled by people seeking religious tolerance, a pillar that was built deep into the American infrastructure. Surely we cannot move that pillar, and threaten the foundation, because of 19 people." (Read more)

House OKs bills for more veterinarians and rural-home energy upgrades; Senate fate unclear

The U.S. House approved bills yesterday that would provide grants to improve food-animal veterinary services across the country, especially in underserved rural areas, and create a loan program for rural electric cooperatives to encourage customers to retrofit homes with energy-efficiency improvements.

The sponsor of the veterinary bill, Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb, cited a county in Sandhills as an example of the large-animal veterinary shortage facing livestock producers. “In Cherry County, we have 145-thousand livestock animals to every single veterinarian,” Smith said. “That’s a problem—that is obviously a shortage we need to reverse—and this bill will accomplish exactly that.”

"The measure authorizes the USDA to award federal matching funds for programs or activities that will substantially relieve veterinary shortages," Brownfield Network reports. "Some activities that would be eligible include veterinarian and vet staff recruitment and establishment of mobile veterinary clinics. The bill builds on previous legislation which helps veterinarians who elect to practice in underserved areas repay student loans. It now goes to the Senate for consideration."
In May we reported on the energy bill, HR 4785, when it passed the Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research Subcommittee. The so-called "Rural Star" program would "establish a consumer loan program of almost $5 billion for rural electric cooperatives to dole out 'micro loans' to consumers for energy-efficiency upgrades to their homes," Katie Howell of Environment & Energy Daily reports. Improvements would be made to the structure of the home and not to removable components like appliances.

"The bill would authorize Congress to appropriate $993 million to kick-start the loans," Howell writes. "The up-front costs to make energy-efficiency upgrades are often beyond the reach of most consumers," and "consumers often lack the necessary knowledge about what technologies would be the most effective," Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., said.

Republicans took issue with the price tag of the program. Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas "blasted the fact that the loans will affect fewer than 2 million of the 43 million households served by rural cooperatives," Howell writes. The bill's hopes for passage in the Senate are uncertain. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced a similar bill in the Senate, but it has yet to be considered by the Agriculture Committee. (Read more, subscription required)

After delay, hearing on fracking goes off smoothly

Journal photo by William Moyer
The last of four nationwide Environmental Protection Agency public hearings about its hydraulic fracturing study went off without a hitch in Broome County, N.Y., despite a postponement and venue changes resulting from security concerns. "Speaker after speaker stepped up over 16 hours to sound off to an EPA panel of researchers on how they think the agency should proceed with its hydraulic fracturing study, or to vent -- sometimes loudly -- about where they stand on the drilling technique," Jonathan Campbell reports for the Ithaca Journal. The meeting had bene set for Aug. 12 at Binghamton University but was moved and postponed following a contract dispute centering on security and rental costs.

Around 1,350 people attended, far below the 8,000 predicted for the original Binghamton date, meaning EPA spent about $17 per person on security. "Rallies and protests outside the venue were also light," Campbell writes. "A few hundred stood before the Monday sessions in separate barricaded areas wielding signs and chanting their support or disdain for the drilling process." Despite repeated reminders from the meeting's facilitators that the meeting was not a policy debate, many speakers took their allotted time to comment on whether EPA should take over regulation of fracking from the states
"We need the EPA to step in with federal regulations to protect all water resources," State Democratic Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton said. "Federal oversight is integral to management of interstate water sources, as well." Several speakers said the study should be expanded to include air, noise and other types of pollution, while others said it should stick to fracking's effects on groundwater, as Congress mandated. "We believe Congress asked you to answer a simple question," Jerry Simmons, executive director of the National Association of Royalty Owners, said. "So cut to the chase, don't spend any more money than you have to, and answer the question." (Read more)

Plans for huge California solar plant clear hurdle

UPDATE: Another solar energy project received approval in California, reports the Press-Enterprise. A 370-megawatt solar field in rural northeast San Bernardino County unanimously cleared the California Energy Commission, the latest in a string of projects on a fast track to qualify for federal stimulus money by the end of the year. Unlike the others, this development would displace a protected species, the desert tortoise, which is threatened with extinction.  The $2 billion project, located in the Ivanpah Valley near Primm, Nev., was approved over the objections of environmental groups and others, according to the Press-Enterprise.

The California Energy Commission approved what would be the world's largest solar plant Wednesday, perhaps paving the way for dramatic solar expansion in the U.S. The proposed $6 billion-plus Blythe, Calif., plant has a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, Sarah McBride of Reuters reports. "By comparison, for all of last year, the U.S. installed about 481 megawatts of solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association," McBride writes. "The largest solar plants to date are in the 200-350 megawatt range."

The Blythe plant would group four 250 megawatt plants, with the first expected to go online in 2013. The total projects has a projected $6 billion price tag, and Southern California Edison has already agreed to purchase the full capacity of the first two plants, McBride writes. The Blythe plant is one of nine solar facilities California regulators are trying to evaluate by the end of the year. As part of last year's stimulus package, "solar plants that begin construction before December 31 qualify for a Treasury Department grant totaling 30 percent of a project's cost," McBride writes.

If all nine plants gain approval they would create an additional 4,300 megawatts of solar energy, McBride writes, noting the bulk of the energy wouldn't go online until 2013. A spokesman for Solar Millennium, one of the plant's developers, said the project would create up to 1,004 construction jobs. Ferrostaal AG is also working with Solar Millennium through a U.S. joint venture, Solar Trust of America LLC. "The developers still need final approval from the Bureau of Land Management for use of public lands," McBride writes. "The BLM is scheduled to rule on the matter toward the end of next month." (Read more)

British pigeons faster than rural Internet speed

Rural broadband speeds are a contentious issue around the world. To demonstrate of the speed of rural broadband in the United Kingdom, pigeons carrying tiny computer flash drives were released from a Yorkshire farm at the same time that a five-minute video upload was begun from the farm, reports the BBC. A little more than hour later, the pigeons had reached their destination in Skegness, about 75 miles away, while only 24 percent of the 300-megabyte file had uploaded.

"The farm we are using has a connection of around 100 to 200 Kbps (kilobits per second)," Tref Davies, the stunt's organiser, told BBC. Lloyd Felton, founder of the Rural Broadband Partnership, said the effort to draw attention to rural broadband deprivation and low speeds was laudable. "You've got massive deprivation -- this long-quoted 'digital divide.' As we all get more dependent on the internet, that divide gets wider."

N.C. law enforcement calls for expanded access to prescription drug database

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper voiced support for expanding access to state computer records to track prescription drug abuse. Speaking Wednesday at a Charlotte meeting with law enforcement leaders from North Carolina and 25 other states, Cooper called prescription drug abuse "the biggest drug threat today," Franco Ordoñez of the Charlotte Observer reports. North Carolina deaths associated with prescription-drug abuse rose from 798 in 2008 to 826 in 2009, Ordoñez writes.

"The state sheriff's association called for access to the electronic records earlier this month at a legislative health care committee meeting," Ordoñez writes. "Groups such as the ACLU and the American Pain Foundation said law enforcement shouldn't be poking around people's medicine cabinets." Cooper said 20 state bureaus currently have access to prescription-drug records, and he would support expanding access to include other law enforcement officials like designated sheriff's deputies or police.

"Obviously there needs to be balance with privacy. This is very private information about people's prescription drugs," he said. "On the other hand, we know the deaths that these drugs can cause and the abuse of them. And being able to have a system in place that can show us who is abusing prescription drugs and who is getting them illegally can be helpful." North Carolina began collecting prescription drug data in 2007 to track patients going from doctor to doctor for prescriptions they may not need, Ordoñez reports. (Read more)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Public libraries should be necessities in rural and urban communities

Funding of U.S. libraries, including those in rural areas, should be considered a matter of national security, writes an Atlanta novelist. "Keeping libraries open, giving access to all children to all books is vital to our nation’s sovereignty," Karin Slaughter, author of 10 crime novels and native of Jonesboro, Ga., writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Librarians are soldiers in the battle for our place in the world, and in many cases they are getting the least amount of support our communities can offer."

Slaughter notes that 85 percent of children in rural areas only have access to technology and books outside of the classroom in public libraries, and "for many urban kids, the only safe haven they have to study or do homework is the public library." Reading is an essential element of child development because fundamentally children are selfish and "reading about other people creates a sense of balance in a child’s life," Slaughter writes. She notes children who read well do better in school, and those who do better in school are more likely to go to college, get better jobs and in turn, pay more taxes.

"We need to shift our national view of libraries not as luxuries, but as necessities," Slaughter writes. "When tragedy strikes in other nations, Americans are generous, but our libraries are being hit with a tsunami and there has been no call to action. Staffs are being fired. Hours are being cut. Doors are being closed. Buildings are being razed. Kids are being left behind. Futures are being destroyed." She concludes, "Libraries are not simply part of our guarantee to the pursuit of happiness. They are a civil right, the foundation upon which time and time again the American dream has been built. If we lose our libraries, we risk losing our communities, our families and ourselves." (Read more)

Teaching Tolerance magazine devotes full issue to rural education

Stories from a Southern Poverty Law Center issue devoted to rural education reveal that rural schools face many of the same problems as their urban counterparts. Those problems include violence, homelessness, substance abuse, and academic failure, but often remain invisible. The series of articles, published in Teaching Tolerance magazine, "also points out the diversity in race, ethnicity and degree of ruralness in what it calls 'country' schools, documenting varied experiences from Appalachia to South Dakota," Mary Schulken of Education Week reports on the Rural Education blog.

"As it turns out, ignorance about rural schools is pretty widespread," Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance and a former teacher, writes in the issue's introduction. In preparing the issue, Costello writes the staff "soon discovered that no one — not even the federal government — has a single definition for what constitutes 'rural.' We also learned about the degrees of rurality and the world of difference between a rural school that's a mere bus ride away from a big city and one that's hundreds of miles from a population center."

"Little of the reporting in Teaching Tolerance uncovers new information," Schulken writes. "What it does do is shine a spotlight on the challenges faced by rural schools. The series uses statistical research from the Rural School and Community Trust about poverty, demographics and rural school districts to compile graphics showing the face of rural schools in plain numbers." Teaching Tolerance makes no suggestions for rural education policy changes, but does note "reforms often emanate from inside those schools and their communities...and don't necessarily follow prescribed political policies from state or federal governments." (Read more) (Read the full issue here)

Safety first for farms open to tourists

As the calendar turns to fall, the season for agri-tourism is upon us, which means those welcoming visitors to their rural farms should be prepared. Always consider safety first when welcoming those unfamiliar to farming to your operation, land consultant Curtis Seltzer of Highland County, Va., writes for LandThink. "Folks who are not familiar with farms, machinery, tools, animals and the idiosyncrasies of your layout and equipment are high-probability candidates for accidents," Seltzer writes. "You, the country landowner, have to anticipate every possible thing that can go wrong, backfire, fall down, spring up and run amok, among others."

Second, rural hosts should avoid putting "visitors into excessively dusty, dirty or chemically enriched circumstances," Seltzer writes, noting "someone will be allergic to something, perhaps more than one something." Seltzer advises keeping jobs simple for urban visitors, he encourages "very slow lifting and lots of rest breaks," but, "still there are the dangers of dropping a stick on someone’s toes or breaking a fingernail." He also advises prohibiting alcohol on the job and keeping jobs short. Following these steps will help "smart landowners look forward to repeat visits from friends who they can fit into a country 'vacation' safely and with good cheer all around," Seltzer writes. (Read more)

Rural America has lost over 1 million jobs during recession

Analysis of the recessions impact on rural America has revealed wide variances across regions, but few rural places have thrived since the start of the recession in 2007. In comparing the number of rural jobs in July 2007, just a few month before the beginning of the recession, and the most recent available job data, shows rural America lost 1.2 million jobs during that period, Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo report for The Daily Yonder. Still five states, Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota and Texas, have actually gained rural jobs during the recession.

"None of those states added many jobs," Bishop and Gallardo write. "North Dakota, in the middle of an oil and gas boom, increased its number of rural jobs by just over two percent in the last three years, the largest percentage increase in the country." Four states, Michigan, Alabama, West Virginia and Georgia, lost over 10 percent of their rural jobs during the period. North Carolina had lost the largest number of rural jobs at just under 111,000. (Read more)
Daily Yonder chart

The USDA Economic Research Service takes a slightly different look at similar information in the just-released 2010 Rural America at a Glance (PDF).  The USDA plotted how rural job loss/gain compared to the U.S. average. The maps looked similar, with some job growth in the Midwest, but job loss around the periphery of the country. The USDA also plotted population mobility across rural America, which showed some growth in the Northwest, but pockets of growth sprinkled across the country.

Fields, queen of Mississippi journalism, dies at 86

Visitation and funeral will be held Saturday in Tupelo, Miss., for Norma Fields, a longtime reporter and state-capital correspondent for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, America's largest rural newspaper. "She was well-known throughout Mississippi, and beyond, for her hard-hitting news stories, and sometimes scathing political commentary," says her obituary, written by her children.

Reporting Fields' death at 86 and recounting her career, Daily Journal veteran Joe Rutherford wrote that "Mississippi lost one of its most respected and tenacious journalistic voices Sunday," and "She was the first woman to cover the Mississippi Capitol on a full-time basis and was well-known around the state as an outspoken advocate for women's advancement in government, business and the professions."

Rutherford's story quotes the dean of Mississippi journalists, Bill Minor, who wrote in a tribute, "It didn't matter who or what rank the news subject was, Norma Fields came after him with hammer and tongs. . . . The shenanigans of the highway gang became her passion, and there's no telling how much she saved taxpayers by catching things such as change orders or overruns on highway contracts." Minor also notes that Fields was the first Mississippi woman to be admitted to the Society of Professional Journalists, then Sigma Delta Chi.

Daily Journal columnist Marty Russell of the University of Mississippi writes, "After years of failed attempts to get an open meetings law passed in this state to prevent public bodies from meeting behind closed doors, it may very well have been Norma who finally devised a scheme to get it passed," by inviting a key legislator to an SPJ meeting and passing in his presence a resolution endorsing the legislation, which passed in 1975. (Read more)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Coal industry supporters rally in D.C.

  (Photo by Associated Press
 Hundreds of people rallied in Washington, D.C., Wednesday in support of the coal industry. "Those who plan to participate say the federal government needs a reminder of how important the hard-working people of Appalachia are to the nation," reports Debra McCown of the Bristol Herald Courier. Many in the region are concerned that coal is "under attack" as "some new regulations apply exclusively to the six Appalachian states, excluding Western states with large amounts of mining," McCown writes. (It should be noted that the region is targeted because the regulations are aimed at mountaintop-removal mining.)

"The reason we’re going to Washington is to stop this administration we’ve got now from closing our coal mines down," Jennings Webb, a retired mine foreman who worked for four decades in the mines. "They are wanting to put us out of business, and they don’t have the common sense enough to know every time they turn the light on in the White House, they think the electricity comes out of the wall. It doesn’t. It is generated by coal." Buses from southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky took industry supporters to the rally, across the street from the Russell Senate Office Building. The industry group Faces of Coal paid for most of the travel and lodging expenses for the coal miners who attended the rally, according to the Associated Press.

Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, noted Western mining states face other regulations to protect water quality there."The environmental community has nothing personal against miners at all," Besa said. "People who are dependent on the coal industry are obviously concerned about changes, but there is a critical need to diversify the economies in these areas because in fact every year the number of people employed in the coal industry declines, and it has nothing to do with the Obama administration or the environmental community." (Read more)

The Associated Press reported that Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said to the rally, "This administration is trying to shut down coal and fire all of you," adding that the EPA was practicing "strangulation by regulation," referring to the Obama administration's efforts to stifle mountaintop removal mining. A rival rally is planned for later in the day by opponents of mountaintop mining. (Read more)

High-fructose corn syrup by any other name is still pretty sweet

In May we reported corn farmers were launching a public relations campaign to counter the perception that high-fructose corn syrup causes obesity, among other things. Now the Corn Refiners Association has taken the next step by petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to rebrand high-fructose corn syrup as "corn sugar," Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times reports. Market research firm NPD Group reports 58 percent of Americans say they are concerned high-fructose corn syrup poses a health risk.

"Clearly the name is confusing consumers," Audrae Erickson, president of CRA, told Parker-Pope. "Research shows that ‘corn sugar’ better communicates the amount of calories, the level of fructose and the sweetness in this ingredient." Research into the link between high-fructose corn syrup and obesity has been inconclusive, Erickson reports. Consequently most scientists believe high-fructose corn syrup has a similar effect on health as regular sugar: too much of either is bad for you.

"I’m not eager to help the corn refiners sell more of their stuff," Dr. Marion Nestle, professor in New York University's department of nutrition, told Parker-Pope in an e-mail. "But you have to feel sorry for them. High-fructose corn syrup is the new trans fat. Everyone thinks it’s poison, and food companies are getting rid of it as fast as they can." Nestle, a longtime food industry critic, said the industry has plenty of motivation to change the name. "Even I have to admit it's not an unreasonable one," Nestle told Parker-Pope. (Read more)

Livestock industry wary of FDA's crackdown on antibiotics

Many in the livestock industry have been vocal in their disapproval of the Food and Drug Administration restricting antibiotic usage in healthy animals. Now, some are alleging the decision is being made for political rather than medical reasons. In a letter to Congress in July, Dr.Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cited "compelling evidence" of a "clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans," Erik Eckholm of The New York Times reports. Still, the National Pork Producers Council claims, "There is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotics used in food animals have a significant impact on the effectiveness of antibiotics in people."
"In the end, the producers will do what is right," Craig Rowles, proprietor of Elite Pork and a trained veterinarian, told Eckholm. "We will make sure we deliver a product that meets the needs of consumers. My only concern is that we make decisions in a scientific fashion, not a political fashion." FDA appears ready to "issue its strongest guidelines on animal antibiotics yet, intended to reduce what it calls a clear risk to human health," Eckholm writes. Final version of the rules are expected within months. You can read our most recent item about antibiotic use in the livestock industry here.

 Drug use in humans has been linked to antibiotic resistant infections, but now scientists say mounting evidence of antibiotic use in agriculture is contributing, as well. "Is producing the cheapest food in the world our only goal?" asked Dr. Gail R. Hansen, a veterinarian and senior officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has campaigned for new limits on farm antibiotics. "Those who say there is no evidence of risk are discounting 40 years of science. To wait until there’s nothing we can do about it doesn’t seem like the wisest course." (Read more)

Rural Florida schools create a sports division

In June we reported the Florida High School Athletic Association created a separate division for rural schools in eight sports, the rural division cleared another hurdle this week with the necessary number of teams agreeing to join. FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing said Tuesday, "33 football-playing schools which meet the rural division requirements ... have notified the FHSAA they will join," D. C. Reeves of The Pensacola News Journal reports. "Each classification of any sport is required to have 32 teams to make the rural division viable for state championship competition."

"I'm very pleased," Dearing said. "One of the things I've tried to press since I came on is that we've got 788 member schools and we've got (rural schools) that have been saying something about having to compete against (metro area) schools that draw from a much larger territory. I think this answers that concern for them." FHSAA sent inquiry forms to 59 schools that met the rural division requirements. While the initial proposal set up an eight-sport division, soccer will no longer be included as many of the rural schools didn't have teams. The division is scheduled to begin in the 2011-12 school year. (Read more)

Pa. homeland security watching anti-drilling groups

UPDATE 9/16: Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell termed natural gas drilling protesters' inclusion in the Homeland Security bulletins as "absolutely ludicrous" and said the state would not renew its contract with the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, which supplied to information to state regulators. Rendell, who said he didn't know of the contract until reading Tuesday's Patriot-News story, "said he was 'embarrassed' and 'appalled' that a state contractor tracked 'legitimate protest groups' and that a state agency then disseminated that information to law enforcement around the state," Gilliland reports for The Patriot-News. "Let me make this as clear as I can possibly make it," Rendell said. "Protesting against an idea, a principle, a process, protesting is not a real threat. Protesting is a God-given American right, a right that’s in our Constitution." (Read more)

The Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security thinks anti-natural gas drilling groups may be a threat as they have included the groups' activities in weekly briefings sent to law enforcement agencies. Leaked documents show the department "has been tracking anti-gas drilling groups and their meetings — including a public screening of the film 'Gasland,' a documentary about the environmental hazards of natural gas drilling," Donald Gilliland of The Patriot-News of Harrisburg reports. The briefings were also sent to gas companies drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Information about which meetings protesters were planning to attend was supplied by "the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, a Philadelphia firm contracted with the state Office of Homeland Security to provide information for the intelligence briefings," Gilliland writes. "There’s something dead-fishy here. ... Something is rotten," activist Gene Stilp told Gilliland, calling for a formal House and Senate inquiry into the activities of the Homeland Security Office. State Homeland Security Director James Powers said he's been including the groups in the briefings for over a month because there have been 5-10 cases of vandalism related to the natural gas industry. "I don’t care" which side of the issue someone is on, Powers told Gilliland. "My concern is public safety."

The briefings include lists of public meetings the state thinks anti-drilling activists will attend. In an e-mail to a staffer who leaked the first briefing to a Web site, Powers wrote, "We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale formation natural gas stakeholders, while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies." Powers was non-committal when asked if he would include pro-drilling groups in future briefings. "I’m trying to think ... I see your point," he told Gilliland. "This seems to be a very polarizing issue around the state." (Read more)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tea Party opposes net neutrality

Net neutrality advocates have a new opponent with the backing of several large telecommunication companies: the Tea Party. Net neutrality is the principle that all Internet traffic must be treated equally by service providers as has been the case until now, but many large telecommunication companies want to charge websites for faster speeds or block bandwidth-hogging users. Now, Tea Party "activists are doing their best to tip the scales toward the corporate behemoths, following conservative leaders' warnings that the [Federal Communications Commission] is plotting a government takeover of the Internet," Benjamin Sarlin reports for The Daily Beast.

"Conservative organizations active in the Tea Party, including billionaire David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s Freedomworks, are leading campaigns against Net Neutrality," Sarlin writes. Thirty-five Tea Party affiliated groups recently signed a letter to the FCC advocating against net neutrality. According to the Center for Responsive Politics the House Tea Party Caucus has received $350,000 from AT&T during this election cycle. The conservative backlash against net neutrality reflects a shift in recent years, Sarlin writes. "About five years ago, you saw Republicans and Democrats in support of net neutrality," Jonathan Askin, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and former FCC staffer in the Clinton administration, told Sarlin. "Now you see Republicans trying to frame this as an Obama issue."

"Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association told The Daily Beast he was unaware of any specific outreach to Tea Party organizations, but that NCTA had no comment on the matter either way," Sarlin writes. Dietz added, "I think there's a natural alignment on this issue." Net neutrality supporters note that grassroots organizations, like the Tea Party, who rely on amateur-run Web sites are among those that stand to lose the most from an end to net neutral policies. (Read more)

Colorado broadband grant to help rural schools

Colorado was among the states receiving stimulus package funding for broadband investment, and the state's award will be used in part to help rural schools. The $100.6 million federal grant, combined with $34.7 million in matching funding, will "cover the cost of laying optical fiber and copper cable and the addition of microwave switching stations that will bring fast Internet connections to rural outposts," Jeremy P. Meyer of The Denver Post reports. "We have an elementary school that has less bandwidth than a well-connected house in Denver," John Dudley, board member for Ault-Highland RE-9 School District in northeast Colorado. "So this is huge."

"Many rural schools that have labored with slow Internet will have access to the speediest broadband available, allowing students from their classrooms to control electron microscopes in North Dakota, learn astronomy in the daylight hours by looking through a telescope in Australia or map the ocean floor with scientists on submarines," Meyer writes. The grant application was led by Colorado's Centennial Board of Cooperative Education Services and was the third-largest broadband grant awarded. (Read more)

Northeast regulator could be key to shale gas development

As the stakeholders around the country debate the merits of hydraulic fracturing, an obscure northeast U.S. regulator is holding up shale gas production in the region. The Delaware River Basin Commission, "has stopped the gas rush in its tracks in northeastern Pennsylvania's Wayne and Pike counties," and in the four-state river basin where it controls development, Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy Daily reports. DRBC executive director Carol Collier said, "Pennsylvania and New York regulators do not have strong authority to regulate water issues, and the commission can fill in the gaps to protect the Delaware watershed," Soraghan writes. (DRBC map)

"We are hoping to have a stronger umbrella of protection because of the Delaware's unique qualities," Collier told Soraghan. DRBC is expected to propose new regulations for Marcellus Shale development as early as Wednesday that could be among the most, if not the most, stringent in the country. "They are expected to require companies to put aside much more money than the state requires for reclamation and cleanup," Soraghan writes. Now as DRBC delays development many local landowners are blaming the agency for preventing them from cashing in on the drilling boom.

The basin includes Pennsylvania, where lawmakers hope a severance tax will help them cash in on the drilling boom, and New York, where the state legislature could vote on a temporary drilling moratorium this month. DRBC's decision could have implications across the country, Soraghan writes, noting if the agency says drilling could harm drinking water "it would provide powerful political ammunition to drilling opponents from New York to Ohio, and beyond." (Read more, subscription required)

UPDATE 9/17: The DRBC announced it would scale back some of its proposed regulations, including the amount of money it will require drilling companies to set aside for environmental cleanup and regulation. "Previous drafts, according to a source, had recommended requiring a $5 million financial assurance bond for each well site," Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "We started off very high," Carol Collier, executive director of DRBC, said after a commission meeting Wednesday. "We're coming down a bit." The regulations were expected by the end of the month, buy Collier said they may be delayed until Oct. 15. (Read more, subscription required)

Experts unclear about Asian carp's ability to survive in Great Lakes

We have been following the progress of invasive Asian carp up the Mississippi River toward the Great Lakes, but now some scientists question whether the fish could thrive in the lakes. "There is considerable debate in the scientific community about precisely where they are in the waterway system, what conditions are best for spawning, what triggered the fish's population explosion in the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, and, most importantly, whether Asian carp have the capability to destroy commercial and recreational fishing on the Great Lakes," Joel Hood of The Chicago Tribune reports.

Testimony from noted fish biologists at a three-day hearing in a Chicago federal court last week "cast doubts on the Asian carp's ability to sustain a thriving population in the Great Lakes as so many have feared," Hood writes. U.S. Geological Survey biologist Duane Chapman, who has studied Asian carp in the U.S. and abroad for a decade, testified, "I do believe individual (fish) will survive, but a large population? It's hard to say. We don't know what will happen, but we can make some guesses."

Researchers at University of Illinois' Natural History Survey concluded in a recent study that scarce supplies of plankton in the Great Lakes would make it unlikely the carp would survive. Konrad Dabrowski, a professor of aquatic sciences at Ohio State University, maintains "water temperature, depth, the speed of currents and food shortages will be the Great Lakes' best defense against Asian carp" after 15 years of Asian carp research. "Even if we put unlimited numbers of Asian carp [in the Great Lakes] they may not survive," Chapman said in court. "We simply don't know." (Read more)

Coal appears to be losing its battle with natural gas

We've been following the battle between natural gas and coal for the principle fuel of U.S. electricity, most recently here. Further evidence is pointing to natural gas winning the fight. The switch from coal to natural gas "is occurring globally and is getting a push from regulators who want to limit emissions that contribute to climate change, haze and health problems such as respiratory illness," Rebecca Smith of The Wall Street Journal reports. "Though efforts in Congress to pass legislation attaching a price to carbon emissions appear stalled for now, utilities still anticipate eventual carbon restrictions."

"It's pretty clear that, whether it's caused by future carbon legislation or action by the EPA, the migration away from coal has begun," Constellation Energy Group Chief Executive Mayo Shattuck told Smith. Coal-burning facilities are expected to account for just 10 percent of total new U.S. capacity in 2013, down from 18 percent in 2009. "Gas, meanwhile, is expected to soar to 82% of new capacity in 2013 from 42% last year," Smith writes.

"Most big coal-burning utilities have invested billions of dollars to install pollution-control equipment on their largest coal-fired plants," Smith writes. "But they are replacing or idling smaller coal plants for which such expenditures can't be justified." Even some large coal-burning utilities who are looking to find cleaner ways to burn the fuel have suffered setbacks. "American Electric Power Co. failed in its bid, in July, to get Virginia customers to pay $54 million of the cost of creating an experimental carbon-capture-and-storage system at its Mountaineer coal-fired plant in West Virginia," Smith writes, noting Duke Energy has also been hurt by escalating costs at its state-of-the-art coal gasification plant in Indiana. (Read more)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tennessee hunting advocates want to protect their right to hunt

Tennessee voters will have the chance this fall to make Tennessee the 11th state to designate hunting and fishing as constitutional rights. "Advocates, including the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, say amending the state constitution will prevent radical animal rights activists and an increasingly urban state legislature from one day shutting down the activities," Anne Paine of The Tennessean reports. But some hunters and non-hunters find the proposal perplexing, saying that hunting and fishing don't appear to be at risk in Tennessee.

"We're trying to do something pro-active so we're not in a position like the people in Michigan when they outlawed dove season there," Mike Butler, executive director of TWF, a conservation group, told Paine. Butler noted that getting an amendment on the ballot is a long, complicated process and "if you wait until you need it, the reality of being able to get it done would be pretty difficult." Butler said he knew of no groups trying to band hunting or fishing in the state, but noted the state legislature could pass a law to do so.
"The citizenry has no protection over what the General Assembly might do when it comes to hunting and fishing," Butler told Paine. "Times will change as they always do. These uses of the land and the resources need to be protected." Animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which opposes hunting, does not have a chapter in Tennessee, but an official with the group told Paine proposals like the Tennessee one are "frivolous." Ashley Byrne, a PETA official in New York, added, "All these amendments are a solution in search of a problem. If people have a right to hunt, why not a right to shop or golf." (Read more)

Long-time family farms look to adapt in tough economic times

So-called "Century Farms," those owned by the same family for over 100 years, have been affected by the recession, and the steps owners are taking to protect them may offer an interesting look at the future of agriculture. "Their descendants can be determined to stay, despite a tough farm economy and the incessant push of development," Noah Adams of National Public Radio reports. "In East Tennessee, it's not hard to find those who inherited land. The owners face differing prospects — and are making key decisions for the next century."

Wendy Niebruegge, whose East Tennessee family farm dates back to 1909 and may soon qualify for century farm status, has turned to organic farming. "Those who are tracking Tennessee's farm economy say this is the future: think green and add value," Adams reports. Other century farms have turned to ag-tourism as a means to bring in more income. Ann Birdwell "left her college theater department job and started dressing up her farm for weddings, reunions, and kids at $6 each, who come by the busload," Adams writes. Now the Birdwells have converted the Still Hollow Farm's granary, which dates to 1860, into an antique store and a gift shop. (Read more)

FEMA revokes accreditation for hundreds of levees nationwide

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has declared hundreds of levees across the U.S. no longer suitable to ensure protection during major floods. The decision forces thousands of property owners to purchase flood insurance, Peter Eisler of USA Today reports. FEMA "revoked its accreditation of the levees as part of an effort to update the government's flood hazard maps, which guide state, local and federal decisions on development in flood-prone areas," Eisler writes. "Properties protected by the levees now are in flood hazard zones, which means owners who have federally backed mortgages are required by banking laws to carry flood insurance."

The maps updated so far by FEMA cover 65 percent of the U.S. population with most of 300 levees failing to gain accreditation in California and Arizona. Maps for the rest of the country are expected to be finished over the next three years, Eisler reports. "There's a lot of real money and real consequences to this," Rob Vining, adviser to Congress' National Committee on Levee Safety and former chief of civil works programs for the Army Corps of Engineers, told Eisler, noting many of the suspect levees protect prime and commercial real estate.

Local governments or other responsible parties must prove a levee is strong enough to protect against a flood so severe it has only a one percent chance of occurring each year. "Some communities where levees have deteriorated face tens of millions of dollars in rehabilitation to meet that standard," Eisler writes. The map updates are mandated by Congress, but several lawmakers from the affected areas are pushing for more time for the localities to improve flood protections, Eisler reports. (Read more)

Iowa proposal to end direct payments garners mixed reactions

Last week we reported the Iowa Farm Bureau had broken with most mainstream agriculture groups in favoring the end to direct payments to farmers beginning with the 2012 Farm Bill. Now, Iowa's "landmark vote for overhauling farm subsidies is getting attention from farm groups and policymakers around the country," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "Whether it gets their support is another matter." The American Farm Bureau Federation will rule on the Iowa proposal when it reviews its policies in January.

"The smaller and more populist-leaning National Farmers Union likes the idea of ending the fixed payments," Brasher writes. Roger Johnson, president of the union, explained, "We really think that the support that's provided to farmers and ranchers ought to be based on some sort of rationale that involves performance below average, a disaster, low prices, poor production." Congress is interested in the idea as well after "the House Agriculture Committee brought in Iowa State University economist Bruce Babcock to lay out a plan for shifting the money that goes to fixed payments into expanding the Average Crop Revenue Election program," Brasher writes.

Many farmers across the South and Plains states favor the fixed payments and will likely resist giving them up, Brasher writes. "The direct payments are more important on some crops than others in terms of the contribution they make to income," John Anderson, an economist with the AFB, told Brasher. U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows "rice growers receive $96 an acre, while cotton farmers collect about $34 per acre," Brasher writes. "Payments to corn growers average $24 an acre." (Read more)