Saturday, October 02, 2010

Let's not allow politicians and their allies to get away with misleading the voters in this election

With one month left before the election, it's time for all news media to help voters sort through the blizzard of misleading and sometimes outright false television and radio commercials, which seem to be heavier than ever this year. UPDATE: The Washington Post says so.

This task has long been done by major newspapers, but they do less of it these days. A few TV stations do it, but their reports come and go quickly and are not prominently placed or well promoted. It's time, long past time, for smaller newspapers to join the fray. Many if not most of their readers don't read metropolitan papers, and weekly papers carry little news about statewide races, so their readers are more dependent on TV, which inundates them with ads but offers little substantive coverage or analysis.

It is possible to serve readers, listeners and viewers without spending a lot of time researching the issues, because two reliable, national organizations are doing a good job of it and are reliable sources of information for anyone to cite. Check out and Fact Check is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and is run by Brooks Jackson, a former reporter for CNN and The Wall Street Journal. Politicfact, which won a Pulitzer Prize last year, is a service of the St. Petersburg Times but like FactCheck looks at ads in many states. And even if those ads aren't in your state, they are probably making some of the misleading claims being made in your state. (Image from Politifact)

FactCheck's latest posting looks at ads being run in several states by American Crossroads, the group founded by former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove. The ads "attack Democrats running for Senate seats in Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Nevada, Missouri and New Hampshire," Viveca Novak writes. "The ads contain a number of misleading and false claims," including one in Ohio that says the economic stimulus didn't create jobs. It did fail to keep unemployment below 8 percent, as President Obama said it would. Politifact analyzes not just ads, but politicians' statements, and its latest post, by Angie Drobnic Holan, says Obama exaggerated his record on his campaign promises in a "friendly interview" with Rolling Stone.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Gas company ordered to build $11.8 million water pipeline to 18 homes in rural Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has ordered Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., a company drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation, to build a $11.8 million pipeline to deliver water to 18 rural residences whose household wells are contaminated by natural gas, Andrew Maykuth reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The disagreement between residents of Dimock Township and the drilling company are so volatile that company crews travel with uniformed escorts after a Dimock resident drew a handgun on a company employee. Cabot chief executive officer Dan O. Dinges  responded that the state has "taken the position that the only acceptable solution to water-supply issues in the area is a wasteful and environmentally disruptive community pipeline," reports Maykuth. Dinges also said "his company was willing to drill new state-of-the-art water wells for residents, or to install in-house water-treatment systems that are commonly used in other areas where well water becomes contaminated," the Inquirer reports. "But the residents, who have sued Cabot, objected to those solutions because they do not trust any water from their aquifer." The conflict is escalating just as the Pennsylvania legislature is engaged in a fierce debate about establishing a production tax on natural gas. (Read more)

Rural teaching corps offer models for a national program to bring youth back home as teachers

Rural schools are hoping to recruit local students to return home after college to releive teacher shortages. "Unable to compete with the higher salaries and greater social opportunities found in big cities and suburban districts, a growing number of rural school systems are turning to familiar faces to teach their students," Alan Scher Zagier of The Associated Press reports. "They know teachers with rural backgrounds are more likely to stick around and not leave after a year or two. They can be pretty sure that the absence of late-night clubs or art-house movie theaters won't drive away otherwise idealistic young teachers."

Suzanne Feldman, a senior at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., is a member of the inaugural class of the Ozarks Teachers Corps, which provides $4,000 annual scholarships in exchange for a commitment to work three years in a rural school district after graduation. "The community's expectations are higher" in rural areas, Feldman told Zagier. "Everybody knows everybody — and expects a whole lot more." Rural areas are far from a mystery to Feldman, who grew up in a town of fewer than 3,000.

"Small, rural communities are grounded in tradition and have deep roots," Catherine Kearney, president of the California Teacher Corps, told Zagier. "Someone who understands those traditions makes a huge difference." The California Corps, which hopes to attract professionals without teaching experience to classrooms, shifted its focus last year to the state's rural districts, which educate around 300,000 students. Randy Shaver, superintendent in Tupelo, Miss., says rural schools need a nationwide teaching corps to build on the efforts of programs like those in the Ozarks and California. "We need something that's far more intensive and far broader," Shaver said. (Read more)

USDA official says it has no plans to limit herbicide-resistant crops causing weed problems

Despite growing reports of Roundup-resistant weeds, an Obama administration official told a House subcommittee on Thursday the administration is committed to the continued use of genetically engineered seeds. Ann Wright, a deputy undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture, told the House subcommittee USDA lacks authority to restrict herbicide-tolerant crops even if it wanted to, Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register reports. "This administration and USDA see biotechnology as being a very import tool for farmers to use in addressing some very important issues, globally and domestically," Wright said.  "All the options we look at have to be supportive of that."

"Scientists link the resistance problem to farmers’ over-reliance on Roundup and crops such as soybeans and cotton that are genetically engineered to be immune to the weedkiller," Brasher writes. Wright countered that restricting use of herbicide-tolerant crops would force farmers to "return to older, often costly, and less environmentally friendly" ways of controlling weeds. USDA "can regulate herbicide-tolerant crops only to prevent them from becoming pests themselves, not to stop their use from leading to resistant weeds," Wright said.

The hearing was one in a series hosted by Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who was not pleased with Wright's comments. Kucinich argued USDA could "impose restrictions on herbicide-tolerant crops under its authority to control noxious weeds," Brasher writes. Wright admitted she wasn't familiar with the noxious weeds section of the law. Kucinich responded, "You’re really not? If the regulatory agency is not fully aware of the full extent of its authority then that may be why we’re having a problem here." (Read more)

Research suggests rural school consolidation may not be best option for student performance

While consolidating rural school districts is often offered as a way to improve services and save money, research is mixed as to whether it helps students. "Consolidation of school districts as a money-savings strategy is not supported by the research which concludes: consolidation will not reduce the costs for education, and it may very well have a negative impact on student performance," Dave Murray of The Grand Rapids Press reports. That's the message from William LeTarte, executive director of the Michigan Small & Rural Schools Association, who has written more than100 pages of research on the topic.

A 1994 University of Michigan study concluded "a systematic review of evidence on school systems in Michigan demonstrates that larger school districts are no more efficient or effective than smaller districts," and further, "there is very little evidence that larger educational units will achieve economics of scale in administration or operations." A 2007 study from the Mackinac Center "indicated that 'consolidating small districts could save $31 million while breaking up large districts could save $363 million,'" Murray writes.

A 2007 study from Arizona concluded "contrary to expectations, research overwhelmingly shows smaller decentralized school districts have superior student achievement and efficiency ... Proponents claim that there will be a savings in administrative costs, on the contrary, consolidation efforts have resulted in larger not smaller administrative staffs eroding the meager projected benefits from economics of scale." Research also offers a model for effective rural schools. A 2002 Knowledge Works Foundation study noted "the best small schools offer an environment where teachers, students, and parents see themselves as part of a community, and deal with issues of learning, diversity, governance, and building community on an intimate level." (Read more)

Independent review supports EPA's findings of MTR on water quality

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency's independent Science Advisory Board's first draft review of EPA's research into mountaintop removal supports the agency's findings that mountaintop removal negatively affects water quality. "In their draft review, the SAB supports EPA’s scientific research and agrees with EPA’s conclusion that valley fills are associated with increased levels of conductivity (a measure of water pollution for mining practices) in downstream waters, and that these increased levels of conductivity threaten stream life in surface waters," EPA writes in a news release.

"This independent review affirms that EPA is relying on sound analysis and letting science and only science guide our actions to protect human health and the environment," said EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water Pete Silva. "We will continue to follow the science and solicit input from all stakeholders as we safeguard water quality and protect the American people." The SAB reviewed EPA's draft report, "A Field-Based Aquatic Life Benchmark for Conductivity in Central Appalachian Streams," which uses field data to derive an aquatic life benchmark for conductivity. You can read the full EPA release via Ken Ward Jr.'s blog Coal Tattoo of The Charleston Gazette here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Columnist says newspapers remain healthy in rural areas

The print newspaper model continues to hold up better in rural communities and suburbs, writes one media business columnist. After attending last weekend's meeting of the New York Press Association, Rick Edmonds of Poynter Online writes "last weekend's setting, a plush Vermont resort, and the program, speakers flown in from all over the country for a group of 45, suggested good times for members of the" NYPA. "Smaller communities and their newspapers were not immune from the 2008-2009 recession, but they seem to me buffered from a number of the problems of metros and midsized dailies," Edmonds writes, echoing what we have been saying for some time now.

He notes small papers were never as dependent on print classifieds as their big-city brethren, competition from free advertising services like Craig's List is likely to be less intense in rural areas and national advertising is less of a factor for rural newspapers. "Higher rates of circulation penetration support the case that these publications are an essential buy for local businesses," Edmonds writes. While the NYPA conference was mostly about digital issues, Edmonds argues online content and audience remain a modest share of business for rural newspapers so they are less caught up in the paid online content conundrum.

"As of this June, roughly 85 percent of papers with circulation under 25,000 still report getting less than 10 percent of ad revenues from online," Edmonds writes, citing a recent National Newspapers Association survey. "For papers with circulations over 100,000, nearly the reverse was true: nearly 70 percent now get more than 10 percent from online." The hunt for new and varied revenue streams, mostly digital, is still intense for much of the newspaper industry, Edmonds notes, but concludes it is "not so much for a solid weekly print franchise, at least for now." (Read more)

Rural education official says strong leadership critical to improving schools

Last week we reported a new study highlighting the benefits of the community school model for rural schools. The top rural education official in the Obama administration says the Department of Education supports the concept of full-service community schools, but strong school leadership is more critical to improving low-performing, high-need schools than making community schools an additional turnaround model, Mary Schulken of Education Week reports on the Rural Education blog. John White, deputy secretary for rural outreach, noted "the fiscal year 2011 budget will request $1.2 billion for the 21st Century Learning Centers program, which incorporates community schools," Schulken writes.

"White did not endorse adding the community schools model to the four federal turnaround options currently available to low-performing schools — a recommendation made in a report by rural education policy expert Doris Terry Williams, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust," Schulken writes. White pointed to the success of the "transformation" turnaround model's success at West Carter Middle School in Eastern Kentucky as proof the administration's existing turnaround models work for rural schools.

At West Carter a new principal worked with existing faculty to dramatically improve student achievement. "There is no more important factor in the success of a student than the teacher, and the administration believes effective teachers and principals are the linchpins for turning around low-performing schools," White told Schulken. West Carter has 500 students, more than many tiny rural schools in the Mississippi Delta, in the Appalachian region and in Great Plains states, which are "the kinds of school districts Williams' report concluded might benefit most from an alternative turnaround option," Schulken writes. (Read more)

EPA moves to curb factory farm pollution in Illinois

The Environmental Protection Agency took Illinois state regulators to task Wednesday for their failure to crack down on water pollution from factory farms. "Responding to a petition from environmental groups, [EPA] said its nearly yearlong investigation found widespread problems with the Illinois EPA's oversight of confined-animal feeding operations, or CAFOs," Michael Hawthorne of the Chicago Tribune reports. "Many of the cattle, hog and chicken operations produce manure in amounts comparable to the waste generated by small towns."

In addition to failing to lock farms into permits that limit water pollution, EPA said state regulators also have been "slow to respond to citizen complaints or take formal enforcement action against big feedlots and dairies that violate federal and state environmental laws," Hawthorne writes. The 41-page report ordered Illinois to create a comprehensive inventory of factory farms, revamp its inspection program and develop standard procedures for investigating citizen complaints. Illinois EPA said in a statement it is still reviewing the report and the agency has issued water-pollution permits to 14 CAFOs and is reviewing 43 more.

"Federal EPA officials found that 32 percent of the state inspection reports they reviewed weren't detailed enough to determine if a confined-animal operation was complying with environmental laws," Hawthorne writes. "Even when the state took enforcement action, the federal EPA said, it failed to get megadairies and feedlots to comply with anti-pollution laws in more than 60 percent of the cases reviewed." The report concluded "many of these facilities exhibited serious or chronic noncompliance." If the state fails to act, U.S. EPA could take over Illinois' CAFO program. (Read more)

Inspector General report blasts MSHA for pattern of violations inaction

In a report released Thursday, the U.S. Department of Labor blasted the Mine Safety and Health Administration's failure to use its "pattern of violations" tool against unsafe mines. The report concluded: "In 32 years, MSHA has never successfully exercised its pattern of violations authority ... Administration of this authority has been hampered by a lack of leadership and priority in the Department across various administrations," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette report on his Coal Tattoo blog.

The report also found MSHA did not monitor the implementation of mine operators’ POV corrective action plans, logic errors caused unreliable results from MSHA’s POV computer application, tests identified no deficiencies in the reliability of data MSHA used for POV screening and delays in testing rock dust samples could cause delays in identifying safety hazards. The report from the Office of the Inspector General recommended "MSHA re-evaluate current POV regulations, seek stakeholders input in developing new, transparent POV criteria, use system development life cycle techniques in creating any new POV related computer applications and re-evaluate the standard for timely completion of laboratory tests." (Read more)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rural California cheese factory is polluting the area's groundwater

A locally owned cheese factory is reponsible for spoiling drinking water wells in Hilmar, Calif., (population 3,900) in a region hit hard by agricultural unemployment, reports Jane Kay, of the San Francisco Chronicle. "The story of Hilmar is a classic tale of a company growing rapidly, bringing well-paying jobs but also environmental threats to a rural farm community. However, these are not corporate outsiders pitted against town residents; the owners of Hilmar Cheese are descendants of the community's founding families," writes Kay. "This pollution has become the evil of the town, and they don't know how to stop it," Rita Sanders, whose great-uncle built the first house in Hilmar, told Kay.

The company grew from producing 500,000 pounds of Monterey jack, cheddar and other cheeses per day in 1994 to 1.4 million pounds per day in 2010. The company's revenue is estimated at more than $1 billion a year and provides 780 jobs, according to the news report. The pollution to the wells includes arsenic, nitrates, barium and high salts. As residents' wells go bad, the company purchases the land and the owners move away. Hilmar Cheese is now under a state order to clean up waste discharges by February, according to Kay.  (Read more)

Physicians sue to prevent Colorado from allowing nurses to administer anesthesia at rural hospitals

On Monday, Colorado joined 15 other states in opting out of a Medicare rule that requires certified registered-nurse anesthetists to be supervised by a physician. Groups representing anesthesiologists and doctors have sued to block the policy change. "I have concluded it is in the interests of those relying on critical-access hospitals and the rural residents of Colorado to opt out of this requirement," Colorado Go. Bill Ritter said in a letter to Donald Berwick, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Tom McGhee of The Denver Post reports.

The new policy would allow advanced-practice nurses to administer anesthesia without a physician's supervision in rural hospitals. Urban hospitals would not be affected. "Supporters of the change say few rural hospitals have anesthesiologists on staff and they struggle to find other types of physicians willing to assume the liability of anesthesia," McGhee writes. Lou Ann Wilroy, chief executive of the state Rural Health Center, told McGhee, "This has been a regulatory burden on rural hospitals for years."

"We are incredibly disappointed in the governor's action and feel it is an unnecessary lowering of the standard of care in the hospitals he has now exempted," Dr. Randall Clark, head of anesthesiology at Children's Hospital in Aurora and a spokesman for the Colorado Society of Anesthesiologists, told McGhee. Colorado law makes the physician performing a procedure liable for the actions of anyone in the operating room, so CSA argues the policy change could add confusion about the physician's responsibility. Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer told McGhee the Colorado Medical Board and Board of Nursing concluded that the move is consistent with state law, and, "The top priority will always be patient safety." (Read more)

Wisconsin gun rights controversy fuels arguments on both sides

A confrontation between advocates for open carry gun rights (gun owners are allowed carry their weapons openly in most public places) and Madison, Wis., police has drawn new attention to the open carry movement. The confrontation came at an event organized by open carry advocates at a local Culver's where five armed men were ultimately charged with disorderly conduct, Dan Simmons of the Wisconsin State Journal reports. Aruic Gold of the activist group Wisconsin Open Carry, Inc. said the dust-up "brought in new members and donations, which may be used to file a federal lawsuit against the Madison Police Department." (Photo by Craig Schreiner, Madison State Journal)

However, the controversy also brought negative feedback to the group from an unlikely source: other gun owners. "I don’t think (open carry advocates) represent ordinary family-oriented gun owners," Adam Schesch of north Madison, a 68-year-old target shooter and deer hunter, told Simmons. "If [my family] came into a restaurant and saw people with guns, we’d turn around and walk out. I would feel really unsafe." Open carry advocates say they hope to reduce that fear by making the sight of handguns more common.

"Wisconsin allows open carry of weapons except in schools, taverns and public buildings and restricts their possession in state parks," Simmons writes. "The state is one of two that doesn’t issue concealed weapon permits; Illinois is the other." Private businesses can ban guns, but some owners say the puts them in an unfair position, having to alienate one group. "I think it’s unfair to put small business owners in the middle of this," Pete Hanson, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, told Simmons. "Taking sides on a contentious issue is kind of risky." (Read more)

Blue Ridge Mountains coalition preserves over 50,000 acres

A coalition of land trusts says it will actually exceed its five-year goal of protecting 50,000 acres of the Blue Ridge Mountains by the end of the year. The coalition of nine different land trusts, Blue Ridge Forever, says it will exceed the goal by around 8,000 acres when land transactions are completed this year, Bruce Henderson of the Charlotte Observer reports. "The Southern Appalachians, which include the Blue Ridge chain, have the most biologically rich temperate forests in North America," Henderson writes. "Hundreds of species are found nowhere else."

"North Carolina is a state with vast natural resources and we must not take those assets for granted," Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton said in announcing the protected land totals. "Not only do these assets enrich our lives, they are also a key component of our state’s economy." The coalition "protected 70 working farms during the campaign, bringing the total number of farms the land trusts have preserved to 125," Henderson writes. "Funding totals are incomplete, but $110 million in public money has been used to date, followed by $32 million from individuals." (Read more)

Environmentalists and industry supporters turn out for Louisville coal ash hearing

The Environmental Protection Agency's nationwide coal ash hearing tour came to Louisville, Ky., Tuesday where conversation was not contained to just the proposal on ash rules. The public hearing "drew several hundred people and was intended to help the agency decide between two options ... for managing the huge and expanding volume of fly ash, bottom ash and scrubber sludge produced by coal-fired power plants," James Bruggers of the Courier-Journal reports. Louisville could be considered the epicenter of the coal ash debate as Kentucky and Indiana rank first and second respectively in coal ash generated with those rankings reversed for the total number of coal ash ponds.

Environmentalists and coal industry supporters held competing rallies, and two Greenpeace activists rappelled down the side of the hosting Seelbach Hilton Hotel, unveiling a sign, right, urging EPA to "protect people, not polluters." The stricter of the two proposals would "label coal burning waste as hazardous and phase out ash ponds, rely in part on dry landfills with liners, require permits and allow inspections and enforcement by the EPA," Bruggers writes, while the other proposal, "seen as a better option generally by industry, would regulate the waste as non-hazardous." (Courier-Journal photo by Michael Hayman)

"While we support EPA’s objective of ensuring safe disposal of (coal-burning wastes), we urge EPA to avoid regulatory approaches that would impose significant and unnecessary costs with little environmental benefit," said John Voyles, vice president of transmission and generation services for E.On U.S., parent of Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities. The pro coal rally also featured messages in support of other facets of the industry, including mountaintop removal. With the tops blown off mountains, "we get to enjoy all the things that flatland residents get to enjoy," Democratic State Rep. Leslie Combs of Pikeville told the crowd, citing fishing in ponds and dove hunting as two examples.

The environmentalists' rally was headlined by Kentucky author Wendell Berry and Jim James, the lead singer of the band My Morning Jacket. "The EPA knows that coal ash is a poison," Berry said. "We ask it only to believe in it’s own findings on this issue, and do it’s duty." EPA spokeswoman Laura Gentile told Bruggers the agency had already received more than 100,000 comments from across the country, and it "was impossible to say how long it will take the agency to review the comments and make a decision." (Read more)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Drug education program is changing in Minnesota schools

Minnesota is rethinking the role of Drug Abuse Resistance Education  in the state's public school system, though the program is trying to reinvent itself.  D.A.R.E. participation has dropped steadily in Minnesota since 2007. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that the Minnesota Education Department's latest Student Surveys in 2007 and 2004, showed drug and alcohol use in the past year among sixth-, ninth- and 12th-graders in the metro area steadily increased from 3 percent of sixth-graders to at least 29 percent of 12th-graders, raising doubts about the effectiveness of the D.A.R.E. program. To prove its relevancy, D.A.R.E.  has added lessons about online safety, bullying, choosing good role models and other current topics, reports Maricella Miranda.

Some school systems have also dropped the program to save money. In response, the D.A.R.E. program in Minnesota began partnering with specialized groups and companies for some lessons. "Computer experts from the Geek Squad teach students about online safety, and officials from the Minnesota Pharmacists Association talk about the effects of mixing prescription drugs," according to Miranda. The curriculum has been revamped at least 10 times since its creation in 1983. (Read more)

Mining industry group to see cancer study before public release

A long-awaited government study about lung cancer in miners may finally be published this fall, but only after it is reviewed by a mining industry group. "Eighteen years in the making and eagerly awaited by public health officials, the cancer study evaluates more than 12,000 current and former workers from eight mines that produce commodities other than coal," Jim Morris and Chris Hamby report for Politics Daily. "Its goal is to determine whether ultrafine diesel particulate matter -- a component of exhaust from diesel-powered machinery -- poses a serious hazard to miners in confined spaces."

In June, a federal judge ruled the two Department of Health and Human Services institutes behind the study must turn over their findings to the Methane Awareness Resource Group Diesel Coalition, a mining industry alliance, at least 90 days in advance of the public release. The coalition, represented by lobbying powerhouse lawyer Patton Boggs and partner Henry Chajet, argued the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were "unfairly, unjustly and unreasonably" depriving mine owners of an advance look at research that could impact their operations. The coalition said it wanted to provide the subjects of the study with details about how it was conducted and its results.

"Government researchers do studies all the time and publish them in peer-reviewed journals. This is the only example I know of where an industry group gets access to the information before anybody else does," Celeste Monforton, an assistant research professor at George Washington University, told the reporters. "I think as soon as the study is published [industry consultants] will already have another paper prepared that will dissect it and explain away any risks that are identified." Chajet said the government still refused to turn over some internal correspondence and raw data. "Our scientists are reviewing what's been given to us," he told the reporters, "but we are seriously considering going back [to court] to try to obtain the rest of the documentation." (Read more)

IRS to stop mailing income tax forms

In a move that could have impact for rural Americans without reliable Internet service, the Internal Revenue Service announced it will no longer mail instructions and paper forms for annual income tax returns. The agency said it will save "about $10 million a year as more Americans are filing online," Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post reports. The agency said about 11.5 million people who filed paper forms received the tax information in the mail in 2009.

"More than 96 million individuals have filed their tax returns this year via IRS e-File (up about 6 million from 2008) and an estimated 20 million paper returns were filed through paid tax preparers, according to the agency," O'Keefe writes. Taxpayers who filed paper forms last year should expect a letter from the IRS about the decision in the coming weeks. "Taxpayers who want to file paper returns can still obtain the forms at, local IRS offices or at participating libraries and post offices," O'Keefe writes. (Read more)

Bee researcher wins MacArthur "genius" grant

The fight to protect U.S. honeybee populations got more ammunition today, as University of Minnesota entomologist Marla Spivak was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." Spivak "won the grant for breeding honey bees that can restore health to beehives stricken with pests or pathogens, which in recent years have devastated U.S. bee colonies," Lauren Etter of The Wall Street Journal reports. She plans to use the $500,000 grant to launch new bee-related projects. (WSJ photo by Matt McLoone)

"It just blew me away," Spivak, a professor of apiculture, told Etter. "I thought they might have the wrong person." Spivak's research "focuses on genetically influenced behaviors that confer disease resistance to entire colonies through the social interactions of thousands of workers," the MacArthur Foundation writes on its Web site. Spivak's "Minnesota Hygienic" bees offer "an effective and more sustainable alternative to chemical pesticides in fighting a range of pests and pathogens," the foundation writes. (Read more) (MacArthur Foundation video)

The story of bees, colony collapse, apiculture and agriculture is an important story, and it's easy for journalists to localize. Almost every community has someone who keeps bees and produces honey, and it's a fascinating process.

Obama proposes extending school year

President Obama this week proposed that U.S. schools extend their school years in an effort to remain competitive with their international peers. "American children spend the least amount time in the classroom when compared to other countries," Brandi Koskie of Edu In Review reports. "Currently, the school year length in the States is 180 days. Advocates are pushing further toward a 200-day school year, which would align with Thailand, Scotland and the Netherlands, and leave us a close second with Israel, South Korea and Japan, who leads with a 243-day school year." (Edu In Review chart)

"We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day," Obama said. "That calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy." Obama advocated districts extend the school year by either spending more time in class per day or shortening summer break. (Read more)

"There is far from conclusive proof that longer school years produce better students. No doubt, the studies say, some poorer performing students would benefit. But not all would," Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute reports in "Al's Morning Meeting." Tompkins points to a 2009 briefing paper from the Center for Education Policy that notes "extending the school day could be more beneficial than extending the school year." (Read more)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Buy, borrow or rent a goat for weed control

Goats have a reputation for eating anything, but that can be a good thing. While they don't really eat tin cans, they do eat weeds, Terry Hutchens, goat specialist with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service told Greg Kocher of the Lexington Herald-Leader. A local golf course is using goats to trim ragweed and woody brush. Some area goat producers let the golf course use the goats at no cost. The producers get their goats fed for free, and the course reduced spending on big weeds. The goats don't run free; they are penned in successive weed-control locations. (Photo by Kocher)

Goats are also used to control kudzu, the legendary vine found throughout the South. Goat control of kudzu generally costs $3 an acre while chemicals will cost $60 to $70 an acre, Hutchens told Kocher. Goats not only eat kudzu, they also can produce beautiful mohair or angora yarn, be used for meat or milked, and as a rental business. Al Dilley, of Glasgow, Ky., is the founder of Goat Browsers, which he calls an "environmentally friendly land enhancement service." He leases his goats to anyone who wants them for temporary weed control. "It's a niche business," Dilley said. "You're not going to get rich, but it's worth the effort. You never know. After Colonel Sanders sold that first chicken, he did all right." (Read more)

D.C. protest seeks end to mountaintop removal

Environmentalists protested today in Washington to urge the Obama administration to end mountaintop-removal coal mining. Frederic J. Frommer of The Associated Press estimated the crowd at several hundred "mostly youthful ralliers" who carried posters and heard folk music from the stage at Freedom Plaza, a few blocks from the White House. (Photo by Chad Berry, director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College, of Berea students attending protest)

Patrick Reis of Environment & Energy News estimates the crowd at 1,000 and reports that National Park Police arrested more than 100 people who broke away from the main group to sit in front of the White House. They included James Hansen of NASA, a leading global-warming theorist who has "called for civil disobedience to protest government inaction to address climate change" and argued that "the science on the practice unequivocally demonstrated it was poisoning water supplies," Reis reports. Hansen said, "Mountaintop removal, providing only a small fraction of our energy, can and should be abolished." (Read more; subscription required)

Some protesters carried posters or small white crosses with messages such as "water pollution" and "corporate greed," AP reports, noting that coal operators say mountaintop removal is the most efficient way to reach some reserves, supports tens of thousands of jobs and provides coal for electric power plants across much of the South and East. They had a pro-coal rally near the Capitol two weeks ago. (Read more)

UPDATE 9/28: "The United States Park Police initially estimated that more than 100 people were arrested for disobeying official orders and crossing a police line," during protests, James R. Carroll of the Courier-Journal reports. "A firm number of arrests was still being tallied Monday night." Sarah Blanton, 27, of Berea, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said the marchers "want to show President Obama we mean business." (Read more)

Meters to help prevent coal dust explosions are still not required

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration likely faces a legal battle about coal dust samples collected at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, but that challenge could have been avoided if the agency had mandated better monitoring as some urged. "Over the years, experts from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the now-defunct Bureau of Mines repeatedly urged the mining industry" to install "special meters that would allow real-time monitoring of coal-dust conditions in underground mines across the country," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports.

MSHA investigators blamed a 2001 mine disaster that killed 13 miners in Alabama on Jim Walters Resources' failure to "apply enough 'rock dust' to control explosive coal dust that can build up underground," Ward writes. The company successfully appealed the ruling when a federal judge ruled the agency's "dust samples -- gathered after the explosion -- didn't accurately reflect conditions at the time of the blast," Ward writes. Now Massey is making similar arguments about the UBB April explosion that killed 29 West Virginia miners.

In a 1989 report, the Bureau of Mines said dust meters were among "the most promising methods" for helping prevent coal dust explosions, but as of now the U.S. still doesn't require their use. A bill before Congress would mandate coal mines to use the meters but would prevent MSHA from basing enforcement on them for at least two years while they undergo further study, Ward writes. At UBB, MSHA took rock dust samples on March 13 but didn't cite Massey for inadequate rock-dusting until April 13, after the explosion, due in part to the time involved in analysis, Ward writes. "Why in the world are we sending samples away for weeks' time in this day and age?" longtime mine safety chief Davitt McAteer, who headed MSHA during the Clinton administration, asked Ward. "It hampers enforcement and it hampers the prevention cycle." (Read more)

Iowa school districts have incentive to merge

A dozen rural school districts in western and northern Iowa have agreed to merge into six districts next year. Other districts around the state are considering similar plans. "Iowa is on the verge of its biggest wave of school mergers in 15 years as more districts trade hometown identity for more financial security," Staci Hupp of the Des Moines Register reports. "Part of the push was driven by school leaders who want state incentive money for mergers before it disappears in 2014." Iowa will have 353 school districts next year, down from 458 in 1965.

"School mergers historically have sparked fears of long bus rides for children, lifeless small towns and big classes across Iowa, a state steeped in local control," Hupp writes. "Unlike the boardroom battles and petitions that marked school mergers of the past, however, the latest mergers had high voter approval rates in most cases." Tim Gilson, a University of Northern Iowa education professor, explained: "Even though from an emotional standpoint it's never easy, people don't feel as much like they're losing their identity." Hupp notes the acceptance of such mergers does vary depending on which community gets the new high school.

Others say rural areas have simply accepted dire realities. For instance, school enrollments are falling in over two-thirds of Iowa districts, but student achievement expectations continue to climb. "When districts are looking at rolling out the Iowa Core Curriculum and the mandates that come with that, some districts just can't do it," Gilson said. "It's not fiscally sound and efficient to offer a calculus course for two or three students." A state budget guarantee that prevents the state from cutting aid to districts with declining enrollments ends in 2013. (Read more)

Democrats face uphill battle in rural Midwest; voters mistakenly think stimulus did no good

Democrats are facing a tough row to hoe in the rural Midwest as the economy languishes and their party leader's approval ratings in the region drop. "According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last month 55 percent of Midwesterners disapprove of the job President Barack Obama is doing, six percentage points higher than the rest of the U.S.," Douglas Belkin reports for the Journal, noting more broadly, "66 percent of rural Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, five points more than U.S. voters as a whole." Rural voters have trended Republican for a decade or more.

Democratic House incumbents in the Midwest, including Joe Donnelly and Baron Hill in Indiana, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in South Dakota, Debbie Halvorson in Illinois, Leonard Boswell in Iowa, John Boccieri in Ohio and Ike Skelton in Missouri are facing the anti-Democrat fervor. Even in North Dakota, where an oil boom has kept the unemployment rate at a nation-low 3.7 percent, Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy trails Republican challenger Rick Berg by 3 points after winning by 24 in 2008.

A Pew Research Center survey finds that a smaller percentage of rural and suburban Americans than those in urban areas say they have lost ground during the recession. Despite a Congressional Budget Office study that found unemployment would have been 0.7 to 1.8 points lower without the economic stimulus package, polls show most voters don't think it did any good, and pro-Republican ads are saying likewise, so Democrats face an uphill battle defending their spending record. "I'm disgusted with the entire party," Cliff Wehrman, a 58-year-old North Dakotan who said he no longer supports Pomeroy even after voting for him in 2008, told Belkin. "Who do they think is going to pay for all this?" (Read more) analyzes the impact of the stimulus.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Young journalist turns his big prize into a fund to help others in rural areas follow suit

A young reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize and other awards for a series in Appalachia has donated $10,000 in prize money to help other rural journalists get the same kind of training that enabled him to do his prize-winning work.

Daniel Gilbert, left, and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues have created the Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting to finance fellowships for rural journalists to attend the computer-assisted reporting boot camps of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.

The techniques Gilbert acquired at a CAR boot camp proved crucial in his reporting that exposed mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to landowners in Southwest Virginia. The series in the Bristol Herald Courier won the 33,000-circulation newspaper the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, and earned Gilbert the $10,000 prize for Community Journalism in the National Journalism Awards sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation.

Gilbert, 28, assigned the Scripps prize to the endowment of the Institute, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. Gifts to the endowment through April 2011 are matched by the Research Challenge Trust Fund of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, so the Institute’s Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting starts with $20,000. Earnings from that amount will fund at least one fellowship per year for a rural journalist to attend a CAR boot camp, for which IRE will discount the registration fee as part of the fellowship.

“We hope others will follow Daniel’s example and contribute to the Fund for R-CAR,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute. “His generous donation is more than a lasting legacy to rural journalists. It is a reminder of the challenges they face – lack of resources, time and support – but also the opportunities they have, if given the right tools, to render great public service.” (Read more)