Friday, October 22, 2010

Hazard, Ky., TV station marks 25th anniversary

Twenty-five years ago Tuesday, WYMT-TV went on the air for the first time and has spent the last quarter century bringing Eastern Kentucky news coverage to the region. The station is based in Hazard, population 5,000 and the seat of Perry County, pop. 30,000. It is small, but a regional center in southeastern Kentucky, and the station has created a greater sense of common ground in a region that is broken up by lots of hills, mountains and county lines.

The station was founded by Ralph Gabbard of WKYT-27 in Lexington, who purchased the old channel 57 from Hazard Mayor Bill Gorman, who died recently. "Mayor Gorman knew that if he sold the station to 27 which had a Frankfort bureau that we'd be covering Kentucky news and the Kentucky governor and Kentucky state government and Kentucky issues," former WKYT news director Ken Kurtz, who helped establish WYMT, told Steve Hensley of WYMT.

Kurtz said Gorman told him more people in Eastern Kentucky knew the name of the West Virginia governor than the Kentucky one because they got their television news from Huntington, W.Va. "Eastern Kentucky would be a different place, it really would," Kurtz told Hensely. "We've been able to tell through the combined resources of channel 27 and channel 57 the Eastern Kentucky story, not just to the region and the commonwealth but the nation." (Read more)

To celebrate the anniversary, current WYMT news director Neil Middleton has been bringing back former anchors for guest spots this year, Ivy Brashear of the Hazard Herald reports. This week former WYMT sports anchor Jay Crawford, now host of ESPN's "First Take," returned to Hazard to do one more sports broadcast. "We feel like these people are our friends, for us and for our viewers," Middleton said. Tuesday's episode on the 25th anniversary featured two of the three original anchors.

Middleton says today's station looks much different than 25 years ago, especially with the increased role of the Internet. "The basic principles of journalism and our mission to cover eastern Kentucky has not changed," Middleton told Brashear. "Just the tools we do it with." Middleton said the anniversary is important to more than just the news staff. "We feel like this is a celebration not just for WYMT, but for the entire region," Middleton said. "We feel like this is a success story for Eastern Kentucky, not just WYMT." (Read more)

Days before EPA hearings, TVA announces improvements in coal ash impoundments

Half of the 24 earthen dams at Tennessee's coal ash and gypsum ponds meet the top safety standard for stability, says a consultant hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Still, "Stantec Consulting Services reported that none of the ash ponds present an immediate danger of failure like the 2008 Kingston ash spill that poured 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash into the Emory River from a dam breach at the Kingston Fossil Plant," Dave Flesser of the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. Just one pond was rated as "highly hazardous."

"We've not seen any conditions in the field that suggest to us that we have any imminent failure in front of us, and we're making improvements," John Montgomery, Stantec's senior principal engineer, told Flesser. "Every recommendation that we have made to TVA is being picked up and acted upon." Three other ponds were initially labeled as "highly hazardous," but TVA made changes, including lowering pond levels, buying up adjacent property and improving drainage, to have those ratings lowered. "We never want another Kingston to happen again," TVA Senior Vice President Bob Deacy said.

"By the end of 2011, TVA expects to have completed at least 86 ongoing engineering and construction projects to improve the safety of its ash ponds to comply with the highest standards set by federal regulators," Flesser writes. Since the Kingston spill, TVA has spent more than $20 million in improvements for ash pond impoundments. Lisa Evans, a staff attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, said the group was encouraged by the improvements, "but you have to remember that the Kingston ash pond was never identified as hazardous before it collapsed." Evans also noted the TVA announcement of improvements came just days before an Environmental Protection Agency hearing in Knoxville about federal regulation of coal ash disposal. (Read more)

Chicken processors adopt 'humanely slaughtered' methods

Supermarket chicken comes in a variety of "healthier" forms today and soon consumers may be able to purchase "stress-free" chicken, which was killed in what some view to be a more humane way. "The new system uses carbon dioxide gas to gently render the birds unconscious before they are hung by their feet to have their throats slit, sparing them the potential suffering associated with conventional slaughter methods," William Neuman of The New York Times reports. "When you grab a chicken, turn it upside down and put it on the line, it’s stress, stress, stress," said Scott Sechler the owner of Bell & Evans. "Our system is designed so that we put them to sleep without stress and we kill them without stress."

Marketing of stress-free chicken has its limitations. "Most of the time, people don’t want to think about how the animal was killed," David Pitman, whose family owns Mary’s Chickens, told Neuman. Anglia Autoflow, which built the news system for Mary's Chickens and Bell & Evans, calls the process "controlled atmosphere stunning." Pitman said  his company is considering using "sedation stunning" on its packages and "humanely slaughtered," "humanely processed" or "humanely handled." Sechler wants to call the process "slow induction anesthesia" on his company's packaging.

Pitman said the trick is to "communicate the goal of the new system, which is to ensure that the birds 'not have any extra pain or discomfort in the last few minutes of their lives,'" Neuman writes. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a prominent livestock expert, consulted with Bell & Evans in designing the system. Industry group the National Chicken Council maintains electric stunning systems are effective and humane. In England many processors use gas stunning, but don't label packages differently. "People don’t want to know too much," said Marc Cooper, a senior scientific manager in the farm animals department of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in London. "It’s hard to sell humane killing as a concept." (Read more)

Vilsack announces help for biofuels, advocates extending ethanol subsidy

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced new financial incentives for the biofuel industry Thursday while advocating for Congress to pass a short-term extension of the subsidy for corn ethanol. "Vilsack used a National Press Club speech Thursday to call for accelerating development of next-generation biofuels that would be made from crop residue, switchgrass and other feedstocks besides corn," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. Among the incentives Vilsack announced were grants for new E15 gas-station pumps.

"Vilsack set a target of installing at least 10,000 of the pumps over the next five years," Brasher writes. "The Agriculture Department plans to offer matching grants for the pumps starting next year." Vilsack also called for construction on at least one new advanced-biofuel refinery in each region of the U.S. by the end of 2011. "Vilsack offered no help to advanced-biofuel producers on one of their top priorities -- federal loan guarantees," Brasher writes. "The next-generation plants will cost many times as much as corn ethanol distilleries do, and existing rules for the loan guarantees are too strict, deterring investment, industry groups said in a letter to the White House on Thursday."

Guarantees are currently limited to 80 percent of a project's cost. "Vilsack said he's reviewing the rules for the guarantees but that it would be costly to liberalize them," Brasher writes. Vilsack endorsed the extension of the corn ethanol subsidy but didn't say how large it would be. "Vilsack's moves to aid the ethanol industry come as many rural House Democrats are struggling to win election, including Reps. Leonard Boswell in Iowa and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in South Dakota," Brasher writes. (Read more)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rural Texas roads taking a beating from heavy trucks

Heavy truck traffic, some of which is related to the energy industry, is taking its toll on rural Texas roads. "The number of super-heavy vehicle permits — granted by [Texas Department of Transportation] to trucks over 254,300 pounds — rose from 208 in fiscal year 2005 to 1,525 in fiscal year 2009, due to both increased economic activity and improved processes for identifying heavy loads," Kate Galbraith of The Texas Tribune reports. "In February, a record 1.7 million pound load moved through Texas, a generator bound for a coal plant in Riesel from the Port of Houston." (Photo illustration by Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune)

Trucking companies and industries rarely shoulder the cost of fixing the roads, which can "run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single state road," Galbraith writes. Jodi Hodges, a public information officer in TxDOT's Fort Worth district, explained, "We've seen a lot of our roadways have base [problems], edges drop off, rutting, bridge hits, shoulder damage. Rural roads in Hodges' district have been particularly affected by trucks associated with natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale. West Texas has seen heavy-load traffic increase as the wind industry flourishes in the region.

"Trucking advocates point out that even if they do not cover the costs of damage to state roads, they sometimes help pay for the upkeep of city and county roads," Galbraith writes. "In addition, the heaviest loads move on trucks with extra axles, to distribute the weight." John Esparza, president and chief executive of the Texas Motor Transportation Association, added, "It is not a question of damage being done to roads because of weight. It is about the dispersement of weight [and having] the proper vehicle." For now the traffic has slowed as the wind industry and gas industry face declines in the state, but Hodges notes if those industries rebound, traffic will increase with them. (Read more)

USDA releases report detailing impact of stimulus package on rural America

Less than two weeks before the election, a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates millions of rural Americans will benefit and over 300,000 jobs are being created or saved by the stimulus package. "With Rural Development's loans, grants, and loan-grant combination financing for new and existing programs, we have leveraged our Recovery Act funds to ensure the greatest bang for the taxpayer's buck, allowing our agency to make unprecedented and lasting investments in rural America," USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager said in a news release. "I am proud of what we have accomplished over the last two years towards building livable, innovative, and sustainable rural communities."

Of the $40.7 billion of stimulus funding allocated to USDA, Rural Development used $21.2 billion in funding seven programs. "In all, 95,000 loans and 2,500 grants were provided to recipients in all 50 states, American territories, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico," USDA writes in the release. Rural stimulus package funding helped expand rural broadband, improve water and wastewater projects in rural communities and provide small business loans. (Read more)

South and Midwest: 'We are waiting for rain to come'

An extreme drought across nine states in the Southeast and Midwest is having demonstrative impact on the agriculture industry. The drought is "damaging crops, driving up the cost of keeping livestock and putting officials on alert for wildfires," Cameron McWhirter of The Wall Street Journal reports. "Climatologists say the dry weather likely will continue at least until spring, raising the possibility of prolonged drought in some areas next summer." The drought is affecting parts of Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Florida and southern Indiana.

"Six months from now, we could be in a fairly significant drought situation throughout the Southeast," said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center, a federally funded center at the University of Nebraska that monitors drought conditions across the U.S. "The general pattern is going to show worsening." The center is expected to release data today showing those areas are suffering from "extreme drought," meaning they are experiencing the worst prolonged shortage of rain expected in a 25-year period, McWhirter writes. (WSJ map)

"One cause of the dryness is La NiƱa, a cooling of water temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean that has brought drier weather to the southeastern U.S. over the past several months," McWhirter writes. A lack of major hurricanes or tropical storms this year has also contributed to the shortage of rain. Fuchs told McWhirter in the coming months he expects more areas to be added to the extreme drought category, second in severity to exceptional drought. "I go outside every day, water my flowers and pray over them," Mason, Tenn., farmer Marvene Twisdale said. "We are waiting for rain to come." (Read more)

Rural counties with highest unemployment in 2009 are now doing better

The stark contrasts that marked unemployment rates across rural America a year ago appear to have begun leveling out. Last year the rural southeast had some of the nation's highest unemployment rates while Texas and the Mountain West were gaining rural jobs. A year later, "Alabama, which has had some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, appears to be better off than much of Texas, which has had low unemployment rates," Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo of the Daily Yonder report. "This is not saying that Alabama’s rural economy is doing better than rural Texas counties. What the map, below, tells us is that there has been a shift, and that many of the counties with the highest unemployment a year ago are now doing better." (Yonder map)

Areas that showed low unemployment rates last year like rural Texas, Colorado, Utah, Montana and Idaho have seen their unemployment rates rise. One constant was rural North Dakota which boasted low unemployment rates last year that have continued to decline, Bishop and Gallardo write. The nationwide rural unemployment rate dropped to 9.2 percent in August, compared to the 9.5 percent unemployment rate for the country as a whole. The urban unemployment rates was 9.7 percent and exurban rate was 8.9 percent. (Read more)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

County expands fee-for-firefighting system despite recent failure that let house burn down

A rural Tennessee county has tentatively decided to expand its subscription firefighting system, which "ignited debate across the country" recently after one fire department let a house burn because the owners hadn't paid their annual $75 fee, Time magazine reports.

The Obion County Commission approved a fee-system agreement with the county's municipalities but also voted "to put the issue on the ballot at the next county election to let constituents decide if they want a fire tax or fee," Chris Menees reports for the Union City Daily Leader. (Wikipedia map)

"The agreement has been in the works for about two years, but the issue of county-wide fire protection has received significant attention in recent days in the aftermath of a rural South Fulton fire where firefighters from a municipal fire department could not respond because the property owner had not paid an annual rural fire subscription fee," Menees writes. That department won't be part of the agreement, which says "South Fulton intends to provide rural fire service outside its city limits as directed by its city commission in a designated fire service area." Menees continues, "Ironically, the issue of county-wide fire protection resurfaced and discussion of an agreement began a little over two years ago following a similar rural fire situation near South Fulton."

One commissioner said the incidents show that subscription services, which are common in rural America, are unreliable, but another said the services have worked well except for those isolated incidents. A son of the couple who lost their home because they hadn't paid said the solution is a countywide fire tax, which the commission voted to put on next year's ballot. (Read more)

Carmen Sisson of Time reports, "The International Association of Fire Fighters has condemned the South Fulton Fire Department's inaction as "incredibly irresponsible." Typically, subscription departments send bills to non-subscribers who need their services, but many if not most of the bills go unpaid. Sisson notes that the agreement would expand the subscription system to five departments that don't currently charge fees. County Mayor Benny McGuire said the system would guarantee coverage for areas that don't have it now. (Read more)

Obama administration reaches settlement with Native American farmers

The Obama administration announced Tuesday it had reached a $760 million settlement with Native American farmers who had alleged years of discrimination in loan programs by the Department of Agriculture. "The farmers have fought for 11 years and through three administrations to resolve the case," Spencer S. Hsu and Krissah Thompson of The Washington Post report. "The settlement announced today will allow USDA and the Native American farmers involved in the lawsuit to move forward and focus on the future," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.

The class-action suit was filed in 1999 by nearly 900 people and covers USDA actions dating back to 1981. "This settlement marks a major turning point in the important relationship between Native Americans, our nation's first farmers, and the USDA," lead plaintiffs' attorney Joseph M. Sellers, a partner at the Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll law firm in Washington, told the Post. The agreement would pay $680 million in damages and would forgive $80 million of outstanding farm loan debt.

Sellers credited the Obama administration for addressing "longstanding ... and festering problems" in farm programs after taking office. "With the entry of the new administration, we saw a decided change in the attitude of the government to this litigation," Sellers said. "Rather than kicking it down the road, they really seemed open to working with us." (Read more)

New York Times says this Congress has a lousy record on coal mine safety

Congress has "shamefully shirked" its responsibility for coal mine safety, The New York Times says in an editorial today. "Nine American miners have been killed in eight little-noted accidents since April, when an explosion in rural West Virginia left 29 dead," the newspaper writes. "Lawmakers, claiming to be scandalized by the failures in safety enforcement, vowed sweeping reforms. That’s all they’ve done."

The editorial points to the recent Labor Department inspector general's report, which revealed no serial violator had ever faced the maximum penalty allowed under the first federal mine-safety law 40 years ago, as proof of Washington's failure. "Instead, a rope-a-dope regulatory process has let companies game enforcement through years of violation appeals," the Times argues. It says the Obama administration's move to tighten enforcement is a positive step, but "more is needed from Congress if mine safety is to advance convincingly beyond 1969."

The editorial touches on other coal issues. "The White House has rightly committed itself to new initiatives to regulate and, we hope, eventually end the ruinous practice known as mountaintop mining," it says. But those initiatives are being challenged by the industry and the Democratic governors of Kentucky and West Virginia, the No. 3 and No. 2 coal-producing states. "Meanwhile, the Upper Big Branch mine victims are poised to slip off into history where they will join the 78 who perished in the big Farmington disaster of 1968, and the 38 killed in the Hurricane Creek disaster two years later," the Times concludes. "When does it end?" (Read more)

Research suggests aspen could be on rebound

We last reported on the mysterious ailment plaguing Western aspen trees, known as "sudden aspen decline," in October 2009. A year later, the decline appears to have stabilized. "Individual trees are still dying, since the process can take years to unfold, but many stands of trees are holding their ground against any new onset," Kirk Johnson of The New York Times reports. A research paper from James Worrall, a forest pathologist for the U.S. Forest Service, published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, points to a sudden severe drought and heat wave early in the decade as the likely cause of S.A.D. (NYT photo by Benjamin Rasmussen)

"Wetter, cooler seasons since then — more to the aspen’s liking — have halted SAD’s spread," Johnson writes. "Although the aspen is the most widely distributed tree species in North America, the die-off struck mostly in the Southwest, where the drought beginning in 2002 was most severe. And lower elevations were affected more than upper ones, which tend to be cooler and wetter." Dan Binkley, a professor of forest ecology at Colorado State University, explained, "It [weather] was a really large stressor to the trees, and that made them more susceptible to other things — there’s pretty good comfort among scientists that that was what was going on."

The new research isn't all good news: "It has shown how profoundly vulnerable aspen are to environmental events outside their niche," Johnson writes. "In keeping with their delicate image, they do not like sudden weather shifts." Long-term climate projections for wider, more severe weather fluctuations could be a bad predictor for aspen. "It’s the extremes of variation that gets the aspen — not the average," Worrall told Johnson. (Read more)

Education secretary to speak at FFA convention

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will address the National FFA Organization's annual convention at 2 p.m. Thursday at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Duncan's appearance hasn't been added to the convention schedule on the FFA website but was announced in an e-mail from John White, the Education Department's deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach, to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. White says more than 14,000 are expected for the event at Conseco Fieldhouse, and Duncan "will discuss the importance of agricultural education for building 21st century skills, growing the economy and meeting President Obama's national goal to lead the world with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020."

On Friday at 11 a.m., White will host a teacher roundtable with agriculture instructors at the Education Department's booth at the Indiana Convention Center. At 1:30 p.m., he will lead a focus group with teachers at the Hilton Indianapolis Hotel. Here's more on the FFA Convention.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Republican congressman from Iowa says farmers should expect spending cuts in 2012 Farm Bill

Farmers may see cuts in some agriculture programs as Congress looks to trim back federal spending in the 2012 Farm Bill, warns one Iowa legislator. Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell, left, told the editorial board of The Gazette of Cedar Rapids the next farm bill will have a "safety net," but "programs may have to be capped or 'adjusted,'" James Q. Lynch of The Gazette reports. "There’s going to be a major effort to get our arms around reducing the debt and starting to draw back on it," said Boswell. "We can’t keep accumulating this debt. Everyone has got to share, so how can you share and still do what you do and have a safety net?"

Boswell said at hearings with farmers, producers, processors and others in the agriculture industry that lawmakers have been trying to determine what stakeholders really need. "You’re not going to get everything," he said. "I think they understood." Boswell, who like all House members is up for re-election this fall, "offered few specifics on adjustments to crop insurance, which he called farmers' safety net," Lynch writes. He advocated for the protection of and perhaps increasing assistance for biodiesel and other renewable energy sources. (Read more)

WSJ: Massey board considering future, including possible sale of company

The nation's sixth largest coal miner, Massey Energy, is considering strategic alternatives including sale, The Wall Street Journal reports. "Massey's board of directors last week formed a committee to assess the future of the Richmond, Va., company, said one person familiar with the situation," Joann S. Lubin, Kris Maher and Anupreeta Das report for the Journal. "By mid-November, it could 'be in detailed due diligence with one of the multiple options,' that person predicted." Sources told the Journal options could include sale to another coal mining company or private-equity firm.

"We're always looking at M&A opportunities, but we never discuss them until they're complete," Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel, told the reporters. The 98-year-old company has been embroiled in public controversy since the explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W. V., killed 29 coal miners in April. "The deaths attracted condemnation from regulators and even President Barack Obama," the reporters write. "Massey's chief executive, Don Blankenship, strongly rebutted the criticism, saying that Massey used the best of safety procedures."

Unidentified sources told the Journal Massey's board of directors is believed to be driving the move as Blankenship would prefer to keep the company independent. "Massey carries a current market capitalization of about $3.6 billion and is the largest operator in central Appalachia where it operates underground and surface mines," the reporters write. Blankenship said in September the company expected a third-quarter loss, primarily due to more stringent enforcement by federal safety regulators and other disruptions, the Journal reports. (Read more)

Farmland commanding record prices across country

Across the country, prices for farmland are on the rise as farmers expand operations and investors look to agriculture. "The frenzied activity, interest from nonfarm buyers and accelerating prices are reminiscent of behavior that contributed to the 1980s farm crisis," Pat Waters of the Omaha World-Herald reports. "But experts say critical differences exist today, most significantly the fact that many buyers pay cash and lenders require more money upfront from buyers." Jason Henderson, an economist and head of the Omaha branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Mo., told Waters the difference between now and the 1970s is that farmers aren't buying assets with as much debt.

At a conference a few years ago, "A lender in the audience raised his hand and said to all the young guys, ‘Remember the lesson of the '80s: Too much debt in the face of falling land values is a recipe for bankruptcy. Manage your debt wisely,'" Henderson told Waters. Troy Louwagie, chairman of the Farmland Value Survey, which is published by the Realtors Land Institute, explained, "Seventy-five percent of Iowa's land has no debt against it. It's in strong hands." Strong grain prices have been the primary driver for farmland sales, Waters writes. The survey reported cropland prices increased an average of 8.5 percent from September 2009 to September 2010.

"Whenever corn is pushed into the $4.25-to-$4.75 range, it doesn't take long to get a return on your investment," Marc Hock, regional manager for Pinnacle Bank, the largest ag lender in Nebraska, told Waters. Hock also pointed to uncertainty about stocks, bonds and other investments and low returns for government-insured products such as certificates of deposit as factors. Buyers looking to finance farmland purchases are more likely to get credit compared to small business owners, Waters writes.. "No. 1, there's a tangible asset," Hock said. "Land is always worth something." (Read more)

Kentucky, like West Virginia, sues EPA to protect mountaintop removal coal-mining

Earlier this month we reported West Virginia had filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to try and stop the agency's crackdown on mountaintop removal coal mining. On Monday, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's administration and Kentucky coal industry representatives filed a similar lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Pikeville, which said "the EPA's blocking of state-issued permits over water pollution standards put forth in an April memo amount to the executive branch taking legislative action and an improper deviation from the Clean Water Act of 1977," Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

Blocking state-issued permits is part of an "illegal agenda to end coal mining in Kentucky," Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett said in an e-mail to the state Legislative Research Commission. "This EPA continues to act without any consideration for the law, so it is our hope that the federal court system will find that the EPA's actions are being made based on political ideology alone, with no connection to actually protecting the environment." Beshear directed the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet to join in the lawsuit, Hjalmarson writes.

"Kentucky can and does mine coal while at the same time protecting Kentucky's environment," Beshear said in a news release. "However, the arbitrary and unreasonable decisions being made by the EPA threaten to end the responsible mining of coal and eliminate the jobs of an estimated 18,000 Kentucky miners who depend on mining for their livelihood." Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, told Hjalmarson that Beshear's move was "disappointing and unseemly" and EPA is "well within its rights." (Read more)

Texas to create public, online database of fracking chemicals

Two Texas state government groups are working together to launch a national online database containing information about chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations. The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the Ground Water Protection Council say the database, known as the Chemical Registry for Hydraulic Fracturing, will take one year to complete and cost around $3 million, Jack Z. Smith of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports. "The process, dubbed 'fracking,' pumps water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to fracture underground rock formations and allow oil and gas to flow," Smith writes.

The purpose of the registry is to create and maintain a voluntary national data system "that is user-friendly and available to the public, first responders and emergency personnel," Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Victor Carrillo told Smith. "The announcement said 'most energy companies are expected to actively participate in the program,' but did not explain how that might occur," Smith writes. Fracking, which has opened up vast natural gas reserves in shale formations like the Barnett Shale in north Texas, has come under fire for possible groundwater contamination. (Read more)

Monday, October 18, 2010

After coal, what next? Appalachia looks to Wales

If Central Appalachian coal production continues to decline as forecast, miners who are forced out of work need education and training to develop "new skills in the creative industries," just as the British government did when coal mines close in Wales, a Welsh member of Parliament said at last weekend's "Appalachia and Wales: Coal and after Coal" symposium at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

Market experts expect the decline in Central Appalachian coal production to continue, and perhaps accelerate, depending on the regulatory environment for the industry. “Given the issues going on around the Appalachian coalfields right now, we need to look at what has happened in Wales since the closing of the mines from about 1986 on,” said Pat Beaver, director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at ASU and co-organizer of the event. “The experience of Wales could inform how we think about the future of Appalachia and a sense of urgency about thinking about the future in Appalachia.”

For a text story by Sylvia Ryerson of WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Ky., click here. For her audio story, go here.

No-kill deer hunt hopes to build sportsmanship

A Western Kentucky deer hunt went off just as planned last month, which is to say no deer were killed. The event, hosted by the American Whitetail Authority, "was the first in the Whitetail Pro Series, the only hunting competition in which deer are stalked but not killed," James Card reports for The New York Times. Each hunter in the event is armed with a 20-gauge shotgun mounted with digital scopes and five blank shells per day. Hunters are graded based on the video from the memory card in the scope.

"The main goal of the series, according to Greg Koch, the founder of the group, is to reward hunters who consistently take clean shots on mature deer," Card writes. He explained, "In most states, you can kill one deer per season, and that hampers your ability to prove your skill." The Whitetail Pro Series, which will culminate with the AWA World Championship this month in Mississippi, is modeled after the Bassmaster series, a catch-and-release fishing tournament. Koch said digital scopes can "enable hunters to track their prey out of season and help children build a solid foundation in ethical hunting, a component of which is to kill an animal as quickly and painlessly as possible," Card writes. (NYT photo by Lori Moffett)

Judges reviewed the video clips "frame by frame until the second before the gunfire," Card writes. "They noted the position of the crosshairs. If they were slightly behind the deer’s front shoulder, a bullet would have passed through the lungs, ensuring a quick death. Bonus points were awarded for the cleanest shots." Competitors at the event, held at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, were filmed for a show scheduled to air on the Outdoor Chanel in early 2011. "We knew it was a revolutionary concept," Jeff Murray, a managing producer at Winnercomm, which is part of the Outdoor Channel, told Card. "It is designed to be very educational. The viewers are very thirsty for information." (Read more)

NASCAR says it will use E15 in 2011

The ethanol industry scored a public-relations boost over the weekend as NASCAR announced it would begin using E15 blend gasoline beginning in 2011. The auto-racing circuit announced "it will utilize a 15 percent ethanol blend fuel provided by Sunoco in its three national series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Trucks – beginning next season," Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer reports. NASCAR said the ethanol it uses will come from U.S. corn farmers.

"While fueling the same close, door-to-door racing that thrills our fans, American ethanol creates jobs in the United States, helps foster energy independence and continues the greening of our sport," said Brian France, NASCAR chairman and CEO. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s director of competition, told Utter that testing with the fuel has shown a modest increase in horsepower. "We can’t make mistakes in this area," France said. "This has got to be a smooth transition. We’re pretty confident it will be just that." (Read more)

Rural America remains short of college degrees

While more Americans than ever have college degrees, the geographic distribution of college graduates remains unequal and leaves rural areas at a disadvantage. "The clustering of people with education is creating greater inequality in regional incomes and unemployment," Roberto Gallardo and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder. "The places with a high percentage of educated adults do better economically than the counties with low proportions of adults with BA degrees. They have higher incomes and lower unemployment." That trend holds true for rural areas where per capita wages increase with education.

In rural America, "the top fifth of counties based on college education have an average personal income of $36,135," Gallardo and Bishop write. "The bottom fifth of rural counties, based on college education, have an average income of $26,371." Rural America also remains behind urban areas in terms of college degrees. In 1990, 23 percent of urban adults had a college degree, compared to 12.4 percent of rural adults. By 2009, the urban percentage was 29.9, and the rural percentage was only 16.8.

The Yonder compared the 204 counties with the highest percentage of adults with BA degrees with the 204 with the smallest percentage. "The most educated counties had higher incomes than the least educated counties ($37,283 versus $24,605); lower unemployment in July of this year (7.5% versus 12.2%); and a lower poverty rate (12.5% versus 21.1%)," Gallardo and Bishop write. The education gap also has important health implications; in 2000 a college-educated 25-year-old could expect to live seven years longer than less education peers, the Yonder reports. (Read more) (Yonder map)

Natural gas plant will allow Montana co-ops to own their own power

Four Montana rural electric cooperatives broke ground on a new $125 million natural gas power plant, signaling a move for state co-ops to own their own power instead of purchasing it. "The 120-megawatt Highwood Generating Station, which is being constructed by Billings-based Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative, is the third major energy project in north-central Montana to get under way this year," but is the first to be owned by rural electric cooperatives, Karl Puckett of the Great Falls Tribune reports.

"We're really seeing a birth of a whole new industry right now," former Great Falls City Manager John Lawton told Puckett of the spate of energy-related work in the region. The rural electric cooperatives say that "owning their power, instead of purchasing it, will give the cooperatives more control over the price of their electricity, which will become more important as the economy recovers and electric prices increase," Puckett writes. Beartooth Electric in Red Lodge, Fergus Electric in Lewistown, Mid-Yellowstone Electric in Hysham and Tongue River Electric in Ashland are combining on the project. (Read more)

American chestnut trees may gain new life on reclaimed strip mines in Appalachia

The American chestnut tree, long a staple in eastern U.S. forests before virtually disappearing by 1950 after being affected by a foreign blight, may be poised for a comeback. "By interbreeding the American with its Chinese cousin, tree lovers have created an American chestnut with some resistance to Asian blight and have developed a virus that can be injected into affected trees to combat the fungus," Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reports. The project has planted 25,000 new chestnuts so far.

"If the hybrid plantings thrive, some envision huge tracts of strip-mined Appalachia one day being restored with lovely chestnut forests," Eilpern writes. Even with early success it may take 75 to 100 years to determine if the tree can be reestablished to its former prominence, Bryan Burhans, president of the American Chestnut Foundation, which has led the revival efforts, told Eilpern. "We know we're interbreeding resistance [to the blight]. Now we have to figure out, does it have enough resistance?" he said.

"A fast-growing, hardy tree that thrives on rocky and acidic soil, the American chestnut served as an economic engine for Appalachia," Eilpern writes. "Families fattened livestock with its nuts and used its wood for fuel, railroad ties, fence posts, musical instruments and furniture." The chestnut blight was first identified at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, and by 1950 scientists estimated only 50 to 100 trees remained. Most of the 25,000 new chestnuts planted have been grown on reclaimed strip mines. "Surface mines may make the best springboard for the American chestnut back into the Eastern forest," Patrick Angel, a senior forester at the Office of Surface Mining who is helping to oversee the effort, told Eilperin. "The natural range of the American chestnut and the Appalachian coal fields overlap perfectly." (Read more)