Saturday, November 20, 2010

Massey Energy boss mixes it up with national and local reporters for two and a half hours

Don Blankenship, whose tenure as CEO of Massey Energy has been marked by contentious relations with the news media, spent two and a half hours with an invited group of national and local journalists yesterday in an effort to make the case that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration could share responsibility for the April explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

"Despite dozens of wide-ranging questions, Blankenship kept returning to several central themes: news stories about the coal mining giant unfairly suggest blame; reporters should focus more attention on the failures of federal regulators; and those regulators are keeping Massey from operating safely and determining the true cause of the massive explosion," which Massey argues was caused by an inpredictable infusion of natural gas through the mine floor, Howard Berkes reports for National Public Radio. (Berkes photo)

Blankenship said at the outset that he might turn the tables and ask questions of reporters, and "During persistent and probing questioning from Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette [left, 2005 photo], Blankenship fired back," Berkes reports:
"What do you think happened, Ken?" Blankenship asked.
Ward considered an answer for a moment, and then responded, "I might be able to answer if you would provide the documents I've been seeking [from Massey]."
Blankenship said he wasn't sure he could turn over the documents, which further describe the discussions between MSHA and Massey over natural gas infusions.
For Ward's reports on the encounter, click here.

Feds warn 13 underground coal mines they are facing shutdown if they don't become safer

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has notified 13 underground coal mines that they have a pattern of safety violations that could lead to them beign closed if they don't shape up. "No mine has ever been placed on pattern of violation status, but MSHA has moved to beef up that process in the wake of an April explosion that killed 29 miners at a West Virginia mine," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"That mine, the Upper Big Branch operation owned by Massey Energy, met the criteria to be the 14th on the list of potential pattern violators, but MSHA postponed action on that because it is still investigating the deadly explosion, according to a news release," Estep writes. A list of the 13 mines, in PDF form, is here. One of them, a Massey mine in Pike County, Kentucky, recently became the target of asn MSHA lawsuit seeking a shutdown for repeated violations. The list has three others in Kentucky and West Virginia, two in Tennessee and one each in Alabama, Illinois, Montana and Nevada. For MSHA's Excel spreadsheet with details on each mine, click here.

In their release, MSHA and Department of Labor officials sounded a tough tone. Joe Main, a former United Mine Workers official who runs MSHA as assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said of special "impact" imnspections of repeat violators, "This screening represents a positive step forward, but it won't be the only step. . . . Once MSHA completes a thorough auditing, there may be more mines put on notice for a potential POV."

The special inspection process has used tougher tactics, such as taking control of mine phones so workers at the office can't warn foremen that inspectors are on the way down, Estep reports, noting that was done in the case of a Kentucky mine that is under a federal court order not to warn about inspections. (Read more)

We're in Farm-City Week, folks!

Nov. 19-25 is Farm-City Week. President Obama, issuing a proclamation yesterday, sounded an optimistic tone:
The connection between rural industries and urban markets is stronger than ever, and Americans across the country are finding ways to participate in and celebrate the importance of agriculture and related industries.  Rising interest in local and regional food highlights farmers' contributions in connecting urban, suburban, and rural areas.  American children are learning about the origins of our food and healthy food options by visiting farms, learning from hard-working farmers and ranchers, and trying their hand at agriculture through networks of school gardens and farm to school programs.  Thanks to their constant enterprise and innovation, rural communities are building new domestic and international markets for their high quality food, fuel, and fiber products.  As our agricultural industries continue to feed individuals at home and around the globe, we must help ensure robust and vibrant rural communities to support them.
The annual observation, which begins the Friday before Thanksgiving and ends on the holiday, is a project of the National Farm-City Council, which has a list of state farm-city organizations here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Senate sends House bill to give black farmers $1.15 billion, Native Americans $3.4 billion

"The U.S. Senate gave its approval today to major settlements involving American Indians and black farmers," David Ingram reports for the National Law Journal. "Senators approved the legislation without a formal vote, sending it to the House of Representatives for a potentially final vote." UPDATE, Nov. 30: The House sent the bill to President Obama on a 256-152 vote. "Sixteen Republicans joined 240 Democrats in support of the measure, while three Democrats and 149 Republicans voted against it," reports Patrick Reis of Environment and Energy News (subscription required).

The bill "appropriates $1.15 billion for a settlement with black farmers, including named plaintiff Timothy Pigford, who were denied the full benefits" of federal farm programs, Ingram writes. The money would come from "a surplus in a fund for nutrition programs and by extending customs user fees." UPDATE, Nov. 25: Some House Republicans, alleging fraud, vow to fight the payments.

The Native Americans' suit faulted accounting of royalties for mining and drilling on tribal lands. "Debate over the settlements had drawn out for months over how to pay for them and over how much of the $3.4 billion settlements should go to the plaintiffs’ lawyers," Ingram reports. The legislation would leave the fees up to the judge in the case. (Read more)

EPA says its decision on 15 percent ethanol for 2001-06 models won't come until next year

The Environmental Protection Agency announced this afternoon that it would delay until next year a decision on whether to allow 15 percent ethanol fuel in cars made in model years 2001 through 2006. EPA said the Energy Department would not complete testing on vehicles until the end of the year.

Last month, EPA allowed a blemd of 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent unleaded gasoline in cars and light trucks made in model year 2007 or later. The move, "which has already sparked challenges from the petroleum, farm and food industry groups, marked the first change in the fuel standard since EPA approved 10 percent ethanol in the 1970s," notes Alison Winter of Environment & Energy News. "The change in the fuel-blend standard was spurred by an industry group, Growth Energy, which petitioned for the waiver last year in a bid to expand the ethanol market. Without E15, the group said, the ethanol industry would hit a wall as companies produced more of the corn-based fuel than the market could use." (Read more, subscription required)

Genealogy teaches rural towns as well as families

Julie Ardery of the Daily Yonder studies a special kind of rural resident who studies the past. Genealogists are committed to not only saving family histories, but also to detailing the history of their communities. (Bill Bishop photo: Family scrapbook of Lucille Skarpa Rohan)

In Fayette County, Texas, a cluster of families share a Czechoslovakian heritage that is being slowly uncovered by T.J. Slansky. In Middlesboro, Ky., Marsha Bratton is piecing together the history of the Cumberland Gap, "where many pioneers (including Daniel Boone) ventured through the Appalachian Mountains." Tina Martinson Ordone, now living in Rayne, Louisiana, has created a world-class genealogical website for Stephentown, New York, where five generations of her mother’s family lived, writes Ardery.

Ordone said, "Genealogical research tends to bring small communities together, in that the discovery of mutual ties will bond people." She said that the Stephentown Historical Society has saved an abandoned Methodist Episcopal church (c. 1870), which now holds its library, and has restored several old cemeteries in the region. Marsha Bratton, of Middlesboro, believes genealogy brings history to life for children. She advises parents, "If you know that your great-great-great grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War, tell your children that." As Ardery adds, "Without rural genealogy expertise and local centers for its dissemination,  those 'family connections' will likely become more and more tenuous as time passes." (Read more)

Iowa now fourth state with pseudoephedrine tracking system to fight meth labs

On Sept. 1, Iowa joined a growing group of states using computer databases to track pseudoephedrine purchases. State officials say Iowa pharmacies have blocked thousands of purchases of the drug, which is the key ingredient in methamphetamine production, since the system went into effect, Tony Lews of the Des Moines Register reports. Kentucky, Louisiana and Illinois also track pseudoephedrine purchases, with Missouri, Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, Kansas and Washington working on development of similar systems.

The Iowa system "alerts pharmacists whenever someone tries to purchase the cold medicine after buying his or her daily or monthly limit elsewhere," Lews writes. "It also gives police a way to check whether suspected meth-makers have been buying large amounts of the ingredient." Gary Kendell, Iowa's director of drug-control policy, told Lews the system sent about 3,000 alerts for improper purchases to pharmacists in the past month while about 70,000 purchases were approved during the same period. Pharmacists aren't required to deny purchases based on a system alert, but they usually do, Kendell said.

Kevin Winker, assistant director of the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement, told Lews his officers don't need subpoenas to search the system but are required to complete special training to use it. Randall Wilson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, called for a court order to authorize such searches so citizens won't have "law officers root(ing) through their medical affairs without a specific reason to suspect them of wrongdoing," Lews writes. "We don't need to be making criminals out of hypochondriacs," Wilson told Lews. (Read more)

Despite adoption of the system in Kentucky, doctors and some law-enforcement agencies in the state want a law requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine. The Appalachian area served by Operation UNITE was the pilot for the Kentucky program, but UNITE’s law-enforcement director says he has come to favor a prescription laws because the reporting system can be gamed by multiple purchasers paid by a meth producer, The Courier-Journal reports.

EPA releases draft guidelines for locating schools

Is your school district looking for a site for a new school? If so, new draft voluntary guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may be helpful in choosing a site with the lowest environmental threat. "EPA is offering tools to local officials and community residents looking to build schools that foster healthy, productive learning environments," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a news release. "This guidance will help address the pressing environmental issues that parents, school boards and local residents often consider when making investments in their local schools. By offering guidance on long-term environmental and health concerns, it will also help local communities plan ahead and reduce the risk of costly changes down the road."

EPA says the draft guidelines are based on four principles:
  • Safe and healthy school environments are integral components of the education process,
  • School siting decisions should help increase the livability and sustainability of neighborhoods and communities,
  • The process should consider the environmental health and safety of the entire community, including disadvantaged and under served populations
  • The environmental review process should be rigorous, thorough, well documented and include substantive and ongoing public involvement.
The draft guidelines are available for public comment for 90 days. (Read more)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Kentucky, Maryland, Washington tell health insurers to resume selling children-only policies

Kentucky Insurance Commissioner Sharon Clark has ordered health insurers to resume sales of child-only policies effective Jan. 1, saying their refusal to offer such policies violated state law in that it unfairly discriminated against some children. Top insurance regulators in Washington state and Maryland have taken similar steps to force health insurers to offer the policies.

The nation’s health insurers stopped selling new child-only plans in advance of the federal health reform law's Sept. 23 deadline requiring them to disregard pre-existing medical conditions on policies for children under the age of 19. Previously, insurers could refuse coverage for sick children.

Insurers have argued that companies that choose to offer the policies will have to assume the cost burden of covering a disproportionate share of sick children. Also, they argue, if a child cannot be turned down for coverage, some parents will delay buying coverage. For a story from The Courier-Journal of Louisville, click here.

Robert Penn Warren, Pulitzer winner for fiction and poetry, finally gets an Interstate sign

"It was huge news in the small town of Guthrie, Kentucky, on Thursday when the governors of Tennessee and Kentucky unveiled new highway signs directing motorists to the Robert Penn Warren Birthplace and Museum," Tim Ghianni reports for Reuters, a worldwide wire service. "Many motorists traveling on Interstate Highway 24 passed within a few miles of the hardscrabble town across the state line, which was an old railroad and stagecoach stop, without being aware of its museum." (1986 photo)

Warren, America's first poet laureate and the only person to win Pulitzer prizes for fiction (All the King's Men) and poetry (twice), was born in Guthrie, "but grew up with a foot firmly in each state," going to high school in Clarksville, Tenn., and Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "Warren left a lasting impression on American culture and literature and I certainly hope more people visit the museum to learn about his life and work," said Gerald Nicely, Tennessee's appointed deputy governor and transportation commissioner. (Does any other state besides Illinois have a deputy governor?)
From left in front of one of the exit-ramp signs are Todd County (Ky.) Judge-Executive Arthur Green, Guthrie Mayor Scott Marshall, Nicely, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and Kentucky state Rep. Martha Jane King.

Ky. power co-op drops plans for coal-fired plant

East Kentucky Power Cooperative has agreed to drop its plans for a coal-fired power plant and will work with environmental groups to consider energy-efficiency programs to stem rising demand for electricity, writes Scott Sloan for the Lexington Herald-Leader. In exchange for EKPC's abandonment of the plant, the groups have agreed to drop lawsuits filed against the company in recent years.

"This settlement is a win-win" for co-op members and other Kentuckians, said Elizabeth Crowe, executive director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. Tony Campbell, the cooperative's CEO, said in a statement, "This is a prudent business decision based on the conditions that exist today and our projections of future conditions. ... Our analysis indicates that proceeding with construction of Smith Unit No. 1 at this time is not in the best interests of our cooperative or our members."

The over half-million customer-members of EKPC's distribution cooperatives may have to pay for what has already been built of the plant, completion of which the co-op estimated would cost $819 million. The cooperative had already spent $150 million on steel and other materials and will ask the Kentucky Public Service Commission for permission to raise rates to recover those costs. (Read more)

UPDATE, Nov. 26: One of EKPC's member co-ops, Shelby Energy, "continues to draw the ire of several long-time customers who primarily are concerned with the company’s board of directors and how it functions," reports Todd Martin of The Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, noting that Shelby's representative is chairman of the EKPC board. (Read more)

Livestock broker leaves cattlemen empty-handed

An Indiana livestock brokerage is under federal investigation after issuing millions of dollars in worthless checks for cattle on the market earlier this month. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Eastern Livestock Co. wrote at least $81 million in worthless checks to cattle producers around the country between Nov. 3 and Nov. 9," Harold J. Adams of the Courier-Journal reports. "The agency said it is working with the Justice Department to investigate the situation."

Last week Cincinnati-based Fifth-Third Bank froze the New Albany, Ind., company's accounts and filed a legal complaint that accused the company of stealing at least $13 million from the bank "in a sophisticated check-kiting scheme." The bank also claims Eastern defaulted on a $32.5 million loan that was due last month, Adams writes. Eastern did not respond to telephone messages left by the Courier-Journal, and Fifth-Third declined to comment, citing the pending legal action.

The situation has left some cattlemen empty-handed, Adams writes. "While unknown to most people outside of the industry, Eastern 'is one of the largest cattle brokerage companies in the United States,' according to a USDA spokesman," Adams writes. "The company buys and sells cattle in all 48 contiguous states through operations in 11 states, from the mid-South to the West." The Kentucky Cattlemen's Association reports about 200 Kentucky producers sold cattle to Eastern during the affected period. (Read more)

China's fast-developing technology and American research could pave path for coal and climate

While eliminating or reducing use of coal is often called the key in combating global warming, using the fuel in more sustainable ways may be the only option for combating climate change before it produces irreversible cataclysm. To foster development of clean-coal technology, the United States needs to turn to China for its considerable resources in the industry, James Fallows of The Atlantic writes. "For the coal industry, the term 'clean coal' is an advertising slogan; for many in the environmental movement, it is an insulting oxymoron," Fallows writes. "But two ideas that underlie the term are taken with complete seriousness by businesses, scientists, and government officials in China and America, and are the basis of the most extensive cooperation now under way between the countries on climate issues."

There is no plausible way to meet the global energy demand without using coal, Fallows argues, so countries should try to decrease its environmental impact as much as possible. Fallows provides a thorough examination of the basics of climate change science before concluding coal's role in it will need to be addressed because of dependence on the fuel. "It is very hard to go around the world and think you can make any difference in carbon-loading the atmosphere without some plan for how people can continue to use coal," Julio Friedmann of Lawrence Livermore Laboratories said. "It is by far the most prevalent and efficient way to generate electricity. People are going to use it. There is no story of climate progress without a story for coal."

Reducing coal emissions centers on two different approaches: capturing carbon dioxide before it can escape into the air and reducing the carbon dioxide that coal produces when burned. Under either approach carbon dioxide must be sequestered after it is removed from coal. "In the search for 'progress on coal,' like other forms of energy research and development, China is now the Google, the Intel, the General Motors and Ford of their heyday—the place where the doing occurs, and thus the learning by doing as well," Fallows writes.

"They [the Chinese] are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States," David Mohler of Duke Energy told Fallows. Any challenges to the Chinese system "make the threats facing America look trivial by comparison," Fallows writes. "But its response to the energy challenge — including its commitment to dealing with the dirty, unavoidable reality of coal — reveals a seriousness about facing big problems that America now appears to lack." (Read more)

House Democrats hold one last climate hearing before Republican takeover

The U.S. House of Representatives welcomed climate scientists to Capitol Hill for one last climate change hearing before Republicans gain control of the House. "Republican Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, in line to take the committee gavel next year, wasted no time in declaring that 'reasonable people have serious questions about our knowledge of the state of the science, the evidence and what constitutes a proportional response,'" Lauren Morello of Environment & Energy News reports. Democrats described the event as a "rational discussion."

The hearing amounted to little more than "Climate Science 101" as climate skeptics invited by Republicans sparred with the climate scientists, Morello writes. "The science is very clear," Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Pennsylvania State University, told Morello. "The science says the ice is melting -- almost everywhere, and almost all of it -- consistent with warming. ... We see ice shrinking because it's getting warming, and when you estimate warming by looking at how much the ice is shrinking, it agrees with the thermometers."

South Carolina Republican Representative Bob Inglis did not mince words in his predictions of what a Republican-controlled House will mean for climate science. "I encourage the scientists that are listening out there to get ready for the hearings that are coming up in the next Congress," he said. "Those will be difficult hearings for climate scientists. But I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach. Don't come here defensively. Say, 'I'm glad to have an opportunity to explain the science.'" (Read more, subscription required)

U.S. plywood producer promises to protect forests

The nation's largest plywood producer announced it will no longer buy timber from environmentally sensitive areas. "Georgia-Pacific, which makes wood and fiber products, announced the plan with three environmental groups," Ray Henry of The Associated Press reports. "Activists said the company's new policy goes a step beyond conservation policies set by other firms by using a scoring system backed by satellite and other mapping technologies to identify protected forests." Georgia-Pacific will also discourage landowners from clearing hardwood forests under the new policy.

"The policy is a product of seven years of discussions started when the Rainforest Action Network pressured major Georgia-Pacific customers — including Home Depot and Lowe's — over their wood supply," Henry writes. The policy is nonbinding, meaning Georgia-Pacific faces only embarrassment if it fails to comply. "We continue to believe it is possible to operate in a way that is environmentally responsible and also economically sound," said Jim Hannan, Georgia-Pacific's CEO and president. "This policy also gives us the opportunity to address issues of increasing interest to our customers and to consumers."

Under the policy, "Georgia-Pacific will not buy pine fiber from lands that were formerly natural hardwood forests and were cleared after July 2008 to plant pine plantations, a process called conversion," Henry writes. The policy also labels "some areas 'endangered forests' and 'special areas' that Georgia-Pacific has agreed will be off-limits," Henry writes. Georgia-Pacific will determining what areas qualify for special designation using a scoring system that takes into account concentrations of rare and endangered species, rare forest types, roadless areas and places already afforded government protection. (Read more)

Health-insurance deductibles spike; rural workers seem less inclined to choose that course

According to a survey of employers by the Mercer consulting firm, reported in The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog, the average deductible for preferred provider organizations (PPOs), the most common health insurance plan in the United States, has increased $430 since 2005, from $770 to $1,200. The finding is based on a survey of 2,836 employers with 10 or more employees.

The largest employers in the survey, those with more than 20,000 workers, were more likely than medium or small businesses to report increased enrollment in plans with high deductibles tied to health savings accounts. On average, these plans save employers about $2,000 a year per employee, as out-of-pocket deductible and co-insurance costs are shifted to workers and their families. Based on these findings, rural workers, who are far more likely to be employed by smaller firms and earn lower wages, appear less inclined to opt for the potentially high cost of these plans.

Overall, these findings suggest a return to the pre-reform pace of cost increases for health insurance. Health benefit costs rose a reported 6.9 percent in 2010 compared to 5.5 percent in 2009. Nevertheless, an earlier Mercer survey found that employers attributed 2 percentage points of an anticipated 5.9 percent cost increase next year to the provisions of the new health reform law. Mercer is a global firm that specializes in, among other things, acquisitions and mergers, outsourcing, and the management of benefit costs.

Corps changing methods for fixing leaky dam

Methods for repairing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' most closely monitored dam have been changed, probably delaying the project and the return to normal level of Lake Cumberland, which normally has the largest volume of water impounded in the Eastern United States. Wolf Creek Dam is on the Cumberland River in Southern Kentucky.

French and Italian contractors for the Corps are installing a concrete curtain in the earthen portion of the dam to stop leaks caused by the erosion of underlying karst limestone. Work was stopped late last winter when movement was detected in the earthen portion near the concrete portion. In September, the Corps said work would resume soon, but today The Times Journal of nearby Russell Springs reports that the Corps has changed its construction techniques in the troublesome area, which will require a new contract, new equipment and probably more time and money.

"A six-month study showed the movements were not the result of deep-seated sliding of the embankment, but rather shallow movements attributed to several other causes. . . . The Corps will negotiate contract modifications over the next few months, officials said. The contractor will begin to procure the necessary equipment and casing which will be fabricated and mobilized to the site over a period of five to eight months," The Times Journal reports. For more background, go here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bleak predictions highlight timberland conference

The 8th IQPC Timberland Investment World Summit was marked by pessimistic forecasts for the future of forest products and timberland prices. "The most optimistic sense of the future came from Remsoft, a software-development company in New Brunswick that works with natural resource industries, particularly timber," Curtis Seltzer reports for LandThink. "Their take on the next 10 years was that things would 'revert to the trend,' which is price appreciation in products, broadly speaking."

Peter Barynin, principal timber economist at RISI, the global timber information company, was less optimistic, describing he outlook for forest-product demand as "anemic," with price gains "difficult." Barynin "believes that the U.S. is 'emerging as the timber basket to the world,'" Seltzer writes. "The very fact of unused milling capacity and excess timber supply in this country should, however, keep timber prices flat for the next couple of years." Joel Shapiro, head of Atlanta-based Timbervest, LLC, which manages about 825,000 acres in the U.S., had an even bleaker view, predicting timberland prices coming down with "some [bare] dirt values dropping in half over the last few months."

The market for U.S. forest products is high-risk because of "'unprecedented' developments in the U.S. housing cycle, questions about stability in both the U.S. and Europe, currency questions and whether Russia’s vast supply of stumpage will start filling a significant space in global demand," Barynin said. Seltzer notes, "I’m not sure timberland sellers will do better tomorrow than they can do today. And if the glut of foreclosed homes keeps growing and depressing starts, they may do even worse." (Read more)

Local food and small farm advocates stand in way of food-safety bill

The food-safety bill before Congress has come under fire from local food advocates, who say it could hurt small farms. "The opposition of these 'locavores' — advocates for buying food directly from the farm or closer to home — and owners of small farms has become a sticking point in the Senate, which was to vote Wednesday on whether to consider the bill," The Associated Press reports. "Opponents say it could bankrupt some small farms that don't have the means to comply with new standards the bill would impose."

Standards could include registering food safety plans with the FDA and documenting efforts to show food is not contaminated as it is produced. "It's going to put a nail in the coffin of our family food producers," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is planning an amendment to exempt some small farms who market food close to their operations. Tester told AP  that many small farms already comply with state and local regulations to keep food safe.

Food safety advocates say Tester's concerns are overblown and efforts to broadly exempt smaller farms could be misguided. "They argue that the legislation, which would give the FDA more authority to recall tainted products, increase inspections of food processors and require producers to follow stricter standards for keeping food safe, is crucial in the wake of outbreaks of contaminated peanuts, eggs and produce that have sickened hundreds," AP writes. (Read more)

Mule deer poaching a problem in Oregon

As the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife surveyed the state's population of mule deer, the researchers discovered a "shocking level of poaching" in Central Oregon. Michelle Dennehy, a Fish and Wildlife spokesperson, told Richard Cockle, of The Oregonian, "If we look at the illegal take, it's basically equal to the legal take -- it's bad." (Photo by Nick Myatt, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Oregon's population of mule deer has fallen to 216,000 from its highest number, 300,000. The survey also revealed that poachers tend to take female deer, which slows building the herd. The mule deer population is not only killed off by poaching, but it is also threatened by black bears, cougars and grey wolves which are predators to the mule deer. Reduced habitat also threatens mule deer in the region.

Poachers are motivated by several factors: eager to get a jump on the season, the cost of licenses, or money made off of the mounted heads of the deer which are sold for thousands of dollars. Poachers are notoriously difficult to catch, said Oregon State Police game officer Chris Hawkins. Poachers often work quickly -- within minutes after killing a deer, they move on, Hawkins said. "They take the backstrap and hindquarters and they're gone," he told Cockle, noting that scavengers strip the rest and scatter the bones within a week or two. As one poacher told Hawkins during a criminal case: "Some people do cocaine. Hunting is my drug." (Read more)

W.Va. report says coal costs state less than first estimated, but more than it brings in

West Virginia's coal industry costs the state budget $42 million a year, says a revised report from consulting firm Downstream Strategies and the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy. The authors initially estimated the cost at $97.5 million but revised that figure after criticism leveled by coal lobbyists and by industry researchers at Marshall University, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. A similar study in Kentucky by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development reached a similar conclusion and drew similar complaints but has not been revised.

Both reports argue that while the coal industry provides jobs and tax revenues, it costs the states in the form of tax breaks, damage to roads and other impacts than the industry's economic activity generates in taxes. Ted Boettner, director of the West Virginia center, told Ward that he and other researchers "agreed with a number" of industry criticisms of their study, but "Several are simply mistaken and fail to acknowledge many of the costs associated with coal mining." The original report was funded partly by environmental groups.

"Among the biggest changes in the estimates was the addition of $31.5 million to the estimate of direct coal industry revenues to cover local property taxes that provide additional state aid to schools through county school boards," Ward writes. "The new report again emphasized concerns about what it estimated at $5 billion in 'legacy costs' to fix damaged roads and clean up abandoned coal mines covered by West Virginia's special reclamation program." Boettner said the state legislature should follow the advise of Democratic state House member Nancy Guthrie, who called for a comprehensive study of coal's costs and benefits. (Read more)

Targeted mutation, new form of genetic engineering, could alter biotechnology debate

Herbicide-resistant canola plants are likely to be the first in a wave of biotech crops created through targeted mutation, potentially changing the face of genetic engineering. Targeted mutation is a "long-sought technique that allows tailored changes in plant genes, down to single pairs of DNA," Paul Voosen of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. The canola plants, which have been planted in test farms in North Dakota and were created by biotech firm Cibus LLC, could reshape the modified crop debate by forcing regulators to ask what "genetically engineered" actually means. (Cibus photo: James Radtke, vice president of product development, with canola plant)

As its basic level targeted mutation resembles altering one letter in one word of a newspaper, said Peter Beetham, Cibus' scientific head. Flipping that one letter, he said, "potentially changes the meaning of the whole paragraph." Random mutation, which occurs naturally, has long been used by breeders but is considered inefficient. "Targeted mutation, also known as genome editing, changes this dynamic," Voosen writes. "Over the past several years, a clutch of small biotech firms has developed tools that allow scientists to induce errors in DNA repair -- such mistakes are the source of mutation -- with great specificity."

But that method doesn't fit "a U.S. regulatory system that has been based on one technology: the somewhat random insertion of largely bacterial DNA into plants," Voosen writes. The Department of Agriculture concluded six years ago it had no authority to regulate crops generated with "mutagenesis techniques" like those employed by Cibus. The firm has faced no limits on its canola trials and "will likely be able to sell the crop without facing the USDA controls that have regulated bioengineered crops for more than a decade," Voosen writes.

Some industry officials hope the new technique will help alleviate public concern over genetically altered crops since no genes are added. Janet Cotter, a Greenpeace scientist based at the University of Exeter, told Voosen such hopes misread public sentiment. The public's objections are simple, she said: "They don't like people meddling with DNA." (Read more)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Chinese students are attending regional U.S. universities in increasing numbers

Pennsylvania's regional universities are among many in America that are looking to China, recruiting students to offset declines in domestic enrollment, reports Bill Schackner for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The rural Indiana University of Pennsylvania tripled enrollment of Chinese students, from 32 students three years ago to 106 this year. (Nick Gao, student at IUP, posed for Lake Fong of the Post-Gazette.)

According to a report from Institute of International Education, 128,000 Chinese students attended school in the U.S. in 2009. Experts say the flow of students from China is not only to the major cities and campuses, but to a swath of schools, reports Schackner. The surge also reflects intensifying efforts by American schools at recruiting Chinese students, including IUP which has formed relationships with several universities in that country.

Some Western Pennsylvania campuses see international students as one way to offset projected declines in the region's high school graduates. Families of international students qualify for far less financial help to attend American schools, and in many cases, must pay their own way. IUP said the influx is beneficial to students from both countries. "Our students need to know more about China for the 21st century," said Dr. Michele Petrucci, IUP's assistant vice president for international education and global engagement. "Chinese students are looking to differentiate themselves back home. An American degree is one way to do that." (Read more)

Skepticism about climate change is a cultural phenomenon that is being mainly ignored

Why do so many people reject the overwhelming scientific conclusion that human activity plays a major role in global warming and climate change? "That's a question we think journalists and academic researchers should be asking," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. "As this month's election may have illustrated, there is a skepticism and resentment toward elites and experts, and that makes it a more potent political issue – especially when journalists 'balance' stories by giving equal weight to climate-change deniers, who are vastly outnumbered in the scientific community."

The cultural nature of the issue is woefully ignored, says one social scientist. "The national discussion on climate change is brimming with economic models, scientific findings and wonky plans to fix it," Evan Lehmann of Environment & Energy News reports. "But something is missing: academic explanations of why people flout reams of scientific conclusions, bristle at the notion of cutting carbon and regard climate change as a sneaky liberal plot."

"The social sciences are glaringly missing," said Andrew Hoffman, an expert on the sociological aspects of environmental policies at the University of Michigan, where he is researching climate-change denial. "That leaves out critical questions about the cultural dimensions of both defining the problem and finding solutions." Hoffman notes that the research community dismisses the conservative movement, while social scientists are usually disengaged from public-policy debates. "Both of those are problematic," Hoffman said. "Within academia, the currency that matters is in A-level journals. And therefore, the chief thread has to be theoretical. This is an empirical phenomenon."

Hoffman claims the politics behind climate-change skepticism are similar to another conservative hot-button topic: abortion. "If, as we suspect, skeptics invoke climate frames that resemble abortion politics, this has serious policy implications," Hoffman and his colleagues wrote in a paper to be published in the journal Strategic Organization next summer. "As long as members of the skeptic movement are included in the policy debate and sway the opinions of some lawmakers, their discourse is critically relevant." Hoffman says reciting the scientific consensus about climate change won't address the cultural issues: "Simplistic notions that we merely have to present the science and we're done -- that ignores some of the deeper cultural elements at play such as freedom, privacy, proper role of government, our place within the environment, the balance between development and environmental protection."

Those are topics for journalists, not just academic researchers. The report about Hoffman is here, but a subscription is required. However, his paper is available on the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues website, here.

Texas county jail inmates are dying from illness

Over 280 Texas county jail inmates died from illness over a four year period, according to data from the Texas attorney general analyzed by The Texas Tribune. "The number of illness-related deaths in county jails comes close to the number of deaths in state penitentiaries — despite the fact that county lockups house half as many inmates, on average, and keep them for much shorter periods," Brandi Grissom reports for the Tribune. Sheriffs say dwindling budgets are making it more difficult to meet the health care needs of inmates. (Photo by Caleb Bryant Miller)

Still, they say "they are doing everything they can to care for people who come to them with a multitude of physical and mental illnesses that are exacerbated by drug and alcohol addiction," Grissom writes. Criminal justice advocates say the high number of illness-related deaths proves state standards for health care in county jails are needed. "People aren’t dying of old age in jails," Michele Deitch, a jail conditions expert and professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, told Grissom. "Those numbers are more likely to be reflective of medical care concerns."

"The data analyzed by the Tribune related to more than 1,500 deaths that occurred in law enforcement custody statewide from January 2005 through September 2009," Grissom writes. "Nearly 500 of those deaths were inmates who were in the custody of the state’s 254 sheriff’s departments." That data includes deaths from high-intensity pursuits, suicides and incidents during arrests, but 282 of the deaths resulted from illnesses contracted before incarceration.

"In small counties, Brown said, one seriously ill inmate can cause health care costs to skyrocket," Grissom writes. In rural Ector County one inmate with terminal cancer racked up $140,000 in medical treatment bills while awaiting trial on murder charges. "Not just well people get arrested," said Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson. "Some people are in bad shape." He added that it is "our responsibility to take care of them." (Read more)

Almost 17 million U.S. families faced food shortage

Almost 17 million U.S. families had trouble putting enough food on the table at some point in 2009, says a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA "found that 5.6 million of these households had problems throughout the year that severely disrupted normal eating patterns," Kimberly Kindy of The Washington Post reports. "Between 500,000 and 1 million of the people affected in the homes were children." So-called "food insecurity" was lower in rural areas, where 8.9 percent reported low food security in 2009 compared to 10.5 percent in principal cities.

"The number of 'food insecure' homes remained about the same as in 2008," Kindy writes. "But it has more than tripled since 2006 as the recession set in and nearly 10 percent of households were hit by unemployment." The report also examined state-by-state food insecurity levels from 2007-09. "Estimated prevalence rates of food insecurity during this 3-year period ranged from 6.7 percent in North Dakota to 17.7 percent in Arkansas," USDA writes, while "estimated prevalence rates of very low food security ranged from 2.6 percent in North Dakota to 6.8 percent in Alabama." (Read more)

Rural home foreclosures outpace others in Mass.

A Massachusetts study has found that home foreclosure is more common in the state’s suburban and rural communities than in the Bay State's cities. The Massachusetts Housing Partnership blames the shift on "a persistently high unemployment rate and the stagnant economy have become major drivers of bank seizures," as opposed to the 2007 phenomena of "high-interest mortgage loans, high-risk borrowers, and plummeting property values," Jenifer McKim of The Boston Globe reports.

W.Va. residents, Massey meet in hopes of reaching settlement in coal-pollution lawsuit

UPDATE, Nov. 17: Settlement negotiations between the land owners and Massey broke down late Tuesday night, setting the stage for a trial next summer. "Kevin Thompson, the plaintiffs' lead attorney based in Williamson, W.Va., said the mediation, which was ordered by the state's mass-litigation panel, was unsuccessful," Maher reports. Massey's general counsel, Shane Harvey, said, "We look forward to proving that our mining had no impact on the plaintiffs' wells." (Read more)

Over 500 residents of West Virginia mountain communities who say Massey Energy contaminated their wells with coal-mine waste opened a three-day meeting on Monday in hopes of reaching a settlement before their case goes to trial, Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal reports. "A panel of West Virginia judges ordered the 556 plaintiffs, and dozens of representatives from insurance companies that have denied coverage, to appear at the Charleston Civic Center for a three-day mediation," Maher writes.

The meeting hopes to establish how "much money the residents might be paid; how that cost would be borne by Massey, or by its insurance companies; and how many claims would be covered by the settlement," Maher writes. The trial is set to begin in August 2011 if no settlement is reached. Massey denies wrongdoing in the case. "Circuit Judge Alan Moats, chairman of the state's mass-litigation panel, said the size and complexity of the case made the mediation 'an unprecedented event,'" Maher writes. "Residents from Rawl and three other communities filled the civic-center auditorium because no courtroom in the state could fit them all."

The plaintiffs, who filed the lawsuit in 2004 in Mingo County Circuit Court, claims from 1978 to 1987 "Massey's Rawl Sales and Processing subsidiary injected 1.4 billion gallons of slurry into abandoned mines near their homes without necessary permits," Maher writes. The suit alleges slurry leaked through the mines into groundwater, leading to deaths from cancer, kidney failures and other chronic health problems. The plaintiffs are seeking more than $100 million in compensatory damages for lost wages and health expenses. (Read more)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Municipal bond market takes big hit, raising questions for local government

After performing well since the 2008 financial collapse, municipal bonds took their biggest hit in two years last week. "Concern over the increasingly strained finances of states and cities and a growing backlog of new bonds for sale overwhelmed the market last week," Mary Williams Walsh of The New York Times reports. "After performing so well for so long, munis and funds that invest in them fell hard." The declines were small compared to the bonds' gains over two years, but investors were left wondering if this was a brief setback or something worse.

"The big question confronting this market is how state and local governments will manage their debts," Walsh writes. "Many are staggering under huge pension and health care obligations that seem unsustainable." Some on Wall Street have wondered if "indebted states and cities might face a crisis akin to the one that brought Greece to its knees." Still others say it is too early for such dire predictions. "I think it’s too early to say that it’s more than a correction," Richard A. Ciccarone, the chief research officer of McDonnell Investment Management, told Walsh. "The facts just don’t support a serious conclusion that the whole market’s going downhill. They could. We’ve got some serious liabilities out there."

The municipal bond market had been strong as investors looked to tax-sheltered investments as Bush administration tax cuts are set to expire. "People seek a tax shelter like municipal bonds because the interest is usually not taxed, and the bonds are considered very safe," Walsh writes. Tax-exempt bonds have been harder to find this year as more governments have switched to taxable bonds. "The causes of the week’s big decline are clouded by unusual factors like the looming end of the Build America Bonds program, which has prompted local governments to race new bonds to market before an attractive federal subsidy is reduced," Walsh writes. (Read more)

Ohio landowners unite in anticipation of increased shale drilling

The natural-gas boom may be moving west of the Marcellus Shale, leading a group of Ohio landowners to band together in an effort to secure the biggest price for their mineral rights. Bob Rea of Salem, Ohio, and several of his neighbors have "formed a land group to educate themselves on an industry that has the potential to make them overnight millionaires," Grace Wyler of The Vindicator in Youngstown reports. The coalition, the Associated Landowners of the Ohio Valley, has more than 200 members in Columbiana County, accounting for about 200,000 acres of unleased land.

"We are trying to address the issues from the standpoint of how we can best protect ourselves," Rea told Wyler. "These are capitalists, and they want to make money. The way you make money is you buy low and you sell high — there is nothing wrong with what they’re doing; it just feels wrong when you are on the low side." While only about 30 of the 64,000 oil and gas wells in Ohio are currently taping into shale formations, leasing agents are aggressively pursuing Columbiana County landowners. The county recorded 550 leases in the first 10 months of 2010, Wyler writes.

Tom Tugend, deputy chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Minerals Management, noted shale drilling is still months, if not years, from playing a large part in Ohio's energy landscape. "At this point, companies are in the exploratory phase," Tugend said. "They are signing a lot of land, so we know there will be more [drilling], but how much more is hard to say." Regardless, Rea and his neighbors will be prepared. "All we want to do is try to level the playing the field a little bit," Rea said. "We want to make it so that those of us who aren’t educated in this new technology at least have a chance to defend ourselves in the negotiations to get the best that we can." (Read more)

Kentucky considers making key meth ingredient prescription-only

In the latest effort to combat methamphetamine production some Kentucky, state lawmakers and law enforcement officials are pushing to make pseudoephedrine, the key component of the drug, available only with a prescription. "Opponents, including the pharmaceutical industry, argue that making pseudoephedrine a controlled drug will simply make it harder for legitimate users to obtain it, while potentially driving up prescription fraud," Jessie Halladay of the Courier-Journal reports. Kentucky currently maintains an electronic registry of pseudoephedrine purchases.

Advocates of the prescription-only approach point to states like Oregon where similar policies suggest stricter regulation works. "We have a legal drug that can be created into an illegal drug very easily," Dr. Praveen Arla, who works in a family practice in Bullitt County, told Halladay. "I'm surprised that it's not scheduled because of that already. The potential harm to society that can come from this legal drug is pretty scary." Two bills that would have made pseudoephedrine prescription-only died during Kentucky's last General  Assembly session, but the issue is expected to come up again in 2011.

Supporters say a September endorsement from the Kentucky Medical Association has increased the chances of passing the prescription requirement. "It's an inconvenience to a lot of patients," Dr. Preston Nunnelley, a KMA member from Lexington, acknowledged. But he noted "the inconvenience can be outweighed by the benefit to public health." Law enforcement officials hope the stricter regulation of pseudoephedrine would help curb the growing number of meth labs. Kentucky authorities have recovered 810 labs already in 2010, compared to 741 for all of 2009. (Read more)

Documentary on mountaintop removal to air on PBS Nov. 23

In April, we reported on a documentary taking a new approach to the mountaintop removal debate. That film, "Deep Down: a story from the heart of coal country," will air on PBS on November 23. Instead of approaching mountaintop removal from the environmentalists' perspective, Deep Down examines the unique conflict between two friends in Maytown, Ky.: one who opposes surface mining, the other who agonizes over leasing his land for it. (Deep Down photo of coal train in Maytown)

The film argues that Maytown, which was relatively successful in turning back a proposed mountaintop removal mine, has "become an example for small communities throughout Appalachia." The documentaries protagonists are anti-stripping activist Beverly May and her longtime friend Terry Ratliff, a self-employed woodworker who has no retirement fund, needs money and is offered $75,000 to lease 6 acres for part of the proposed mine. In the end Ratliff doesn't lease his land and May and her colleagues are successful in blocking the mine's planned use of a local road as a haul road, but the film's primary benefit comes from its perspective on the unique pressures facing landowners in such a situation.

For more information on the documentary, you can read our original review here or visit the Deep Down website.

Retired editor in Washington state, no 'former journalist,' meets his final deadline

One day, The Columbian of Vancouver, Wash., across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore., published a column that former editor Tom Koenninger wrote would be his last. The next day, Sept. 30, he died, at 78. “Tom’s value to The Columbian and this community is really immeasurable,” Columbian Editor Lou Brancaccio said. “He was a brass-knuckle supporter of the importance of a daily newspaper and how a great daily newspaper can make a community better.”

Koenninger, left, served on various educational, historical and civic committees and boards while working at the newspaper, and “A lot of people thought that as a newsman, he shouldn’t be involved,” Marilyn Koenninger told Columbian reporter Tom Vogt in her husband’s hospice room. Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell told him, “Tom was very passionate about his community and about The Columbian and its role in the community. He was very engaged in serving on boards and community nonprofits, and saw this as one way to better the community and network with community leaders at the same time.”

Koenninger's final column was about his upbringing in the rural commuinity of Sara, 11 miles north of Vancouver, which he said had a great community spirit. "I wish this 'Sara spirit' legacy could return as a dominant value," he wrote. "I feel distressed at the snarling, angry letters to the editors of The Columbian, as well as in blogs. We live in a place of beauty almost unmatched in this world. Our civility should be equal to our livability. . . . Farm life is good for developing sound values. It nourishes the mind and the body. 'Sara spirit' would go a long way to provide that nourishment for this community. After 57 years of news writing, this is my final column for The Columbian, due to declining health. I hope these words convey the values and high standards that this beautiful place can embrace." (Read more)

And thus ended Tom Koenninger's career. He "never considered himself a former journalist, Marilyn Koenninger said shortly before his death," Vogt reported, quoting her in the hospice room: "He still has a press card. You never know when you come across a story." (Read more)

Halliburton starts putting lists of its fracking chemicals online, after inquiries by EPA, CBS

Hours after it took some shots from CBS's "60 Minutes," but on a timetable one of its managers mentioned last month, Halliburton Co. announced today that "it will publicly disclose detailed information on its website about the chemicals used in its fracturing fluids" used to open up vast natural-gas reserves in deep, dense shale formations, Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy News reports. "Environmentalists say more information is still needed and should be required by federal regulators."

Halliburton's vice president of production enhancement, David Adams, said, "While the initial focus of the additive disclosure pages are limited to activities taking place in Pennsylvania, where development of the Marcellus Shale is already well under way, the company is committed to continuing to provide hydraulic fracturing fluid disclosure information for every U.S. state in which Halliburton's fracture stimulation services are in use." (Read more, subscription required) A Halliburton technology manager told a trade conference in October that the company would reveal chemicals on a website by today, but the company apparently made no formal announcement until today.

CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl noted that Halliburton was the only company that recently refused a request from the Environmental Protection Agency to reveal the chamicals it uses in hydraulic fracturing, known in the business as "fracking." She also noted "the Halliburton loophole," which exempted fracking technology from regulation under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. To watch the 13-minute report, which was as much about the gas boom and windfalls for landowners as about the environmental aspects, click here.

Knowledgeable, nonpartisan observer sees trouble for farm subsidies, EPA in new Congress

Farm lobbies are in "uncharted waters" as they try to preserve subsidies in a new Farm Bill that will be on the agenda of the new Congress, veteran agricultural journalist Dan Morgan said during a webinar last week. "We really don’t know where all this is going," Morgan told the gathering sponsored by the Washington lobbying and law firm of McLeod, Watkinson & Miller. He said the 83 freshmen senators and House members are "a different bunch of people from what we’re used to dealing with here in Washington."

Morgan, an independent journalist who once covered agriculture and Congress for The Washington Post, said the movement that has dominated American politics for the last year and a half reminds him of an angry dog, and "there’s certainly a chance that the next person it bites could be the farm programs and agriculture," especially with many losses among the "agricrats," Democrats who strongly supported farm programs.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman has said that creates "a huge hole," Morgan noted, "so the Farm Bureau plans to spend a lot of the next few months educating the new GOP members. And I guess the question I have is can they be educated? Are the gung-ho Tea Partiers going to sit still and see the blender tax credit for ethanol, which comes to about $6 billion a year, are they going to allow that to be extended?" A key player, Morgan said, will be Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who is in line to become chairman of the House Budget Committee.

"I know the conventional wisdom is that the rural members always come around to supporting agriculture and farmers," Morgan said, but added, "Republicans took the House this time based on the energy of a grassroots movement that was, in many ways, a reaction against the GOP leadership and its spending, and the winners owe very little to House leaders and a great deal to money raised by outsiders." He said Rep. John Boehner of suburban Cincinnati "really owes his speakership, it seems to me, to outsiders, rather than outsiders owing their election to the speaker. And that, I think, is going to change the dynamic."

In the Senate, Morgan said, Republicans might be able to assemble the required 60 votes "to de-fund or block somehow the EPA from regulating and providing permits to large emitters of carbon" and "blocking or slowing down the recently proposed requirements for a permit for point source discharges of pesticides. . . . There’s a lot of Democrats in farm states who don’t like the EPA and don’t like what they’re doing and are facing very tough elections."

Morgan also had some interesting things to say about Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, who is in line to head the House Agriculture Committee. Click here for a transcript from of Morgan's discussion with David Graves of the American Association of Crop Insurers and two members of the lobbying firm, trade expert Rick Pasco and Bill O’Conner, former chief Republican staffer on the House agriculture panel.