Saturday, December 11, 2010

Postal Service is closing offices and branches at a rate not seen for at least 15 years, Globe says

Squeezed by the recession and increasing use of the Internet to send documents once sent by mail, the U.S. Postal Service is closing post offices and branches at a rate "substantially steeper ... than at any time in the past 15 years," David Abel reports for The Boston Globe from Windsor, Mass., which lost its post office this year.

"For 113 years, the post office in Windsor brought people together in the small town in the Berkshires, providing a place to chitchat, do business, and send their precious parcels where they needed to go," Abel writes. "But this fall, to the dismay of many of the town’s 900 residents, the U.S. Postal Service closed its local branch, located most recently inside a general store." (Globe photo by Nancy Palmeri)

"This year there are 742 fewer post offices across the country than last year, more than three times the number of offices that were closed last year," Abel reports. (Read more) It's unclear whether his numbers include those where the USPS says it has only suspended service, a strategy it appears to be using to avoid the procedures required to close an office, we reported in February.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Rural detention center for youth may be closed

A juvenile justice facility in rural California is in danger of being closed, reports Marisa Lagos of the San Francisco Chronicle. The plan to close the Preston Youth Correctional Facility in rural Amador County would "kill an entire county," because it is one of the largest employers in the area, said Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills, who is fighting the closure.  (Photo by Brant Ward for the San Francisco Chronicle. Guard Dennis Miller surveys Preston in 2001.)

California is trying to "plug a $25.4 billion budget gap," writes Lagos, and closing Preston would save the state $30 million this fiscal year, officials estimate. Preston is the oldest of of five juvenile facilities in California and houses just 224 youths of 1,300 juvenile offenders in the state. Most of the youths there are hours away from their families. By most accounts, the building is in terrible condition.  Sumayyah Waheed, who runs a campaign at an Oakland civil rights group, called Preston a "dungeon" and rattled off a litany of incidents that have occurred there, including suicides and the use of Mace by guards. "Preston is also the most remote, the furthest away from youths' families," she said. "Everyone has to ask their family to travel ... it's really a burden."

The facility employs about 450 people in a county with just 38,000 residents and a 12.4 percent unemployment rate, reports Lagos. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessa said closing Preston is a budget decision, noting that the Department of Juvenile Justice was ordered to cut $39 million from its budget this fiscal year and has already closed eight facilities this decade. The agency is working to place Preston's employees in other corrections facilities within communting distance. (Read more)

Ag secretary outlines strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced steps that his department is taking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide $15 million in Conservation Innovation Grants to promote carbon sequestration on private lands and test ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through large-scale demonstration projects. Vilsack's comments came at international climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, Amanda Peterka of Environment & Energy News reports. In a conference call with reporters Vilsack said he wanted to assure U.N. delegates that "we are taking steps to put our farmers and ranchers and forested-land owners in a better position" to reduce emissions.

The money provided by the USDA "will be administered through the department's Natural Resources Conservation Service and will also support farmers who carry out conservation measures associated with the projects," Peterka writes. "In another initiative to begin next year, USDA's Farm Service Agency will provide information to landowners on the carbon dioxide they save when they voluntarily plant trees through the farm bill's Conservation Reserve Program."

To launch the Carbon Net program, the USDA will draw from its electronic Hay Net service, which tracks farmers in need of hay and those with an excess. "The service will identify those in need of carbon credits and link them up with others who may be producing credits," Peterka writes. Vilsack explained "What we're doing here is not establishing credits. We're creating demonstration projects that will allow us to better measure and more accurately measure the benefits that are accrued by certain practices." (Read more)

New Web site to help agricultural communities prepare for disaster

A recently launched Web site from the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University aims to help rural communities prepare for hazardous events. By preparing for those events, the center hopes to help communities prevent or minimize the impact on human and animal health as well as crop production or property damage, says the Web site. The center writes, "Agricultural communities are at risk for a number of hazardous or emergency situations, such as natural disasters or emerging diseases, as well as man-made or technological hazards (e.g., agrochemical spills, bioterrorism). Any of these situations can greatly impact the individuals, farms and their commodities, as well as businesses in the affected areas."

"This Web site houses a database of numerous resources to help citizens of rural agricultural communities – individuals, farmers and producers, businesses – prepare for and recover from a number of natural and man-made threats," the center writes. The Web site is divided into five sections: natural disasters, biological threats, technological man-made threats, general preparedness and all resources. The center also provides links for contacting federal and state officials and submitting your own resources. You can access the Web site at

Ethanol subsidy and tariff to be extended

Congressional lawmakers have reached an agreement to extend the 45 cents per gallon subsidy for ethanol for one year and continue a tariff on the imports of the biofuel. The tariff will remain at 54 cents per gallon through 2011, said Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. The provisions would be included in tax legislation worked out with the White House, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "The bill also would resurrect and extend for another year the $1-a-gallon subsidy for biodiesel that expired at the end of 2009," Brasher writes.

Grassley on Thursday announced the provisions would be included in the tax bill but the level of each provision was still uncertain. "The ethanol subsidy and tariff were due to expire at the end of this month," Brasher writes. Extending these provisions "will boost jobs and investment in the alternative energy sector, exactly when the economy needs a real shot in the arm," Grassley said. Critics of the growing federal deficit had targeted the subsidy and tariff as a move to cut deficit spending. (Read more)

Massey foremen sentenced to probation for role in fire that killed two miners at Aracoma

Four Massey Energy foremen were sentenced Thursday to a year of probation and a total of $7,000 in fines for their role in the 2006 fire that killed two workers at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.V. The foremen, Donald R. Hagy, Terry L. Shadd, Edward R. Ellis and Michael A. Plumley, admitted to not conducting required mine-evacuation drills prior to the fire, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. "Family members of the foremen filled one side of the courtroom, and [U.S. District Court Judge John T.] Copenhaver said he had received letters from their friends, neighbors and pastors speaking up for their character," Ward writes.

Bruce Stanley, an attorney for the two miners' widows, told Copenhaver his clients were not looking for the judge to be overly harsh in sentencing. "The true culpability in this matter rests in a higher position of authority than the four gentlemen in this courtroom," Stanley said. The two widows, Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield, spoke out in early 2009 "against a deal in which Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to 10 mine safety crimes and paid a $2.5 million fine, while prosecutors agreed they would not pursue any charges against the Massey parent company or any of its officers or employees," Ward writes. (Read more)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Editor and one of five grant-funded reporters in Ark. promote community journalism at Ark. State

Write for Arkansas, a grant-funded program to place an additional reporter at five community newspapers in the state, has as a secondary goal to raise awareness of the need for trained, professional journalists to cover local issues. "To that end, Write for Arkansas reporter Sarah Morris of the Stuttgart Daily Leader and her editor, Lesley Valadez, traveled to Arkansas State University last month to speak to first-year journalism students about the field of community journalism," The Arkansas Publisher Weekly reports today.

Morris said their main message was “Journalism is still alive and the need for community reporting is still there.” She and Valadez gave students advice on advancing their careers in journalism. “We talked about how internships and multimedia skills were also important in grabbing the jobs,” Morris said.

Reporters in the program "plan to seek additional opportunities to reach out to student journalists and encourage a future generation of community reporters," the story reports. In addition to the Leader, the program has funded reporters at the Texarkana Gazette, The Courier of Russellville, Areawide Media of Salem and the Madison County Record. The program was started by the Arkansas Community Foundation and has a $252,000 matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Mine safety bill defeated, but funding approved

The House of Representatives on Thursday voted down a new version of the long-stalled mine safety bill even after its sponsors removed language that would expand Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforcement authority at all workplaces. "The mine safety bill, which would improve federal regulators' power to crack down on unsafe coal mining operations, failed to advance on the suspensions calendar, with a two-thirds majority required for passage," Elana Schor of Environment & Energy News reports. "The 214-193 vote on the bill, introduced last week by House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), came with one Republican voting in favor and 27 Democrats opposed."

Republicans and business groups had raised concerns about the added power the original bill would have given OSHA, but after removing that language, the House bill likely would have faced a delay in the Senate if it had been passed. "Republicans in the upper chamber recently objected to an attempt to unanimously clear the Senate version of the bill, named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), charging Democrats with abandoning bipartisan talks on a compromise," Schor writes.

Miller said he was pleased that a majority of the House backed the bill, but criticized. Republicans for "turn[ing] their backs on those who go underground every day, 600 of whom who have died in the last decade." Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline countered that the Democrats set up a failed vote by putting the bill on the suspensions calendar. "Republicans will continue to hold accountable the agency charged with enforcing the law and use the findings of the ongoing investigations to ensure any future legislative or regulatory steps to protect miners are well-informed," said Kline. (Read more, subscription required)

While the House defeated the mine safety package, it did approve additional mine safety money in a spending bill, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his Coal Tattoo blog. California Democratic Miller noted that the full-year continuing appropriations act includes "$5.3 million for the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which will enable the agency to hire an additional ten administrative law judges to hear cases." (Read more)

States look to private sector for help attracting businesses; would it help or hurt rural areas?

Several Republican gubernatorial victors made campaign promises about privatizing various sectors of state government, but the devil is in the details, Melissa Maynard of reports. Incoming Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich proposed privatizing the Ohio Development Department, saying, "The days of trying to connect to business leaders through bureaucrats are over." Govs.-elect Terry Branstad of Iowa, Jan Brewer of Arizona and Scott Walker of Wisconsin also made similar privatization campaign promises designed to spur economic development.

"The question of how to empower business leaders to play a more meaningful role in state economic development efforts without sacrificing the accountability and transparency with which public funds are used is hardly a new one," Maynard writes. "A number of states — including Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Texas, Utah and Virginia — have privatized some aspects of their economic development functions in recent years, with mixed results." The structures of each state's programs may be different but "the governing principle behind all of these approaches is the same: Let local business leaders, rather than bureaucrats, take the lead on state economic development and marketing efforts," Maynard writes.

"This is one of those skill sets that government just doesn’t have as a core competency in-house," insists Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform for the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank. Texas has enjoyed some success with its public-private partnership with nonprofit TexasOne, which is able to use strategies like sporting-event tickets to attract businesses that state agencies can't. Other states have run into some trouble. In Michigan the "semi-privatized Michigan Economic Development Corp. last year awarded $9.1 million in tax credits to a convicted embezzler," Maynard writes. (Read more)

Privatization proposals may pose a risk for rural areas. "States should constantly evaluate and adapt their economic-development programs to changes in the private sector, but I feel obliged to raise a caution flag about privatization: It has the potential to shortchange rural communities, because most business consultants and perceived 'experts' are urbanites and may not be familiar with the distinct challenges and opportunities in rural areas," said Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit group has issued a report showing how well each state does at disclosing information about economic-development subsidies. Good Jobs First "seeks to shed light on how well or poorly economic subsidies work," Steven Greenhouse reports for The New York Times. Illinois was rated best, followed by Wisconsin and North Carolina; 13 states got Fs. "The study links to AccountableUSA, a new set of Web pages about every state that contains an overview of each state’s subsidy practices as well as profiles of major subsidy deals, Greenhouse reports.

What were most important food stories of 2010? Rural Web site takes issue with magazine's list

The Atlantic recently published its list of the top 10 food stories of 2010, but something important was missing: rural America. "The only farmer (and only farm) the magazine mentions is First Lady Michelle Obama and her White House garden," Bill Bishop and Richard Oswald write for the Daily Yonder. "When it comes to 'food policy,' according to The Atlantic, rural America doesn’t exist." Bishop and Oswald developed their own list of the 10 most important food stories of 2010 and agreed on just three stories from the Atlantic's list: the egg recall, the battle over genetically modified food and the ongoing debate over the food safety bill.

Headlining the Yonder's list of most important food stories is the new proposed regulations that would remake the relationship between livestock raisers and meat packers issued by the federal Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration.The Yonder also includes peak phosphorus (we're running out of it), food monopolies, seed-industry worries, the dairy implosion, land prices, the rural grocery crisis, Gulf Coast fishing, the Humane Society of the United States war with livestock producers and meat processors, and speculation in grain and grain elevators.

"It’s probably not too much of a surprise that there is little overlap between The Atlantic's list and The Yonder," Bishop and Oswald write. "The Atlantic’s list of important stories includes 'foraging,' for example." The Atlantic's first story was "The Meat Trend," which associate editor Daniel Fromson explains as "foodie passion for cured meats, braised veal cheeks, jammy bone marrow, and do-it-yourself butchering." Highlighting the rural/urban divide, Bishop and Oswald conclude of the meat trend: "In much of Yonder, butchering and curing meat isn’t so much a trend as what you do in the fall." (Read more)

Wild-horse preserve idea worries Nev. ranchers

Billionaire T. Boone Pickens has made headlines for his positions on renewable energy and natural gas, but now his wife is making news for a controversial proposal to protect wild horses. Madeleine Pickens "caused an uproar when she proposed the Bureau of Land Management let her fence off more than 500,000 acres of federal land to create a sanctuary for wild horses near a 14,000-acre ranch she bought in October," Jim Carlton of The Wall Street Journal reports. Nevada cattle ranchers worry such a sanctuary would push them off the range because much of the state's 450,000 cattle graze on federal land. (WSJ graphic)

If the plan went through, "something has got to give, and it will be cattle," Robin Boies, a rancher who grazes her cattle on federal land adjacent to her Nevada ranch, told Carlton. Hunters and off-road enthusiasts also oppose the plan because they fear it would restrict them from the popular recreation area. "Pickens' ranch includes the rights to graze stock on surrounding federal land in return for payments to the government and general upkeep of the land," Carlton writes. "Her proposed mustang monument would be on these federal lands around her ranch."

Pickens told Carlton she wants to buy enough other Nevada ranches with grazing rights on federal lands to create sanctuaries for as many as 10,000 horses, adding "I'm sorry, but there's no putting this back in the bag." The preserve would be open to the public, Pickens said, and while she acknowledged local support would be nice she noted she has the support of the BLM. Some locals do support the plan, hoping it would bring tourists to the area. At a Nov. 15 meeting, Pickens told one of her local supporters "I don't know how anything bad can come of it. As long as I'm alive, it won't." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

W.Va. coal-industry group opposes Obama strategy to end black-lung disease

The Obama administration's plan to end black-lung disease was met with criticism from the West Virgina coal industry during the first public hearing on the proposal. No one disputed the need for stronger efforts to eradicate black lung, but some faulted the strategy, Taylor Kuykendall of The Register-Herald in Beckley reports.

"We strongly object to the proposal in its current form," Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said. He said it was "fraught with technical and operational impracticalities, misapplication of dust control technologies" and "relies on an inappropriate, convoluted or uneven enforcement scheme." Hamiltion also said he was concerned that the proposal circumvented Congress and its efforts to regulate mine safety and eradicate black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis. The Mine Safety and Health Administration's actions "represent a departure from the cooperative approach deemed necessary to eradicate CWP from within our industry," Hamilton said.

Hamilton lumped the black lung proposal, which would cut the allowable level of respirable coal dust in mines by half, with environmental regulations that he called the Obama administration's attack on the coal industry. "We would hope that this rule, as proposed, is not part of that strategy, as some submit that it clearly is," Hamilton said.

The proposal did receive some support at the meeting. Joe Massie, retired coal miner and president of the National Black Lung Association, and the Fayette County Black Lung Association support any changes MSHA can make to prevent miners from getting black lung, Kuykendall writes. The meeting was held at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beaver, W.Va. Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety, said the proposal would "significantly improve health protections for underground and surface coal miners." (Read more)

Ark. to require disclosure of fracking chemicals

In Arkansas, the Oil and Gas Commission has decided to require companies drilling in the Fayetteville Shale to disclose the chemicals they are using when fracking for natural gas, reports Kelly MacNeil for KUAR. The agency is requiring that companies disclose chemicals they plan to use and list the names of additives actually in use.

The state wants "to ensure they know what those chemicals are, so if there is a potential contamination in that particular water well, they’d be able to know what the chemicals are and be able to test for that particular chemical," said Oil and Gas director Larry Bengal. Arkansas is one of the first states to require drilling companies to disclose what chemicals they are using. The additives will be posted on the commission's Web site on a well-by-well basis. (Read more)

Alison Sider reports for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the Fayetteville Shale formation, which runs from Northwest Arkansas to the Mississippi River, has been actively drilled for the past six years. "It seems like Arkansas is moving in the direction where everybody ultimately will go," said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the National Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy group.

The most recent version of the rule requires a more complete listing of the chemicals than the previous rule. Bengal said the newer rule is intended to report 100 percent of the chemicals used for drilling. In order to protect the proprietary nature of the fluids, Sider reports, companies will be able to ask that some chemical names be withheld as trade secrets, if the director approves the exemption. In this case, chemical family names will be released instead. (Read more, subscription required)

Fracking fall-out continues in Texas

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has overstepped Texas regulators by issuing an emergency order against a gas driller. The EPA is accusing the company of contaminating an aquifer and giving it 48 hours to provide clean drinking water to affected residents. "The order is unprecedented in Texas, partly because in issuing it the federal body overstepped the state agency responsible for overseeing gas and oil drilling in Texas," Ramit Plushnick-Masti of The Associated Press reports. "The EPA's move could ratchet up a bitter fight between Texas and the EPA that has evolved in the past year from a dispute over environmental issues into a pitched battle over states rights."

The order was issued against Range Resources of Fort Worth because EPA regional director Al Armendariz said he felt "the Texas Railroad Commission was not responding quickly enough to contamination found in two water wells belonging to Parker County residents in North Texas," Plushnick-Masti writes. Range Resources was using hydraulic fracturing, in which thousands of gallons of water and other chemicals are injected into a well to release natural gas from shale formations, at their drilling operations. The drinking water contamination is believed to be the first possibly associated with fracking operations in Texas, AP reports.

Armendariz said "the Railroad Commission had said it would be 'premature' to issue an emergency order regarding the contamination and asked for more time to evaluate the data," Plushnick-Masti writes. The EPA inspected the wells with the Railroad Commission in August after receiving complaints from locals who were having problems with their drinking water. The agency found high levels of explosive methane, as well as other contaminants, including cancer-causing benzene, AP reports. "We thought what we found in the homes was alarming," Armendariz told AP. (Read more)

New 'MBA' spreads a positive beef image

Some agriculture college students across the country are earning their MBA's, but it's not a Masters of Business Administration. Those students are completing a Masters of Beef Advocacy. The industry-funded online program is designed to train college students and others in the agriculture industry to fight back against critics of big agri-business, Wes Enzinna reports for Mother Jones. The MBA's "focus has really become young people on the big land-grant campuses," from which more than one-fifth of future farmers and industry leaders will emerge, Daren Williams, the communications director for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said.

"Since its launch in March 2009, the MBA has trained nearly 3,000 students and farmers to spread the 'positive beef message,' offering online lessons on how to combat PETA and organizing a Twitter and Facebook 'Food Fight' against its 'campus critics,'" Enzinna writes. Among the biggest targets of the MBA program is journalist and author Michael Pollan, whose books about the food industry were assigned to over 35,000 college students last year, Enzinna reports. "Some of what you are hearing is organic, grassroots debate — they have different opinions about agriculture and beef production — and that's good for a democracy," Pollan told Enzinna before noting he was wary of the interests behind the campaign.

Carrin Flores, a graduate student in veterinary medicine at Washington State University-Pullman, told Enzinna that the MBA program was not just a public relations campaign for big-agriculture. "We're not Astroturf," she said. "We're just worried about our futures in agriculture." Crystal Young, a recent graduate of Kansas State University, where she received degrees in animal science and journalism, added, "We know the environment is in crisis and we don't want to contribute to that, but we're also farmers, so the hard thing for us is to take into account all the criticisms of conventional agriculture, and to also continue to feed the world on the scale we are doing now." (Read more)

Rural newspapers still fear loss of Saturday mail, try to recruit more allies to lobby Congress

Rural newspapers, still waiting to hear if the Postal Regulatory Commission will endorse the U.S. Postal Service's request to eliminate Saturday mail delivery, now worry that the push to reduce the federal deficit and national debt will give the proposal more momentum.

No matter what the PRC says this month, Congress is expected to guarantee Saturday delivery in whatever stopgap spending bill it passes. However, "The six-day mail question will become tougher as USPS tries to drill down to financial solutions," National Newspaper Association lobbyist Tonda Rush writes. "Though our principal allies on the Hill remain strong, we will need many more in 2011."

The concern goes beyond newspapers that use the mail to publish on Saturday or Friday, to the communities they serve. "It became clear during the PRC hearings that rural communities will be more affected than their urban counterparts," Rush told NNA members, citing testimony from the president of the National Grange, Edward Luttrell. He made some of the same points that the writer of this item made to the PRC: Rural areas have less access to high-speed Internet service, and rural people rely on six-day delivery for critical items such as prescription drugs.

Luttrell also said cutting a day of mail delivery would inhibit "the national trend to encourage and eequire greater mail voting and participation in elections," and hurt rural entrepreneurs. "Rural America has the highest proportion of individuals (compared to urban and suburban communities) who are either self employed or who work for someone who is self-employed," Luttrell said. "These businesses disproportionately benefit from the predictability of six-day postal delivery service. In fulfilling orders, in receiving payments, in complying with responses for legal, accounting and other basic services, the Postal Service provides unique and irreplaceable service advantages to micro-entrepreneurs operating in rural communities." For Luttrell's full testimony, click here.

NNA is trying to keep the 200,000-member Grange involved recruit other rural organizations to help its lobbying effort, such as rural electric cooperatives, telephone companies, Farm Bureaus "and other uniquely rural community interests who might contact their own national leadership to urge a voice in this debate," Rush writes. "We have won it so far. But it hasn’t truly heated up yet. By mid-spring, we will be in the thick of it."

Congressman from nation's most rural district will head House Appropriations Committee

The congressman from the country's most rural district, and one of its poorest, will become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in January after his selection by the Republican Steering Committee yesterday. We broke the news in October that Harold "Hal" Rogers of Somerset in Appalachian Kentucky's 5th District ( map; click for larger version) had the votes he needed.

The 30-year veteran of the House, who was a radio announcer before becoming a lawyer, has been a skilled slicer of "pork" for his district. Some of his projects have gone beyond the usual definition, including programs to fight drug abuse, clean up trash and eliminate untreated sewage discharges, and promote tourism in the region. Last session he joined other House Republicans in banning budget earmarks by members, and "publicly shifted his tone on earmarks in the wake of the Tea Party-fueled Republican takeover of the House amid concerns of unchecked spending," Hamillah Abdullah of the McClatchy Newspapers Washington Bureau reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"Though the appropriations chairmanship has long been considered a plum assignment, the job description has changed amid mounting concern over budget deficits," notes Brian Faler of Bloomberg News. The position’s primary responsibility now will involve deciding how to make good on Republican campaign promises to cut domestic “discretionary” spending by 20 percent. Nor will Rogers have money to hand out for pet projects in lawmakers’ home states, following the decision last month by Republicans to continue a self-imposed moratorium on the so-called earmark process." (Read more)

However, we bet Rogers and his subcommittee chairmen will find ways to steer smaller sums of money to their districts, through behind-the-scenes negotiations with officials in the executive branch -- a process that would be much less transparent than the one Congress has followed for the last few years, after earmarks became an issue.

Another Kentuckian got an important job in the House yesterday. Rep. Ed Whitfield of the 1st District was picked to head the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Politico reports.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Local Texas wipeouts emblematic of Democratic Party's long-term challenges in the rural South

The depth of Democrats' despair in the rural South, in the wake of last month's elections, is brought home by R.G. Ratcliffe, statehouse reporter for the Houston Chronicle. His story starts not with a state legislative race or even a countywide race, but an election for one the most basic of community offices in a county (Wikipedia map) in the heart of "Little Dixie," the most culturally Southern part of Texas:
Angelina County Justice of the Peace R.G. Bowers easily won each of his elections since 1988 as a Democrat and expected to do the same this year against his game warden Republican opponent.

After all, game wardens "are not well accepted in rural East Texas." But voter frustration with President Barack Obama, the national Democratic Party and a Republican push for straight-ticket voting did in Bowers.

"They were so anti-Obama that they just pushed one button. I said they couldn't spell R.G., so they just spelled R," Bowers said.
Similar patterns were seen in Western Kentucky, which has voted Republican in most recent federal elections, and we suspect much the same happened in Arkansas and Tennessee, other states in the "McCain Belt," counties from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma where 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain did better than George W. Bush did as an incumbent president in 2004. In Georgia, a seventh House Democrat, the newly elected minority leader, has switched to the GOP, Blake Aued of the Athens Banner-Herald reports.

Ratcliffe's story is a template not just for regional stories, but local ones. "The media focus has been on Republican gains in Congress and the Legislature," he writes, but local results bode long-term ill for the Democratic Party. "The training ground for Democrats, particularly in rural areas, is dwindling fast." (Read more)

Predictions mixed about ending ethanol tax credits

We've been following the push from the ethanol industry to extend tax credits that some say are essential to its growth. Now, predictions of how expiration of the tax credits would affect the industry are mixed. Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said last week in floor testimony, "A lapse in the ethanol tax incentive is a gas tax increase of over 5 cents a gallon at the pump." Conversely, "In a paper published in July and updated in November, an economist from Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development projected that an expiration of the VEETC and a 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on ethanol, taken together, could lower pump prices for drivers," Jenny Mandel of Environment & Energy News reports.

Grassley's statements were based on analysis from the Renewable Fuels Association, an industry trade group, which "equates the scheduled VEETC expiration next month with a 4.5-cent-per-gallon fuel cost increase," Mandel writes. Geoff Cooper, RFA's vice president of research and analysis, told Mandel in an email the analysis was based on a simple calculation of the VEETC's value to the refiners that blend ethanol into gasoline. "The VEETC is $0.45 per gallon of ethanol, and ethanol is blended in gasoline nationwide at a rate of 10 percent (called E10)," Cooper said. "So, it stands to reason that failing to extend the tax credit would increase the ultimate consumer tax burden on gasoline by 4.5 cents per gallon of gasoline."

The ISU study from Center for Agricultural and Rural Development Director Bruce Babcock is favored by groups including the National Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth that advocate ending the tax credit, Mandel writes. Babcock constructed a new economic model to assess the effects of tariff and tax changes on the markets for U.S. corn and ethanol and for Brazilian ethanol, concluding immediate impact would be negligible. "In 2011, he predicted, elimination of the tax credits would cause ethanol prices to fall by 12 cents per gallon, with domestic production falling by about 0.7 billion gallons out of the otherwise expected 13.24 billion gallons," Mandel writes. (Read more, subscription required)

Human threat to park rangers worse than animals

Two recent shootings of wildlife officers have brought new attention to the daily risk for rangers and wildlife managers. A Pennsylvania wildlife officer was recently killed in a shooting while confronting an illegal hunter, and a Utah officer was seriously injured after a shooting during a traffic stop, Kirk Johnson of The New York Times reports. The incidents "highlighted what rangers and wildlife managers say is an increasingly unavoidable fact," Johnson writes. "As more and more people live in proximity to forests, parks and other wild-land playgrounds, the human animal, not the wild variety, is the one to watch out for." (Services for a  Pennsylvania wildlife officer who was killed by an illegal hunter in November. Photo Darryl Wheeler/Gettysburg Times, via Associated Press)

"We’re seeing a little bit more of the urban spill into the wild spaces — city violence in the country," John Evans, an assistant branch chief of law enforcement operations at the National Park Service, told Johnson. Todd Schmidt, a Colorado game warden, said he always wears a bulletproof vest on the job now, noting "I know that everybody I confront has a gun." The risk may be further heightened after guns became legal in National Parks this year.  Rangers and wardens say their mixed roles of public resource stewards and full police authority sometimes leaves them vulnerable.

"Many parks and recreation areas around the nation have also suffered staff cuts in recent years, reducing the presence of badge-wearing authority figures on patrol," Johnson writes. "But rangers and wildlife workers say the key variable defining the job has not changed: because of the vast distances to be covered, especially in the West, every ranger is a solo act." Some agencies have countered the increased threat with new equipment. National Park rangers began carrying Tasers to immobilize would-be attackers in 2007. Ty Petersburg, who manages the district west of Denver, explained that when he recently called for backup from a police station he was left alone. "'We’d like to come help you,'" he quoted the nearest urban county sheriff’s office as saying, "'But we don’t have a clue where you’re at.'" (Read more)

Farm subsidies likely to be cut, just a matter of how much and which ones

The Republicans taking over the House of Representatives are promising to cut the federal deficit. For farmers, the question is no longer if farm subsidies will be cut but which ones and how much, the vice president of DTN writes. "Some legislators want to cut direct payments; others want to preserve them," Urban C. Lehner writes for DTN. "Some want to dismantle the Conservation Reserve Program; others are horrified at the thought." Those in the agriculture industry aren't speaking with a unified voice about possible cuts, either.

Lehner notes, "A Texas farmer expressed what’s on at least some farmers' minds ... A progressive farmer does not need subsidies. What USA farmers need is crop insurance to cover the growing risk." Meanwhile the Iowa Farm Bureau and others are "looking for a richer, county-based ACRE program, and are willing to give up direct payments to get it," Lehner writes. He cautions that the "Oklahoma Farm Bureau likes direct payments and the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee is an Oklahoman. So the chances of Congress abandoning direct payments are slim."

Lehner acknowledges some cuts in farm spending are likely no matter what, but the deep cuts projected by many may not happen as "farmers' friends in Congress will fight to hang on to as much as possible and they've been successful facing budgetary pressure in the past." He adds that defenders of the status quo have one big factor in their favor: gridlock. With political gridlock between the split-party Congress, "we're more likely to see the whole government shut down for lack of accord on raising the debt ceiling than fresh legislative initiatives," Lehner writes. (Read more)

Monday, December 06, 2010

State to tell railroad to stop contaminating river and banks with lead paint flaking from bridge

Kentucky officials say they will tell CSX Transportation to paint or seal an old railroad bridge, right, that is is flaking lead paint into the Barren River and its banks at a main entrance to the city of Bowling Green, pleasing a local businessman and philanthropist who has been pushing the issue to the point of having soil samples taken and tested.

Shawn Cecil, manager of the Superfund branch for hazardous-waste sites, told Robyn Minor of The Daily News in Bowling Green, "We plan to discuss the flecking paint and the potential release (of contaminants) and ask them to abate that in some fashion or another. I don’t have any sort of direction they are required to go. We will tell them to meet certain goals, not how to get there. If they want to peel off (and properly) dispose of the remaining paint or seal it or paint it with a clear material, that is up to them." A CSX spokesman said, "We are reviewing options and are in discussions with the state." (Read more, subscription required)

UPDATE, Dec. 5: Philanthropist David Garvin told the Daily News that when he cleaned and painted two nearby bridges, "EPA monitored and required me to prevent any lead paint from entering the environment. We netted the entire bridges when we sandblasted off the old paint. They told me that I could not even spill a coffee cup of the lead residue into the river. Why should this same standard not apply to CSX?” The story updates the overall situation. (Read more)

Garvin told The Rural Blog that Kentucky's action has implications for other states. "If the state can force CSX's hand on this, it will be the first time that I know of anywhere in the U.S.," he wrote. "CSX has over 10,000 bridges. This would be a precedent that would have huge implications, both for the protection of the environment and for CSX's pocketbook." (Garvin photo)

Similar problems have come to light in several communities around the country but the issue has gained little national attention, For more background, click here.

UPDATE, Dec. 29: Garvin has lined up a qualified contractor to do the work and is seeking help from the state legislature, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, to get things moving. (Read more)

Rural Kansas copes with fewer grocery stores

In Kansas, rural residents are sometimes living in a "food desert," reports Jill Wendholt Silva for the The Kansas City Star. On average, rural residents in Kansas travel 10 or more miles to reach a supermarket or supercenter. The Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University found that 82 out of 212 rural grocery stores in communities with fewer than 2,500 residents have closed since 2007.

Competition from large retailers and the economic downturn have caused many local grocery stores to shutter. For new ways to create access to healthy food, "I think the answer is looking at more innovative models instead of trying to replicate what is no longer there," said Diana Endicott, president of Good Natured Family Farms, an alliance of 160 small family farmers that supply Kansas City’s suburban Hen House stores. Among the possibilities: a church offered its building to be a distribution location for fresh food; creating community co-ops where residents organize and manage the store; or a virtual store where the food ordered online is picked up at a local library. (Read more)

Additional Information: The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a report to Congress, "Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food; Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences."

Slate mapped the results of the USDA report.

Oregon power plant cuts deal to close state's only coal-powered plant

In a region known for its hydroelectric power, Oregon regulators may have set an important precedent. Portland General Electric is shuttering a coal-fired power plant in exchange for a smaller investment in pollution controls. PGE is planning to close the state's only coal-fired plant no later than Dec. 31, 2020, and state environmental regulators endorse the plan. The Boardman coal plant, built in 1977, "would be the youngest coal plant closed in the United States for environmental reasons, putting it on the national radar," Scott Learn and Ted Sickinger of The Oregonian report.

The proposal divided environmental groups who differed on short and long-term focus. "Supporters, including the Oregon Environmental Council and the Citizens' Utility Board of Oregon, say DEQ's recommendation would sharply reduce the state's pollution and global warming impact after 2020," Learn and Sickinger write. "Environmental critics say the recommendation low balls pollution controls and unnecessarily extends the life of Oregon's dirtiest plant." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also spoke out against the plan, saying it "sets a precedent of regulating the nation's low-cost coal plants out of business," the reporters write.

PGE had considered spending about $500 million on new pollution controls and operating the plant through at least 2040, which would have led to a significant rate increase for customers. PGE estimates the 2020 plan would bump up electricity rates by an average of 2.4 percent while the plant operates. "An ongoing lawsuit from the Sierra Club, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and three other environmental groups alleges that PGE should have installed a full suite of pollution controls three decades ago, including equipment to knock down pollution by at least 80 percent," the reporters write. (Read more)

Adoption of broadband in rural Iowa varies widely

We've written a lot about the federal investment in rural broadband, but that investment doesn't mean everyone in rural America is adopting high-speed Internet. "If 'wireless router' is about as far as you want to go with the computer terminology, don't worry," Kyle Munson of the Des Moines Register writes. "I encounter lots of Iowans in various stages of online transition -- or lack thereof -- as I travel the state." Nonprofit organization Connect Iowa and the Iowa Utilities Board report 34 percent of Iowa households remain without a high-speed or broadband Internet connection -- the vast majority by choice.

In rural Turo, Iowa, local telecommunications company Interstate Communications recently laid new fiber optic cables for broadband Internet access with the help of a $7 million, 20-year loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Local chiropractor Ann Borseth was quick to adopt high-speed Internet, but just across the street, Jerry and Charlotte Clarke said no thanks, opting to "to remain offline and let the digital revolution pass them by," Munson writes. Jerry Clarke explained, "The knowledge doesn't automatically come to you."

Librarian Betty Green told Munson as many as seven people a day access each of the local library's five computers to access the Internet every day. "If the library serves as a backup plan for local residents on the fringes of online access, the opposite end of the spectrum is just several miles away at Appcore Technology," a cloud computing company, Munson writes. The vast differences in broadband adoption is "rural Iowa for you -- a different angle on the digital revolution from mile to mile," Munson adds. Even Clarke is considering hooking up to the new fiber optic cables. "I'm going to consider hooking up to it," he said. "It's getting about compulsory." (Read more)

Obama administration wants to remove bears and wolves from endangered species list

The Obama administration plans to lift Endangered Species Act protection from two of the West's iconic animals: the grizzly bear and gray wolf. "The administration's intentions emerged in an interview on Wednesday with two top-ranking officials from the Interior Department, whose agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, oversees federal safeguards for the bulk of imperiled species," Laura Zuckerman reports for The Washington Post. Previous attempts to remove the animals from the list have been met with staunch opposition in court from wildlife conservation groups.

"Environmentalists have raised concerns that although both species have made a comeback under protection as endangered species, their recovery could falter if they were de-listed, a move that is likely to open the animals to public hunting," Zuckerman writes. "Sportsmen and ranchers, who make up a powerful constituency in Western states, have strongly advocated de-listing wolves and grizzlies, saying the predators are diminishing herds of big-game animals such as elk and are preying on livestock."

In April 2009, the federal government removed the wolf from the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho but kept protection in Wyoming. "A federal judge this year ordered full listing restored, saying the wolves' entire range in the Rockies must be treated as a whole and that protections cannot be left intact in Wyoming while they are lifted in other states," Zuckerman writes. Tom Strickland, assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, told the newspaper the administration plans to propose lifting protection in all three states and will seek congressional action if necessary. (Read more)

Knife-rights advocates hope to build on successes

Illegal knives confiscated in New York City
The gun-rights lobby receives most of the attention in the debate over carrying weapons, but recent victories in Arizona and New Hampshire have given new life to its cousin, the knife-rights lobby. "Its vision is a knife-friendly America, where blades are viewed not as ominous but as tools — the equivalent of sharp-edged screw drivers or hammers — that serve useful purposes and can save lives as well as take them," Marc Lacey of The New York Times reports. (Photo by Hiroko Masuike)

Arizona, once considered an anti-knife state recently liberalized its regulations so that "everything from samurai sword to a switchblade can be carried without a quibble," Lacey writes. New Hampshire recently lifted a ban on switchblades, stilettos, dirks and daggers. Knife-rights advocates don't claim knife fights and knife attacks are not a concern, but say "the problem is with the knife wielder, not the knife itself ... sounding very much like those who advocate for gun rights," Lacey writes. D’Alton Holder, a veteran knife maker who lives in Wickenberg, Ariz., explained, "People talk about how knives are dangerous, and then they go in the kitchen and they have 50 of them."

"Knife advocates contend that the Second Amendment applies to knives as well as guns," Lacey writes. "They focus their argument elsewhere, though, emphasizing that knives fill so many beneficial roles, from carving Thanksgiving turkeys to whittling, that they do not deserve the bad name they often get." Urban areas remain the prime advocates of tighter knife control, Lacey reports. Knife rights advocates hope success in Arizona will help broaden the conversation. "Arizona is now the model when it comes to knives," Todd Rathner, the lobbyist for Knife Rights Inc., told Lacey. "We’re now going to be moving to other states, probably in the Rocky Mountains and the Southeast. There’s probably half a dozen or more places that are ripe for this." (Read more)