Friday, December 17, 2010

Reid files omnibus bill for national monuments, wilderness, wildlife, waterways, oceans

UPDATE, Dec. 21: "Efforts to salvage pieces of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's public lands, water and wildlife omnibus legislation are failing as senators place holds on bills offered for fast-track consideration," E & E reports. "Sponsors of some key proposals declared defeat today, while Republican leaders said there was too little time in the home stretch of the lame-duck session to work out outstanding concerns about the costs and economic and regulatory implications of the individual measures."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today filed a catch-all bill "aimed at improving and protecting public lands, waterways, ocean resources and wildlife -- which Republican leaders have already threatened to block," reports Paul Quinlan of Environment & Energy News. Prospects for passage in the final days of the lame-duck Congress are unclear.

The measure, called America's Great Outdoors Act, incorporates 100 separate bills passed by Senate committees; about half the bills have passed the House with broad support, Reid said. It would "designate new wilderness areas in three states; add 4,600 miles to the national trail system; preserve battlefield sites; protect marine turtles, sharks and great cats; and restore water bodies like Lake Tahoe, the Columbia River and the Long Island Sound, according to a news release," Quinlan writes. "The bill would also slow the decline in the world's shark populations and permanently authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund." (Read more, subscription required)

The bill would add to the national park system the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico and create the Waco-Mammoth National Monument in Texas and the Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado. It would create national heritage areas in the Alabama Black Belt and the Susquehanna River Gateway, and the Devils' Staircase Wilderness Area in Oregon. For a copy of the bill, click here; subscription may be required.

New Fla. agriculture chief wants to collaborate with school board on lunch improvements

Florida's recently elected agriculture commissioner says he wants to play a key role in the state Board of Education's plans to include school nutrition. "The board was supposed to discuss cutting back on sugary drinks, including chocolate milk, in schools next week — a proposal that has spurred complaints from the dairy industry and school districts," Denise-Marie Balona of The Orlando Sentinel reports on the Sentinel School Zone blog. But Ag commissioner-elect Adam Putnam "sent a letter recently asking board members to put off that debate until he takes office and the state Department of Agriculture can help the state Department of Education take a closer look at the overall issue of foods offered on campus," Balona writes.

The Agriculture department's job is usually to assist farmers in making sure food is safe, not determining what foods are served in school cafeterias, Balona writes. Putnam says he wants in on the conversation because he wants to make sure children eat healthier meals. "He said it has nothing to do with protecting the dairy industry, which contributed thousands of dollars to his election campaign and stands to lose a lot of money if the state ditches flavored milk," Balona writes. Putnam explained, "The letter was designed to be a let’s-hit-the-pause button and let’s begin a new type of conversation and an unprecedented collaboration between the source of our food [farmers] and one of the biggest providers of children’s food – that being the school system." (Read more)

USDA considers policy change on genetically engineered alfalfa by adding geographic limits

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering a shift in its policy by imposing geographic limits on where genetically engineered alfalfa can be grown. "Farmers who grow conventional or organic alfalfa went to court to block sales of Monsanto Co.’s biotech alfalfa because of concerns that it would contaminate seed supplies," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog. "Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has been criticized by anti-biotech activists who claim he’s too close to Monsanto and other biotech companies, says his department needs to start taking into consideration the impact that genetically engineered crops can have on non-biotech farmers."

"We see a key role for each of the sectors in meeting our global and domestic food needs, in increasing sustainability and in enhancing farm profitability and in economic development," Vilsack told Brasher, adding that biotech and non-biotech sectors need to "thrive together." USDA's alfalfa environmental impact statement lays out two options for the genetically engineered crop: "deregulate it completely so that it can be grown anywhere or impose geographic restrictions and isolation requirements for the crop," Brasher writes. "Restrictions would be tighter in the western states that are the biggest seed producers. Growers of the biotech seed would be required to keep fields five miles away from conventional alfalfa."

Organic farmers have voiced similar cross-pollination fears about genetically engineered corn, but Vilsack said any decision on alfalfa would not affect crops that have already been deregulated. The Organic Trade Association said the biotech policy shift was an "important first step," and the group looks forward to policy development discussions aimed at protecting "all producers from market losses" due to biotech crops. The Biotechnology Industry Organization countered that "the restrictions being considered for alfalfa weren’t needed and would set a bad precedent," Brasher writes. (Read more)

In bid for precedential ruling, Massey challenges feds' authority to seize mine it is closing

UPDATE, Dec. 23:  U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar ruled in favor of the Department of Labor, Berkes reports.

Even after announcing it would permanently close its Freedom Mine No. 1 in Pike County, Kentucky, Massey Energy is moving ahead with a legal attempt to block the Mine Safety and Health Administration's move to close the mine for repeated safety violations. "A landmark federal court hearing Friday ... could determine whether the toughest mine safety tool ever used is as tough as it appears," Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports. (NPR photo by Berkes)

"Massey has already announced it will close the mine, but it does not argue in its motion that its voluntary shutdown makes the case moot. It doesn't even mention its intent to close Freedom for good. That may be an indication that Massey wants to make a strong statement with a court decision that could effectively kill the option of going to federal court again to force mine operators to comply with safety regulations," Berkes reports. The "injunctive relief" option that allows MSHA to close a mine for repeated safety violations has been on the books for 33 years but has never been used. The agency's action "is part of the Obama administration's purported get-tough response to the deadly explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April," Berkes notes.

"MSHA needs to have the authority to go to federal court, and get the court to require mine operators to address continuing hazards or face contempt of court," said Ed Clair, who spent two decades as the chief lawyer for MSHA until his retirement last year. Massey argues in its motion that the Labor Department's case is based on "vague and conclusory assertions that fail to inform the court of any plausible basis for shutting down the Freedom No. 1 Mine." Massey argues many of the citations, violations and fines are common in the industry and are not final until an administrative law court considers them. (Read more)

Berkes' reporting on Massey in the wake of the April disaster that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners was recognized by The Hillman Foundation, which honors the memory of labor leader Sidney Hillman, with its monthly Sidney Award. "The fine detail of Berkes’ work and his determination in staying on this story was critical in keeping the issues fresh in the minds of all those involved in the process of mine safety reform," award judge Charles Kaiser said. In addition to recognizing his NPR colleagues, Berkes "acknowledged his journalistic debt to Ken Ward Jr., the dean of American mining reporters, who runs Coal Tattoo, the definitive mining Web site of The Charleston Gazette," The Hillman Foundation says. (Read more)

Feds pick land available for solar-power projects

The Bureau of Land Management has designated 22 million acres of federal land that could be used for large solar-power installations and a draft environmental impact statement, avaialble here. For state-by-state maps of the designated lands, click here.

"The bureau excluded land that was already off-limits to energy development, lands set aside by law or presidential proclamation, sharply-sloping lands and areas with sensitive habitats that make them unsuitable for solar power development," John M. Broder reports for The New York Times. "The bureau said that it anticipated considering only about 214,000 acres of the 22 million acres for solar zones, or less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the public land in the six states." (Read more)

As states seek disclosure, drilling companies try more environmentally friendly fracking fluids

Much of the controversy around hydraulic fracturing has centered on whether chemicals used in the process can contaminate drinking water supplies, "but despite an increase in the number of such reports nationally, environmentalists’ claims have been undermined by the fact that no scientific links have been established between fracturing —  which involves blasting a solution of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to free natural gas — and reports of contaminated water," John Gramlich of Stateline writes in a good overview of the issue. (Getty Images photo by Joel Sartore)

"One crucial question about fracturing, however, has always gone unanswered: Which chemicals, exactly, are drillers injecting into the earth as they search for natural gas? Government regulators themselves often don’t know the answer because the chemical formulas are protected as trade secrets by the companies doing the drilling," Gramlich writes. "Environmentalists say it is unfathomable that regulators don’t know the chemicals that are being fired into the earth, often near aquifers and private water supplies," so a few states are starting to require disclosure of the chemicals. (Read more)

Meanwhile, some companies are touting "environmentally friendly formulas" to help alleviate those fears, Ryan Dezember of The Wall Street Journal reports. "Houston-based Halliburton—the No. 1 shale driller in the U.S.—is rolling out a fracking-fluid product called CleanStim that it says consists exclusively of compounds used in processed foods," Jim Brown, Halliburton's Western Hemisphere president, recently told a group of investors "The same components to make this stuff are used to make ice cream and brew beer."

"Baker Hughes last week launched a line of products called BJ SmartCare that lets well owners customize their fluids based on factors such as toxicity and flammability," Dezember writes. "It declined to specify what most of the ingredients are, but they include fatty acids, essential oils and guar gum, which is found in toothpaste and ketchup." Flotek Industries Inc. says it has completed successful trials of biodegradable fracking chemicals, and oil and gas producer Devon Energy Corp. has already begun using some of the new formulas in its wells.

"The industry as a whole is going that way," Chip Minty, a spokesman for Devon, which has substantial shale-gas operations in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, told Dezember. Halliburton noted CleanStim would add about 5 to 10 percent to its drilling costs, while Baker Hughes said its environmentally friendly formula would have a "minimal impact" on cost. "So far, Halliburton has tested CleanStim on 13 wells and has begun to offer it to customers," Dezember writes, noting an executive said "the cost of CleanStim will fall once it catches on and Halliburton can buy larger volumes of ingredients, such as maltodextrin, a sweetener and shower-gel component, and organic ester, which is found in liquid egg products and hairspray." (Read more) That sounds encouraging, but it should be noted that the effectiveness of chemicals might vary depending on the depth and nature of shale formations.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kansas OKs permit for long-debated coal plant

UPDATE, July 6: "The company has only a year left to begin construction of its controversial coal-fired plant in western Kansas, but a legal challenge to the plant’s air-quality permit is blocking progress," the Kansas City Star reports. "Sunflower’s solution is an unusual one: Ask for a rare type of deadline extension." UPDATE, July 22: The extension was granted.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment today announced approval of a permit for a coal-fired power plant that has stirred years of debate among coal, environmental and electricity interests, including rural electric cooperatives.

Sunflower Electric Power Corp., comprising six rural electrics in western Kansas (co-op map; click for larger version), plans to sell much of the plant's power to Colorado utilities serving the metropolitan area of the Front Range. "Although the final permit is expected to face challenges from environmental groups and will be reviewed by U.S. EPA, today's decision clears the biggest procedural hurdle that had been standing in front of the 895-megawatt power plant," reports Gabriel Nelson of Environment and Energy News. "The permit is a defeat for groups that have made the Sunflower proposal a symbol of a national campaign against new coal-fired power plants."

Sunflower originally proposed three units with 2,100 megawatts, but then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius opposed it on grounds of air pollution and global warming. When fellow Democrat Mark Parkinson succeeded her last year, he "struck a deal with Sunflower to allow the current proposal," Nelson notes. "EPA decided the change was significant enough that the whole permit needed to go back to the drawing board. It was the first time that a U.S. agency had delayed a new coal plant based on concerns that it could worsen the effects of climate change." Last month, Parkinson ousted the secretary of the department, a Sebelius appointee. The acting secretary said today that the plant's emissions would be about 40 percent less than Sunflower had proposed. (Read more, subscription required)

"Receiving an air-quality permit was a huge victory for Sunflower . . . because it comes just days before federal regulations take effect requiring more expensive technology to control greenhouse gases," Karen Dillon of the Kansas City Star reports.

Looking for your earmark? Here's the request list

Does the big, catch-all spending bill hanging fire in Congress have an earmark for your community or region? You can get an idea by downloading a database of the nearly 40,000 requested earmarks, totaling $130 billion, here. It's a zipped, 12 MB Excel spreadsheet.

"It is impossible to know ahead of time which earmarks will appear in the Continuing Resolution finally enacted," the Society of Environmental Journalists notes. The database was produced by Taxpayers for Common Sense,, and Taxpayers Against Earmarks. While most Republcians in the Senate recently joined those in the House in opposing earmarks, they have not applied that policy to earmarks they requested earlier this year.

Federal regulators unable to keep cattle dealer from defaults, bad checks of up to $130 million

Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder writes about the collapse of Eastern Livestock, a company based in New Albany, Ind. "The losses are still coming in, but already it appears that Eastern Livestock has done for rural America what Bernie Madoff did for Manhattan," writes Bishop.

At last count, Eastern may owe 740 ranchers in 30 states as much as $130 million for cattle sold but never paid for. The firm issued $81 million in bad checks Nov. 3-9, and trucking firms say they are owed hundreds of thousands. Superior Livestock, an online and satellite auction service, says Eastern owes it more than $19 million, and Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank says Eastern has defaulted on a $32 million loan and has overdrawn its account by $13 million, according to DTN’s Katie Micik. The bank says Eastern is "engaged in a massive check-kiting scheme."

Inadequate regulation of the livestock market may be to blame. The company was required to have a dollar-for-dollar bond, but only for up to the first $75,000 in sales. Any amount above that was 10 cents for each dollar in sales. The federal Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration asked Eastern to increase its bond to $1.15 million, but the company never complied, and GIPSA never took any action against it. GIPSA has recently proposed rules that would give it greater oversight of the livestock business — regulations that meatpackers and some farm groups say are too intrusive, according to Bishop. (Read more)

Cattle producers who have done business with Eastern Livestock and have not received payment should contact the GIPSA regional office at 515-323-2579 for information on available financial protections and for forms necessary for filing a bond claim on payments due from Eastern. Bond claims must be filed within 60 days from the date of the transaction on which the claim is based. Kentucky producers are asked to file a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General by calling 502-696-5300. Even if you have already filed documents with GIPSA, according to The Farmer's Pride. (Read more)

The Courier-Journal of Louisville has also reported on the collapse of Eastern Livestock. (Read more)

Los Angeles County may protect dark night skies

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is considering new regulations that would preserve the dark night skies of rural areas of the vast California county. "The new zoning rules would establish standards for outdoor lighting for those unincorporated neighborhoods," the Pasadena Star-News reports. The issue is not limited to Southern California; most of America's rural residents live in counties that border metropolitan areas. "Dark night skies are one of the many qualities that set rural areas apart from urban and suburban communities," says the proposal from supervisors Michael Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky. (MapQuest image; county line in light gray)

"Many jurisdictions across the nation have adopted zoning standards for outdoor lighting to preserve and enhance valuable dark night skies, to lessen the impact of development on native wildlife, and to reduce energy consumption," the proposal notes. Among the complaints from rural residents was a horse farm owner who installed lights that "impacted the entire valley," the Star-News reports. "Light travels," Tony Bell, spokesman for Antonovich, said. "It can be bothersome. This is aimed at improving the quality of life for anyone who appreciates sunsets and star-gazing." (Read more)

USDA, DOJ conclude agriculture anti-trust workshop series

The workshop series about competition in the agriculture industry has resulted in better communication between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice, say department leaders. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack "noted that the Agriculture and Justice departments have already established a new process to handle complaints for unfair and deceptive practices in the poultry industry, and that USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration last summer published a proposed rule designed to increase fairness in the marketing of livestock and poultry," Jerry Hagstrom of the Capital Press reports.

"This not is a hand-holding exercise designed to generate favorable publicity," Holder said in a news conference. "We have done concrete things. There is a promise that comes out of what we have done." The final workshop was completed Dec. 8 in Washington, D.C. At the hearing "Vilsack repeated his previous statements that he fears consolidation in all agricultural sectors has led to population loss in rural America and said the Obama administration is determined 'to ask questions and shed light on issues that frankly have not seen light in many years,'" Hagstrom writes. (Read more)

Rural Massachusetts communities tangle over consolidating school districts

School officials in a rural Massachusetts county have called a special meeting to respond to an editorial in The Boston Globe, which said they are too numerous and "serve at the pleasure of small town officials unwilling to sacrifice even a modicum of control over their schools, even if doing so would benefit their children." The editorial notes the New England School Development Council said placing all the schools in Franklin County in western Massachusetts under one district would save $2.8 million in administrative costs. The Globe contended, "No place in Massachusetts is in greater need of regionalization than the 26 communities of Franklin County — and nowhere is the upside of combining forces more evident."

Franklin County (Wikipedia map) is no longer a governmental entity but provides a regional identity for 26 communities with nine school superintendents, "30 school principals and 20 school committees spread across a county with only 9,750 students, according to the editorial," reports Mackenzie Issler of the Greenfield Recorder. The county's School Committee Caucus, which was formed to present a unified voice for the county's schools,  has not taken a position on regional school systems, but member Marcia Day told Issler, "It has historically been opposed to the concept of top-down decisions by the state education department about whether and how districts should collaborate or consolidate."

Lawmakers recently convened in Boston for the first meeting of a legislative commission tasked with "finding ways to bring about more collaboration and regionalization of small, rural school districts like those in Franklin County," Issler writes. Leverett School Committee Chairman Farshid Hajir, the only representative from Western Massachusetts on the commission, brought up the Globe editorial at the meeting, noting "the insensitive, derogatory and untrue characterization of its school districts and school committees." The chair of that commission warned that regionalization is still on the agenda for state legislators, and if "local schools don't move toward more collaboration and regionalization themselves, the state will likely step in," Issler writes.

Some locals argue that money won't be saved by school district consolidation and funds would be better saved by increased collaboration among the small schools. "But, with many fearing forced regionalization and the loss of local control, a caucus of school committee members was formed to look at these options and, seemingly, collaboration has been more widely accepted than regionalizing," Issler writes. "A study group led by local lawmakers wrapped up its work in 2009 with a report that outlined how regionalizing could save money by spending less on administrators." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dean Foods settles lawsuit with Vermont dairy farmers, faces another involving 14 states

Dean Foods has agreed to pay $30 million to settle a class-action, anti-trust lawsuit filed by a group of dairy farmers in Vermont. Karen Robinson-Jacobs reports for The Dallas Morning News that the farmers had accused Dean and three other dairy-industry defendants of price-fixing and conspiracy to control the milk market in the Northeast, writes Robinson-Jacobs. (Read more)

The Burlington Free Press reports that the case was also against the Dairy Farmers of America, who the farmers say forced dairy farmers to join the organization. Doug Lantagne, extension dean at the University of Vermont, said the state's dairy farmers have been forced to sell milk for $2 to $3 per hundredweight below the cost of production. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who convened a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009 to discuss competition and sustainability in the dairy industry, said "Vermont dairy farmers, like dairy farmers across the country, are struggling, and we cannot allow collusion among larger dairy conglomerates to continue at the expense of our locally owned and operated dairy farms." The settlement needs court approval. (Read more)

Dean Foods is facing a similar class action, this one filed in Tennessee by 7,500 dairy producers in 14 states. The suit alleges that the low prices dairies were paid for their milk since 2001 are the results of a combination of price-fixing, "flooding" the milk market, restricting milk producers’ access to bottling plants and other illegal activities. The suit further alleged that Dean entered into an agreement that it would purchase milk only through Dairy Farmers of America, preventing individual dairies from selling directly to Dean or through other marketing services, writes Erin L. McCoy for the Kentucky Standard, a weekly newspaper in Nelson County, where all dairy farmers are part of the suit. (Read more)

NRA campaign dough begets loose gun laws; will it keep open U.S. gun pipeline to Mexico?

The Washington Post has produced a multimedia, multi-part investigation, "The Hidden Life of Guns." The series began in October and continues today. The most recent installment, by Sari Horwitz and James V. Grimaldi, tracks the influence that the National Rifle Association has had on political elections and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "With annual revenue of about $250 million, the group has for four decades been the strongest force shaping the nation's gun laws. ... The gun lobby has consistently outmaneuvered and hemmed in ATF, using political muscle to intimidate lawmakers and erect barriers to tougher gun laws. ... The source of the NRA's power is its focus on one issue and its ability to get pro-gun candidates elected."

In the past two decades, the NRA has spent more than $100 million on lobbying and campaign support, while the ATF has been without a permanent director since 2006. The Obama administration nominated a gun-control advocate for the job, but the nomination has little hope of passing. The NRA "is clearly the most powerful lobby in the United States," said William Vizzard, a former ATF agent who is now a criminal-justice professor in California. "The NRA has shaped gun policy and shaped the ATF."

"Despite the worst recession in a generation, we have thrived," National Shooting Sports Foundation President Steven Sanetti said at the event's state-of-the-industry dinner. The NRA does not trust the Obama administration and gun control advocates are disappointed with Obama's lack of action. "President Obama's first-year record on gun violence prevention has been an abject failure," said the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Interactive maps showing where and how the NRA spent its money and video interviews with are online. One map shows how and where the spent $6.7 million on the most recent election. (Read more)

David S. Fallis reports on how gun dealers acquire licenses to sell guns after the ATF has closed them down. The dealers often re-open through through relatives, employees, or associates who are willing to get a license for the dealer or they just incorporate as a new business. Both methods are legal. "This is the way Congress wrote the law," said James Zammillo, who was with ATF for four decades and served as deputy assistant director of industry operations before retiring this year. "The spirit of the law is that unless the applicant is prohibited, you have to issue a license. There is no discretion." ATF has 600 inspectors to inspect 60,000 gun dealers, an average of once every eight years. the agency revokes about 110 licenses a year, but the retailer is allowed to stay in business while the revocation plays out, writes Fallis. (Read more)

Today's installment names the top 12 U.S. dealers of guns traced to Mexican crime in the past two years. Eight of the top 12 dealers are in Texas, three are in Arizona, and one is in California. Mexican drug dealers come into the U.S. to buy guns because the Mexican government restricts gun ownership. Grimaldi and Fallis report that high-powered assault weapons purchased in the U.S. are contributing to the savage violence in Mexico. Guns from the U.S. "have been feeding the violence and overwhelming firepower being unleashed by drug traffickers," said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador in Washington. "We need to defang drug trafficking organizations of these high-caliber and semiautomatic and automatic weapons, and we need to do it now." (Read more)
(Complete list of series)

Administration wants to begin N.Y. shale-gas drilling while awaiting results of impact study

The Obama administration supports a study of the effects of natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale in upstate New York but doesn't want to wait for the results of the investigation to begin drilling in the area. "Gen. Peter 'Duke' DeLuca of the Army Corps of Engineers outlined the position in a letter written to Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and released today," Mike Soraghan of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. "The letter offers the first indication of the administration's position on gas drilling in the Northeast since the day after the Nov. 2 midterm election when President Obama highlighted gas drilling as a potential area of common ground with Republicans."

The drilling would take place in the watershed that supplies drinking water to New York City and Philadelphia. "DeLuca, the Army Corps' North Atlantic division engineer, is the federal representative on the Delaware River Basin Commission, which is developing regulations for gas drilling in eastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York," Soraghan writes. Hinchey and local environmentalists want the commission to maintain a drilling moratorium until results of the study are available, a process that could take years.

"The administration's position is to continue fully supporting the need for a cumulative impact study," DeLuca wrote. "Simultaneously, all these agencies support the DRBC's decision to develop and release draft natural gas regulations." DRBC last week issued "its proposed regulations, which would allow drilling to resume once they are finalized," Soraghan writes. "The commission is planning to hold several hearings during a 90-day comment period. DRBC, which we previously reported on here, is controlled by governors of Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and New Jersey along with DeLuca. (Read more)

Rural jobs up, jobless rate not down so much

Two-thirds of rural counties saw an increase in jobs between October 2009 and October 2010, but unemployment rate dropped just one tenth of a percent from September 2010 in rural, urban and exurban counties. The national rural unemployment rate stood at 8.8 percent in October, slightly less than the national rate of 9 percent, Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo report for the Daily Yonder. "Generally, the rural communities that were hit the hardest by the recession initially show the greatest decline in unemployment rates over the last year," Bishop and Gallardo write, pointing to the Carolinas, Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan as examples.

"The trend reverses as you head west of the Mississippi, where rates are often higher than a year ago," Bishop and Gallardo write, pointing to Colorado, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, California, western Montana and parts of Oregon. Farming counties have seen unemployment rates remain remarkably low at 5.1 percent, Dante Chinni of PBS recently reported. Bishop and Gallardo caution that lower unemployment rates don't necessarily mean more jobs, as the decrease can also reflect a fewer number of people looking for work. (Read more) (Yonder map)

New data on small, rural counties show they continued to lose people over the last decade

The majority of the country's most rural counties lost even more population over the last decade, says new data from the Census Bureau. Some of roughly 1,400 counties with fewer than 20,000 people, "particularly those in the Mountain West — saw population gains that may be the result of retirees striking out for areas that are both scenic and affordable," Dough Smith and Richard Fausset of the Los Angeles Times report. The data, which also showed a growing Latino presence in those counties, offer the first detailed portrait of heartland America in a decade, Smith and Fausset write.

"Such data had been hard to come by previously," the reporters write. "Concentrated from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountain region, the counties constitute half of the United States by area, but were too sparsely populated to provide meaningful statistics as the Census Bureau rolled out a new yearly national survey in the mid-2000s." The new data, from the American Community Survey, compensates for low number by averaging results over five years. "That makes some of the data difficult to interpret, particularly income figures, because the five-year period spans the pre-recession boom, the recession and the beginning of the recovery," Smith and Fausset write.

Population drops in rural America have been the trend for much of the 20th century, said Ken Johnson, a demographer with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Population growth in rural America was the exception over the last decade, but Spencer County, Kentucky, which is just 45 minutes from downtown Louisville and home to a Corps of Engineers lake impounded 25 years ago, led the way with a 42 percent population growth. The Great Plains appear to be particularly hard hit by the rural population drop as fewer young people are sticking around to have children. "The only thing that might break them [Midwest rural counties] out of it," Johnson told the reporters, "is an influx of young Hispanics." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A 60,000-circulation newspaper without its own copy desk? It's happening in Winston-Salem

Financially squeezed newspaper chains are consolidating their operations, especially in smaller towns. Sometimes it's the press and the pressroom employees, and/or the copy desk, with one or both functions being transferred to larger papers. Folks at the Winston-Salem Journal, circulation 60,000 in a city of 215,000, never thought they would lose their copy desk. But they are, as Media General Inc. moves its copyediting to its big papers in Richmond and Tampa.

More than one of the 18 people on the desk, interviewed for a YouTube video, called the move "inconceivable." One voiced the concern that has arisen in many smaller towns, that copy editors in distant places won't catch mistakes and even make correct copy erroneous. "If you can't know that Robinhood Road is one word, and you keep putting it in the newspaper as two words, that's your credibility," Karen Parker said, citing a significant local road. "Why should anybody believe that you're right about anything else? And a newspaper runs on its credibility. Its success is its credbility, not its bottom line."

Copy editor Tom Radulovic disputed Media General's assertion that the move would help it improve local newsgathering. "We are a source of local knowledge," he said. "I don't think they really appreciate what it means to have 15 additional people in the community as a set of ears." Here's the video:

Families of the miners killed at Upper Big Branch 'continue to live in grief'

The brother of a miner killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion is speaking out about his family's grief so that the victims are not forgotten. "Eight months after the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the families of the 29 coal miners who lost their lives continue to live in grief, yet few have described their pain publicly," Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports. Gene Jones, whose twin brother Dean died in the explosion, says keeping the tragedy in the public eye is important. (Photo by F. Brian Ferguson for NPR. Gene Jones holds a mid-1960's photo of himself, right in photo, and his brother, Dean Jones.)

"We're just going to be forgotten," Jones told Berkes, while mine disasters are "going to continue and continue and continue to go on. We need it fixed." He pointed out that in the national outpouring of support following the disaster, "They mourn for you, and it's unbelievable how this nation came together. But if [we] don't speak out and continue to speak out, it's just forgotten." Gene's mourning turns from grief to anger when he considers Dean's complaints he made about safety at Upper Big Branch. "Alice Peters, Dean's mother-in-law, testified in a congressional hearing in Beckley in May that Dean had been threatened with dismissal seven times because he resisted putting his crew in danger," Berkes writes.

Because Dean's insurance provided for his 14-year-old son with cystic fibrosis, "Dean needed his job to make sure his son could get the medical care he needed," Peters testified. Gene noted that in the eight months since the explosion that killed 29 miners, Congress has rejected mine safety reform, the investigations of the explosion drag on, and Massey Energy retiring CEO Don Blankenship will receive at least $12 million, four times the amount of the settlement that Massey offered his family.

"It's so sad to hear these crazy things," he told Berkes. The miners "were there every day risking their lives for that black coal, for us, surviving in this country. And because of that, I lost my brother." (Read more)

Committee to study efficacy of electronic health records on patient safety

The Obama administration pledged $19 billion of stimulus package funding to convert the nation's hospitals to electronic health records, but the conversion has been slow. "Only about one in four doctors, mostly in large group practices, is using the electronic record system," Milt Freudenheim of The New York Times reports. "A vast majority of physicians in small offices, the doctors who serve most Americans, still track patients’ illnesses and other problems with pen and paper." A recent report on North Carolina hospitals in the New England Journal of Medicine reveals deadly medical errors are still all too common.

The Food and Drug Administration notes "parts of a patient’s electronic medical records have disappeared or been saved in the wrong patient’s file," Freudenheim writes. "Incorrect entries have sometimes been posted for drug allergies and blood pressure readings, the agency said." To tackle those concerns, the Institute of Medicine created the Committee on Patient Safety and Health Information Technology to run a yearlong study and issue recommendations. "We said we value innovation, but we don’t value it more than safety," said Kenneth W. Goodman, a University of Miami bioethicist who headed an association advisory group on patient safety.

"In an indication of interest from Congress, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote to the health information industry and to Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, to ask what was being done to make sure the systems were being reviewed and monitored for patient safety concerns and what role the FDA. played in regulating health information technology," Freudenheim writes. Dr. David Blumenthal, the Obama administration’s national coordinator for health information technology, explained, "All options for assuring safety are on the table." (Read more)

N.Y. governor vetoes fracking moratorium in favor of his own plan

In November we reported that the New York Assembly had approved a six-month moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. On Saturday, Gov. David A. Patterson vetoed that legislation in favor of an executive order that more narrowly defines the types of drilling to be restricted. Patterson's executive order includes a fracking moratorium until July 1, 2011, a period longer than the one specified by the bill, Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times reports. "This legislation, which was well intentioned, would have a serious impact on our state if signed into law," Paterson said in a prepared statement. "Enacting this legislation would put people out of work – work that is permitted by the Department of Environmental Conservation and causes no demonstrated environmental harm, in order to effectuate a moratorium that is principally symbolic."

Fracking, a controversial drilling technique, "uses the high-pressure injection of water, sand and a variety of chemicals to crack and prop open shale seams and more economically release gas deposits," Zeller writes. "Industry groups have argued that the process is safe, but opponents fear that those chemicals, or displaced natural gas, could be leading to the contamination of drinking water in places where fracking is already well under way, including large portions of Pennsylvania." The vetoed legislation would have implemented a fracking moratorium until May 15, 2011.

"Industry representatives complained that such a sweeping moratorium would outlaw virtually all drilling in New York, including its portion of the Marcellus shale, a vast and deep deposit of natural gas stretching under several states," Zeller writes. Patterson's order distinguishes between vertical wells and "horizontal drilling" techniques. "The governor’s order restricts permits for 'high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing,'" Zeller writes.

The announcement was met with support from the natural gas industry. "We are very pleased that the governor saw the bill for what it was – a flawed piece of legislation replete with unintended and dire consequences for the people and businesses in our industry, " said Brad Gill, the executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, in a statement. Craig Michaels, the watershed program director for the environmental group Riverkeeper, worried the order provides a potential loophole for companies. (Read more)

Rural students revive Oregon university

Three years ago Eastern Oregon University was on the brink of collapse. This fall enrollment hit a record 4,137 students. School administrators say the key to the turnaround  focusing on recruiting rural students, Bill Graves of The Oregonian reports. "We are a rural university," President Bob Davies, who arrived on campus in July of 2009, told Graves. "We serve a group that is unique to us." Eastern Oregon draws more than half its campus from east of the Cascades, an area that "is bigger than Florida and nearly the size of all of Washington, yet it contains only 529,100, or 14 percent, of Oregon's people," Graves writes.

Three years ago, "Eastern's reserves were drained, its enrollment had dropped, its relations with the community had soured, faculty and staff morale was in the tank, the president had just resigned, and some members of the State Board of Higher Education were asking whether they should just close the university," Graves writes. Today, after focusing on helping rural students succeed at Eastern by making the university more accessible, affordable and personally engaging, foundation leaders are launching a campaign to triple the school's endowment, Graves reports. "It is about connections," Davies said. "When we have that strong connection, we thrive." (EOU Photo of first year students)

"To stay affordable, Eastern continues to charge the lowest tuition and fees -- $6,639 a year for a full-time undergraduate student -- in the state system, and it charges no more for out-of-state students," Graves writes. "Its foundation has launched the first phase of a campaign to raise about $12 million, which would triple its $6 million endowment, primarily to provide students more financial aid." Eastern Oregon has also had success with off-campus learning. "Only about half of Eastern's students attend college on campus," Graves writes. "Another 2,200 mostly rural students take classes and earn degrees online through 16 centers scattered across Oregon." (Read more)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Feds plan anew to take gray wolf off endangered species list in Western Great Lakes states

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to make another attempt to remove the gray wolf from the endangered-species list in Wisconsin and Michigan and from the threatened list in Minnesota, at the request of the three states and sportsmen's groups, Bob Meyer reports for Brownfield Network. "The wolf was removed from the federal lists in 2007 and management was turned over to the individual states," Meyer notes. "They were placed back on the list in 2008 as part of a lawsuit settlement." (USFWS photo)

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Matt Frank said his state has more than 700 wolves, “nearly twice the level prescribed by the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan,” and “Problems with wolves killing valuable livestock and hunting dogs have grown to intolerable levels.” For the service's Web page on the gray wolf in the region, go here.

Online classroom could replace 'snow days'

In Kentucky and Ohio, the states' education departments are working on creating an online school program for use during snow days, reports Cindy Kranz for the Cincinnati Enquirer. In Ohio, the state has already launched a pilot project to provide online assignments to snowbound students as a way to satisfy the requirements of a school day. In Kentucky, the education department is planning its own pilot program, as early as next year, asking the districts in eastern and central Kentucky that often miss up to three weeks of school due to inclement weather, to participate.
For rural students, treacherous or impassable roads often close schools for extended periods of time. Online classwork could help reduce the number of snow days, but not before a number of hurdles have been cleared, including lack of home Internet access for many children. Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said superintendents with high numbers of snow days would prefer that students not have the big gap in learning that snow days create. But they have to be able to reach all of the kids. "It's not impossible, but we don't have in many of those counties the Web-based infrastructure to pull it off right now," said Hughes.
Teachers must have five days of lesson plans prepared ahead of time that are appropriate to the course of study. "We want these lessons to be directly related to what is being emphasized instructionally at the time of the calamity day and aligning these in the short time frame we have when the weather is bad is problematic,'' said Greg Power, director of curriculum and instruction for the Little Miami School District in Ohio. (Read more)

Alaska parents may pay big fines for truant kids

Courts in Western Alaska are now fining parents if their children are truant. Kyle Hopkins writes for the Anchorage Daily News that parents can be fined hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars if their kid misses too many days of class, according to court records and rural school district officials in Alaska. The laws regarding truancy are not new, but whether parents get a ticket depends partly on where they live, reports Hopkins. The Anchorage school system has not pursued a truancy violation in the past 10 years. In some rural districts are increasingly turning to the mandatory-attendance laws in hopes of boosting test scores and slashing dropout rates, writes Hopkins.

Sgt. Duane Stone, a supervisor for the trooper post in Kotzebue, said,"[Fines are] not to get people into court. It's to get kids in school." A series of warnings and meetings with parents generally come first, and courts allow the families to reduce or avoid the fees simply by improving attendance. In northwest Alaska, one attendance counselor said she's found that working with the regional nonprofit agency to withhold public assistance payments to families is the single best way to improve attendance. (Read more)

Mississippi, North Dakota and Hawaii among states that benefit most from earmarks

Republican victories in November could mean the end of budget earmarks. Limiting pork will affect some states more than others, and rural states may be among the bigger losers. "Hawaii and North Dakota had more earmarks per capita than any other state in 2010, including Alaska and West Virginia, according to separate rankings from Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste, two watchdog organizations," Pam Prah of Stateline reports. (Stateline illustration:

The biggest loser if earmarks are limited may be Mississippi, which "pulls in 11 times as much in earmarked funds as it sends back to Washington in taxes, according to an analysis from Brandon Arnold, director of government relations at the Cato Institute, a libertarian group," Prah writes. The University of Southern Mississippi recently received a half million dollars worth of earmarks for its cannabis eradication program, which is designed to help law enforcement officials detect indoor marijuana growing operations. That money was "tucked away in the federal Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill for fiscal year 2010," Prah writes.

"These states will still get federal funds" if an earmark ban goes through, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, "but no doubt about it, they will get dinged." Earmark supporters say a ban would "would rob lawmakers of their authority to set the spending and taxing policies of the nation, relinquishing it to the executive branch," Prah writes. Both sides of the argument agree a ban on earmarks is symbolic; they account for only about 1 percent of federal spending.

"Critics questioned the GOP's resolve to curb earmarks after House Republicans selected U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky to head the House Appropriations Committee in the next Congress," Prah writes. "Some in Congress call Rogers, who is credited with winning some 135 earmarks for his district, at a cost of $246 million over the past two year the 'Prince of Pork.'" Rogers, however, has spoken out in favor of the earmark ban. he represents the nation's most rural district, covering most of Appalachian Kentucky. (Read more)

N.Y. Times blasts GOP for killing mine safety bill

The New York Times' editorial board has been outspoken in favor of strengthening mine safety laws in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 West Virginia miners in April. Now the newspaper has blasted congressional Republicans for blocking the legislation. "Republicans predictably shielded mine owners, citing warnings from the National Association of Manufacturers that the reform might drive up coal prices by expanding government authority and exposing mining companies to greater criminal penalties and damage litigation," the newspaper writes. "That is exactly what this perilously dangerous industry needs. Too many lives have already been lost for the sake of cheap coal."

The editorial continues, "The failure was even more egregious in the Senate, where strong reform proposals never saw the heat of debate as the Republican minority wielded its brute dogma of filibustering. . . . The owner of the Upper Big Branch, Massey Energy, can now rest easier. The defeated reform would have toughened enforcement against serial violators like Massey — it had 515 violations in 2009 — which routinely game the system and count on years of appeals to allow them to keep flouting the law." The Times concludes, "We fear reform is even less likely in the new Congress where pro-industry Republicans will have greater power. This year they warned against a “rush to judgment” about what precisely happened at Upper Big Branch. We know what happened, 29 people died. And Congress failed in its duty." (Read more)

Securing ethanol subsidies may be difficult

The ethanol industry earned a victory last week with the one-year extension of key federal subsidies, but securing those subsidies next year may be a tougher battle. "Industry officials say they're open to changing the way the government subsidizes producers next year, but there is disagreement within the industry about the best way to do it," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "A one-year extension of the subsidy buys the industry some time." With the federal deficit and an influx of conservative Republicans to Congress, the battle for those subsidies is expected to be more difficult in 2011.

"This allows us to have that debate next year but to figure out how we want to support the industry in a way that is fiscally responsible," said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association.  Nathanael Greene, an energy policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a critic of corn ethanol, said the industry has "got to be nervous," given the deficit issue. "It doesn't look like corn ethanol is always going to get all it wants," Greene told Brasher.

"What happens in 2011 is up in the air," Brasher writes. "A rival trade group to the Renewable Fuels Association, called Growth Energy, has proposed to phase out the tax credit and shift the money into financing ethanol pipelines and retrofitting service stations to sell gasoline with higher ethanol content." RFA says "everything is on the table" in the discussion of how to continue federal support. "We have committed to reforming the tax incentive to make it more fiscally responsible, but it has to be one that works and one that encourages investment in new technologies and continues the evolution of the industry," Dinneen told Brasher. "I don't think we've seen a proposal out there yet that necessarily does all that." (Read more)

Newspaper series tells the stories of rural residents who are 'full of charisma and verve'

Inspired by a multimedia series from The New York Times, a rural Washington newspaper has launched its own multimedia series to highlight the often unsung residents of its community. The project, "Voices from the Walla Walla Valley," was designed by the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and includes a story and slideshow about each Walla Walla resident profiled. "Last year, I fell in love with a New York Times multimedia series called 'One in 8 Million,'" Katrina Barlow of the Union-Bulletin explains on the project Web site. "Each weekly episode featured an everyday New Yorker, who shared something about his or her occupation or lifestyle. I realized that characters like those New Yorkers, who were so full of charisma and verve, lived in rural areas."

"The Walla Walla Valley is full of people who have remarkable stories," Barlow writes. "This is our attempt to highlight these untold stories." The project, which includes an episode every Sunday, will feature both longtime and new residents of the valley. A summary of each episode is included in Sunday print edition of the Union-Bulletin with the full story and video appearing on the newspaper's Web site. You can view the first three episodes of the series here or read more about the project from its founders here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reform of largest rural electric cooperative seems complete with conviction of ex-manager

UPDATE 12/15: A Gillespie County jury sentenced Fuelberg to probation and a $30,000 fine. "The jury's sentence does not state a term of probation, to be determined by state District Judge Dan Mills in January," Patrick George of the Austin-American Statesman reports. "In remarks from the bench, Mills suggested Fuelberg might have to pay $84,000 in restitution , and serve jail time as a condition of his probation." Fuelberg's attorney said he was pleased with the sentence and Assistant Attorney General Harry White added the verdict "sends a powerful message to the community that people in positions of trust will be held accountable for their actions when they violate that trust." (Read more)

The former manager of the nation's largest rural electric cooperative, who resigned two years ago, was convicted Friday of theft, money laundering and fiduciary misapplication of property, all third-degree felonies that could cost him two to 10 years in prison and $10,000.

Bennie Fuelberg, 66, now faces sentencing by the Gillespie County jury that reduced the charges from first-degree felonies. He was accused of "funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in co-op members' money between 1996 and 2007 to his lobbyist brother" and the son of a former Pedernales Electric Cooperative board member, Patrick George of the Austin American-Statesman reports.

The utility came under scrutiny after customer-members member sued it in 2007, leading to "disclosures of large salaries, excessive expenditures and money-losing ventures at the co-op, which Fuelberg ran with little oversight by the well-compensated board of directors," George writes. "A reform movement" purged the entire board, Fuelberg and other officials. "Today, the co-op has levels of openness unheard of during Fuelberg's tenure, including democratic board elections and more open records." (Co-op map shows its service areas)

Co-op member Andy Wilson of Public Citizen Texas said the verdict is a warning. "This should send a chill down the spine of other corrupt co-op boards and managers across the country," he told the Statesman. "We can take back our co-ops, as we've done in Pedernales, and so can others across the country." (Read more)