Saturday, January 15, 2011

Appeals court voids big verdict against Klansman

A $1.3 million verdict against the former leader of a Ku Klux Klan affiliate was overturned yesterday by the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which ruled that "there isn't enough evidence to hold him liable in the beating of a minority teen by other Klansmen at a county fair" in Brandenburg, Chris Kenning reports for The Courier-Journal. The Southern Poverty Law Center promised an appeal.

Ron Edwards, head of the Imperial Klans of America, was included in a $2.5 million judgment that also went against another IKA member who didn't appeal but has no assets. "Two other assailants settled out of court," Kenning notes. the appeals court panel ruled 2-1 that “there was no evidence that Edwards had encouraged or instructed any of the assailants to go to the fair” and “no evidence that he had encouraged or instructed the assailants” to assault Jordan Gruver, 19.

Kenning reports, "Since the trial, the IKA, once the nation's second-largest Klan group with 39 chapters in 26 states, has dwindled to two chapters, the law center said." Its spokesman said, "A big part of the decline was due to the fact that the trial discredited Edwards by showing he was running the group for his own financial benefit." (Read more) Here is our original item on the case.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tractor Supply known for knowledgeable staff

Gary M. Stern, for Investor's Business Daily, reports on Brentwood, Tenn., based Tractor Supply -- the biggest rural retailer in the U.S., with 976 stores in 44 states. Tractor Supply has made a special effort to recruit staffers "with expertise in four areas: farming, ranching, horses and welding. Why welding? If they know welding, odds are that they've mastered nearly everything else in home repair," according to Stern. Tractor Supply, whose revenue rose to $3.2 billion in 2009 and is on track to hit $3.5 billion in 2010, believes that specialized workers are a competitive edge.

James Wright, CEO of Tractor Supply, says creating a reservoir of staff knowledge helps retain both customers and employees. "Only with longevity of staff can we build deep category expertise," he said to Stern. Hiring interviews and job descriptions are extensive. Retail staff turnover has gone from 100% to 35% annually. On the store manager side, it's fallen from 43% to 15%. Tractor Supply is planning on opening 75 to 80 stores in 2011. (Read more)

Three rural Wisconsin newspapers combine to make new weekly

Three weekly rural Wisconsin newspapers -- the Arcadia News-Leader, Whitehall Times, and the former Galesville Republican -- have combined to form a new weekly, the Trempealeau County Times, reports Chuck Rupnow for the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. The three weeklies were bought by News Publishing Co. of Black Earth, which produces 20 other weekly papers, including the Banner-Journal in Black River Falls, and 16 shopper publications in Wisconsin and Iowa, reports Rupnow.

Chuck Blaschko, CEO of Blaschko Enterprises, called the decision to sell the Arcadia newspaper to News Publishing "a good business decision. ... From our standpoint, the majority (about 95 percent) of our business involves commercial printing, so it's not so bad," said Blaschko to Rupnow. "Combining the three papers provides a broader base for advertisers in the county, which should be good." Blaschko said the Arcadia paper has been in the family for about 55 years, since Chuck's father, Harold Blaschko, bought it from Albert and Elsie Gauger, grandparents of Chuck Gauger, who ran the Whitehall paper and now serves as general manager of the Trempealeau County Times. (Read more)

Audit finds that Recovery Act loans for rural homes were made to some ineligible borrowers

Part of the 2009 economic stimulus package included federally-backed loans for rural homes. Last year, the guarantees reached nearly $16.8 billion, up from $3.7 billion two years earlier, writes William Neuman for The New York Times. A new audit of the program, administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, has found that the program "was plagued by lax government oversight and many of the same sloppy banking practices that fed the broader mortgage debacle.  Although the auditors looked at only a tiny sample of the 133,053 loan guarantees made in 2009, they estimated that tens of thousands might have been done improperly and warned that a wave of defaults might be looming," according to Neuman.

The audit found that more than 10 percent of the loans might have been to borrowers who were not eligible and might not have had the means to pay them back. The audit, released last week by the office of the U.S.D.A. inspector general, Phyllis K. Fong, also found that U.S.D.A. officials failed to detect the errors. The foreclosure rate for the U.S.D.A.’s portfolio of guaranteed mortgages rose to 2.25 percent in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The year before, the rate was 1.72 percent, and in 2007, it was 1.38 percent. (Read more)

Iowa doctor permitted to provide abortion pills to rural women via video

The Iowa Board of Medicine has decided to allow Planned Parenthood of the Heartland to continue using a video system to provide abortion pills to women in rural areas, reports Tony Leys for the Des Moines Register. The system, the first of its kind in the nation, allows a physician in Des Moines to deliver the pills to patients in remote clinics around the state, writes Leys. The doctor reviews each patient's records, speaks to her for a few minutes via videoconferencing, then pushes a computer button that opens a drawer in front of the patient. The patient reaches in the drawer to retrieve the pills, then takes the first dose while the doctor watches. She takes the rest of the pills at home, where she has an induced miscarriage.

The national anti-abortion group Operation Rescue complained to the Iowa board  that the practice did not meet the requirements of state law. The board deliberated the case in a closed session, then told Operation Rescue that it would not sanction the Planned Parenthood doctor. Jill June, president of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said the system is used by other medical specialists to treat rural patients. "It would be turning the clock backwards and really discriminating against people who want and need health care but don't happen to live in urban areas," June said. (Read more)

USDA proposes overhaul to school lunches; awards grant to fight rural child obesity

A U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal released Thursday would require school cafeterias to serve children more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. The plan would be "the first major nutritional overhaul of students' meals in 15 years," The Associated Press reports. The proposal also calls for schools to cut sodium in meals subsidized by the federal government by more than half, use more whole grains and serve low-fat milk. French fries would no longer be a daily staple of school lunches as the proposal limits children to one cup of starchy vegetables a week.

"Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the new standards could affect more than 32 million children and are crucial because kids can consume as much as half of their daily calories in school," AP writes. The guidelines are based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine. "The announcement comes just a few weeks after President Barack Obama signed into law a child nutrition bill that will help schools pay for the healthier foods, which often are more expensive."

"The subsidized meals that would fall under the guidelines proposed this week are served as free and low-cost meals to low-income children and long have been subject to government nutrition standards," AP writes. "The new law for the first time will extend nutrition standards to other foods sold in schools that aren't subsidized by the federal government, including a la carte foods on the lunch line and snacks in vending machines." Standards for those foods will be written separately but are expected to be similar to standards for subsidized meals. (Read more)

USDA also announced Thursday it had awarded Oregon State University a $4.9 million grant to develop an obesity prevention program for rural Oregon children. The grant goes to OSU researchers Deborah John and Kathy Gunter to start “Generating Rural Options for Weight-Healthy Kids and Communities." The program "will work with Cooperative Extension in six Western states to engage rural people in community-based research to assess features in rural communities that either prevent or promote obesity and community resources and readiness that could help with prevention efforts," USDA writes. Based on these assessments the researchers will implement an obesity intervention program in three Oregon counties. (Read more)

Recent rise in farm debt resembles the run-up to the 1980s farm debt crisis

Farm debt has risen almost five percent annually since 2004, the largest increase since the years leading up to the 1980s farm debt crisis. "Today’s rising debt raises questions about whether U.S. farm operations will face financial stress in the future," Brian C. Briggeman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City reports. Briggeman defines farm financial stress as the inability to meet debt service payments, including principal and interest and notes "the primary determinants of financial stress are the level of debt, its cost or interest rate, and the amount of farm income available to service the debt."

"In recent years, low interest rates and robust farm income have kept financial stress from spiking for the average farm operation," Briggeman writes. "Still, some agricultural enterprises have seen incomes fall, leaving some producers with elevated levels of financial stress." Unlike the years leading up to the 1980s farm debt crisis, the accumulation of farm debt in recent years has been concentrated in real estate and among a small group of producers, Briggeman reports. From 2003 to 2009 farm real estate debt rose more than six percent per year while non-real estate debt rose three percent per year.

The recent rise in debt has been concentrated among producers with more than $1 million in sales. From 2004 to 2008 total real farm debt doubled for these operations to $60 billion, Briggeman reports, noting these farms, which account for five percent of all farms, saw their share of total farm debt rise from 15 to 30 percent during that time. Farms with less than $1 million in total sales held roughly stead with $160 billion of debt, Briggeman reports. Low interest rates have allowed farmers to carry higher level of debt, but Briggeman concludes a financial shock, like a rise in farm interest rates, a decline in farm income or both, could increase financial stress quickly. (Read more)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

PolitiFact sets its meters on Congress, governors; The Washington Post revives its FactChecker

PolitiFact, the fact-checking website that won a Pulitzer Prize for the St. Petersburg Times in 2009, has launched new watchdog measurinmg devices to track the campaign promises of congressional Republicans, and its state-level partners are doing likewise for new governors.

"Pledge-O-Meter" uses the same approach as Obameter, which tracks more than 500 of President Obama’s promises. Six levels will provide a broad picture of whether GOP leaders are making progress: Promise Kept, In the Works, Compromise, Stalled, Promise Broken ot Not Yet Rated. New govenors in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin will get similar measures, named after each of them.

PolitiFact says it will continue to use its Truth-O-Meter, left, to fact-check statements by politicians and interest groups. Personally, we think the meters are a little gimmicky. They do provide voters a clear handle for judgments, but we prefer the old-fashioned narratives of, a service of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. It's run by Brooks Jackson, formerly of CNN and The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post has revived the paper's FactChecker column, which Michael Dobbs brgan during the 2008 presidential race. "We will not be bound by the antics of the presidential campaign season, but will focus on any statements by political figures and government officials -- in the United States and abroad -- that cry out for fact-checking," Kessler writes. "we will not be limited to political charges or countercharges. We will seek to explain difficult issues, provide missing context and provide analysis and explanation of various "code words" used by politicians, diplomats and others to obscure or shade the truth." (Read more)

Boss of biggest rural paper leaves to run schools

The chief excutive of the largest rural newspaper in the U.S., which has editorially supported use of private-sector managers in public education, has left to help run the local school system.

Billy Crews, right, of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo became chief operating officer of the Tupelo Public School District on Jan. 1. In the new, $122,000-a-year position he oversees non-instructional departments such as finance, human resources, technology and communications, the Journal reports.

Crews, 54, worked for the newspaper for 32 years and had been CEO since 1992. He remains chairman of Journal Inc., a part-time position. He is a protege of George McLean, who made the paper a leader in regional development and left it to a foundation that he created to benefit Tupelo and Northeast Mississippi.

Small-town Louisiana reporter digs into brutal, racially tinged murder; N.Y. Times follows up

A 46-year-old murder case has gotten new scrutiny by the 4,000-circulation weekly newspaper in Ferriday, La., drawing the attention of The New York Times. Stanley Nelson, reporting for the Concordia Sentinel, identified Arthur Leonard Spencer (Sentinel web page image) as the person who killed Frank Morris, a well-liked black businessman in Concordia County (wearing cap above; Mapquest image below)

Three people told Nelson that Spencer was part of a Ku Klux Klan hit squad assigned to ride into Ferriday to burn Morris' shoe shop during the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1964, writes Nelson. Morris lived four days after the fire. "Only the bottom of his feet weren't burned," the Rev. Robert Lee Jr. of Clayton, age 96, who visited Morris in the hospital, told Nelson. "He was horrible to look at." During the four days he was hospitalized, Morris was interviewed by the FBI, Ferriday police and fire department officials. A number of friends who visited Morris in the hospital prior to his death were convinced Morris knew his killers. They said he called them "two white friends."

Leonard Spencer, 71, told reporter Nelson that he did not know anything about the crime and denied he participated in it. Spencer said he made the same denial to two FBI agents about 30 to 40 days ago. His son, William "Boo" Spencer, said Leonard Spencer and other men were surprised to find Morris in his shop that morning. "My dad said they could hear a stirring in the place, then a man came out," said Boo Spencer, 41. Boo Spencer said his father told him the man in the shop, Morris, "was doused with gasoline and started to run." Leonard Spencer's former brother-in-law, Bill Frasier, told Nelson that Spencer confessed to arson and claimed Morris' death was unintentional. The third person to tell a similar version of events was Leonard Spencer's ex-wife, Brenda Rhodes.

Transcripts of recorded FBI interviews with Morris when he was hospitalized following the arson, which the Sentinel obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, indicated Morris never told authorities he knew the men who set his shop on fire. In a morphine-induced consciousness, on at least 12 occasions during those interviews, Morris denied knowing who the men were. The FBI investigated the murder twice in the 1960s, and a third time in 2007. (Read more) (Index of stories on investigation)

Kim Severson, writing for the Times, writes that Rosa Williams, granddaughter of Frank Morris, "moved Mr. Nelson to dedicate himself to this and the other cold cases. ... From that moment on, Mr. Nelson has reported on little else," writes Severson. He was motivated by the curiosity of a newsman. Nelson, 55, told Severson: "What kind of human being could set another man on fire? ... I was just curious about something that happened in our community that I never knew about. I just wanted to find out who did it." (Read more)

Sale of private forests further endangers species

The key for protecting woodland plants and creatures may be stemming the sale of private forests, says a U.S. Forest Service report. "Increased housing density near and on private forests is threatening habitat for plants and animals already at risk of decline or extinction, according to the 24-page report by the agency's State and Private Forestry arm," Phil Taylor of Environment & Energy News reports. More than half of all U.S. forest land, 423 million acres, is privately owned. The report notes landowners often earn more by selling forest land to developers than preserving open space. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo: endangered green pitcher plant)

"Over half of America's forests are privately owned and are under pressure from housing development, pests, diseases and fire," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said last week. "Future development is likely to result in a decrease of private forest habitat for many at-risk species." Tidwell noted the report, Threats to At-Risk Species in America's Private Forests, is designed to aid local and state agencies and conservationists in planning future developments and identifying at-risk species. The report is an update on a 2008 report that was "forecasting declines of at-risk species as a result of housing density increases through 2030," Taylor writes.

The report "includes case studies of at-risk wildlife species including the Chesapeake Bay's Delmarva fox squirrel, the key deer in southern Florida and the California tiger salamander," Taylor writes. Protecting private forests is of particular concern in the eastern U.S., where a higher percentage of forests are held by families and companies. "Since 87 percent of forest land in the U.S. South is privately held, the future of Southern forests -- and their species -- rests in the hands of private landowners," Craig Hanson, director of the People and Ecosystems Program at the World Resources Institute, told Taylor. (Read more, subscription required)

EPA gives biomass industry three-year exemption from new greenhouse-gas regulations

In September we reported concerns from the biomass industry about possible greenhouse-gas regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. On Wednesday EPA announced a three-year reprieve for the industry during which it would be exempt from the regulations, Gabriel Nelson of Environment & Energy News reports.

The industry "has claimed that the energy source is not contributing to climate change because it is part of a natural, carbon-neutral cycle," Nelson writes. "When new plants are grown, the argument goes, they absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide that the other plants had released when they were burned."

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said, "We are working to find a way forward that is scientifically sound and manageable for both producers and consumers of biomass energy. In the coming years we will develop a common-sense approach that protects our environment and encourages the use of clean energy. Renewable, homegrown power sources are essential to our energy future, and an important step to cutting the pollution responsible for climate change." The decision means the agency will need to make changes to its 'tailoring' rule, which lays out which types of new facilities will need to get greenhouse gas permits under the Clean Air Act," Nelson writes. (Read more, subscription required)

Rural school funding case reaches S.D. Supreme Court; justice says 'No one wants to live there'

The South Dakota Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case where parents say rural schools do not receive adequate state funding. "A judge ruled in 2009 in favor of the state, which says that courts cannot force the legislature to spend money or change education policy," Nomaan Merchant of The Associated Press reports. "On Tuesday, an attorney for the parents said rural schools are penalized because they have fewer students than districts in Sioux Falls. The state currently provides for a base amount of $4,804 per student, with small schools getting more for each student."

"This is the crisis point, in rural South Dakota, especially," parents' attorney Ronald Parsons Jr. told Merchant. "We can't just herd everyone into certain counties." Lawyers for the parents, who are backed by about 100 of the state's 161 school districts, "have said that some schools cannot afford to offer advanced math courses and other services that students need," Merchant writes. "Some districts have trouble hiring teachers because they offer lower salaries, and others cannot afford to fix buildings or build new schools. The state disputes that view, saying districts get enough money to provide an adequate education."

"Several justices said they were hesitant to declare the school funding system unconstitutional and force the legislature to make changes without suggesting an alternative," Merchant writes. Justice Judith Meierhenry noted, "The legislature needs to have more direction than that." Assistant Attorney General Diane Best argued the state was not responsible for poor student performance. "There are students who are not taking advantage of that," she said. "There isn't a system that can guarantee that a student will be motivated to come to school." Meierhenry, a Sioux Falls resident, also noted funding wasn't the only factor in rural schools inability to attract teachers. "It's more than just salaries," she said. "No one wants to live there." (Read more)

EPA vetoes biggest mountaintop-removal permit

The Environmental Protection Agency has vetoed the largest mountaintop-removal mining permit ever sought, for Arch Coal's proposed Spruce Mine near Blair, W.Va. (MapQuest image). "The move is part of an Obama administration crackdown aimed at reducing the effects of mountaintop-removal coal mining on the environment and on coalfield communities in Appalachia — impacts that scientists are increasingly finding to be pervasive and irreversible," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his Coal Tattoo blog. "EPA officials this morning were alerting West Virginia’s congressional delegation to their action, and undoubtedly preparing for a huge backlash from the mining industry and its friends among coalfield political leaders."

EPA said it reviewed more than 50,000 public comments and held a major public hearing in West Virginia, and was "acting under the law and using the best science available to protect water quality, wildlife and Appalachian communities who rely on clean waters for drinking, fishing and swimming." Peter Silva, EPA administrator for water, said the mine "would use destructive and unsustainable mining practices that jeopardize the health of Appalachian communities and clean water on which they depend. Coal and coal mining are part of our nation’s energy future, and EPA has worked with companies to design mining operations that adequately protect our nation’s water. We have responsibility under the law to protect water quality and safeguard the people who rely on clean water." UPDATE, Jan. 14: Silva resigned as water administrator.

"EPA’s final determination on the Spruce Mine comes after discussions with the company spanning more than a year failed to produce an agreement that would lead to a significant decrease in impacts to the environment and Appalachian communities," EPA said. "The action prevents the mine from disposing the waste into streams unless the company identifies an alternative mining design that would avoid irreversible damage to water quality and meets the requirements of the law." The agency began looking more closely at the permit in September 2009 and issued a preliminary determination in March 2010 that the mine would cause unacceptable impacts. (Read more)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Meatpacker to clean effluent at big Colo. plant

Meatpacking giant Cargill on Tuesday announced plans to improve the quality of water discharged from its beef processing facility in Colorado. The project, which will cost an estimated $6 million, will "address the discharge of total inorganic nitrogen and phosphorous into the South Platte River at a plant that processes about 1.2 million head of cattle annually," Chris Scott of MeatingPlace reports. "The project will also provide improved biogas production, capture and use from organic materials in the facility’s wastewater."

Cargill plans to begin work in mid-2011 and hopes to complete the project by the third quarter of 2012. The company said "The project is part of a continuing water quality upgrade initiative at the Fort Morgan plant, which has already reduced nitrate discharge into local waterways by 70 percent between 2005 and 2009," Scott writes. (Read more, subscription required)

Ky. town bids fond farewell to general store

The closing of a historic general store in one Kentucky community meant more to locals than having to find a new place to shop. "Piece by piece, history was uncovered, auctioned off and packed out of Manton General Store on Saturday," Jesse Osbourne of The Springfield Sun reports. "That history, 61 years of it, is now spread out across the land like ashes of the dead. And like a death of a loved one, the loss of the store is heavy for those who knew it." Historic relics from the store were auctioned off during to the highest bidder on Saturday. (Photo by Osbourne)

"This funeral wasn’t all about mourning, though," Osbourne writes. "There were plenty of smiles amongst the people jammed into the store on Saturday, too." The store was opened in 1950 by the Newton family, which has operated it since. John and Bobby Newton, who operated the store for the last four years, told Osbourne they just got tired of keeping it running. While the store no longer kept a full stock like it once did, until Saturday it still sold "soft drinks, sandwiches, 'odd and end groceries,' and cigarettes," Osbourne writes.

The closing of the store meant the end to a prominent hangout spot for several locals. "My loafing spot is gone," one regular, Kenny Corbett, told Osbourne. "After the auction, the building, which the Newton brothers think was built around 1925, will be vacant until the owner, Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Manton, finds another use for it," Osbourne writes. "The brothers didn’t know what intentions the church had for the building, if any, but they said they didn’t believe it would be another grocery store." While those who attended the Saturday auction enjoyed themselves, the significance of the event was not lost on Corbett. "I love to do auctions," he told Osbourne. "But I didn’t want to do this one." (Read more)

Switchgrass shows promise for Ky. farmers

The growing market for new energy sources could be providing a new crop for farmers, especially Kentucky tobacco farmers. "A pilot project using switchgrass as an additive to coal being conducted by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture in conjunction with East Kentucky Power Cooperative and 20 northeastern Kentucky producers is showing hope," Tim Thornberry of Business Lexington reports.  Dr. Ray Smith, a UK forage extension specialist, told Thornberry the initial success of the project should encourage farmers to try it on a larger scale. The current project planted 750 acres of switchgrass, but "an expansion of the project is in the works and is being funded through the Kentucky Forage and Grassland Council from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund," funded by the national tobacco settlement with cigarette makers, Thornberry writes. 

"I think the greatest success of the project has been in providing practical advice to farmers on growing an alternative cash crop, and seeing them be successful," Smith told Thornberry. "These 20 farmers and their neighbors who have followed the project will be much more willing to try growing biomass crops on a large scale after seeing the success of the project and gaining the knowledge of how to grow and harvest switchgrass." Two Kentucky droughts since the beginning of the pilot period haven't been enough to slow the switchgrass's growth. "The 20 switchgrass stands grew well this year," Smith said. "Since it is a warm season grass (grows best when temperatures are in the 90's) and is very efficient with water, the heat and dry weather had very little effect on production."

Test burns of the switchgrass  have been successful on a small scale so far, said Nick Comer, spokesman for the power co-op. "It gave us an opportunity to look at, operationally, what we need to do in terms of processing and handling. On the first (burn) we just chopped up the switchgrass and put it in with the coal," he told Thornberry. "Last year we took pelletized switchgrass and mixed it in with the coal. Of course that's much easier to handle but there are costs involved in the process of turning it into pellets." He added "We didn't see anything that would indicate there would be a problem to burn on a much larger scale." (Read more)

Cellulosic ethanol industry fell short of 2010 goal; none was blended commercially in 2nd half

No cellulosic ethanol was commercially blended with gasoline in the second half of 2010 though the federal renewable fuel standard called for five million gallons of the fuel to be produced last year. The Environmental Protection Agency set the target after it "took stock of the nascent industry's capabilities and lowered the bar from the earlier congressional target of 100 million gallons," Dina Fine Maron of ClimateWire reports for The New York Times. A ClimateWire analysis of EPA data revealed the lack of production during the second half of 2010; industry executives expected the total production for the year would be higher, while still falling short of the mandated level.

"Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, also placed his estimate for total cellulosic ethanol production in the neighborhood of 1 million gallons," Fine Maron writes. The final tally for blending during the first half of 2010 is not yet available, and EPA declined to comment on its raw numbers. "Only a handful of pilot projects in the United States currently produce cellulosic biofuel, and they are not focused on selling it commercially," Fine Maron reports."As research and development plants, they do not operate at full capacity, and thus production costs, on a per-gallon basis, are steep."

The sources of cellulosic ethanol production are in flux as well. "The cast of companies that may be able to produce the fuel and sell it on the commercial market is constantly fluctuating, with some projects teetering on the brink of failure," Fine Maron writes, noting, "Industry experts say that lack of funds is what's holding back the industry, not technology. The harsh economy and bank requirements to prove that large biorefineries would be strong investments with definitive long-term customers leave startups struggling to find a source with deep pockets."

Some industry backers point to 2012 as the year cellulosic ethanol projects will scale up, driving its prices down. Those predictions are far from certain, Fine Maron reports. "You can't really mandate innovation. If a technology requires real innovation, requiring it isn't going to get it done," Greene told ClimateWire. "A lot of us have real optimism about this family of technologies ... but that doesn't mean you can time when it's going to happen." (Read more)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Duke Energy plans to acquire Progress Energy; not a good sign for the coal industry

Duke Energy, based in Charlotte, N.C.,  has proposed a $13.7 billion stock-swap acquisition of Progress Energy, based in Raleigh, N.C., reports Bruce Henderson of the Charlotte Observer.  State and federal regulators, as well as shareholders, still have to approve the deal, according to Henderson. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will also review the proposed merger and its nuclear power generation.

Duke plans to file rate cases in North Carolina this year to recover costs of building a new coal-fired power plant, Cliffside, and natural gas-fired plants at its Buck and Dan River plants. Duke also provides power to Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. It has relied on coal as a power source, but with the purchase of Progress, appears to be heading towards leaving coal behind. Duke CEO Jim Rogers said, "Nuclear provides 70 percent of the carbon-free electricity in the United States. ... That becomes, to me, the preferred technology." Rogers described "almost a tsunami" of capital needs facing both companies, including the need to replace aging power plants, meet stricter environmental standards and upgrade the grid. "When we look at the challenges we face in the future, we realized that we're in a better position to meet those challenges together than as separate companies," he said.  (Read more)

Rogers is among corporate America's loudest advocates for sharply slashed CO2 emissions, according to Steve Levine of Foreign Policy. "The Duke-Progress deal could not-so-subtly impact U.S. politics. If their deal is approved by regulators, the combined companies would be the country's largest single utility. One of the reasons for the victory of climate skeptics has been the lobbying of coal, oil and other industry lobbyists. But now Rogers' voice would become more influential in that lobby." (Read more)

Foreclosures spread beyond Mass. urban areas

A recent study by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership has found that more home foreclosures are outside the state's urban areas than in them. Jennifer B. McKim writes for the Boston Globe, "The shift of foreclosures from cities to outlying areas indicates that the sluggish economy and a lingering high unemployment rate, not subprime loans and predatory lending, have become the main reasons people lose their homes."

In small towns, foreclosed homes are spread across the community which makes the problem less obvious. That means public policy makers must find regional solutions instead of focusing on particular streets, said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. "In a lot of these more suburban and rural places, it is difficult to know what policy interventions will make a difference, short of seeing employment go up,"  Ziegler told McKim.

Massachusetts communities are trying to adjust to the situation. Ashburnham, for instance, is auctioning about 100 properties that were taken for unpaid taxes, even though the town recently approved a tax amnesty program. The town ranked third on the recent Massachusetts Housing Partnership list of municipalities with high rates of problem properties. A year earlier, it was 107th on the list. The value of municipal real estate in Ashburnham dropped from $696 million to $606 million in the last year, forcing officials to raise the property tax rate by about 6 percent, to $17.15 per thousand dollars of valuation, writes McKim. (Read more)

Mine safety legislation faces uncertain future in Republican-controlled House

Congress fell short of passing mine safety legislation during the last session largely because of Republican opposition, and the legislation's fate appears unlikely to change under the new Congress. Now that Republicans control the House, congressional critics and industry leaders are breathing a sigh of relief, Environment & Energy News reports. The bill would among other things include tougher protection for whistle blowers and increase enforcement of mines with a pattern of violations.

"I would say right now, [it] is a very distant prospect that there would be major legislation aimed at the mining industry this year," Luke Popovich, vice president for communications at the National Mining Association, told E&E. Popovich noted  that opposition to the legislation is not confined to Republicans. Several Democrats expressed reservations last year as well. "In the House ... 27 Democrats voted against the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act during a suspension vote in December," E&E writes.

Advocates of the legislation say it is too early to determine what a Republican-controlled House will do with the bill. No decision is likely until the results of the investigation into the Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 West Virginia miners in April are released. "At this point, with them being in control [of the House], we are going to have to wait and see what that report says before any steps are taken," Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, told E&E. Without legislation, the Mine Safety & Health Administration is likely to step up independent enforcement. "I think probably over the next three to four months, we are going to see a pretty substantial upgrade in MSHA's determination to use the tools available," Smith said. (Read more, subscription required)

Biotech industry angered by USDA turn on genetically engineered alfalfa

The biotechnology industry once saw U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as one of its most important allies. But his recent move to change the way genetically engineered crops are regulated has angered leading companies. "Vilsack's department is considering restrictions on where biotech alfalfa can be grown," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "The restrictions would protect conventional and organic farmers from having their crops contaminated." Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, executive vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said the implications of the decision were "huge" and upend the U.S. regulatory process.

"The biotech industry and farm groups fear that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will impose similar planting restrictions on future biotech products, including genetically engineered varieties of corn that are now in development," Brasher writes. "In the past, the USDA has permitted unrestricted production of a biotech crop deemed safe for human health and the environment." Genetically engineered crops awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture include corn designed to make fuel ethanol more efficient, apples that don't brown, peanuts that are disease-resistant and roses with altered colors.

Vilsack has frequently promoted biotechnology to address global food demand but has pleaded publicly for industry to cooperate on the regulation issue, Brasher writes. "The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products," Vilsack said, referring to genetic engineering, in a Dec. 30 statement. USDA has faced several lawsuits for approving new biotech crops without restrictions, but industry groups say they may sue the agency if it implements the alfalfa restrictions. "Because the agency has lost a couple of court cases in one jurisdiction in California, that should not lead one to believe that the entire regulatory system is vulnerable or that significant changes need to be made to protect the stability" of the approval process, said Jeff Rowe, Pioneer's vice president for biotech affairs. (Read more)

Arizona gun laws are unlikely to change

Arizona's "love affair with guns came under new and intense scrutiny Saturday after a gunman began spraying bullets outside a Tucson-area supermarket, killing six people including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge, and wounding 14 others, among them U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords," writes Daniel Gonz├ílez, Alia Rau and Ron Hansen of the Arizona Republic. The state has some of the laxest gun control laws in the U.S., including recently passed laws that allows residents to take guns into bars and carry a concealed weapon without a permit. In the upcoming legislative session, Rep. Jack Harper is introducing a bill that will allow university and community-college faculty to carry guns on school grounds.

The debate in Arizona takes two forms, write the reporters: everyone should be armed or make gun laws more restrictive. The Pima County sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, said after the shooting that Arizona is the "Tombstone of the United States of America" and assailed the state's lax gun laws as a possible contributor to Saturday's massacre. Harper's response, "The Giffords event was in Sheriff Dupnik's jurisdiction and no law enforcement was present. Sheriff Dupnik should stop blaming others for his office's lack of presence at the event."

Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of "True West," a Cave Creek magazine devoted to Old West history, said  Arizona's gun culture is rooted in the state's rural ranching past dating back to the mid 1800s, when people fleeing federal regulations flocked to Arizona and needed guns for hunting and protection. "There is a passionate, independent streak that Arizonans have to own firearms," Bell said. "They don't want to be usurped and they don't want to be told what to do and that runs deep in Arizona. . . . It is met now by modern culture where most of the state is urban but there is still a rural mindset, even among many of the people who live in the city." (Read more) reporters Molly Ball and Shira Toeplitz take a look at the lack of debate in Congress regarding gun laws following the shooting. In the past, after a similar type of incident, the National Rifle Association would launch a lobbying effort to "make sure lawmakers have their guns-don’t-kill-people talking points," writes Ball and Toeplitz. So far, Congressional staffers say they have not been contacted by the NRA. Jim Kessler, a former policy director for the now-defunct Americans for Gun Safety, said "the NRA is the most effective single-issue lobbying group in America." (Read more)'s Marian Wang details some of the issues around the Arizona gun laws.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Cheap, poor-quality honey from China is making a sticky mess of the U.S. market

That plastic honey-bear your kids love probably contains honey from China, where beekeepers use antibiotics banned in North America "because they seep into honey and contaminate it; packers there learn to mask the acrid notes of poor quality product by mixing in sugar or corn-based syrups to fake good taste," reports Jessica Leeder for The Globe and Mail of Toronto. Chinese honey has been outlawed by the European Union because of chemicals in it.

The problem is serious: "If we lose our honey industry in the U.S., there’s going to be massive food shortages like we haven’t seen before," Richard Adee, a South Dakota beekeeper who owns 80,000 honeybee colonies, the largest operation in the U.S., told Leeder. Investigation into "laundered honey" -- Chinese honey that is repackaged and labeled as coming from Malaysia, Indonesian or Taiwan -- began in earnest in 2002. An Australia shipment was labeled as being from Singapore, but was traced back to China because Singapore had no capacity to produce that quantity of honey.

The U.S. levied tariffs against imported honey in 2000. One of the companies that schemed to import Chinese honey into the U.S. and avoid paying tariffs is German food conglomerate Alfred L. Wolff GmbH (ALW). In exchange for contracts with ALW, honey brokers agreed to move Chinese-origin honey through Russia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, according to court documents. The brokers falsified documents, repackaged the honey and mislabeled it as molasses or fructose to avoid attention.

In May 2008, two employees of ALW began cooperating with U.S. authorities, Leeder reports. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago won indictments against six ALW subsidiaries and 11 executives for their role in an $80-million fraud scheme, including Alexander Wolff, the former chief executive of ALW during the time of the alleged crimes. Some of the indicted are still at large.

The U.S. beekeeping industry is trying to counter the bad honey. It has created a Web site, True Source Honey Initiative, where eventually honey sellers will be able to trace honey back to its original hive. U.S. beekeepers are also struggling with sick bees, which has affected the production of domestic honey. Adee, the South Dakota beekeeper, told Leeder, "It’s kind of like they’re running a car-stealing ring. . . . You catch the guy stealing the car and put him out of business. But the guy that’s laundering, the chop shop or the packer, he just finds another supplier.  I think it’s going to keep getting worse until we catch a couple of big ones, give them a little jail time." (Read more)

Republicans want to cut farmers' direct payments

The direct payment subsidy that gives U.S. farmers $5 billion a year has become the primary focus of Republicans looking to cut agriculture spending. "Created in 1996, the subsidy is a point of dispute in farm country. Some farm groups want Congress to eliminate direct payments as part of an overhaul of farm policy due next year while others would keep it," Charles Abbott of Reuters reports. "The new Republican majority says it will unveil in coming weeks how it will cut spending by $60 billion this year. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan says cuts of more than $100 billion would be made in 2012."

Farm lobbyist Mark McMinimy of the consultants MF Global told Abbott spending cuts in agriculture are likely to be on the agenda for cost-conscious Republicans. Since it will be difficult to cut food-stamp funding, other areas of the Farm Bill are likely to be targeted. The Obama administration already has made revisions in crop insurance that it says will save $4 billion over 10 years. "I would suggest that is a fairly significant cut," Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Abbott. "We're getting down to the point where there's not much left to cut" in farm spending.

"Farm subsidies, including land stewardship, are forecast for $10 billion this year -- half of 2005's total -- out of a federal budget of $1.34 trillion," Abbott writes. "Public nutrition programs, chiefly food stamps and school meals, were projected for $94 billion last year, roughly two-thirds of all USDA spending." Food stamp enrollment is at a record high, making spending cuts difficult, Abbot reports. Defenders of direct payments say they stabilize farm income, while critics say that money would be better spent helping growers deal with low prices or crop failures. (Read more)

Lawmaker calls for transparency in federal investigation of Upper Big Branch mine disaster

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has come under fire for failing to provide timely updates about its investigation into the April explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners at a Massey Energy mine. Lawmakers are demanding an end date for the investigation from MSHA, Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal reports. "They also are calling on Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to pressure MSHA to meet with families, noting that the most recent update was back in September." Unlike the BP Gulf of Mexico oil blowout investigation, which was conducted at public hearings, MSHA is using private interviews in the Upper Big Branch investigation.

"Meanwhile, a federal grand jury in West Virginia, the site of the accident, continues to hear testimony into possible criminal wrongdoing, according to people familiar with the matter," Maher writes. MSHA chief Joe Main and other officials have frequently criticized Massey's safety record since the disaster but have not provided their evidence that the explosion could have been prevented. "Massey has accused the agency of selectively leaking information about possible causes, which the agency has denied," Maher writes.

In a letter to Solis sent last week, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller called for an update on the investigation for the victims' families, writing, "Three months is too long for these families to wait." Amy Louviere, an MSHA spokeswoman, said, "We share Sen. Rockefeller's concerns about mine safety and the need to keep the families updated on the status of the investigation." One victim's relative said MSHA had planned a Jan. 14 meeting with families, but Louviere only would confirm there would be a meeting soon. Main declined to give the Journal a timetable for the end of the end of the investigation, noting the complexity of the process. (Read more)

Mass bird deaths easily explained by biologists

Reports of massive bird deaths came from Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. It may seem odd that a large number of dead birds are falling out of the sky across the U.S. In fact, zoologist and bird watcher Brainard Palmer-Ball told environmental reporter James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal, "It's just people noticing them."

Several thousand red-winged blackbirds died on New Year's Eve in Beebe, Ark. Russell Skoglund, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologist, told reporter Anne Paine of The Tennessean that 150 grackles were found beside a road near Lebanon, Tenn. Last week in Murray, Ky., about 200 grackles, cowbirds, starlings and red-winged blackbirds died within a couple of blocks of each other.(Photo: Stephen Thornton, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Authorities sent a sampling of the birds to a lab for testing, and so far have nothing conclusive, reports Bruggers. Mark Marraccini, a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said. "All of our biologists say this is something that sometimes occurs in nature." (Read more)

Darryl Fears of The Washington Post also reports the most plausible explanations for these recent animal deaths. It's not Biblical plagues or the end of the world as predicted in the Mayan calendar. Each has a very earthly explanation and is not at all surprising to biologists. The Post published a map of mass bird deaths in the U.S. from 2000-2010.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Director says BLM wouldn't supply horse abattoirs if reopened, says Pickens' idea has merit

The head of the Bureau of Land Management, who was criticized for attending a recent national meeting aimed at reopening horse slaughterhouses, says that if such abattoirs reopen in the U.S., the BLM won't be supplying them with horses from federal land.

"We are not entertaining the use of slaughterhouses or selling horses for slaughter at all," BLM Director Bob Abbey told Keith Rogers of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "We believe that there are better options available to us" for controlling horse populations and addressing the horse crisis. He said a proposal by Madeleine Pickens, wife of energy billionaire T. Boone Pickens, to create a wild horse sanctuary on public and private land in Northern Nevada, "deserves serious consideration."

A more immediate option involves "the effort to thin down wild horse and burro herds through helicopter roundups and adopt out as many as possible," Rogers reports. Abbey thinks "many of the mares released back to the ranges should be given a birth control drug . . . being tested in 11 gathers of wild horses in Nevada, Idaho and Utah." If the drug works, time between roundups can be reduced, "easing the burden on holding facilities where 38,000 are kept in Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota."

Abbey was interviewed after speaking to a Las Vegas "aimed at lifting a congressional ban that quashed U.S. processing plants that produced horse meat for human consumption," Rogers reports.