Friday, January 28, 2011

Interactive map shows migration to and from individual counties in 2008

More than 10 million Americans moved from one county to another in 2008, and an interactive map from Forbes magazine allows you to get a detailed picture of those movements for every county. The map was created using Internal Revenue Service data, which tracks inter-county moves of more than 10 people, so very minor migration patterns are not included.

Clicking on a particular county brings up lines (red and black, respectively) showing migration to and from other counties. Moving your cursor carefully across one of the other counties shows not only the number of people moving to and from the two counties, but the average income of each group. (We found many cases of zero movement one way or the other, but none fewer than 10, so we must presume that "zero" actuually means 0 to 9 people.)

The map above shows high levels of migration to and from Benton County, Arkansas, the home of Walmart, which requires major suppliers to move employees to the Bentonville area temporarily to work with the giant retailer. (Click on map to see larger version) Most other rural counties have much less dramatic migration patterns, but because the data are boiled down to actual numbers, not just lines on a map, they offer valuable insight for rural reporters about movements in their particular area. Every county has a story!

This reporter's home county saw 60 people move in 2008 to Fayette County, home of Lexington and the University of Kentucky. Perhaps surprisingly, almost as many people, 55, moved from Fayette to Floyd. Perhaps those were students with degrees moving home, against the "rural brain drain" phenomenon. Other counties with migration lines on this map that don't border Floyd County also have state universities. To make your own maps, go here.

USDA doesn't approve restrictions for GE-alfalfa

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has relented to industry criticism about its proposal for regulation of genetically engineered alfalfa. The USDA has decided that it will not restrict where genetically engineered alfafa can be grown. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack angered the biotech industry and farm groups last month when he announced that his department was considering restricting where the GE crop could be grown to ensure that it didn’t contaminate organic or other non-biotech crops, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog. You can read our items about the controversy here, here and here.

Vilsack said on Thursday he still believed USDA had the authority to implement restrictions on the crop, but the agency "would be undertaking research and other measures to try to ensure that there would be adequate supplies of non-biotech seed after the genetically engineered alfalfa is in commercial use," Brasher writes. The research is focused on studying the spread of of the biotech gene and developing non-biotech varieties that are, among other things, protected against cross-pollination.

USDA's decision won't stop the legal battle holding up the crop's implementation. The advocacy group that successfully sued to halt the commercialization of the crop said it would challenge Vilsack's latest ruling. “There’s only one interpretation for all of this, which is massive pressure from the industry on the administration,” said Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety. Vilsack countered that the measures to protect supplies of seed that isn’t genetically engineered "should reassure folks that there will be seed to preserve choice so that non-GE alfalfa can be grown by those who wish to do it." Vilsack said there is no question about the safety of the crop. (Read more)

Finding "rural" in the State of the Union speech

President Obama's State of the Union address had a number of rural implications, but maybe the biggest one is that the rest of the country is acting more like rural America. "We’re all rural now," Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder writes. "That was the message I got out of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address." (White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The presidented described the transition from an economy where you went to the factory and got a "job for life, with a decent paycheck, good benefits, and the occasional promotion," to one where steel mills that once employed 1,000 now only employs 100. Obama was describing a phenomenon all too familiar to rural America, Bishop writes. Bishop points to the agriculture economy transition 100 years ago that allowed farms to produce more with fewer workers and "left rural America behind, in a sense." Bishop concludes, "Rural America’s problem of adjusting to a new economy over the last century is now the nation’s challenge."

Bishop's reaction was the first of eight Yonder contributors included in the article. Former Congressional staffer Claiborn Crain noted Obama wasn't technologically neutral in referring to wireless Internet as a path to universal broadband access. Crain pointed out that the president did not talk about bio-energy. Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies was pleasantly surprised by the number of rural references in the speech, giving particular notice to the pledge to bring broadband access to 98 percent of Americans. Missouri farmer Richard Oswald also notes that ethanol didn't make it into the speech and wondered if Obama's talk of decreasing regulation would hurt the push for competition in the agriculture industry. (Read more)

University of Tennessee cuts 60 extension positions

We first reported on extension services being cut due to the recession in May 2009. The University of Tennessee is rolling out permanent cuts 60 extension agents and specialists. "All of the cuts were achieved over the past two years through attrition and retirement incentives funded with federal stimulus money," Megan Boehnke of the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports. "Stimulus funds also provided for some of those retirees to continue working part time to fill in the gaps. The money - and nearly all of the part-time positions - will end on July 1."

The extension service will shuffle remaining agents to cover counties where retirement or attrition left too many vacancies. "The cuts reflect a 15 percent drop in the number of agents and specialists in the state, a figure that has dwindled to 261," Boehnke writes. "All 95 counties will continue to operate an office, and each office will staff between one and four agents." Dean of Extension Tim Cross said the cuts meant offices would have to "soften county lines" and work together.

"It's going to be painful and there's aspects of this we won't flesh out the details of until we determine where everyone will be located and then we'll have new plans of work for those offices," he told Boehnke. Agents will likely work with neighboring counties for joint programs, and will have to prioritize the programs they think are most effective, Boehnke writes. Agents will likely offer more information online to help make up for the staff losses. (Read more)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Charlie Louvin, who inspired Johnny Cash, dies

Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie Louvin died Wednesday morning at his home in Wartrace, Tenn., reports The Tennessean. "Country music has lost one of its royal figures," fellow Grand Ole Opry member Marty Stuart told reporter Peter Cooper. (Chet Atkins, center, with Louvin, right, and his brother Ira in 1956 Tennessean photo by Bill Preston)

From the late 1940s until the early '60s, the Louvin Brothers maintained "country music’s emotional, full-throated harmony tradition," writes Cooper. They maintained a strong interest in gospel music, in which they started. After the brothers quit performing together in 1963 (Ira died in 1965), Charlie Louvin had a successful solo career that included 16 Billboard Top 40 country hits in the ’60s, such as "See the Big Man Cry."

Cooper reports that in the '40s, one teenage fan attended a Louvin Brothers show in Dyess, Ark., and Louvin took time to chat with him while munching on soda crackers. Years later, the fan became a star himself: For much of his career, Johnny Cash ate two soda crackers before he went onstage, in emulation of Charlie Louvin. (Read more)

Job that never ends in Fla.: Removing dumped tires that make good homes for mosquitoes

Though snow may be falling in most of the U.S., it's not too soon to prepare for summer's greatest enemy: the mosquito. A rural community in Florida just finished clearing out illegally dumped tires from abandoned property in the never-ending quest to rid the area of the pests. (University of Florida photo)

Rick Neale of Florida Today reminds us that discarded tires double as incubators for marauding mosquitoes. Similar piles of car, truck and motorcycle tires pose a growing health menace at rural settings across the Space Coast, officials say. "These tires breed bad mosquitoes," Brevard County Mosquito Control inspector Jeff Parker said. "If it rains, they catch water. And if you look, every one of these tires has water in them. ... Within a week's time, they can lay eggs and breed thousands of mosquitoes. Thousands," Parker said.

This year, the mosquito team has seen an increase in the number of illegally dumped tires. "Typically, we run anywhere from 120,000 pounds to 200,000-250,000 pounds on an annual basis. We've just seen an incredible increase this year," said Craig Simmons, mosquito control director. Simmons attributes the increase to the cost of disposing of tires in a tight economy. The county charges $3 a tire.

Mosquito-control administrators typically budget $50,000 to $60,000 a year to remove tires across the county. This year's tab likely will hit $80,000 to $100,000. During warm, sunny days,  mosquito control workers use a hooked metal pole to pick up tires because snakes often curl up inside them, Neale reports.

Education grant competition did little to address rural challenges

To even the playing field for rural schools in the Investing in Innovation (I3) grant competition, the U.S. Department of Education awarded two points to plans that addressed unique rural challenges. A review of the applications shows many of the schools awarded the two-point bonus did little to actually address those rural challenges, the Rural School and Community Trust reports. "Most applicants making the claim propose using innovations that did not originate in rural schools and have had little or no prior use in rural schools," RSCT writes. "Although some proposals pledge to adapt the innovation to rural contexts, most are vague about this process."

RSCT's report notes of the 1,698 I3 applications received by the department, 652, just over 38 percent, made the rural competitive preference claim. Of the 49 grant recipients, 19 recipients, just under 39 percent, made the claim. Some applications making the rural preference claim, "explicitly insist that the innovation not be adapted in any way, for the sake of fidelity to research design," RSCT writes. Just two proposals were designed to operate entirely in rural schools, and the portion of the other projects that was truly rural tended to be small relative to the total scale of the project.

Judges award two-thirds of the total available rural preference points to the 19 grant recipients, but they made little effort to explain their scoring decisions, RSCT reports. "In most cases there was little evidence that readers gave attention to the requirement that innovations be designed to address 'unique challenges' of rural students or schools," RSCT writes. RSCT concludes that open competition is not the best solution for innovation in rural schools, and "the quest for innovation will require greater attention to the distinct character of rural communities in our society, as well as greater reliance on rural people for their own ideas and for the ways by which ideas from elsewhere might be best adapted to their needs." (Read more)

Tennessee leads states in monitoring of local government debt management

Tennessee recently increased state oversight of local government debt transactions, and the economic crisis is likely to force other states to make the same decision. A risky deal by Lewisburg, Tenn., got the city in trouble. Lewisburg has a population of just over 11,000 and unemployment over 10 percent. City officials were stunned when they learned that their interest payments on a derivative municipal bond issued for a water and sewage project had quadrupled, from $250,000 to $1 million. The crisis in Lewisburg led state treasurer Justin Wilson to conclude he "had no choice but to increase the state’s oversight of local government debt transactions to protect Tennesseans from getting socked by sudden increases in borrowing costs," Stephen C. Fehr of Stateline reports. Last month Wilson developed a model debt management policy for local governments.

"When our government officials make mistakes, they are usually doing so with our tax dollars," Wilson told Fehr. "We are entitled to have governments set basic, common-sense guidelines so we can know what happens to our money." Other states like Alabama, which has tried for two years to restructure Jefferson County’s $3.2 billion sewer debt, and Pennsylvania, which agreed in September to bailout Harrisburg preventing the city from defaulting on bonds used to finance a trash incinerator project, may soon be forced to make decisions similar to Tennessee.

"Troubled cities in California, Indiana, Michigan and Rhode Island also are having difficulty paying their bills, drawing the attention of state officials in varying degrees," Fehr writes. "Those cities are suffering more from a combination of falling tax revenues and rising public pension costs than from risky bond deals." Michigan rejected a request from Hamtramck to file for bankruptcy, while Indiana lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow local governments to file for bankruptcy.

Wilson's model local government debt policy suggests "policy makers should clearly understand debt transactions, citizens should be able to get clear explanations about transactions, the parties involved in debt transactions should avoid conflicts of interest and the costs and risks associated with transactions should be clearly disclosed." Local governments objected to the proposal, calling Wilson heavy handed. But Wilson says he now has their support after some revisions.  "We’re not in a position of telling them what they can and cannot do," he told Fehr. "There’s very little that’s prescriptive in the guidelines." (Read more)

Biofuels industry hopes to resolve legal battles holding up biotech crops

Genetic engineering has proved to be a boon for corn and soybeans. The same technology for potential biofuel stocks is being held up by court challenges. "The genetically engineered feedstock that is closest to commercialization, a eucalyptus tree, is now ensnared in a lawsuit," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "And government regulations also are a challenge, making it difficult to even field-test biotech versions of potential biofuel feedstocks, including switchgrass, a crop that could be grown in Iowa, experts say."

"Something has to be done to make this sane," Steven Strauss, a tree breeder at Oregon State University who has conducted research for the company that developed the eucalyptus tree, told Brasher. "This is too big a tool to put it on the shelf." Genetic engineering allows scientists to add traits to plants that would increase tolerance to drought or resist cold temperatures and is faster than conventional breeding. "I do not see how we're going to make the advancements that we need to make without biotechnology," said John Heissenbuttel, co-director of the Council for Sustainable Biomass Production, a coalition of companies and environmental groups working on standards for growing energy crops.

Critics of the biotech eucalyptus tree say the U.S. Department of Agriculture "has been too lenient on biotechnology and don't think the tree's potential for biofuel makes it worth putting it into production," Brasher writes. "They say the tree, which is engineered to tolerate colder temperatures than the tropical climate where it normally grows, could take over Southern forests and uses too much water." The Sierra Club and other groups filed a lawsuit in a Florida federal court to force USDA into a more rigorous environmental impact study of the tree. (Read more)

Broadband plan could benefit rural communities while hurting some rural telecom companies

Rural telecommunications companies are getting their message out about what they see as shortcomings to the federal government's National Broadband Plan, but some added perspective is needed to balance their claims.

Ned Valentine of The Dispatch in Clay Center, Neb., recently reported that Mike Foster, the CEO of Twin Valley Telephone, told the local Rotary Club that the broadband plan "has stopped expansion of broadband service in rural areas by small companies and will bankrupt many of the 900 companies presently serving rural areas." Foster also claimed the plan would help urban areas at the expense of rural ones.

At the center of the controversy is the use of the Universal Service Fund, which was developed by the Federal Communications Commission to bring phone service to all of rural America by placing a charge on every U.S. phone bill. The National Broadband Plan would use USF money to fund broadband Internet service, regardless of the technology used, meaning some rural telecommunications companies could lose the USF funding they currently receive for phone service. Some companies may receive less funding because wireless broadband services are cheaper to provide in their area, while other USF funding might go to cable companies, depending on efficiency and other factors.

Foster told the Nebraska group that USF funding would go to large telecommunication companies like AT&T to provide broadband that isn't as fast as what some rural communities already receive. "Rural companies have had a great track record in providing those services and investing in our rural areas," Foster said. "We haven't done a great job of talking about it." The broadband plan would require Internet speeds of at least 4 megabytes per second. While some rural areas enjoy faster speeds, but the speed of other advertised broadband service in rural America actually falls short of that target.

The goal of the National Broadband Plan is to provide universal broadband service across the country regardless of the technology used. While that may hurt some rural telecommunication companies' bottom line, it may still benefit rural communities. It depends on the circumstances. For more background on the National Broadband Plan you can read our items here and here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In talk with rural reporters, education secretary touts NCLB changes aimed at helping rural schools

UPDATE, Jan. 28: The Department of Education has posted an audio recording and a transcript of the conference call here.

By Jon Hale
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Eliminating the federal mandates for supplemental education and public-school choice, changing the way teacher effectiveness is measured, creating greater flexibility with funding, and putting les reliance on "adequate yearly progress" are four major changes the Obama administration wants to make to No Child Left Behind to help rural schools, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told rural reporters today.

"The president and I understand NCLB doesn’t work at every school in America, particularly schools in rural communities," said Duncan, right. "We are going to be much more flexible in terms of interventions. For instance, our proposal eliminates the federal mandate to provide supplemental education services and public school choice" when schools don't measure up. "Public school choice might make sense in an urban community but if there is not another school within 30 or 40 miles, it doesn't quite make as much sense."

Duncan said he hopes Congress will make the changes in time for the next school year, and was encouraged by a meeting he had this morning with Democratic and Republican senators and the bipartisan dialogue among senators and members of the Republican-controlled House. (For a story on that from Education Week, click here.) Daily Yonder Co-Editor Bill Bishop notes, "Duncan was silent, however, on the other major issue facing rural schools — restoring balance to the formula used to distribute Title I funding" for poor students.
The conference call, arranged with the help of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, came the day after President Obama made education a major topic in his State of the Union address. Obama called for greater investment in education despite the renewed focus on cutting the federal budget. "Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine," he said. "It may feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you'll feel the impact."

During the speech Obama focused on his administration's plan to reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes No Child Left Behind. One change would shift the focus from adequate yearly progress, under the current law, to "growth and gain," Duncan said. "I think it is a much fairer and more thoughtful way to evaluate progress," he said. "No teacher I've talked to is scared of accountability, they just want to make it fair." He said it isn't right to label a school as failing when it is making progress.

The way teacher competency is measured under No Child Left Behind has been a frequent criticism of rural educators, who say rural teachers often teach multiple subjects and face different challenges than their urban counterparts.

"Right now the way teachers are measured in terms of 'highly qualified' is based upon paper credentials," Duncan said. "A lot of fantastic teachers, excellent teachers, in rural communities are under current law by definition not highly qualified. Then that school, that district, has to send home letters to students' families that say your teacher is not highly qualified. It's just not honest. We don't think that is accurate."

Instead of focusing on degree qualifications, the administration wants teachers to be evaluated in terms of effectiveness, Duncan said. "It doesn't matter what the degree or pedigree of the teachers are," he said. "The question is, 'Are those students learning?'"

Duncan said No Child Left Behind has a "one size fits all" approach that need to allow more flexibility. He said federal education policy should be "tight on goals (and) much looser on how you get there," and that the Department of Education would undergo a "culture shift" from being "a compliance bureaucracy to being an engine of innovation. . . . We want a narrow, more targeted approach for the federal government."

UPDATE, Jan. 27: That approach was endorsed by conservative columnist George Will, who wrote, "The changes Duncan proposes -- on balance, greater state flexibility in meeting national goals -- make him the Obama administration's redeeming feature."

Small enrollments at rural schools make their scores more vaiarable, said John Hill of Purdue University, director of the National Rural Education Association, whom Duncan hosted on the call. "How one student performs can make a difference on whether a school is making adequate yearly progress or not," Hill said, and the fact that central-office personnel often perform multiple duties can make it "really hard to work through that one person."

Hill and Duncan said rural schools need to use more technology. "We've used technology to conduct administrative functions really well in rural schools," Hill said. "What we haven't done well is use technology as a teaching tool."

Rural schools have at least one advantage over urban schools: bringing real-life math and science applications into the classroom, Hill added. "In rural areas I think that's where the solution for biofuels, alternative energies and the care of the environment in the lab is right there," he said.

President to speak on gun control, says White House official

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today that president Barack Obama will address the issue of gun control very soon but would not commit to a date. "I wouldn't rule out that at some point the president talks about the issues surrounding gun violence," Gibbs said, according to Washington Post reporters James Grimaldi and Perry Bacon Jr.

As president, Obama has never delivered substantive remarks on gun policy, "one of the most volatile and divisive domestic issues, out of fear of roiling swing voters in rural areas, the Midwest and the South," write Grimaldi and Perry. In the aftermath of the shooting in Arizona of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, both sides of the gun debate have spoken out. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said, "Once again, you and your freedoms are being blamed for the acts of a deranged madman, who sent signal after signal that he was dangerous." New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who runs a gun-control group, said Obama "missed an opportunity to bring the country together on an issue that has support among the vast majority of Americans: fixing the nation's broken background-check system that is designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people." (Read more)

Webinar: Learn how regional clusters of industries can boost economies in rural areas

Some rural regions have found economic success in the development of clusters, in which related industries support each other, directly and indirectly. The phenomenon will be explored Thursday, Jan. 27, from 2 to 3:30 EST, in a free webinar, "Rural Approaches to Regional Clusters."

This webinar is open to all interested stakeholders in rural economic development, including journalists, but the content is specifically designed for economic development planners, university centers, local elected officials and members of the private sector. The webcast will explore current practices in rural regions that have adopted statewide cluster strategies intended to drive economic growth in a more cohesive manner.

Showcased on the call will be the Alaska Forward initiative of the Alaska Partnership for Economic Development and the Innovation-Led Economic Development Initiative of the Mississippi Technology Alliance. This webinar will be hosted by the National Association of Development Organizations Research Foundation, with funding through the "Know Your Region" program funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. To register, click here.

Fracking documentary nominated for Oscar

UPDATE 4/2: In a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Energy In Depth has asked  the group to disqualify "Gasland" from consideration for the best documentary award because "The filmmaker alternates between misstating and outright ignoring basic and verifiable facts related to the impact of these activities on the health and welfare of humans, wildlife and the environment." Fox counters that his documentary is "backed up by facts 100 percent," and it is the industry that perpetuates falsehoods, Mike Soraghan of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. "Gasland exposes what they've been doing and they don't like it," Fox told Sorghan. "EID is a smear organization, a PR firm that has nothing to do with reality." (Read more)

Academy Award nominations might not be the first place to look for rural news, but the natural-gas industry has taken issue with a film nominated for best documentary. The film at issue is "Gasland," a documentary from director Josh Fox, that claims to illuminate the perils of natural gas drilling. "The Oscar nod guarantees even wider exposure for the controversial film, which uses images of flames leaping from kitchen faucets and polluted streams to make an argument for the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling technique where water and chemicals are injected at high pressure deep underground to free up previously inaccessible natural gas deposits," John Collins Rudolf of The New York Times reports.

"This is a great moment that will bring more attention to the problem," Fox told the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, N.Y., which serves an area where fracking has divided residents. "It’s all about drawing more attention to the problem and the families who’ve been hurt by drilling." The natural gas industry predictably disagreed with that statement. "While it’s unfortunate there isn’t an Oscar category for propaganda, this nomination is fitting, as the Oscars are aimed at praising pure entertainment among Hollywood’s elite," Lee Fuller, executive director of Energy In Depth, a pro-drilling group, said.

The industry and some state environmental regulators have criticised the film for "including dubious claims about the perils of drilling," Rudolf writes. "Regulators in Colorado and Pennsylvania have conducted investigations that appear to debunk several alleged instances of pollution that Mr. Fox’s film associates with fracking." Fox disagrees with industry claims that the film isn't factually accurate. "The movie is absolutely factually accurate — we are compiling responses to every one of their claims," he said in a recent interview. (Read more)

Dairy industry, FDA spar over tests for milk

Responding to fears that high levels of antibiotics in dairy cows may contaminate milk, the Food and Drug Administration planned to begin testing milk from farms that repeatedly sold cows tainted by drug residue. "But the testing plan met with fierce protest from the dairy industry, which said that it could force farmers to needlessly dump millions of gallons of milk while they waited for test results," William Neuman of The New York Times reports. "Industry officials and state regulators said the testing program was poorly conceived and could lead to costly recalls that could be avoided with a better plan for testing." (Photo by Dennis Curran for The New York Times)

FDA relented to industry criticisms and postponed the testing. Now the groups are debating "how much danger the antibiotics pose and the best way to ensure that the drugs do not end up in the milk supply," Neuman writes. John J. Wilson, a senior vice president for Dairy Farmers of America, the nation’s largest dairy cooperative, told Neuman: "What has been served up, up to this point, by Food and Drug has been potentially very damaging to innocent dairy farmers." Wilson says the nation's milk supply is safe, and that antibiotic tests from slaughterhouses offer little reason to worry tests would be replicated in milk.

Still food safety advocates worry livestock overloaded with antibiotics may undermine effectiveness of drugs used to combat illness in humans. "Consumers certainly don’t want to be taking small amounts of drugs every time they drink milk," Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, told Neuman. "They want products that are appropriately managed to ensure those drug residues aren’t there, and the dairy farmer is the one who can control that." FDA said in a statement it is conferring with the industry about how to proceed, and "the agency remains committed to gathering the information necessary to address its concern with respect to this important potential public health issue." (Read more)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rural roads: scenic, but dangerous

Rural roads can be pretty, but they can also be deadly. Larry Copeland writes for USA Today that based on federal data, urban roads are safer than rural roads. The safest places to drive in the U.S. are Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and New York. Among the most dangerous: Montana, Wyoming, Louisiana and Mississippi. "Even in states with low overall road death rates, rural areas often have rates twice as high as urban ones. That's because urban areas usually have roads with lower speed limits, more safety engineering features such as divided highways and faster access to emergency medical care than rural routes. Many rural deaths occur when vehicles leave the road and crash into trees or other obstructions."

Some traffic safety groups believe the data is not a good measure of road safety. A better measure, says the Governors Highway Safety Association, is how many laws are on the books that enhance safety. The National Transportation Safety Board urges states to adopt five "most wanted" safety measures, covering extreme drunken driving, seat belt use, child-occupant protection, eliminating distractions for young drivers and motorcycle safety, writes Copeland. (Read more)

Striped bass population changes with weather

Salt water striped bass supposedly rebounded from overfishing in the 1980s but anglers report catches are down again. New research suggests weather might be the cause behind both drops. Wildlife managers "laid down severe catch limits" for the fish in the 1980s, and "the population recovered and fishing resumed in what is considered one of conservation's great success stories," Christopher Joyce of National Public Radio reports. Bob Wood, a biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, theorizes the drops in striped bass populations were actually the result of shifting Atlantic weather. (Photo by Jay Fleming)

Wood's research points to the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, "a mashup of wind and ocean currents, a flip-flop that happens every 35 years or so in the North Atlantic," as the culprit in the population drop. "Circulation changes in a way that warms the entire basin," Wood told Joyce. "And you can imagine if you warm the entire North Atlantic basin, you're changing the weather because the air and circulation patterns above the ocean are affected." That warming in turn affects river flow or salinity, sending ripples up the food chain.

When the AMO is "in a warm phase, springtime along the East Coast actually tends to be wet and cool — more rain, more water, more food," Joyce writes. "In the years following that phase, striper numbers tend to go up. Then the AMO flips — drier springs, less rain, less food. After a lag, it looks like striper numbers start to decline." Wood says understanding the weather shift could help set catch limits. "If we know that there is this [down] cycle coming up," he told Joyce, "we can keep that in our heads as we set limits." (Read more)

Report says biofuels aren't right for U.S. military

The biofuels industry took a hit today. A government-commissioned study concluded that the U.S. would derive "no meaningful military benefit" from increasing its use of alternative fuels. The report from the RAND Corporation "also argued that most alternative-fuel technologies were unproven, too expensive or too far from commercial scale to meet the military’s needs over the next decade," Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times reports. The report also argued, "the Defense Department was spending too much time and money exploring experimental biofuels derived from sources like algae or the flowering plant camelina, and that more focus should be placed on energy efficiency as a way of combating greenhouse gas emissions," Zeller writes.

If biofuels are to be pursued as a strategy for the military cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the report concluded, "the most economic, environmentally sound and near-term candidate would be a liquid fuel produced using a combination of coal and biomass, as well as some method for capturing and storing carbon emissions released during production," Zeller writes. The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit research group, and the study grew out of a directive in the 2009 Defense Authorization Act calling for further study of alternative fuels in military vehicles and aircraft. (Read more)

FCC opens airwaves to low-power FM stations

Low-power FM radio stations have been lauded as an alternative to commercial radio. Now, with recent legislation, more stations are likely on the way. "This month President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, which repeals restrictions on such stations and allows the Federal Communications Commission to give out more 100-watt licenses," Brian Stelter of The New York Times reports. Low-power FM stations like KOCZ in Opelousas, La., can usually only be heard within 10 to 15 miles of the station.

"Freeing space on the radio dial for local voices might seem a moot point in an age when anyone can start an Internet radio station," Stelter writes. "But the appropriation of the public airwaves remains a vital and, for some, very emotional issue." Hannah Sassaman, a longtime advocate of community radio, says most Americans "still get their news and culture over the broadcast dial." KOCZ helped bring Zydeco, a blend of Cajun, rhythm and blues and, among a younger generation, hip-hop, back to the radio in Louisiana. "It helps promote that culture — and that’s something that’s very significant for the African-American community here," John Freeman, executive director of KOCZ, said.

"Low-power stations are designated for noncommercial uses, so many are licensed to churches and schools," Selter writes. "KOCZ is licensed to the Southern Development Foundation, a civil rights group that grants scholarships and runs a business incubator but has fallen on hard times." KOCZ shows depend on the underwriting of local sponsors like funeral homes and beauty salons. "Low-power FM stations are small, but they make a giant contribution to local community programming,"  Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the FCC, said in a statement. (Read more)

USPS to close 2,000 mostly small or rural offices

Jennifer Levitz of The Wall Street Journal writes, "The U.S. Postal Service plays two roles in America: an agency that keeps rural areas linked to the rest of the nation, and one that loses a lot of money." So it is moving ahead with its plan to close 2,000 mostly small, rural post offices in an effort to save $500 million. (WSJ photo by Eli Meir Kaplan: Millville, W.Va., post office, which closed Friday, Jan. 21)

"After years of using a confusing and laborious 21-month process panned by customers and Congress as too secretive and inconsistent, the mail agency is now relying on a computerized system that enables officials to review and determine a location's fate in no more than five months," Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post reports. "If plans succeed, the Postal Service could halve its infrastructure by 2020, officials said."

Levitz writes in a long story from Holmes Mill, Ky., a "no-stoplight town" that is about to lose its post office, "The news is crushing in many remote communities where the post office is often the heart of the town and the closest link to the rest of the country. Shuttering them, critics say, also puts an enormous burden on people, particularly on the elderly, who find it difficult to travel out of town." Joshua Brock of the Harlan Daily Enterprise writes, "The postal service claims they are helping to preserve the community’s identity by continuing the use of the Holmes Mill name and ZIP code in addresses." (Read more)

The Postal Service has scheduled 500 sites to be closed by June, which includes about 400 suspended operations because of weather or fire damage, environmental concerns or a lack of business. "Most of the sites haven't been operational in about a year, but some haven't operated in almost three decades, said Dean Granholm, vice president of delivery and post office operations," O'Keefe writes. The other 100 sites were among those on a 2009 list of branches considered for closing that was leaked to the media after it was prematurely shared with lawmakers.

"Some of those suspensions are being contested by the Postal Regulatory Commission, independent from the postal service and reporting to Congress, which is investigating whether the postal service has been illegally using reasons such as lease expirations to close small, underused branches," Levitz reports. "The agency has denied wrongdoing." The PRC is also considering a Postal Service request to end home delivery on Saturdays, which the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues has argued would have a disproportionate impact in rural areas.

"We have post offices out there that we have two customers, or three customers come in in an entire day," Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe told the Post. "Remember the Maytag repair man? He used to have the loneliest job in the world. We probably have about 5,000 postmasters that have the loneliest job in the world." Federal law prohibits the Postal Service from closing offices for economic reasons, so "Donahoe is targeting about 2,000 postal stations and branches - smaller, mostly leased sites often in skyscrapers or shopping plazas - that don't employ letter carriers," O'Keefe writes. Offices with fewer than five employees, that are open fewer than eight hours a day and are within 15 to 20 miles of a larger location are likely to close, O'Keefe reports. (Read more)

High court ruling is a boon for workers in towns where one employer dominates, activists say

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling yesterday is good news for "small towns with one dominant employer where many relatives and spouses work," supporters of the decision told Andrew Wolfson of The Courier-Journal of Louisville.

North American Stainless, which employs 1,150 people in the small Ohio River town of Ghent in Carroll County, Kentucky, fired Eric Thompson in 2003, less than four weeks after his fiance filed a sex-discrimination claim against the company. The high court, reversing lower courts, ruled 8-0 that "companies can't fire people simply because they are in a relationship with other employees who complain of discrimination," Jesse Holland writes for The Associated Press.

Thompson's lawsuit against the steel company can now go to trial. The sex-discrimination claim of his finace, now his wife, was dismissed. For Wolfson's story, click here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why Obama won't endorse more gun control: white rural males who haven't been to college

Don't expect President Obama to endorse new gun controls in the wake of Tucson's mass shooting, Peter Beinart writes for The Daily Beast.

Support for more gun control rises after such incidents, but always subsides, Beinart writes, so “There’s little chance Obama will lose votes by avoiding the gun issue. He just doesn’t have a big problem among the kinds of voters who support gun control: minorities, urbanites and white liberals. What he does have is a serious problem with gun control opponents, who are disproportionately white, male non-college educated and rural. They are, in other words, exactly the people with whom Barack Obama struggles, even compared to other Democrats. That’s why Hillary Clinton beat him by 10 points in the Pennsylvania and Ohio primaries and almost 40 points in the West Virginia primary. And she did so, in part, by clobbering him for having said that in times of economic distress, working-class whites 'cling to guns or religion.' (Photo by Mayhill Fowler, who got that quote, at the event where Obama uttered it)

“Obama won some of those voters in the general election, largely because they were sick of Republican rule and had no confidence that John McCain could handle the nation’s economic meltdown. Their economic concerns, combined with Obama’s overwhelming support among blacks, Hispanic and younger voters, allowed him to win North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Colorado, Indiana and Nevada—all states where gun control is a political loser. (By contrast, Obama didn’t lose a single state where gun control is a political winner.) The country’s ongoing economic woes may hurt Obama with these voters in 2012, especially if the Republicans nominate a candidate who is more economically literate than McCain, and there’s not much he can do about it. But embracing gun control would be a gargantuan unforced error.” (Read more)

In wake of permit veto, industry watches as EPA bargains with mountaintop-removal companies

Paul Quinlan of Energy & Environment News analyzes the Environmental Protection Agency's handling of mountaintop-removal coal mines, and its recent rejection of a permit for the biggest one: "EPA's compromises show nuanced exceptions to the Obama administration's tough approach to mountaintop mining: Companies that agree to blast in phases, one at a time, while monitoring and mitigating for environmental damage, are more likely to get the green light. Companies unwilling to bargain over such details, as was the case with Spruce No. 1, get blocked."

Quinlan also looks ahead, giving us a road map for future coverage: "All eyes are on two applications sitting on top of the pile at EPA: the Little Fork mine proposed by Premier Elkhorn Coal Co., part of TECO Energy Inc., and the Stacy Branch mine that Leeco Inc., a James River Coal Co. subsidiary, has pitched. Both are in Eastern Kentucky." The two are among 79 permit applications EPA said in 2009 that it might veto, "a move that sent a shudder through the industry," Quinlan writes. "Dozens of those proposals have since been withdrawn. EPA is waiting on additional materials from 31 others before starting reviews. At least one firm that received a go-ahead, Kentucky-based Booth Energy, ultimately turned down the permit because of the conditions that came with it, according to an industry official."

In November, the TECO (Tampa Electric Co.) and James River subsidiaries got letters from EPA saying the agency had "significant" concerns about their plans. "Among other recommendations, EPA asked the companies to take a phase-by-phase approach that included monitoring for environmental impacts along the way as well as additional mitigation measures," Quinlan reports. In a Nov. 2 letter to the Corps about the TECO mine, which had already been re-engineered to mitigate impacts, EPA recommended an environmental impact statement for it. To read the letter, click here.

E&E is a subscription-only service, but Quinlan wrote his story for Greenwire, which is sometimes used by The New York Times, so you may be able to find the story there. It's reasonably comprehensive, and thus worth looking for.

Americans eat more bison than ever, spurring debate over animals' diet and industry's future

American consumption of buffalo meat is at an all-time high, reinventing one of the oldest human-animal relationships on the continent, Kirk Johnson of The New York Times reports. "New ranchers are coming in. Older ranchers are straining to build up herds, holding back breeding females from slaughter and thus compounding what retailers say is already a supply crunch." The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports buffalo-meat prices were up 28 percent last year for a rib-eye steak cut. Johnson's article focuses on operations west of the Mississippi River, but bison are raised and processed in the East, too. (NYT photo by Kevin Moloney)

"What happened, producers and retailers say, is that the buffalo, the great ruminant of the Plains — once endangered, now raised on ranches by the tens of thousands — has thundered into an era of growing buyer concern about where food comes from, what an animal dined on and how it all affects the planet," Johnson writes. The "foodie culture" has embraced the meat, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, partly because new ranchers are feeding the animals only grass. That "is more natural for the animal and produces the kind of low-fat, environmentally sustainable product that they say best competes with beef for a place on the nation’s dinner table," Johnson writes.

"For the last two years, it’s been one of the fastest-growing categories in our meat department," said Theo Weening, the global meat coordinator for Whole Foods, one of the nation’s largest retailers of buffalo. Now ranchers and retailers say the market is at a tipping point where prices could soar so high that buyers back away.

Veteran ranchers say a consistent taste is needed to preserve the industry's growth, and that consistency can only come from a grain-based diet. "I’m not going to say one [diet] is better than the other," David E. Carter, the executive director of the National Bison Association, told Johnson. "People are moving forward from here in different ways, and we’ll let our customers tell us the answer." (Read more)

Asian carp: If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em

If buffalo meat isn't your cup of tea, maybe you'll like Asian carp. A Wisconsin chef who hosts twice-a-year wild game dinners, is planning an "invasivore" dinner menu, reports Karen Herzog for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Chef Jimmy Wade has created Carp Cakes, Smoked Carp Steak and Carp Napoleon, from the invasive Asian carp caught in the Illinois River. (Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

"If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em," is only one strategy for controlling the fish that threaten to breach the Great Lakes. "It's one tactic in the fight — one tool in the tool chest. Slowing down the advance is important, but it's not the solution," said Josh Mogerman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. More helpful would be expanding the export market to China and boosting commercial fishing.

Wade says they can be delicious, but only 20 to 25 percent of each fish is edible meat. Another invasive species that Chapman compared the Asian carp to is the nutria, "a large South American rodent resembling a beaver." Unfortunately, "Nutria tastes awful," said Milwaukee chef David Swanson. "It's like leather cowhide. We tried to braise it, but it still tasted like gamy squirrel." (Read more)

Shareholders push for fracking disclosure

Shareholders are the latest group pushing for oil and gas companies to disclose plans for dealing with possible pollution from hydraulic fracturing. "The resolutions announced Friday, filed with companies such as Chevron and Exxon Mobil, take aim at an increasingly common industry practice that has been blamed for tainting water supplies and land with chemicals," Darryl Fears of The Washington Post reports. "The shareholder groups include the New York state pension fund, Domini Social Investments, Trillium Asset Management and The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia."

"The resolutions called on the companies to recycle waste water, disclose the type of chemicals used in the operations and lessen their toxicity," Fears writes. Andrew Logan, director of the oil and gas program for Ceres, a coalition of investors and environmental groups that work with companies to improve their business practices, explained, "This is really about enhancing the long term-value of these companies." He added, "They want to see these companies succeed. The industry's ability to continue to develop shale gas reserves depend on the public's acceptance of fracking that it's safe." (Read more)

Pundit: Lack of rurality may hurt Ky. Democrats

Kentucky Democrats may be at a disadvantage in this fall's statewide elections because they have no rural candidates, Courier-Journal political writer Joseph Gerth writes in his weekly column this morning.

"If the folks who are supposedly the experts in predicting elections are right, the 2011 races in Kentucky are going to come down to urban vs. rural," Gerth reports. "And anyone who has lived in Kentucky for any length of time can tell you that urban typically loses out."

Democrats' Louisville-Lexington mix and Republicans' rural-urban diversity may help explain why Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appointed Bowling Green Mayor Elaine Walker, a political unknown outside the Southern Kentucky city of 50,000, secretary of state this month to fill a vacancy. But "the betting money is that the selection of Walker is more about an old political grudge between Beshear and former Democratic Chairman Jerry Lundergan than it is about getting a rural Democrat on the November ballot," Gerth writes.

Price for fixing Corps' most troubling dam will go up again to handle problem at critical juncture

In November we reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said a new strategy was needed to fix leaks in its most problematic dam, the one impounding Lake Cumberland in Southern Kentucky. The new method will cost more money and take longer to complete, Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. The lake has been drawn down to relieve pressure on the dam, which normally impounds the largest volume of water in the Eastern United States.
The limestone bedrock under Wolf Creek Dam, above, has cracks and caves that allow water to seep through. The area of concern is where the earthen section of the dam wraps around the concrete portion (in distance at upper left). "The original plan was to drill a line of large holes down through the earthen part of the dam and into the limestone foundation beneath it, then fill the holes with concrete to create a wall, sealing off seepage channels in the foundation," Estep writes.

Because that plan isn't working as well as the Corps hoped, the French and Italian contractors will build a concrete wall inside the earthen dam by boring a thick steel casing into the ground, then putting the concrete inside the casing. That will "provide more support in the holes and guard against making seepage channels worse during the construction process," Estep writes. The Corps did not release a revised estimate for the cost of the project or completion date but admitted both would likely go up. "One early estimate of the cost to fix the dam was $317 million. That had climbed to $584 million before the change in construction methods," Estep writes. "A key contractor predicted at one point that the project would be done by summer 2012, and perhaps sooner, but it appears that date will be pushed back." (Read more)