Saturday, March 12, 2011

Small-town hair salon good place for a story

Here's a story that can be done in many small towns with a longtime hair stylist, and a good example of how to do it, from Brittany Cofer of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. She went up US 127 to Dunlap, population 5,200, to profile the Bouffant Salon, named for the most popular hairstyle when it opened 50 years ago.

"Leaning over a small table, Anna Faye Heard files down Naomi Barker’s nails. Barker, with her hair wound tightly in yellow, blue, orange and purple rollers, has visited Heard’s shop twice a week for nearly 15 years," Cofer writes, quoting Heard: "This is a modern day ‘Steel Magnolias,’ that’s what I like to say."

(TFP photo by Jenna Walker: Heard does Barker's hair) Heard, 68, was 18 when she opened the shop. Naomi Barker is my aunt, and she displayed the Miller girls' capacity for succinct wisdom when she told Cofer why she had been a Bouffant regular from her first visit: “What lady doesn’t want to get her hair done? She does what we want, and it’s a friendly atmosphere.” (Read more)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Future of strip mining in Appalachia could depend on something called conductivity; what is it?

The future of surface coal mining in Appalachia could depend on a scientific standard that the Obama administration has adopted as a sort of litmus test for water pollution but one that the coal industry says hasn’t been proven in the field.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says research has proven that high conductivity, which indicates a high level of salts, damages aquatic life in streams. The coal industry says that research is far from conclusive. But EPA’s independent Science Advisory Board found in September that the agency was correct in concluding that valley fills increase conductivity in downstream waters, threatening stream life.

If EPA’s standards remain in place, coal companies will find it difficult or impossible to win approval for mountaintop-removal permits like those issued in the past, industry and agency officials agree.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson says her agency isn’t trying to end surface mining in Appalachia. “This is not about ending coal mining,” she said in a conference call after the agency announced its conductivity guidance in April. “This is about ending coal mining pollution.”

For the full story by Jon Hale of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, click here.

Claim of rural bias in federal spending disputed; Vilsack says ethanol subsidies need a phase-out

Federal spending on rural issues became the target of a recent blog post from Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, but his argument that the government subsidizes rural life to the detriment of cities may not hold up. "Klein’s initial point was that cities are unique in the efficient way they create new wealth," Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder reports. "He then said that we should capitalize on this unique attribute of urban life, but that we won’t because the structure of the Congress inevitably leads to programs and spending that subsidize rural life." Bishop writes that argument doesn't hold up because federal spending per capita on urban counties is usually higher than it is in rural counties. (Yonder chart of per capita rural and urban spending)

Klein mentioned federal farm subsidies, but Bishop notes, "crop subsidies are a drip in the bucket of federal spending." Klein said disproportionate rural representation in Congress leads to a rural bias in spending, but Bishop says no such bias is reflected in spending on community development. "Spending on community resources in rural areas (for housing, community assistance, Native American programs, environmental protection, regional development and transportation) is far lower on a per capita basis in rural counties," he writes.

"The one area of federal spending where rural areas exceed urban ones is in the broad category of income security," Bishop writes. "This includes medical benefits, Social Security, disability, food and nutrition programs and education." This disparity can be attributed to the fact that rural people tend to be on average older and poorer than their urban counterparts, he argues.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also took issue with Klein's story, but did say that ethanol subsidies to corn farmers should be phased out. Bishop argues the conversation between the two men was fruitless. Instead of discussing easily available facts, conversations like that one mean "nothing changes and nothing gets better, but everybody feels supremely righteous," he writes. An unnamed writer for The Economist says Vilsack offered "a pandering defence of agricultural subsidies so thoroughly bereft of substance I began to fear that Mr. Vilsack would be sucked into the vacuum of his mouth and disappear." (Read more)

Bush EPA official: fracking study shouldn't have been used to support exemption from regulation

A 2004 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report that concluded hydraulic fracturing was not a significant threat to drinking water was never intended to permanently preclude the drilling method from environmental regulation, says a former agency official who oversaw the report. "Whether it's hydraulic fracturing or any other type of practice that can have an impact on the environment, one single report shouldn't be the basis for a perpetual, never-ending policy decision," Benjamin Grumbles, who was assistant administrator for water at EPA during in the George W. Bush administration, told ProPublica.

The industry and Congress used the conclusions from the report to "bolster the case for passing a law that prohibited the EPA from regulating fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act," Abrahm Lustgarten reports. "It wasn't meant to be a bill of health saying 'well, this practice is fine. Exempt it in all respects from any regulation,'" said Grumbles, who is now on the board of the Clean Water America Alliance. "I'm sure that wasn't the intent of the panel of experts, and EPA never viewed it that way." Grumbles also noted Bush administration officials made it clear no EPA employees were supposed to publicly support or oppose the legislation. (Read more)

EPA boss debunks myths about agency's farm plans

A series of fictions have incorrectly characterized the Environmental Protection Agency's attempts to regulate agriculture, says the agency's director. Speaking to the House Agriculture Committee, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson highlighted five of those myths, Andrew Restuccia of The Hill reports. First was the claim that EPA will implement a cow tax that will regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cattle. "The truth is — EPA is proposing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a responsible, careful manner and we have even exempted agricultural sources from regulation," Jackson said.

Jackson said the claim that EPA will used regulations for oil containment facilities to regulate spilled milk was "simply incorrect," and the agency has moved to exempt milk containers from the law. Sen. Mike Johnanns, R-Neb., "pressed Jackson to finalize" that exemption, Dairy Herd Network reports.

Jackson said EPA had no plans to expand regulation of dust from farms, and the agency does not want to regulate all pesticide drifts from farms. "While no one supports pesticides wafting into our schools and communities, EPA does not support a 'no-spray drift policy'," she said. "EPA has been on the record numerous times saying this, but the incorrect belief that EPA desires to regulate all spray drift persists." Jackson also said EPA is not developing limits on nutrient pollution limits from animal manure and chemical fertilizers. (Read more)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Environmental groups allege another coal firm misrepresented water-quality monitoring data

A Kentucky coal company has submitted seemingly fraudulent water-pollution monitoring data to state regulators, says a group of environmentalists who have been examining public records. "Five environmental groups on Wednesday alleged that 12,000 violations of Clean Water Act reporting requirements occurred at 15 Nally & Hamilton Enterprises Inc. mining operations in seven Eastern Kentucky counties," James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal reports. Aaron Colangelo, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the five groups, told Bruggers "Over and over in its monitoring reports, Nally & Hamilton simply repeated the results from one month to the next. These cut-and-paste reports are obviously false."

"The same environmental groups previously submitted findings that resulted in the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet last year issuing $660,000 in fines against two other coal-mining companies," Bruggers writes. The new allegations concern active strip mines and reclamation sites in Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Harlan, Knott, Bell and Knox counties. Nally & Hamilton representatives did not respond to the Courier-Journal's request for comment Wednesday. In addition to the NRDC, environmental groups Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper and the Waterkeepers Alliance joined in the allegations. The groups say they have "taken the first step toward filing a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act by putting the company on notice and giving it 60 days to respond," Bruggers writes. (Read more)

4 of 5 public schools could fall short of federal standards this year, education secretary warns

Around 80 percent of the nation's 100,000 public schools could be labeled as failing under No Child Left Behind, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned yesterday. That estimate, "based on an analysis of testing trends and the workings of the law’s pass-fail school rating system, was the latest evidence of the law’s shortcomings and the need to overhaul it," Sam Dillon of The New York Times reports.

Even many of the nation's best public schools are likely to miss the federal education law's rising standardized testing targets, Duncan said. "This law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it this year," he told the House education committee. Last year 37 percent of schools missed the testing targets, and Duncan said this year's number could be as high as 82 percent. "I find it hard to believe that the percentage would rise that much in one year," Jack Jennings, president of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy in Washington, told Dillon. "Maybe they are right. If so, it’s certainly a mind-blower."

"The No Child Left Behind Act, introduced in 2001 by President George W. Bush and passed by Congress with bipartisan support, requires that all schools bring 100 percent of their students to proficiency in math and reading by 2014," Dillon writes. President Obama and Duncan have mounted a push to reform the law this year, a move that has been met with support by some Republicans. "States are now facing very steep goals under the law, and they are not going to meet them," Peter Cunningham, an Education Department spokesman, told Dillon. "Arne is just telling the committee that is charged with rewriting this law what’s coming." (Read more)

Vote buying lingers on; former E. Ky. officials get long terms in federal probe, and more are coming

Vote buying remains a problem in poor areas, perhaps more so in rural ones, where voting places are more isolated and there are fewer eyes to watch election officials. Two former election officers and a former circuit judge in Clay County, Kentucky, were sentenced this week to prison terms of 20 years and more for their role in a massive vote-buying and corruption scandal that has consumed the county for almost a decade.

"U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves sentenced Charles Wayne Jones, 71, to 20 years in prison and William E. Stivers, 58, to 24 1⁄3 years," Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. Six other former county officials, including a former school superintendent, county clerk and magistrate, who were convicted with Jones and Stivers last year, will be sentenced this week. Today, former Circuit Judge Cletus Maricle, 67, was sentenced to 26 2/3 years.

"Jurors convicted the eight of using Clay County's election board as a tool to corrupt elections in 2002, '04 and '06 by buying or stealing votes on a scale that Reeves said he hadn't seen in any other case," Estep writes. Stivers was an officer at a polling place during the scandal, and Jones was the county's Democratic election commissioner. Stivers' attorney had sought a sentence of less than 20 years for his client because of Stivers' age and serious health problems, but Reeves said Stivers could receive adequate medical care in prison. (Read more)

Postal service tells folks in tiny town they might lose their post office; could keep mailboxes

Residents of Fairfield, Ky., population 78, have been put on notice that their post office might close, and the city's current and former mayor say that could signal the death of the community. "We just feel like it’s going to be one more nail in the coffin that will end our city," former mayor Mary Ellen Marquess told Stephanie Hornback of The Kentucky Standard in the county seat of Bardstown. (Photo by Hornback)

Her comments came after the United States Postal Service sent Fairfield residents a letter on Feb. 25 that asked how they got their mail because "the maintenance of the Fairfield Post Office may not be warranted," Hornback reports. We haven't heard of other communities receiving such letters, and would like to know about others.

"Fairfield Mayor Tommy Trent said a representative from the postal service contacted him before the letter went out and asked if the city would be interested in buying the property, making one side its city hall and keeping the P.O. boxes on the other," Hornback writes. Under that arrangement the post office, which is currently open for four hours on weekdays, would no longer employ a clerk.

"A town loses its identity if it gets stuck with a rural route address," Trent said. "Although we’re small, an incorporated town with a post office and its own ZIP code means a lot as far as communicating with your people. It would just be a total loss for the city itself." (Read more)

A couple of counties to the east, in Midway, the USPS is scaling back the level of service, prompting concerns that the office might be closed. No way, the service says, but some residents are skeptical.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ethanol boosted by soaring oil prices; bipartisan Senate duo moves to repeal industry's tax credit

Rising oil prices have boosted the ethanol industry, but it may lose its federal tax credit in the battle over the federal budget deficit.

"Since December the rise in the price of crude oil has driven the wholesale price of regular gasoline to $3 per gallon," Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register reports. "That made room for the price of ethanol to climb from $2 per gallon in December to $2.59 per gallon Monday." The spike is particularly helpful for the industry, squeezed by the doubling of corn prices in the last half of 2010.

"The lower price of ethanol gives oil companies extra incentive, beyond the federal renewable-fuels mandates, to purchase ethanol to blend with unleaded gasoline," Piller writes. A decline in gas consumption early last year hurt ethanol demand, but ethanol margins improved as oil prices began to rise. Then came soaring corn prices. The industry could face a crisis by fall if U.S. farmers don't produce a bumper corn crop, Todd Becker, chief executive of Green Plains Energy, told Piller. "Most plants will get through the second quarter of this year all right, but a lot of plants are very nervous about the third quarter," he said. "We could see some plants shut down." (Read more)

A true sea change may be in the works for ethanol. A bipartisan Senate duo on Wednesday introduced legislation that would repeal the 45-cents-per-gallon credit that goes to refiners and gasoline blenders for each gallon of ethanol blended into gasoline, Ben Geman of The Hill reports. The bill is sponsored by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn and Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin. "The ethanol tax credit is bad economic policy, bad energy policy and bad environmental policy," Coburn said in a statement. "The $6 billion we waste every year on corporate welfare should instead stay in taxpayers’ pockets where it can be used to spur innovation, stimulate growth and create jobs." (Read more)

Electric co-ops reluctant to adopt renewables; some pose obstacles for members' opinions

Few rural electric cooperatives have been on the forefront of renewable energy development, and most are heavily dependent on coal. Now many are facing increasing pressure from their members to begin looking at new energy sources, and some make it hard to apply that pressure, freelancer Allen Best reports for Planning magazine.

When Tona Barkley tried to attend a directors' meeting of her co-op, Owen Electric in Kentucky, she was met with a closed door and instructions to file a written request at least a month in advance if she wanted to speak at a future meeting. Owen Electric is not the only co-op with a closed-door atmosphere, Best writes. "Our co-ops, for the most part, tend to build pretty sturdy stockades around their processes," Steve Wilkins of Berea, Ky., a member of Blue Grass Energy, which he said also bars members from directors' meetings.

"Too many electric co-ops have turned away from their historic role as exciting, pro-consumer organizations and have instead taken on deeply troubling anti-consumer behaviors," Tennessee Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper wrote in a 2008 essay in the Harvard Journal on Legislation, which Best quotes.

Rural electric co-ops get 80 percent of their electricity from coal, much higher than the national figure of less than 50 percent. With prices of coal-fired energy on the rise and an uncertain future regarding environmental regulation of coal mining, some co-op members are questioning the logic of continuing to invest in coal-fired power.

Some co-ops have moved away from coal, but face questions about where their energy will come from in the future. In 2006 Western Colorado's Delta-Montrose Electric Association refused a contract extension with its current electricity supplier that would have financed a new coal-fired power plant, but now the company "must figure out its own electrical future after 2040," Best writes.

"It's uncharted territory, and it could be we spoke more optimistically than we should have," Ed Martson, a Delta-Montrose director for 15 years, told Best. "Now that you're in the execution phase, you'd understand better what you're up against." John K. Hansen, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, sees renewable energy as key to bringing jobs to rural areas, which can only help electric co-ops. "It doesn't do any good to have a [rural electrical association] if you don't have any customers," he told Best, referencing the population loss of many rural areas. (The entire story will be available after next month's issue of Planning magazine is published.)

Missouri farmer objects to state protections for concentrated animal feeding operations

A pair of Missouri bills would limit damages property owners can seek against large agricultural facilities, such as concentrated animal feeding operations. That goes too far, one Missouri farmer writes. "According to the wisdom of our elected leaders, if a CAFO damages a neighbor, damages are limited to the sale price of the property," Richard Oswald, president of the Missouri Farmers Union, writes for the Daily Yonder. "Wreck my home and all you have to do is hire an appraiser, get a price and buy me out." Both the state House of Representatives and Senate have passed similar bills, HB 209 and SB 187. The bills arose after 15 residents of northwest Missouri, Oswald's home area, were awarded $11 million in damages in a lawsuit last year against Premium Standard Farms, a CAFO subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, for property damage.

"Don’t get me wrong, I’m a farmer," Oswald writes. "I’ve had fertilizer of the livestock variety on my boots and I’m not allergic to it. It’s just that what’s going on here is an insult to responsible livestock producers wherever they are." He notes some CAFOs are well designed and maintained, but he claims the Missouri bills would take away the incentive to run a good CAFO. Oswald concludes with one question: "Now that Missouri has greased a path for Big Pig pollution that resembles corporate take-all power of eminent domain, and Missouri voters have lost a big slab of their property rights . . . How big can Big Pig in Missouri grow?" (Read more)

Applications sought for rural broadband grants

On Friday the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture's announced it was accepting a new round of grant applications to provide broadband Internet access in communities that have no broadband. Funding is through the Community Connect Grant program. The grants are available to "communities in the most rural, economically challenged areas where loans would not be sustainable," USDA said in a news release.
Incorporated organizations, tribes and tribal organizations, state and local government bodies, for-profit or non-profit cooperatives, private corporations and limited liability corporations are all eligible to apply. Funds may be used to "construct, acquire or lease facilities to deploy broadband to residents, businesses and essential community facilities such as police and fire stations, libraries, schools, and health care clinics," USDA says. (Read more) You can find more information about the grant applications here and here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Real-estate developers reap huge tax breaks from metro-area land classified as agricultural

In a phenomenon that may be evident in rural areas across the country, and bears investigation, farmers are not always the main beneficiaries of tax breaks for land designated as agricultural for tax purposes.

In Douglas County, Colorado, south of Denver, about "one in six of the county's parcels taxed as agricultural are owned by subsidiaries of Denver home builder MDC Holdings Inc.," Christopher N. Osher and Eric Gorski report for The Denver Post. In Broomfield County, in the same metropolitan area, "a staggering 95 percent of the county's agricultural parcels are controlled by developer, commercial or investor interests," Osher and Gorski write.

"From Denver's outskirts to exclusive mountain communities, the story line is similar," the reporters write. "Developers and corporations more interested in bulldozing land for houses and strip malls than raising cattle or crops are saving millions of dollars in taxes by taking advantage of a state law meant to help struggling farmers." The Post's analysis of property-tax records reveals developers and firms with little ties to agriculture control over 40 percent of the almost 54,000 parcels classified for agriculture in eight Front Range counties. "The lenient tax structure saves developers, businesses and others who have no real mud on their boots an estimated $366 million a year in those counties," the reporters write.

In 10 mountain counties analyzed by the Post, groups that don't meet the traditional definition of "farmer" or "rancher" own more than 9 percent of the 23,244 agricultural parcels. "The constituencies that currently benefit from the tax break don't want a change," said state Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville. "And there's not a strong constituency for the average taxpayer." Or perhaps no well-organized constituency that lobbies.

Farm interests say the tax breaks keep good land in production, while real-estate companies and homebuilders say higher taxes on undeveloped land will lead to higher home prices, Osher and Gorski report. "I think it is a shame, and it adds to sprawl," Former Gov. Dick Lamm told the Post. "It is unfair, and it unjustly enriches people. It allows people to tie up land under so-called agriculture and use it as a speculator's device." (Read more) (Post graphic of Broomfield County land parcels)

Duke Energy CEO keeps pushing climate legislation

A key player in passing comprehensive climate legislation may be an unlikely source: Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. Duke "supplies 35,000 megawatts of power to consumers in the Southeast and Midwest, most of it through coal or nuclear, making him one of the biggest carbon emitters in the country," Bryan Walsh of Time reports. "Yet it was Rogers who emerged as a key corporate player in the attempt to build a grand alliance for a carbon-cap-and-trade bill between 2008 and 2010." The push for climate legislation failed last year, but Rogers, right, says it is still needed to fix the uncertainty currently surrounding environmental regulation. (Getty Images photo by Jeffrey Camarati)

"In the 20th century, the goal was universal access to electricity," Rogers told Walsh. "In the 21st century it will be about modernization, and by 2050 all our existing plants but hydro" may be closed down or changed because of environmental regulations. Some lawmakers are hoping to block the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing controls over greenhouse-gas emissions, but no matter what happens on that front, "gradual tightening by the EPA of existing rules on pollutants like sulfur and nitrous oxide will force tough choices on utilities," Walsh writes.

"There's over 300,000 megawatts of electricity in existing coal plants, about 50 percent of what the U.S. produces," says Rogers. "Up to one-third of them are over 40 years old, and depending on how the regulations play out, anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 megawatts could be shut down." In the absence of carbon legislation, Rogers says lawmakers should put more money toward research into making renewable fuel services more competitive. "Think about how much it would change the debate if solar and wind were as cheap as coal," he said. (Read more)

Utah legislature sneaks through bill exempting electronic records from state open-records law

UPDATE, March 9: Utah legislators have delayed the effective date of  "the controversial bill that they had passed quickly last week to shield more records from public disclosure and charge more for those that would still be available," writes Lee Davidson of the Salt Lake Tribune.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who had signed the bill, said he was “pleased” by the move: “I’m encouraged they are committed to amending the bill in order to provide for a more thorough and deliberative process,” in a special legislative session to be held this summer. Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press asked in a news release, "If the legislation still needs debate, why did the governor sign it?"
Senate President Michael Waddoups "said the move Monday was needed to avoid a veto," Davidson reports. "Earlier, the Senate president said Herbert 'doesn’t like the process that we went through. He feels it was rushed. We all have to grant him that point." (Read more)

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other open-government leaders are urging Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to veto a bill that would “only invite greater government secrecy and back-room dealings,” as Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish put it. In a letter sent to Gov. Herbert today, Dalglish called on the governor to “side with the people of Utah and veto this bill,” which passed the legislature in little more than a day last week.

Dalglish and University of Missouri professor Charles Davis, former freedom-of-information chair for the Society of Professional Jounalists, said the bill would make Utah as the only state to take such draconian provisions against open government. "HB 477 represents the most backward, retrograde legislative proposal to the status of a state's public-records law, a topic I have studied fairly myopically for 20-plus years," Davis wrote. "It puts Utah in a class of one, alone in an anti-democratic zone in which the governors enjoy almost carte blanche over what information they deign to share with the rabble."

The bill would change the state Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) allowing, among other things, text messages and other electronic communication, including correspondence, to be withheld from release. "Unlike every other state in the country, Utah is now embracing the concept that the medium, rather than the message, is what's important when it comes to openness," Davis writes.

Pennsylvania regulators' tests show no extra radiation in streams from fracking wastewater

Following a story by The New York Times that suggested Pennsylvania rivers and streams may be at risk from radioactive pollution from hydraulic fracturing in gas drilling, state regulators announced Monday that water sampling on seven Pennsylvania rivers found no elevated radiation levels. Still, "the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urged additional testing and said it will take a significantly more active role in reviewing permits and environmental impacts from the discharges," Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

In a letter to state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer, EPA said municipal drinking water systems near facililties receiving Marcellus Shale drilling wastewater "should be required to conduct expedited and more frequent radiation testing," Hopey writes. The agency said pollution permits of all sewage treatment plants accepting fracking wastewater must be amended to include provisions for its treatment. In a written response "Krancer said the DEP is evaluating the EPA letter and twice mentioned that natural gas development will play a key role in future energy needs," Hopey writes.

"We at DEP know what our responsibilities are," Krancer said. "We will focus on protecting public safety and the environment and we will do that with facts and science. We will work with EPA to be sure that it is aware of everything we are doing in Pennsylvania in that regard." Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, one of the biggest drilling companies in the state noted "The DEP has now indicated, for the second time in three years, that radioactive material is not a constituent of concern. We still encourage regular testing. Radioactivity is a scary word, but it's important to use good science and apply proper context to the issue when discussing it." (Read more)

Market for cellulosic ethanol sours before fuel establishes foothold; Ga. plant too big a jump

Four years after Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue touted his state's new plant that would turn wood into fuel as part of the expected boom in cellulosic ethanol, the plant is closed after running out of money before becoming commercially viable. The Georgia facility was supposed to be the nation's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant and the federal government promised $76 million for the project, Josh Goodman of reports. Georgia was hardly alone in "hoping that cellulose from all manner of plant material — from tree waste to grasses to corn husks — would serve as fuels that could clean the environment and end America’s dependence on foreign oil," Goodman writes.

The Georgia plant, which was operated by Range Fuels, was supposed to produce 20 million gallons of fuel in 2009 before increasing to 100 million gallons in subsequent years. "It never happened," Goodman writes. "Today, the facility is closed, at least temporarily." Federal legislation passed in 2007 called for 150 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol to be produced this year, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that less than 4 million gallons actually will be produced. For now commercialization of cellulosic ethanol has been delayed, Goodman writes, noting it remains unclear "whether the reversal reflects the dangers of chasing new technologies or whether the backers of cellulosic ethanol need just a little more patience."

Cellulosic ethanol proponents saw the fuel as a product that could be produced anywhere in the country, unlike corn-based ethanol, and turn obscure plants like switchgrass into cash crops, Goodman writes. So what went wrong? Some say the fuel wasn't ready for prime time when the Georgia plant was built. "You just don’t scale from a chemical lab scientific demonstration up to a $400 million plant in one step," Sam Shelton, the founding director of Georgia Tech. University’s Strategic Energy Institute, said. Others note investor interest in the fuel dropped after oil prices went down following the 2007-08 spike. (Read more)

Monday, March 07, 2011

Young editor-publisher in Oregon wins Gish Award for courage, tenacity, integrity in rural journalism

Samantha Swindler, the publisher and editor of the weekly Headlight Herald in Tillamook, Oregon, is the winner of the 2010 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, gives the award in honor of the couple who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and his wife Pat were the first recipients of the award.

Like the Gishes, Samantha Swindler is being recognized largely for her courage, integrity and tenacity in Eastern Kentucky, but also in Texas, where she began her newspaper career less than seven years ago. She has been in Oregon since July 2010.

The award will be presented to Swindler on April 1, at the spring symposium of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association in Albany, Ore.

As managing editor of the daily Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky., circulation 6,000, Swindler spearheaded an investigation of the Whitley County sheriff that helped lead to his defeat for re-election and his subsequent indictment on 18 charges of abuse of public trust and three counts of tampering with physical evidence.

Swindler and her reporter, Adam Sulfridge, received repeated warnings about their safety as they revealed irregularities in how Sheriff Lawrence Hodge accounted for missing guns his officers had seized, problems with his alleged payments to informants, his failure to present cases against anyone arrested for felony drug violations, failure to send seized drugs to the state crime laboratory, and his officers' repeated failure to testify, resulting in dismissal of serious drug charges.

“She did not let anyone scare her off the story or push her around,” said William Ketter, who worked with Swindler as senior vice president/news for Community Newspaper Holdings, which owns the Times-Tribune.

The prosecutor, Commonwealth’s Attorney Allen Trimble, told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues that the paper's "very persistent" reporting "was a very significant influence on me."

Swindler recounts her experience in the latest edition of Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

“There is a great need for good investigative journalism in rural America,” she writes. “Young reporters tend to think they need a byline from The New York Times to make a difference in the world. If they really want to have an impact, get a job with a community paper and start asking the tough questions that no one ever asked before.”

The investigation of the sheriff was the capstone to Swindler’s four years in Corbin, in which she held local officials accountable on a wide front, revealing that the county was improperly using a tourism tax to fund an airport and that city officials spent $20,000 on tickets to a country-music concert for city employees and their friends.

When Swindler was managing editor of the Jacksonville (Tex.) Daily Progress, the paper won a Freedom of Information Award from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors for coverage of city police corruption. The city manager was fired after Swindler, then a reporter, found he was illegally burning condemned houses.

A native of Metairie, La., Swindler is a 2002 graduate in communication from Boston University.

“She makes a wonderful example for the rest of us,” said Ben Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle, son of the couple for whom the award is named and a member of the award selection committee.

“If in the past decade there's been any other journalist in America, rural or city, who has demonstrated the level of tenacity, courage and integrity Swindler did with that series, then I'd like to meet them,” Gish said. “Unless they were able to walk in her shoes, it would be impossible for a reporter/editor at a large metropolitan daily to understand the danger Swindler faced while letting Whitley County know its top law enforcement officer was a crook.”

Ketter said, “Never has there been a greater need for perceptive, courageous reporting in smaller communities as big city papers reduce their resources and reach across rural America. That’s why it is so important that journalists such as Samantha Swindler stand their ground, however fraught with risks, as the people’s surrogate, holding public officials accountable.”

The Gish Award has a criterion of tenacity “because our craft has had many courageous rural journalists whose achievements have been meteoric, ending in burnout,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “It’s very difficult to show courage over a long period, as Tom and Pat did. So, I never really anticipated that the award might go to someone who hasn’t turned 30. But in her short career, Samantha Swindler has demonstrated the tenacity, courage and integrity that we had in mind when we created the award.”

Besides Tom and Pat Gish, other winners of the award have been the Ezzell family, publishers of The Canadian (Tex.) Record, in 2007; and former publisher Stanley Dearman and Publisher Jim Prince of The Neshoba Democrat of Philadelphia, Miss., in 2008. No award was presented for 2009. Nominations for the 2011 award are welcome at any time before Sept. 1, 2011.

Farm-belt Republicans reject Vilsack's plan to cut farm subsidies to big recipients right away

In a faceoff with House Republicans from his home Upper Midwest, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "stood firm in insisting it's time to lower the income cap for farm program payments," the weekly Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse reports. "With farm prices as strong as they are today, we think it is appropriate to ask the most successful farmers to consider perhaps receiving a bit less than they have been receiving," Vilsack told the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee.

President Obama's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 calls for subsidies to go only to farmers with an adjusted gross income of less than $500,000 after three years. The current limit is $750,000. Also, "The administration maintains the maximum amount in direct payments should be set at $60,000 per farm, down from the current $80,000," writes Bill Straub of the Washington bureau of the Evansville Courier & Press "In all, the plan would save $2.6 billion over 10 years."

Iowa Republican Rep. Tom Latham said that plan would result in little actual savings. He said it was unrealistic to impose new limits on farm program payments, because that would involve re-opening the 2008 Farm Bill, which is not scheduled for review until next year. Vilsack pushed back: "We're not going to give up on that. ... It's a new day here. We're going to talk about a lot of things we've never talked about before." Vilsack said the administration's plan for cutting direct payments would affect just 2 percent of farm-program participants. Latham told Vilsack, "The reality is that we are not going to reopen the Farm Bill." Agri-Pulse is a subscription-only newsletter but offers a free four-issue trial subscription.

Straub writes, "Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have voted to slash programs affecting everything from poison control to Big Bird in their crusade to corral the $14 trillion national debt, but one item in the federal budget managed to sail through untouched — the farm subsidy program." (Read more)

Italian professor's oral history of Harlan County, Kentucky, gets Appalachian literature award

A book detailing oral histories of Harlan County, Kentucky, from an Italian historian is being honored as the best Appalachian book of 2011. They Say in Harlan County was written after more than 25 years of study in the county by Alessandro Portelli, a professor of American literature at the University of Roma-La Sapienza. It was selected by Berea College and the Appalachian Studies Association for the Willis Weatherford Award for nonfiction. The awards, which also honor fiction and poetry, go to a book "which in its year best illuminates the challenges, personalities, and unique qualities of the Appalachian South," the award's criteria say.

"More than 150 men and women from the region share their stories of the area, telling tales from the pioneer times, the coal mining strikes of the 1930s and 1970s, and on up to the present," Joshua Brock of the Harlan Daily Enterprise reports. Dr. William Turner, distinguished professor of Appalachian studies and regional ambassador at Berea, said "Portelli presents the people of Harlan much like [Harold] Pinter did in his dramas. He begins by painting them on a deeply etched historical canvas in colorful detail. He allows the strong people of Harlan to speak — in their own words — about how they were pitted in strong conflict against themselves and in struggle against powerful economic and social forces." (Read more)

Report noted serious enforcement lapses in mine-safety field offices before big disaster

Just two weeks before the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine, federal mine-safety regulators warned lawmakers about serious enforcement lapses in the agency. "On March 25, 2010, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration submitted a mandated report to the Senate Appropriations Committee on the activities of MSHA's internal Office of Accountability," which revealed, among other things, that over the previous two years MSHA "inspectors in 20 of 25 field offices reviewed did not properly evaluate the gravity and negligence of mine operator safety and health violations," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. The report covered the last year of the Bush administration and the first year of the Obama administration.

The report also revealed MSHA officials in 15 of the 25 field offices did not adequately document inspections so that any enforcement actions taken would stand up in court, supervisors in 21 of the 25 offices did not perform in-depth reviews to ensure that inspectors took appropriate enforcement actions, and inspectors in four offices did not complete mandatory spot inspections for mines that generated large amounts of explosive methane gas. At an unspecified number of field offices, there was a "lack of comprehensive inspections of all areas of the mining operation" and inappropriate "levels of enforcement issuances," Ward writes. MSHA said the report was focused on offices where the agency believed there were problems and therefore does not reflect the agency's work as a whole.

"The MSHA report -- just five pages long -- did not list the field offices that were audited or those where problems were found," Ward writes. "And MSHA does not post individual audit reports by the accountability office on its website." MSHA said it would take more than 30 days to respond to the Gazette's request for the individual audits and the agency could not release the full report because it could only be made public by Congress. "MSHA said it planned to spend $600,000 on the [accountability] office during the 2010 budget year, but was 'currently evaluating the restructuring' of the office 'to assure that targeted areas are effectively audited,'" Ward writes. (Read more)

Some rural phone firms want pieces of broadband spectrum designated for public safety

Part of the Obama Administration's plan to bring broadband Internet access to rural areas includes a $10.7 billion effort to create a national broadband network for public-safety agencies, but some telecommunications companies want a piece of that spectrum. "The plan would allocate one type of broadband spectrum, called "D Block," purely for public safety -- firefighters, police officers, ambulance personnel and other first responders," Jonathan Riskind of Maine Today reports for the Kennebec Journal. The administration plans to pay for the public-safety network, along with reducing the deficit by $9.6 billion and providing $5 billion to increase wireless coverage in rural communities, by auctioning off other spectrum segments.

Broadcasters fear they will be penalized if they do not voluntarily allow some of the segments they control to be auctioned to help pay for the plan, Riskind reports. Some companies, including Sprint, T-Mobile and smaller rural carriers, have formed a coalition that argues they should have access to "D Block" to better compete with the nation's largest carriers while partnering with public safety agencies. The coalition, Connect Public Safety Now, says its plan would "help build an efficient wireless network faster and more cost-effectively than" Obama's plan, Riskind writes.

Kevin McGinnis, a communications technology adviser to five national emergency medical-service organizations and a former Maine EMS director, disagrees. The coalition's "real goal has nothing to do with public safety. Their whole point is they want D Block to better compete with AT&T and Verizon. They want D Block because that is prime real estate," he told Riskind. The Obama administration plan, which would have lawmakers change the Federal Communications Commission's current mandate to auction off "D Block," has been met with bipartisan support. Still others, like Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe have reservations. "No amount of spectrum will be effective unless we also address several key areas such as adequate funding for the network, proper planning and governance to build and administer the network, and seamless coverage and interoperability to ensure undisrupted communications," she said. (Read more)