Friday, April 01, 2011

Bill to end enrollment-only criterion for school consolidation fails in Ark. House by one vote

An Arkansas bill that would have ended the state's policy of closing schools based solely on enrollment failed by one vote in the state House. The bill got a 50-33 vote but needed 51 votes to advance, Arkansas News reports. In 2003 Arkansas adopted a law that dictates mandatory consolidation of schools that enroll fewer than 350 students in consecutive years.

State Rep. Jon Hubbard, who sponsored the bill, said his bill would have shielded school districts that fall below the enrollment criteria if they are academically, structurally and financially sound. Gov. Mike Beebe had spoken out against the bill because he said it "threatens to reopen long-running litigation over the adequacy and equity of the state's method of funding public schools," Hubbard writes. Democratic State Rep. Buddy Lowell said if the bill passed schools that had been forced to close under the current law would sue the state. (Read more)

Gas drilling with hydraulic fracturing creates a lot of solid waste, and some Texans dislike it

Most of the conversation about waste from hydraulic-fracturing drilling operations has been focused on water, but the process also creates a large amount of solid waste. Texas farmers are struggling to "reconcile Texans’ storied love of the land with the growing practice of spreading tons of drilling mud and other toxic waste across it, a process euphemistically called 'landfarming'," Spike Johnson and Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe report for the Denton Record-Chronicle. About 1.2 barrels of solid waste are created with each foot drilled in Barnett Shale operations, and that waste is dumped onto the North Texas prairie.

"Some landowners open their gates and bank accounts to the industry’s need to dump the waste, oblivious to environmental risks," the reporters write. "While official eyes are averted, permits to dump are stretched beyond their limits." Dick Ross, a Texas goat farmer, has been fighting the Texas Railroad Commission for two years about a dump on a corn farm 50 feet from his front door. Ross says the wind blows fumes from the site in his direction the paint is striped from his house.

"Permit applications for the site came into the Railroad Commission and were approved by e-mail the next day, without a site inspection or toxicity tests," the reporters write. "Nothing in the process allows for public notice, for either comment or protest, on the dumping." Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission, said testing of the landfarm revealed no contamination above normal background levels. "My advice to anyone dealing with the gas industry: Sell your whole place, get the hell out," Ross told the reporters. "They cheat you out of your money, wreck your view and destroy your property value." (Read more)

Feds cited deadly Massey mine for no flagrant violations before last April's explosion

A law passed after coal-mine disasters in 2006 gave the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration authority to issue fines up to $220,000 for each flagrant safety violation, but that power was never used at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine where an April 2010 explosion killed 29 miners. "The idea was to more harshly punish chronic and serious mine safety violations as part of a strategy to force mine operators to follow federal regulations," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. "MSHA has used the authority more than 125 times in the last five years to fine mine operators $19.5 million."

MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said the question of why Upper Big Branch was never cited under the flagrant violation provision is one subject of an internal review. "It's a very good question, and one that will be ably answered by the internal review team," Louviere said in an email response to questions from the Gazette. "If they find anything amiss or any deficiencies on MSHA's part, they will appear in the report and MSHA will need to address them."

The 2006 law defined flagrant as "a reckless or repeated failure to make reasonable efforts to eliminate a known violation of a mandatory health or safety standard that substantially and proximately caused, or reasonably could have been expected to cause, death or serious bodily injury." MSHA issued its first flagrant violations in April 2007 and issued 70 such violations in 2008. "Congress gave us powerful new tools to strengthen mine safety, and we are going to use them fully," Then-MSHA chief Richard Stickler said at the time. The agency issued just 19 flagrant violations in both 2009 and 2010 and has issued only three flagrant violations so far in 2011, Ward writes. (Read more)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Many teacher layoffs are on the horizon

Uncertain budgets have led many schools to warn teachers of impending layoffs, which could result in "the most extensive layoff of their teaching staffs in decades," The New York Times reports.

"When layoffs do occur, they cause a chaotic annual reshuffling of staff members. Thousands of teachers are forced to change schools, grades or subjects, creating chronic instability that educators call 'teacher churn," Sam Dillon writes. This has created a division "between politicians and union leaders over the seniority-based layoff methods stipulated in union contracts," Dillion writes. We think the division also exists in non-unionized school districts, between teachers who have gained tenure and those who have not.

"Many argue that the rules rob schools of the talented young teachers who are the first to be let go," Dillon reports. "Union officials say that without such protections, more senior teachers would be let go first to save money." Quyen Tran, a teacher in California "knows this turmoil well," Dillon writes. "Tran has been pink-slipped in the spring four of the five years she has taught, but called back to teach every year. She has taught five subjects and grade levels in three schools."

Layoffs' effects go beyond teachers. "The churn caused by layoffs can be extremely disruptive and hurt student achievement," Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, told Dillon. "And conditions are ripe for disruptions to be dramatic this year." (Read more)

Pennsylvania gas and oil inspectors must get top-level OK to cite drillers in Marcellus Shale

A recent directive by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection requires oil and gas inspectors get approval from top officials before citing violations in drilling of the deep, dense and gas-rich Marcellus Shale.

The department says the rule is aimed at inconsistencies in enforcement, but there is concern "that the state's environmental inspectors can no longer act independently and that regulations could be overridden by the political whims of the state's new governor, Tom Corbett," reports Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica, the nonprofit, investigative news operation that has won awards for its coverage of the industry. "Corbett has made no secret of his support for drilling and has stated repeatedly that regulatory reforms can help spur job creation."

Corbett's position has former DEP head John Hanger and others questioning the origin of the directive. Hanger told ProPublica, "I do not believe this is coming from John Hines," the department's executive deputy secretary, who will have to consider "each of the hundreds of enforcement actions taken routinely against oil and gas operators in Pennsylvania each month," Lustgarten reports. Hanger, who headed DEP under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell "and worked to strengthen the state's oil and gas regulations," said he disagrees with the directive because "it represents a break from how business has been done in the department within the Marcellus Shale and within the oil and gas program for probably 20 years."

DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh told ProPublica, "The initiative is not political, will not interfere with enforcement, and is intended to clear up confusion and inconsistency in the agency's regional offices. The governor's office is not behind this. The governor charged [DEP] secretary [Michael] Krancer with bringing about consistency in his agency. This was a decision made at DEP in order to affect positive change." (Read more)

UPDATE, May 9: DEP Secretary Mike Krancer debunked reports that inspectors were ordered to seek top approval before issuing violations by saying "such approval had not been required" and "that story was blown way out of proportion," Nicholas Kusnetz for ProPublica reports. Katy Gresh, DEP spokeswoman, added in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "The notice of violation process is just as it was. The inspectors don't need pre-approval and that has been communicated to them."

GAO says USPS could save big by ending Saturday mail but would hurt rural people and newspapers

The U.S. Postal Service could save more than $3 billion by ending Saturday mail delivery, but it would hurt catalog businesses, local newspapers, the elderly and rural Americans, says a report from the Government Accountability Office. USPS says it could help stave off $7 billion in losses this year by ending Saturday delivery. "The GAO report agrees USPS could save $3.3 billion by cutting the work hours of letter carriers and reducing operational costs to better match declining mail volume," Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post reports. Last week we reported the Postal Regulatory Commission said in an advisory opinion that USPS should not end Saturday delivery without further study on the effect it would have on rural customers.

Eliminating Saturday deliveries could also "diminish USPS’s image, in part by reducing public contact with carriers," the report said. Congress has the final say on USPS's plan to end Saturday delivery, and lawmakers have yet to act on several proposals that would accomplish that goal, "partly because they’re worried how any change would impact small businesses and the elderly — two loyal, vocal voting blocs," O'Keefe writes. GAO cautioned that the actual amount of savings from ending Saturday deliveries would "depend on how quickly the Postal Service implements any changes and whether they’d have any impact on overall service," O'Keefe writes. (Read more)

Researchers examining pesticides' effect on bees

Insecticides have been identified as a culprit in the mysterious colony collapse disorder affecting bee populations around the world. Vera Krischik, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota, is examining bees to determine the effect of pesticides, Kathleen Masterson of Harvest Public Media reports. "It's not an easy question to answer," Krischik said. "It was easy when you had a contact insecticide and you sprayed in on an insect and it died. The effect of poisoned food is just a complex issue." (Masterson photo: UM graduate student Judy Wu)

One of the insecticides being examined is clothianidin, which was banned in Germany in 2008 when "some clothianidin seed treatments didn't stick to the seed, and the pesticide dust killed a large number of bees," Masterson writes. Like many pesticides, clothianidin was registered conditionally with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2003, meaning Bayer, the company behind the chemical, had to conduct and submit follow-up studies. "With clothianidin, the EPA accepted a bee study that the maker Bayer submitted for its follow-up assessment," Masterson writes. However, not everyone agreed with the Bayer study.

"Basically, the researchers hired by Bayer set up different plots, some with poisoned plants and some with untreated plants," Masterson writes. "But Krischik said they let the bees roam in both plots." Krischik explained, "So then if you looked at the effects on bees, you had no idea what they foraged on. So that created the controversy that is this data that was out there, did it show anything, because the experimental design wasn't really getting at the question."

As we recently reported, pesticides may be only one piece of the puzzle of colony-collapse disorder. "It's not going to be one thing that is causing honeybee decline or causing bumblebee decline," Krischik said. "It's habitat destruction, loss of food resources, poor quality food, loss of just the place to put your nest for a bumblebee, viruses, fungal diseases. We happen to be looking at pesticide issues, not to say other issues aren't as important." (Read more)

Colorado prison inmates tame, train wild horses for border patrol and other work

The Bureau of Land Management, which has been criticized for its wild-horse roundup policy, has for 25 years "been quietly shipping thousands of wild mustangs it rounds up each year to the East Canon Correctional Complex near Canon City, Colo," Jenny Deem reports for the Los Angeles Times. There, inmates train horses for possible border patrol duty. (Denver Post photo by Andy Cross)

"The horses come from herds across the West, the majority from Nevada, Wyoming and California," Deem writes. "Once they arrive at the prison's vast acreage they are checked over and their fates determined: They are trained as pets or working ranch horses to be offered for adoption, or they are set loose in long-term pastures scattered across the country." Only about 10 of the approximately 2,000 horses at the prison in a given month are selected for training. "It takes three to four months to take a horse from feral to friendly," Deem writes.

Four years ago Lee Pinkerton, a retired U.S. Border Patrol supervisor, decided the horses' compact bodies and heavy feet would be ideal for border patrol work. "Each trained horse costs the Border Patrol $1,025 — less than half what it had been paying for its horses previously," Deem writes. Border Patrol has bought 84 Canon City horses to date and is expected to buy almost 90 more by year's end. "There are 55 inmates who work in the program each day," Deem writes, noting there has been just one escape attempt and it was on foot, not on horseback. (Read more)

17 Republican members of Congress got $5.3 million in farm subsidies from 1995 to 2009

Republican lawmakers, who dominate rural congressional seats, are the biggest recipients of farm subsidies, a new analysis from the Environmental Working Group shows. EWG "says 17 Republicans in Congress and six Democrats received payments from 1995 to 2009 either directly or through family members," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. In terms of total money received, Republicans collected $5.3 million in subsidies while Democrats collected $489,856.

"The fact that so many more Republicans in Congress receive so much more in farm subsidies than their Democratic colleagues does highlight the GOP’s controversial decision to spare those programs from the budget ax – even as it slashes funding for so many others," EWG says. EWG notes that two subsidy recipients, Charles Grassley of Iowa and Richard Lugar of Indiana, "have been long-time leaders in the effort to reform federal farm programs" and "have fought to right the gross inequity of sending 74 percent of taxpayer-funded payments to the largest and wealthiest 10 percent of farm operations." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'Coal' show fails to give broader view of industry

Many are eagerly awaiting tonight's premiere of SpikeTV's new documentary-style reality show "Coal," but at least one reviewer says it lacks insight about issues in the industry. Aaron Barnhart of the Kansas City Star measures the documentary against Barbara Kopple's "classic 1976 documentary Harlan County U.S.A. and concludes that while "Kopple made a brave film about mine workers fighting for a better life and future for their families, 'Coal' is a formulaic, context-free hour about hazardous duty that shuttles the viewer brilliantly from one adrenaline rush to the next."

The show's creator, Thom Beers, told Barnhart in an interview last fall that he had looked for "a family business" that was "barely making a living" for the show. Beers found Cobalt Coal's Tom Roberts, who was hired in 2010 to restart the Westchester, W.Va., mine, the setting for the show. Roberts says he has "blown a couple of fortunes in coal," but that conclusion is misleading, Barnhart writes. Roberts' money is not "on the line here. In fact, he’s on salary and got a signing bonus of 500,000 shares of stock, according to the website of Cobalt, which is owned by a giant Canadian energy concern," Barnhart reports.

"Men’s lives and livelihoods are on the line, which makes 'Coal' a perfect fit for Spike, the cable channel well-known for its ultimate fighting bouts," Barnhart writes. "But 'Coal' is so focused on the daily operations at the Westchester mine that it ignores the larger drama facing the area around it, devastated by 150 years of coal mining." McDowell County's population of 30,000 is a far cry from the 100,000 during the height of the coal boom in the 1950s, it has the highest poverty level in West Virginia, and the state took over its school system in 2001. Barnhart concludes, "If 'Coal' won’t give you the lay of the land, do yourself a favor and download or rent Harlan County U.S.A." (Read more)

Rural population loss means less political power

The 2010 census will causing a shift in the political landscape, giving less weight to rural areas because they lost population. Rural legislative districts will become less numerous, and individual districts will cover more land area. State Sen. Jean Leising told Gary Truitt of Hoosier Ag Today that her southeastern Indiana district, which is already large, will have to be increased even more. Leising worries that, with fewer and larger rural districts, the rural voice and rural political power will be diminished." (Read more)

Charles Johnson of the Billings Gazette in Montana reports that most of the state's "urban counties continued to grow from 2000 to 2010, while many of its rural counties kept losing people." Craig Wilson, a political science professor from Montana State University-Billings told Johnson, "The real significance of these movements is you have a gradual shift of political power from east to west and from rural to urban." (Read more)

Indiana and Montana are not be the only states facing such power shifts. The U.S. Census Bureau reports, "Many Appalachian counties in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia; many Great Plains counties in the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas; and a group of counties in and around the Mississippi Delta saw population declines. In addition, many counties along the Great Lakes and on the northern U.S. border either lost population or grew below 10 percent." (Read more)

Cash-poor states, localities let roads go to gravel

In the face of dwindling local budgets and rising asphalt prices, some states and local communities are opting for gravel over repaving. "The paved roads that finally brought rural America into the 20th Century are starting to disappear across the Midwest in the 21st," Pam Louwagie of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports. "Some engineers estimate it costs up to $300,000 to replace a mile of paved road surface now. Gravel isn't free, but it's far less expensive." (Star-Tribune photo by Pam Louwagie)

Louwagie writes, "In states like South Dakota and Michigan, the reversions are bringing substantial changes to the landscape." In South Dakota "a state transportation official estimated that 120 miles of pavement have been ground up or left to crumble back to gravel" and "Michigan has changed more than 100 miles of pavement to gravel."

In Freeborn County, Minnesota, Sue Miller, the county engineer, "helped launch a study with the state Local Road Research Board to come up with alternatives, including "putting additives into gravel to make it harder and more durable and building stronger road bases that can use just a thin layer of pavement," reports Louwagie. However as County Commissioner Glen Mathiason told Louwagie, "Gravel won't sit well with residents."

When Tony and Gertie Monat of Lansing, Iowa, lost the paved road in front of their house, they lost one of the principal attractions that brought them there. "We definitely miss the hard surface," Gertie Monat told Louwagie. "I'm like, how can you take that away now?"

USDA tightens reporting rules for tainted eggs

After learning its inspectors unknowingly approved the sale of eggs from an Ohio farm that tested positive for salmonella, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is tightening its reporting rules for egg producers. "The USDA's inspector general uncovered the problem during an investigation started after the massive recall last summer of eggs linked to farms in Iowa owned by or associated with Jack DeCoster," Phillip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "USDA has started requiring farms to notify its inspectors anytime salmonella contamination is found either in eggs or on the farm."

Eggs from the unnamed Ohio farm were recalled on Nov. 5, 2010. USDA "grades eggs for quality, while the Food and Drug Administration regulates the safety of egg production," Brasher writes. "The inspector general said neither the farm nor the FDA had notified USDA's egg inspectors of the salmonella finding." Michael Jarvis, a spokseman for USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service, told Brasher, "We are toughening the requirements, and I think we've opened the lines of communication much better than they were." (Read more)

Florida farmworkers pressure Publix, Ahold and subsidiaries to adopt 'Fair Food' principles

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, representing farmworkers in South Florida, launched a campaign in the Northeast to pressure food retailers to address human-rights violations in their production chain. The workers "held their first rally in Boston in late February and continued their corporate accountability actions aimed at the large supermarkets with a week-long tour of the East Coast," Yana Kunichoff reports for Truthout, a liberal-oriented news service. Santiago Perez, a farmworker who participated in the campaign, told Kunichoff "We hope this tour will help us achieve our goal of reaching agreements with the supermarket chains such as Publix, Stop & Shop, and others."

The campaign is pushing Publix and Ahold, which owns Stop & Shop, Giant of Landover and the online grocery delivery service Peapod, "to join a partnership of farmworkers, tomato growers and retail food stores and agree to CIW's 'Fair Food' principles, which include a wage increase of 1 cent per pound on tomatoes picked by workers, a cooperative system to resolve complaints, a comprehensive health and safety program, a worker-to-worker education process and a strict code of conduct for the industry," Kunichoff writes. Companies such as Whole Foods, Yum!Brands, McDonald's and Burger King Holdings have signed on to the Fair Food principles.

The farmworkers earn 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. "CIW argues that a penny per pound increase for a worker who carries two tons or more of tomatoes a day could raise that worker's yearly income from $10,000 to $17,000 a year," Kunichoff writes. Publix and Ahold, have refused to sign on to the principles, saying "they source many of their tomatoes from growers who cooperate with the CIW," Kunichoff writes. (Read more)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Drug makers lobby successfully against bills that would make meth ingredient prescription-only

Drug manufacturers have mounted a so-far successful effort to keep states from making pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in methamphetamine, available only by prescription. "Prescription-only bills were defeated or failed to make it to a vote this month in Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky and West Virginia after heavy lobbying by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group representing makers of over-the-counter drugs," Abby Goodnough of The New York Times reports. "Similar bills are still alive in Alabama, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee and several other states."

The bills would force consumers to obtain a prescription for drugs such as Sudafed, which contain pseudoephedrine. Some bills would apply to two similar decongestants. Police say efforts to keep the drugs out of the hands of meth cooks have failed, Goodnough writes, quoting Thomas Farmer, director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force, who is pushing for a prescription-only law along with most other law enforcement officials in the state: "It’s a no-brainer. This has got to be the next step." Meth-lab counts have risen sharply in some states as makers move to simpler "shake and bake" processes using 2-liter bottles.

The drug companies and retailers, often backed by major advertising campaigns, "say the measures would place an undue burden on cold and allergy sufferers," Goodnough writes. "They are promoting other bills that would help the police monitor pseudoephedrine sales with interstate electronic tracking." Joy Krieger, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which is fighting a prescription-only bill in Missouri said, "we can't change lives just to stop these weirdo people." (Read more)
For previous Rural Blog coverage of electronic tracking click here.

Animal-rights groups' photographic exposés prompt bill to ban taking images without consent

A bill designed to discourage animal-rights activists from taking pictures of farms passed its first hurdle in Florida last week, after considerable changes. The original bill made it a "first-degree felony charge — the same level for rape or murder — for anyone who took photos or video of a farm or its animals without the property owner's consent," Katie Sanders of the St. Petersburg Times reports. Under the original bill "photographers, journalists, law enforcement officers — even motorists pulling over to capture a pastoral roadside scene" could have been punished, Sanders writes.

The revised bill "provides exceptions for law enforcement officers and Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services agents conducting inspections or investigations," Sanders writes. "It also stipulates that photography would be illegal if it happened upon entering the property without written consent, so photographs by road or air are okay." The penalty was also down graded from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Even with the revisions, animal-rights groups are unhappy with the bill. "The amendment simply replaces one absurd bill with another absurd bill," said Jeff Kerr, general counsel of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "This bill would aid and abet criminal animal abuse." State Sen. Jim Norman, who proposed the bill, said he is trying to protect farmers from "unfair outside assaults" on their property rights. (Read more)

Farmers should "YouTube proof" their operations, Andy Vance writes for Feedstuffs. He says that doesn't just mean taking steps to prevent controversial videos. "More importantly, we need to YouTube-proof our farms and processing facilities because it’s the right thing to do," he writes. "We have a moral and ethical obligation to treat and handle our animals with the dignity and respect rightly due all living creatures." (Read more)

Eastern Livestock bankruptcy trustee files what he says will be only the first of several lawsuits

A lawsuit filed by a federal bankruptcy trustee alleges that an Eastern Livestock Co. branch manager deposited $1.24 million in checks in the days immediately following a bank's hold on the company's accounts. "According to court documents, Eastern Livestock employees signed over 28 checks to Lexington, Ky., branch manager Willie Downs instead of depositing them in the Fifth Third Bank account. Downs then endorsed and deposited the checks," Katie Micik of DTN reports. Trustee Jim Knauer said about half the checks cleared; he said many of those who wrote them probably filed stop-payment notices after word spread that Eastern had issued bad checks to cattle producers.

"Anytime you have a company that owes creditors and you take money from the company to pay someone else, that's fraud," Knauer told DTN. "That's especially true when the company is insolvent and doesn't have assets left to pay everyone." Knauer said the lawsuit is the first of several he is planning to file.

Fifth Third froze Eastern's accounts Nov. 2 "after uncovering an alleged check kiting scheme and as much as $2.5 billion in fictitious sales to related entities," and Knauer's investigation revealed the company had been writing checks for fictitious transactions since at least 2008, Micik reports. A lawsuit in Cincinnati alleges that Downs converted the checks criminally, and under Indiana law, the trustee could be entitled to three times the monetary damages, about $3.73 million -- in addition to recovering the $1.2 million plus interest," Micik writes. (Read more)

Southern farmers forsake food crops for cotton, despite growing global need for food

With worries of a global food crisis rising, farmers may be setting up an acreage war between crops used to feed and clothe the world's population as many plant "cotton in ground where they used to grow corn, soybeans or wheat," William Neuman of The New York Times reports. This change has been "spurred on by cotton prices that have soared as clothing makers clamor for more and poor harvests crimp supply," Nueman writes. (NYT photo by Matt Nager)

"There’s a lot more money to be made in cotton right now," Ramon Vela, a Texas Panhandle farmer, told Neuman. "The prices are the big thing. That’s the driving force." Webb Wallace, executive director of the Cotton and Grain Producers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, says the decision to follow the money behind cotton may have big implications. "It’s good for the farmer, but from a humanitarian perspective it’s kind of scary," he told Neuman. "Those people in poor countries that have a hard time affording food, they’re going to be even less able to afford it now."

In the middle of the last decade, as food prices rose and cotton prices remained low, many farmers switched from cotton to grains and other food crops, and corn production has been on the rise in recent years as ethanol demand helped drive up corn prices, Neuman writes. "This year, cotton prices are the highest they have been in years, luring farmers despite strong prices for other crops,." The Agriculture Department predicts Southern farmers will plant 12.8 million acres of upland cotton, a 19 percent increase from last year. The National Cotton Council expects substantial increases in all cotton-producing states, including large jumps in North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. (Read more)

Monday, March 28, 2011

List of 407 closed post offices is released

The U.S. Postal Service tried to keep secret its list of 407 post offices it has recently closed, but the Postal Regulatory Commission asked for the list and then made it public. The list, of "post office/station/branch suspensions" through Feb. 28, apparently had already been shared with members of Congress.

The list includes such distinctive names as Only, Tenn.; Oxbow, Maine; Delta City, Miss.; Vulcan, Mo.; Silver, Tex,; Port Byron, Ill.; Donnybrook, N.D.; Sweet Briar, Va.; Bob White, W.Va.; Rowdy, Hardburly and Yosemite, Ky. (they pronounce it YO-see-mite); and these branches or stations: Assinippi, a branch of Hanover, Mass.; Buttsville (Oxford), N.J., and Surprise (Earlton), N.Y.

While most of the offices appear to be rural, the list includes some notable urban locations: West Hollywood, Calif., and the United Nations and Wall Street stations in New York City. For a PDF of the list, click here.

Threatened end of Corporation for Public Broadcasting endangers rural community radio

Community radio stations in rural areas may have to cut programming or sign off, if Congress eliminates funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as House Republicans have voted, writes the general manager of one Appalachian radio station. WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Ky., is the station of Appalshop Inc. and serves 30 counties in rural Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and West Virginia. The station is "funded through listener support, business underwriting and the occasional grant to produce radio documentaries about Appalachia," Marcie Crim, WMMT's general manager, writes in an op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "We are not a National Public Radio affiliate, but like countless other community radio stations we receive funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that is critical to our survival."

Community radio stations, which often receive more than 40 percent of their funding from CPB grants and generally serve rural areas, people of color and Native American reservations, "will have to cut programming significantly and in some cases go completely dark" if CPB funding is cut, Crim writes. She notes WMMT is in danger of shortening its schedule to just a few hours a day, cutting all public affairs broadcasting or possibly going off the air all together.

Community stations provide essential public services. When a diesel spill polluted the North Fork of the Kentucky River in Whitesburg in February, the city waited to notify people in the affected area. "Without WMMT on the air telling our community of the danger, even more people would have continued to use the water," Crim writes. "We don't air NPR programming; we tell our listeners when their water is poisoned (which happens more often than you can imagine)."

Crim concludes, "Community radio is produced by and for our communities and we can't do it without the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. NPR may lose only 2 percent of its budget if CPB is defunded. However, whole communities will lose a vitally important local voice." (Read more)

Forum to focus on agricultural conservation policies in wake of expected budget cuts

The National Agriculture Landscapes Forum, hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, American Farmland Trust and Farm Foundation, will be held in Washington April 7-8 at the Metro Center. It will bring together "Capitol Hill, state and federal agency staff, local government and tribal officials, agriculture and conservation organizations, farmers and ranchers, and others concerned about the future of the nation’s agricultural landscape," says a release from the trust. The event is free, but pre-registration is required by Thursday, March 31.

"The goal of the forum is to provide a venue for key stakeholders to engage in honest dialogue about priorities for USDA’s national conservation program and the future of the agricultural landscape given multiple, often competing, demands on our land and water resources to produce everything from food, shelter and domestic energy, to economic development and ecosystem services," said Julia Freedgood, managing director of farmland and community initiatives for American Farmland Trust. Sponsors of the forum include Altria Group, CropLife America, DuPont, the National Association of Conservation Districts and The Nature Conservancy. (Read more)

Restrictions on gas drilling advance in Md., Tex.

Two states are moving toward more restraints on natural-gas drilling in the wake of concerns over possible water pollution from hydraulic fracturing operations. The Maryland House of Delegates "on Wednesday passed a bill that would essentially place a moratorium on drilling until the Maryland Department of the Environment completes a two-year study to determine whether it endangers drinking water and public health, as some environmentalists in nearby states that allow drilling charge," Darryl Fears of The Washington Post reports. A companion bill in the state Senate is expected to face a tougher road as gas industry lobbyists work against it.

"We’re not going to be like other states that drilled first and asked questions later," Democratic Delegare Heather R. Mizeur, sponsor of the legislation, told the Post. "We understand that second chances are expensive, so we should slow down and take the time to do this right the first time."

Fears notes that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said earlier this month he was considering federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing. "We are going to have a huge backlash . . . from the American public if we continue to inject chemicals and fluids into the ground without people knowing what it is that’s being injected," he told the House Natural Resources Committee. (Read more)

Texas, the nation's leading gas-drilling state, may require companies to disclose drilling fluids. A bill, which has won praise from industry and environmental groups, "would create a website containing information about the chemicals used in each well," Kate Galbraith of The Texas Tribune reports. David Blackmon, the Texas state committee chairman for America's Natural Gas Alliance, said with a few changes the bill could be a good way to address what the industry considers are misplaced concerns about hydraulic fracturing. (Read more)

USDA sued over its OK of Roundup Ready alfalfa

The Center for Food Safety, a group critical of genetically modified crops, has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in federal court in San Francisco, challenging the USDA's January approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa as unlawful. Ken Anderson of Brownfield Network reports, "The center alleges the approval is based on faulty information, and that genetically modified alfalfa will damage the organic industry because it could contaminate conventional or organic alfalfa." (Read more)

"This is the second time the USDA has been sued over its approval of Roundup Ready alfalfa, which is genetically engineered (GE) to tolerate glyphosate, a popular herbicide commonly sold under the Monsanto brand name Roundup," reports Mike Ludwig for Truthout. The concern is "that Roundup Ready alfalfa will increase reliance on already overused herbicides like Roundup, encourage the spread of herbicide-resistant 'superweeds' and contaminate organic and conventional alfalfa with Monsanto transgenes through cross-pollination," writes Ludwig. This could "threaten the production of organic meat and milk," since alfalfa is used for livestock feed, Ludwig opines. (Read more)

Interactive 2010 U.S. census map available

The New York Times has made an interactive 2010 U.S. census map available. Click here to view population data for individual counties or view the data by state. The map below, showing population trends, is not interactive, but all those on the Times' site are.