Saturday, April 09, 2011

Future of land-grant university system to be topic of Farm Foundation Forum in D.C. Tuesday

The future of the land-grant university system, a key sponsor of public service for rural America, will be the topic of the next Farm Foundation Forum on Tuesday morning, April 12, at the National Press Club in Washington.

The panel of presenters will include Daniel Dooley, vice president of the University of California; George Norton of Virginia Tech, co-author of "Investing in a Better Future through Public Agricultural Research," and Nicole Ballenger, associate vice president of academic affairs at the University of Wyoming and study director for the National Research Council's Board on Agriculture report, "Future of the Land-Grant Colleges of Agriculture." The discussion will be moderated by former U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Texas.

The forum will be held from 9 to 11 a.m. Coffee will be available at 8:30 a.m. The press club is at 529 14th St. NW. There is no charge to participate, but advance registration is requested. Click here to register.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Budget bill would shut broadband loan program USDA wants to restart; expert cites rural need

The continuing resolution to keep the federal government from shutting down at midnight tonight "will wipe out the Broadband Loan Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the present federal fiscal year," Stimulating Broadband reports. The program, started in 2002, had been suspended while the administration used a much larger pool of economic-stimulus money, but USDA officials had planned to restart it with money left over from the 2008 Farm Bill.

Defending federal investment in broadband for rural areas, Sharon Strover of the University of Texas writes for the Daily Yonder, "Rural communities will be economically crippled without broadband access." About 68 percent of U.S. households have broadband, but in rural areas the figure is only 58 percent. Some of the difference stems from fewer people buying available service, but many places still lack high-speed service. (USDA photo via Yonder: Pine Telephone Co. in Oklahoma brings broadband to the Choctaw Nation with federal funds)

Strover, a national expert on rural broadband, says "Broadband will not bring immediate economic transformation to rural America. But regions that lack broadband will be crippled. Having broadband may not necessarily mean a sharp increase in jobs; however, not having broadband will probably mean fewer jobs . . . because Internet connectivity increasingly is necessary for many political, economic and social transactions."

Strover, who researches the impact of broadband on rural areas, acknowledges that its impact can be difficult to measure and will not be as great as that of rural electrification, but advises, "This technology does offer the prospect for profound changes in the future, changes we cannot begin to foresee." (Read more)

Study: Rural transport means more than roads

Rural areas need more flexibility in choosing options for investment in transportation infrastructure, in order to maintain strong economies and quality of life, says a new study from the Rural Policy Research Institute. "The report shows that a variety of transportation investments, including transit, vanpools, walking and biking paths and roads and highways, are critical to the economic development and well-being of our nation's smaller communities and rural areas," RUPRI says in a news release.

The report includes several recommendations for Congress to consider before reauthorizing the federal surface transportation bill: support local engagement in planning and decision making, encourage innovation and integration, shift resources to address most pressing rural needs, create integrated regional transportation planning and implementation and support greater attention to rural "place making," through quality-of-life investments.

"Transportation investments are critical to the future of America's small towns and cities, and the rural regions surrounding them," RUPRI President and CEO Charles W. Fluharty said in the release. "With public resources growing ever scarcer, federal policy must now give these regions the same latitude to set their own priorities, and build collaborative and innovative approaches to achieve them, that our nation's metropolitan regions have long benefited from." (Read more)

Senator fears ethanol industry's efforts to help itself are blocking way for next-generation fuels

At least one senator has voiced concerns that the ethanol industry's drive to increase its market is blocking the way for development of the next generation of transportation fuels. Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, "chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, worries that building an infrastructure for ethanol could discourage the development of synthetic versions of gasoline, diesel and other conventional fuels," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports.

Those fuels could be distributed through existing pipelines and service stations, while infrastructure improvements are needed to handle higher blends of ethanol. Such "drop-in" fuels are the "best fit for the country" in the medium to long term, Bingaman said at a hearing Thursday on a proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa that "would require automakers to equip new cars and trucks to run on both ethanol and gasoline and require service stations to install pumps that can dispense varying blends of the biofuel," Brasher writes. Bingaman noted, "We should not go so far in locking our infrastructure into ethanol that we prevent different, and perhaps even better, renewable fuels from coming to market in the future."

While both ethanol and drop-in fuels can be made from non-food feedstocks, Iowa State University research "partly funded by oil refiner ConocoPhillips suggests the drop-in fuels could be made less expensively than cellulosic ethanol through a process known as pyrolysis," Brasher writes. The ethanol industry argues drop-in fuel availability for consumers is still years away. Without policy changes, like the Environmental Protection Agency increasing the allotted ethanol blend in gasoline, the ethanol industry "is fast running out of a market for its product even as federal biofuel mandates are continuing to increase under a 2007 law," Brasher writes. (Read more)

Farmer-writer has site for online cattle sales

A couple in Buffalo, Ky., created, a virtual stockyard, as an economical way to connect cattle buyers and sellers in the South, Linda Ireland reports for the LaRue County Herald News.

Limousin cattle farmer Lanny Vincent, co-founder of the website and a sports correspondent for the weekly newspaper, told Ireland there is a similar website for cattle farmers in the West. Sellers on Vincent's site can list cattle for sale at no charge or pay $25 to include a photo. Buyers can browse the listings for free. Vincent collects fees from the seller only if the cattle are sold through the website, Ireland writes.

N.D. wind farm canceled due to bird concerns

Bird-advocacy groups scored a victory in their ongoing battle with wind power companies when Xcel Energy Inc. announced that it had canceled a $400 million North Dakota wind farm. "The 100-turbine project was expected to generate as much as 150 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power about 60,000 homes," Scott Streater of Environment & Energy Daily reports. The project stalled after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised concerns about its effect on federally protected whooping cranes and piping plovers.

"Though the wind farm was to be sited on private land and required no federal land-use permits, it remained subject to laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act," Streater writes. FWS recommended project planners create a habitat conservation plan for the migratory birds, but "apparently they didn't feel that was something they needed to do," said Jeff Towner, field supervisor for the agency's North Dakota field office in Bismarck. In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Xcel said FWS's concerns led to "uncertainty in the cost and timing in mitigating this impact," which in turn prompted the decision to cancel the project. (Read more, subscription required)

Kentucky governor visits communities of strip-mining foes who occupied his office in Feb.

Responding to an invitation from strip-mining opponents who staged a sit-in at his office in February, Gov. Steve Beshear, right, visited residents of Floyd and Harlan counties in Eastern Kentucky this week. "Members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth showed him streams and homes damaged by surface mining and asked him to take a stand against mine permits proposed for areas of Black Mountain around Lynch," Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. The state Energy and Environment Cabinet has declared "frivolous" a petition to declare the "lands unsuitable for mining." (KFTC photo: Beshear examines contaminated municipal water)

Lynch City Councilman Taylor Hall said, "This town, if it dies, it can't be replaced, it can't be simulated, it can't be restored. ... If they are allowed to take these mountains, this town is gone, people's lives are gone, history is gone." KFTC member Doug Doerrfeld told Hjalmarson the meeting was a "positive first step," but he would have liked the Democratic governor to take a stronger stand for Lynch. ""I don't think he really gave clear answers," Doerrfeld said. Beshear said he would meet with locals again as the permits and petitions progressed. (Read more) For KFTC's detailed report on the governor's visits, click here.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Reid: Budget deal blocked by GOP policy agenda, including items that would help coal industry

UPDATE, April 8: "Democratic senators confirmed that the dozen-plus EPA limits that House Republicans attached to their 2011 spending plan would be replaced with mandates to study the economic impact of agency rules," Environment & Energy News reports. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told reporters, "There is no rider on mountaintop mining removal. There is a study to look at the economic impacts of EPA regulation."

If the federal government shuts down tomorrow night for lack of spending authority, one cause may be disagreement over Republican efforts to rein in the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to regulate mountaintop-removal coal mines, greenhouse gases and toxic air pollutants.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today that the Republican policy agenda is preventing passage of House Resolution 1, the spending bill, Elana Schor of Greenwire reports. "More than a dozen provisions . . . would block forward movement on Obama administration environmental priorities, including EPA regulations on greenhouse gases, air toxics and water pollution from coal-mining operations."

"House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has said he is still defending all the H.R. 1 limitations on funding in his negotiations over keeping the federal government running through the end of fiscal 2011, and some Republicans have said they would not support a bill that did not place a moratorium on the EPA rules," Jean Chemnick reports for Environment & Energy News. Rogers represents almost all of the East Kentucky Coal Field.

House Republicans are "preparing to pass a bill later today that would keep the government open for one week while funding the Pentagon until fiscal 2012. Republicans consider that move a good-faith attempt to avoid a shutdown, but Democrats and the White House have ruled it out and called on Boehner's party to drop its focus on the policy riders in its continuing resolution." A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner defended the policy push, saying "Americans are concerned not just about how much we're spending, but how we're spending it." (Read more, subscription required)

Small town targeting Amish horse manure

A type of vehicle waste that is not normally regulated is causing problems in one Western Kentucky town. When local Amish come to Auburn, Ky., population about 1,000, around 20 miles west of Bowling Green, "their horses leave droppings in the streets" and some residents are complaining about the mess and smell, Pam Cassady of The Daily News in Bowling Green reports. "City leaders are hoping an animal excrement ordinance will help clear the air," Cassady writes. (Daily News photo by Alex Slitz)

Mayor Dewey Roche told Cassady that when the Amish moved to the area they agreed to clean up after their horses when in town, but that hasn't happened. "They say they want to be part of the community," Roche said. "And we want to get along." The city's animal-excrement ordinance only covers dogs, but at a City Council meeting in March members voted to start amending it to cover all animals.

Roche says some Amish residents, unhappy with the vote, told him they would take their business to nearby Franklin, in another county. Glen Sears, owner of a local hardware store, said he would hate to lose the business of the Amish and said if the city is going to force them to clean up after the horses, it needs to also enforce the dog provision. The council is scheduled to have first reading of the new ordinance Monday, April 11. (Read more)

Tea Party seeing success in school elections

Federal and state elections are not the only political races influenced by the loosely organized Tea Party. "Though difficult to quantify, the same forces that swept conservative candidates into office on the congressional and state levels appear to be working their way down to some local races," Christina A. Samuels of Education Week reports. In Wake County, North Carolina, voters elected four conservative-leaning members to its nine-member school board in 2009. While the board election is nonpartisan, the new members "garnered much of their support from voters displeased with a school assignment policy based on socioeconomic diversity, including some conservative community organizations that viewed the policy as social engineering," Samuels writes.

In March 2010 the new members voted to do away with the assignment policy, drawing "criticism from the district’s accrediting agency for high schools, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan," Samuels writes. In North Carolina's Gaston County, newly elected board member Mark A. Stephens was listed "by the Tea Party of Greater Gaston County as a candidate who aligns with the group’s priorities of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets," Samuels writes. "Because of the political climate, people were a lot more interested in everything," the candidate said.

In Baraboo, Wis., local Tea Party organizer John Meegan received the most votes in a six-person race for three school-board spots. Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says the nature of conservatism may be changing on school boards. "Given how much of the conservative criticism has been the need to reassert local governance and preserve community values, it would make sense” to see local Tea Party organizations focusing on school races, he told Samuels. (Read more)

Texas accelerates toward 85 m.p.h. speed limit

UPDATE, April 16: Texas highway officials could raise the speed limit to 75 miles per hour on divided, non-interstate highways in rural areas, under a bill passed by the state House, Terrence Stutz reports for the Dallas Morning News.

The Texas House has approved a bill that would increase the speed limit to 85 miles per hour on some stretches of road. The measure was part of a larger transportation bill that passed Wednesday on a voice vote. "It would authorize the Texas Department of Transportation to raise the speed limit on designated lanes or entire stretches of roadway after doing engineering and traffic studies," The Associated Press reports. Texas and several other states with long, rural stretches of interstate highways have 80 m.p.h. limits, but none post 85.

The bill is opposed by some auto insurers, who cite safety concerns. But Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, who introduced the bill, said, "They have high-speed roadways in Europe, and there could be some merit in having some of those highways in Texas." (Read more) Kolkhorst is from Brenham, population just over 12,000, about midway between Austin and Houston on US 290. Her trip to the capital takes one hour and 38 minutes, according to Mapquest (click on map for larger version):

National parks making food suppliers buy local

The National Park Service announced yesterday that it will require its food suppliers to meet health and sustainability standards, including buying local products. "The policy will affect concessions in all 394 park units as each concession operator's contract comes up for renewal," Debra Kahn of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "There are more than 100 food vendors operating in the parks."

NPS Director Jon Jarvis, speaking at the "Healthy Parks, Healthy People" conference in California, said "Our strategy nationally for all of our concessioners will become a standard that they will serve the choices of healthy food, locally grown and good for you, as part of the national park experience." The policy is based on the Muir Woods Cafe in Muir Woods National Monument north of San Francisco, "which revamped its contract process to prioritize organic ingredients, local sourcing and healthy menu options," Kahn writes. (Read more, subscription required)

West Virginia enacts first statute for reporter's privilege; Arkansas expands its law to TV, online

A pair of states have strengthened the privilege afforded to journalists for protecting confidential sources. This week West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the state's shield bill into law, making West Virginia the 40th state to provide statutory protection for subpoenaed reporters. Nine other states have protection in case law, as West Virginia already did. Only Wyoming lacks the protection.

"The measure provides journalists with a nearly absolute reporter’s privilege to refuse to disclose the identity of confidential sources, and documents or other information that could identify confidential sources, in civil, criminal, administrative and grand jury proceedings," Kristen Rasmussen of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press writes. Disclosure of that information can be compelled only if it is "necessary to prevent imminent death, serious bodily injury or unjust incarceration." West Virginia's law defines a reporter as "someone who gathers and disseminates news to the public for a portion of the person’s livelihood, suggesting that freelance journalists would be protected, while unpaid bloggers would not." Presumably, though, bloggers who makle money from advertising would be covered. The law specifically covers unpaid student journalists. (Read more)

Arkansas first passed its shield law in 1937, when television was still pretty much in the laboratory. Last month, state lawmakers amended the law to protect TV and online reporters. The bill was approved unanimously in the House and the Senate, and the law will go into effect 90 days after the legislature officially adjourns. Michael Tilley, co-owner and editor of The City Wire, an online publication, contacted a state senator to consider amending the law. He told Kacey Dreamer of the Reporters Committee that after consulting with lawyers and legislators they decided "It never hurts to take the gray area out of the law." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Education and agriculture secretaries address 300 4-H Club members at national conference

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, left, addressed 300 4-H Club members from 47 states or territories and Canada as a part of the National 4-H Conference in Bethesda, Md., this week. A child from your area may have attended.

The focus of the unusual joint appearance was "community service, valuing education and embracing positive health and nutrition habits," Allison Ekhardt, writer for USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture, reports on the USDA Blog.

Vilsack, right, encouraged the 4-Hers to host roundtables to address issues that are important to them and their communities and make a commitment to healthier living through programs like the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award Challenge, which "recognizes those who log their recommended physical activity for six consecutive weeks, five days a week (60 minutes for kids, 30 for adults)," Eckhardt writs. (Read more)

Duncan said 4-H could partner with schools to improve their performance and reduce drop out rates. He said the organization and the Cooperative Extension Service, which oversees it, "can work with schools to create programs that are specific to the school community's needs, including financial literacy, parenting, healthy living, food and nutrition, science literacy, robotics, and civic engagement to bridge formal and non-formal learning experiences," the Blog reports. (Read more)

Two environmental groups grade banks on mountaintop-removal lending policies

Several banks in the U.S. and Europe have developed lending policies restricting financing of mountaintop-removal coal mines, but the effectiveness of the policies is squestioned by those opposed to MTR. In the second annual review of the policies, the Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club grade 10 banks "based on the strength of the performance threshold, scope of due diligence and public transparency," the network reports.

"The 'best practice' as recommended in the grading scale is a clear exclusion policy on commercial lending and investment banking services for all coal companies who practice mountaintop removal coal extraction," the network says. Only Credit Suisse met that criterion, receiving an A-minus, the highest grade given. Wells Fargo got a B-plus.

Deutsche Bank and GE Capital Corp. were the only banks to receive Fs. Citi and UBS both got D's on the report card, while Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and PNC each received a C, plus or minus. (Read more)

Local band's music to be part of 'Justified' tonight

FX's hit show "Justified," set partially in Harlan County, Kentucky, will have a little local flavor in tonight's episode, with five songs from the county's Cumberland River Band. An instrumental version of one song was in the opening scene of the March 2 episode, but tonight's will include original versions of songs "Friend I'm Fine," "Let the Moonshine Flow," "Wild Berries," "My Dad" and "Ridge Runner," Nola Sizemore of the Harlan Daily Enterprise reports.

"Privileged and humbled are a couple of ways we feel right now," upright bass player Joseph Jones told Sizemore. "Everybody in the band hopes we’re making Harlan County proud. It’s a great honor to get the chance to represent this great place that we call home." The band also includes James Dean on banjo and vocals, Dustin Middleton on mandolin and vocals, Jamie Stewart on dobro and Andy Buckner on guitar and vocals. The band recently signed a record deal with Rural Rhythm Records and plans an album later this year. (Read more)

Industry study: Water systems knew of likely carcinogen in groundwater sources but kept mum

U.S. water systems failed to inform the public of the presence of a likely carcinogen in their groundwater supplies despite knowing it was there for seven years, says the Environmental Working Group in conjunction with its release of research on hexavalent chromium. The American Water Works Association Research Foundation study was based on data from 341 water sample tests from 189 water utilities in 41 states and "focused on hexavalent chromium in groundwater sources nationwide," Jeremy P. Jacobs of Greenwire reports for The New York Times.

While most of the hexavalent chromium results were found to be under federal limits, the study "concluded that conventional filtering systems used by water utilities in 2004 were typically ineffective in addressing hexavalent chromium," also known as chromium-6.

Hexavalent chromium was the subject of activist Erin Brockovich's campaign against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in Hinkley, Calif., that resulted in a $333 million settlement in 1996 and was later adapted into a feature film staring Julia Roberts. "I'd like to say I'm surprised at the utilities' silence, but I'm not," Brockovich said in a statement. "Instead of treating their customers like adults and sharing the test results with them, they shelved the findings, letting folks continue to drink water for years that could contain chromium-6."

The Environmental Protection Agency last September "issued a draft review that said hexavalent chromium in tap water was 'likely carcinogenic to humans'," Jacobs writes. EPA says it hopes to complete the final review of the chemical, which could result in a change in drinking-water standards, by the end of the year. California already lowered its drinking water standard for hexavalent chromium from 0.06 parts per billion to 0.02 ppb in January. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Six added to Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame

Bill Bartleman, left, was The Paducah Sun's main government-and-politics reporter for 35 years, but the stories he enjoyed doing most for the 25,000-circulation newspaper were "stories about average people in the community," he said today as he joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. He said L.J. Hortin, a journalism professor at Murray State University, reminded students that everything they wrote was important to someone, so "It doesn't matter what you write about," Bartleman said. "It's probably going into somebody's scrapbook."

Bartleman was one of six inductees this year. Others from rural journalism were Robert Carter, right, former publisher of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, who was instrumental in passing a state open-records law as president of the Kentucky Press Association; and the late Al Dix, who was publisher of The State Journal in the capital of Frankfort, population 25,000. Dix, below, "kept news columns fair, held officials and institutions accountable, and gave free rein to editors and editorial writers," his plaque biography says. "Confidant of state officials and community leaders, but also a reporter’s publisher."

Other inductees were Jackie Hays Bickel, a Paris, Tenn., native and longtime Louisville TV anchor who got her start at Murray State and Paducah; Ed Shadburne of Louisville, former broadcast executive in that city, Nashville and several small towns; and Tom Loftus, longtime Frankfort bureau chief for The Courier-Journal of Louisville. The Hall of Fame is sponsored by the alumni association of the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. To download a PDF of the biographies on the inductees' plaques, click here.

Wind power is sucking wind, so to speak

After years of growth, the U.S. wind industry has hit a series of major roadblocks. The industry is "reeling from lackluster electricity demand in many mature economies, rock-bottom prices for competing natural gas in the U.S. and uncertainty throughout much of the world about government subsidies," Jeffrey Ball of The Wall Street Journal reports. But analysts say wind power is the biggest and cheapest of the renewable-energy sources now attracting major investment, and it should be boosted by the uncertain outlook for nuclear energy, Ball writes. (WSJ chart)

Wind power generated about 2 percent of electricity in 2009, the most recent year for which U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics are available. "Some day, government studies say, wind could produce 20 percent of electricity in the U.S.," Ball writes. To reach that goal the industry would need massive transmission lines to move the power from windy areas, but those lines remain in limbo. "Short of building huge new high-voltage lines, one way to increase wind power would be to devise an economic way to store wind power so it is usable even after the breezes die down," Ball writes, noting "entrepreneurs are working on a host of options, including batteries, but prices remain high." (Read more)

In North Dakota, which has been labeled the "Saudi Arabia of wind," plans for a 345-kilowatt, 270-mile-long transmission line have met resistance from some landowners. Among their issues is the loss of wind rights. Landowners fear the transmission line would take up too much space to allow them to lease their property to wind developers in the future, Joey Peters of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "Generally, one wind turbine to another turbine is a 2,000-foot distance," said Chad Weckerly, who sits on the board of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. "So if you're the lucky landowner that gets the transmission line on your property, it's not possible to get wind turbines on your land."

The Minnesota-based Minnkota Power Cooperative, which is behind the project, has offered some landowners a one-time $37,000 payment for every mile of line, but landowners say they should receive annual payments. While voicing their concerns, Weckerly and the North Dakota Farm Bureau caution they are not against the project. "We're not going to stand in the way of projects like this," Jeff Missling, the organization's state executive director, told Peters. "The biggest thing is making sure our landowners receive just compensations." (Read more, subscription required)  Map of proposed line:

Conservative group drafts resolutions for state lawmakers fighting EPA greenhouse-gas power

In November we reported the American Legislative Exchange Council was connecting private industry with state legislators to write legislation affecting immigration and the private-prison industry. Now ALEC has turned its attention to climate change by helping lawmakers craft legislation aimed at curbing the Environmental Protection Agency's power, Amanda Peterka of ClimateWire reports for The New York Times. "The Washington, D.C.-based group claims credit for advancing legislation that it says has undermined climate science and environmental regulation in several states since the late 1990s," Peterka writes.

ALEC has a private-enterprise board that includes representatives of Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil Corp., Peabody Energy Corp., the Salt River Project and Energy Future Holdings Corp. "At least eight state legislative bodies have adopted resolutions this year urging Congress to limit EPA's power to regulate greenhouse gases -- all of which came directly from ALEC model legislation," Peterka writes. "Legislators in more than 10 other states have introduced similar resolutions." Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Montana and Iowa have legislation on the table calling for their withdrawal from regional climate initiatives.

In February Virginia Republican Delegate Will Morefield "admitted that his resolution declaring U.S. EPA's effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions a 'regulatory train wreck' was written by the coal industry," Peterka writes. ALEC spokeswoman Raegan Weber told Peterka the corporate representatives and their companies are among a few of more than 300 private-sector members. "They are not running our organization," she said. The group was founded in 1973 by conservative activists and legislators who said they saw a liberal tilt in the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Read more)

A year later, lessons from 29-fatality explosion at Massey mine in W.Va. are still emerging

One year after the explosion at a Massey Energy coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va., killed 29 miners, mine-safety regulators are working to use lessons from the disaster to prevent similar events from happening in the future. Joe Main, head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and an assistant labor secretary, says "many lessons in safety practices were learned at the expense of the victims, and his agency has methodically implemented them," Mannix Porterfield of the The Register-Herald in Beckley, W.Va., reports. While noting MSHA was only looking to report the evidence from its investigation not blame, Main told Porterfield "There’s one thing that is a matter of fact here. Massey Energy was running that mine, was responsible for making sure that health and safety measures were in place to protect those miners. It’s their mine we’re finding these conditions at." (Read more) (Register-Herald photo of memorial in Whitesville, W.Va.)

Former MSHA head Davitt McAteer, whom then-West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin appointed to conduct an independent investigation of the disaster, plans to release a report detailing failures of company safety systems and regulatory oversight leading up to the explosion within the next few weeks, Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal reports. "It is without question that the prevention systems failed, and that includes company inspections and government inspections," McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, told Maher. Massey Chairman Bobby Inman told Maher he believed the explosion was a "natural disaster." (Read more)
Nearly 20 hours of recorded emergency radio traffic and phone calls, as well as printed 911 logs and transcripts, and notes from the command center at the mine documenting the disaster response following the explosion, show "a slow and tepid initial response to the dire emergency," Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports. McAteer says the documentsshow two failures. "One is timely reporting of an extremely serious situation," he told Berkes. "And second is the accuracy of that initial report, which underplayed the circumstances of what was going on." (Read more)
The documents include handwritten lists of miners, indicating that officials at Massey had trouble determining who was underground at the time of the explosion. "One list suggests miners who died in the explosion were working with miners who weren't even there," Berkes writes. The confusion should never have happened, McAteer told Berkes. "You mean to tell me that in today's age, where computers can tell you within seconds the level of production off a longwall and where that coal is moving along the conveyor belt, we can't keep track of people? That's unacceptable." (Read more)

The disaster promptd MSHA to start unannounced "impact inspections," 39 of which have been conducted in Kentucky and 32 in West Virginia, Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "There are more outlaw operators in Eastern Kentucky than anywhere in the country," Lexington mine-safety lawyer Tony Oppegard told Hjalmarson. (Read more)
Massey is idling production at its 60 underground mines today to honor the victims of the disaster, and will hold a company-wide moment of silence at 3:02 p.m. EDT. Nick Brockman of The Register-Herald reports on the various memorials planned throughout the region, and Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette has ongoing coverage of the anniversary at his blog "Coal Tattoo." You can read The Register-Herald's coverage of the anniversary here.

Volunteer firefighters' ranks drop 12% in 5 years

The decline in the number of volunteer firefighters, who provide most of the fire protection in rural areas, is continuing. Nationally, their ranks declined 12 percent from 2005 to 2010, Scott Mullen, president of the Oregon Volunteer Firefighters Association, told Chuck Anderson of The Oregoinian in Portland, who writes, "Because rural residents depend on volunteers, fire officials throughout Oregon are struggling as the ranks age and spots go unfilled with younger recruits."

"Old-timers still volunteer," Mullen told Anderson. "The time demands and requirements for training weren't as great when they started. Young people are having a tougher time finding the time that needs to be put in." Anderson explains, "The era has long passed when all a recruit needed was to know how to find the nozzle end of a fire hose and aim it at the flames. Today the state's training requirements are no easier for volunteers than for career firefighters." (Oregonian photo by Bemjamin Brink: Ron Maruska, a volunteer firefighter for three years, at a recent training session.)

Other reasons: fewer people willing and able to do the physical labor involved in firefighting; more two-income households with children in school; and, as we reported in 2009, more rural residents driving longer distances to and from work, making them less available. (Read more)

Monday, April 04, 2011

As states debate strict immigration bills, farmers oppose them and call for federal reform instead

Agricultural interests are leading the opposition to Arizona-like immigration bills in several states, The Wall Street Journal reports. "Farmers in states from Florida to Indiana are pressuring—and in some cases persuading—state politicians to rethink proposed legislation that would authorize crackdowns on illegal immigration," Cameron McWhirter and Jennifer Levitz write. "They argue that the legislation will drive Mexican workers out of their states, and that there aren't enough American workers willing to pick crops."

The farmers are calling for federal-level immigration reform, "which wouldn't favor one state over another," McWhirter and Levitz report. The National Conference of State Legislatures says at least 25 states are considering crackdowns on illegal immigration. "Nobody wants illegal immigrants, but when you get down to the reality of the situation, farmers have to have workers to do the job," Roberta, Ga., peach and pecan farmer Al Pearson told the reporters, who write that his view is "The current federal system, involving approvals from multiple agencies, is slow and can't process enough legal workers for the state's large agricultural industry."

"There is no farm in this county that could continue without Mexican labor," Robert Ray, a Crawford County farmer and former head of the Georgia House Agriculture Committee. Still, some lawmakers aren't buying the farmers' argument. "I think the dirty little secret in agriculture is that farmers intentionally hire illegal immigrants, and they hide behind the Washington, D.C., gridlock as an excuse to justify their lawbreaking," Indiana Republican State Sen. Mike Delph told the Journal. (Read more)

'Rural sourcing' brings online jobs to small towns

Some businesses, leery of hiring full-time employees, move jobs to rural communities in the United States instead of other countries. "Rural sourcing" first gained media attention several years ago. Now, as economic conditions improve, the trend is growing again, Rieva Lesonsky, president and founder of small-business consulting firm GrowBiz Media, reports for Small Business Trends.

New research from oDesk, an online global employment platform, reveals "Small towns are outperforming their big-city counterparts in both online work activity and the number of hours worked per contractor," Lesonsky writes. The report notes small towns with populations under 15,000 are "keeping pace with large cities in terms of the number of online workers per capita" and "have proportionally higher 'actively working' online populations in terms of hours worked per online contractor," Lesonsky writes. (Read more)

State budget squeezes push some state lawmakers off tough-on-crime bandwagon

National incarceration costs have soared from "$12 billion in 1988 to more than $50 billion by 2008," The Associated Press reports, forcing many conservatives to reconsider their "tough-on-crime era that lead to stiffer sentences, overcrowded prisons and bloated corrections budgets."

"Conseratives have led the charge for more prisons and tougher sentencing, but now they realize they need to be just as tough on criminal justice spending," Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States, told AP.

With Pew's help, some states have passed sentencing reform proposals and at least 22 are currently considering them, AP reports: "The proposals vary by state, but the hallmarks include ways to reduce sentences for lower-level offenders, direct some offenders to alternative sentencing programs, give judges more sentencing discretion and smooth the transition for released prisoners."

The proposed sentencing laws have law-and-order politicians and activists against tougher sentencing in tense agreement. "Everyone is looking at the bottom line — where can we cut?" Angelyn Frazer, state legislative affairs director for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told AP. "And if they can cut to make sure that some people can come home earlier and they don't have to serve these long, draconian sentences, that's great."

Others, like Jim Reams, a prosecutor in New Hampshire's Rockingham County, tend to disagree with the reform plans. "The budget crises are being converted into a public-safety crisis," Reams told AP. "Crime rates have fallen in nearly every state ... and we're probably going to see crime rates go back up again." (Read more)

In some states, such as Kentucky, local officials are concerned that reforms will reduce their jails' lucrative business of housing felons for the state and increase their local burden of housing misdemenants, Ronnie Ellis of CNHI News Service reports for The Morehead News.

Last week's most-read stories on The Rural Blog

The most-accessed stories on The Rural Blog last week, based on clicks to individual stories and not including clicks to the blog as a whole, which account for most of its readership:
List of 407 closed post offices is released
‘Coal’ TV show being previewed in Appalachia
Interactive 2010 U.S. Census map available
'Coal' show fails to give broader view of industry

Scientists at a loss for solutions, fear ecological impacts, as white-nose syndrome moves west

Since white-nose syndrome was first discovered in New York bats four years ago it has spread as far west as Oklahoma and killed an estimated 1 million bats. "A majority of the dead were little brown bats, which have lost an estimated 20 percent of their population in the northeastern United States over the last four years," Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times reports. "The fungus seems to prefer the 25 species of hibernating bats, but each of the 45 species of bats in the United States and Canada may be susceptible to white-nose syndrome." A similar fungal growth has long been observed on bats in Europe.

"It is unbelievably sad and disheartening, and we can't seem to move fast enough to get ahead of it," said U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist LeAnn White. "We may be looking at phenomenal losses across the country with unknown ecological consequences." The loss of bats may have severe economic implications; a recent study published in Science estimated the value of pest control provided by bats was at least $3.7 billion nationwide, Sahagun writes.

With the disease continuing its westward march, Thomas Kunz and Jonathan Reichard of Boston University's Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology are urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the little brown bat as endangered. Solutions to curb the spread may bring about even worse complications. "Scientists have considered using fungicides, but studies have shown they could kill other microbes in caves," Sahagun writes. Placing heaters in the caves could raise the bats' body temperatures to a level that might prevent the growth of the fungus but would disrupt their hibernation.

"Killing infected animals would slow the spread of the disease but would not eliminate it because of the complexity of bat life," Sahagun writes. Tom Hallam of National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis at the University of Tennessee explained, "It would be all but impossible to find and kill every infected bat. Yet, because of the size of bat colonies and the many arenas in which they interact — reproduction, hibernation, swarming, mother and pup activities — it would only take one infected bat to start it all over again." (Read more) (Times video)

Early research by major skeptic of government-backed studies supports global warming

In the debate over global warming and climate change, it seems rare that one side manages to convince the other of anything, but now one skeptic of government-sponsored climate studies says his  preliminary research supports the prevailing view that the earth is warming.

University of California-Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller recently released data to support the prevailing global warming view. Muller started the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project "to address what he called 'the legitimate concerns' of skeptics who believe that global warming is exaggerated," Margot Roosevelt of the Los Angeles Times reports. That got him called to a Congressional hearing controlled by Republicans, at which Muller unexpectedly said his preliminary findings showed "a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups."

While Muller's findings are based on just 2 percent of the total expected data, he called "excellent" the research "of the three principal groups that have analyzed the temperature trends underlying climate science," Roosevelt reports. "The Berkeley project's biggest private backer, at $150,000, is the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation," Roosevelt writes, noting "oil billionaires Charles and David Koch are the nation's most prominent funders of efforts to prevent curbs on the burning of fossil fuels." Muller told Congress that estimates of human-caused warming still need to be "improved" and further data-crunching "could bring our current agreement into disagreement." (Read more)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Daily Yonder offers original rural journalism

Our friends at the Daily Yonder got a nice write-up recently from the folks at Columbia Journalism Review, in The News Frontier Database. "The Daily Yonder began in 2007, primarily as a response to a nationwide reduction in news delivery for rural communities," Chris Benz wrote. "Daily Yonder contributors are often simply rural Americans willing to put pen to paper," and the Yonder allows rural newspapers to reprint its stories without charge.

The Yonder and we are first cousins, meaning we have the same "grandparents," a cadre of people concerned about rural issues and how they are addressed in national, regional and local news media. The Rural Blog started in 2004 at the suggestion of Bill Bishop, left, a Kentucky native, Texas journalist and adviser to the freshly founded Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. In 2007 Bill and his wife, Julie Ardery, started the Yonder for the Center for Rural Strategies.

The Yonder emphasizes original journalism and is aimed at a general audience, while The Rural Blog is an aggregator designed to bring story ideas, sources and approaches to rural journalists, and sometimes those stories come from the Yonder. We both deal in "analysis of national government news from a rural perspective," as Benz puts it, and we both steer clear of ideological agendas.

“We try to get local stories that tell a national story,” Bill told CJR. “Online journalism is fragmented and plays to its crowd. We wanted a place where people weren’t separated by ideology or geography.” (Read more)

Massey's avoidance of serious, direct punishment is an allegory for many extractive industries

The Rural Blog has published scores of items about Massey Energy, the company that had the largest number of coal-mine fatalties from 2000 to 2009 and lost 29 miners in one explosion almost year ago. The company is being sold to Alpha Natural Resources, but it remains one of America's leading examples of how extractive industries use legal, political and business strategies to limit accountability for their actions. (Array File photo from Gazette)

This is an issue beyond Central Appalachia, where Massey does most of its mining. It is an issue for all of rural America, because extractive industries do most of their extracting in rural areas, and for rural journalists, who need to cover not only the events of the day or week, but step back and take a longer look at the players involved: not just companies, but regulators, lawyers, activists and others.

Just such a look at Massey, and the modus operandi that it and many other companies follow, is published today in The Charleston Gazette. The 2,450-word story is written by Ken Ward Jr., left, whom we consider America's leading coal and mine-safety reporter and one of its leading environmental reporters. He writes, "Despite years of environmental problems and dozens of mining deaths, Massey and its corporate officials – including now-retired CEO Don Blankenship – have mostly escaped any serious, direct punishment." (Read more)

Studies show nuclear power is the electricity-generation method least damaging to health

The disaster at a nuclear power plant in Japan has cast doubt on prospects for increasing nuclear energy's share of the U.S. power portfolio, encouraging coal interests, but "Making electricity from nuclear power turns out to be far less damaging to human health than making it from coal, oil or even clean-burning natural gas, according to numerous analyses," and those calculations don't even take global warming and climate change into account, David Brown reports for The Washington Post.

"Compared with nuclear power, coal is responsible for five times as many worker deaths from accidents, 470 times as many deaths due to air pollution among members of the public, and more than 1,000 times as many cases of serious illness, according to a study of the health effects of electricity generation in Europe," Brown writes.

Gish Award winner says her investigation of sheriff was based largely on records requests

The investigation that largely won Samantha Swindler, right, the 2010 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues was based largely on a simple fundamental of reporting: requests for public records, Swindler said this weekend in "On the Media," the public-radio series about journalism and the news business. "A lot of it was through open-records reqiuests, and we had to fight for every single one of them," Swindler, the publisher of the weekly Tillamook Headlight-Herald on the Oregon coast, told interviewer Brooke Gladstone.

Swindler was managing editor of the 6,000-circulation daily Times Tribune in Corbin, Ky., when she heard a sportswriter joke about gun sales at the back door of the barber shop owned by then-Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge. When the paper filed a request for the sheriff's evidence logs and he mounted an aggressive defense, forcing the paper to appeal to the state attorney general, "I realized there was something a lot bigger going on," Swindler said. "When we finally got a chance to view the evidence logs, I saw that there were months where there was nothing logged." The sheriff said "we just flush" drugs, but state police said he can't do that.

When the paper filed a records request about 18 seized guns, the sheriff announced that his office had been broken into and 78 guns, drug evidence and paperwork were taken, "When that happened, I realized we were really onto something," Swindler said. "I knew we were on to something before, but then I knew, 'Oh my gosh, it's this bad: He staged a break-in of the sheriff's office.' I'm absolutely concinved that is what has happened." She said that was borne out by a recently filed affadavit from a federal agent describing how drug dealers helped Hodge dispose of guns. He has been indicted.

To listen to the 6½-minute interview with Swindler, or get a transcript, click here. To read more details of her investigation and the Gish Award, go here. Her article about the investigation, and her reflections on rural journalism, in the latest Nieman Reports from Harvard University, is here. UPDATE, April 6: Greg Masters of American Journalism Review reports on Swindler's work.