Friday, April 22, 2011

FBI tells families of coal miners killed in disaster that they may be victims of a federal crime

"The FBI has informed families of the miners who died at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine that they may be the victims of a federal crime," Ken Ward Jr. reports for The Charleston Gazette. "The FBI letter was dated March 28, but was not received by some families until earlier this week. A copy was obtained by the Gazette." Ward posted his copy here.

Little more than a year ago, 29 miners died in an explosion at the mine. "Victims of federal crimes are entitled to updates from the government about the status of their case, the right to be heard at certain court proceedings, and to protection from the accused," Ward notes, adding that investigators are also looking at potentially criminal activity at the mine "as far back as 2006." (Read more)

Hazel Dickens, coalfield songstress, dies at 75

Hazel Dickens, whose songs evoked the beginnings of country music and told the troubles of her native Appalachia and working women, died Thursday night in Washington, D.C., where she lived. She was 75 and suffered complications from pneumonia. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian, FrontRowPhotos)

"Dickens grew up in dire poverty in West Virginia’s coal country and developed a raw, keening style of singing that was filled with the pain of her hardscrabble youth," writes Matt Schudel writes for The Washington Post. "She supported herself in day jobs for many years before she was heard on the soundtrack of the 1976 Oscar-winning documentary about coal mining, Harlan County, U.S.A. Her uncompromising songs about coal mining, such as 'Black Lung' and 'They Can’t Keep Us Down,' became anthems, and she was among the first to sing of the plight of women trying to get by in the working-class world."

"It was my calling," Dickens says in a video profile of her by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which is posted with Schudel's preliminary story. The full obituary is here. The Daily Yonder has an 8-minute clip from Mimi Pickering's documentary profile, Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, here.

Dickens' and Alice Gerrard's arrangement of “Hello Stranger” by A.P. Carter "became the blueprint for Emmylou Harris’s version of the song, and their adaption of 'The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile)' inspired Naomi Judd, then a single mother in rural Kentucky, to start singing with her daughter Wynonna," Bill Friskics-Warren writes for The New York Times. (Read more)

UPDATE, April 25: National Public Radio remembers Dickens as a folksinger and "a feminist bluegrass voice." For her interview with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" from WHYY in Philadelphia, go here.

Farm Bill negotiators face North-South split between direct payments and other subsidies

The original battle line of the Civil War is shaping up to be a key divider in the debate over the 2012 Farm Bill, the weekly Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse reports: "In what appears to be a strong difference of opinion between Northern and Southern growers over the continuation of direct payments, some are suggesting that growers should be able to choose" between such payments and a revised Average Crop Revenue Election program.

"One idea that’s being floated by some safety-net stakeholders is to enact farm policy that would give grain, soybean and cotton growers the option of choosing between direct payments and a more flexible ACRE or crop insurance program," Agri-Pulse reports. Under that scenario, Midwest farmers would likely opt for enhanced risk management tools and Southern farmers would elect to continue to receive direct payments, which some Midwest farm interests have said they could live without. (Gary Schnitkey of the University of Illinois explains why every farmer should consider enrolling in ACRE before the June 1 deadline. UPDATE, May 16: Economists from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture will explain ACRE at a series of meetings May 19 in Hardin and Marshall counties and May 20 in Christian and Henderson counties. Check local Extension offices for details.)

"How such an 'opt-in' menu of programs would be structured remains to be seen," Agri-Pulse advises. Farm group leaders and lobbyists met last week to prepare 2012 Farm Bill negotiations, but no new program or consensus approach for the safety net emerged from the meeting. National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said "everybody is beginning this discussion with the assumption that there will be substantially less money to write the next farm bill." He said farm programs also face a perception problem. "There is this presumption -- in the urban press in particular -- that if prices are good today, they're going to be good tomorrow, and next year and ever after, even though we all know that's not true," he told Agri-Pulse. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free, four-issue trial subscription.

Louisiana weekly reporter was Pulitzer finalist

One year after Daniel Gilbert and the Bristol Herald Courier were honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, another rural journalist has been recognized by the Pulitzer board: Stanley Nelson, right, who has been working on an ongoing series about the murder of a black businessman during the civil rights era for the weekly Concordia Sentinel in Louisiana. He was announced as a finalist for the Pulitzer for local reporting when the award winners were announced this week.

Nelson's reporting identified Arthur Leonard Spencer as the person who killed Frank Morris, a well-liked black businessman in Concordia County (wearing cap in photo). You can see an index of Nelson's work here and our previous item about the package here. For the Pulitzer release, go here.

Wind industry, Fish and Wildlife Service agree to work on plan for protecting birds and bats

Representatives of the U.S. wind energy industry and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week they have signed a memorandum of understanding to work on developing a formal habitat conservation plan for Midwestern wind farms. The plan is aimed at "reducing the negative impacts of wind farms on migratory birds and bats while providing greater regulatory certainty to energy developers," and was signed by several wind energy companies and their trade group, the American Wind Energy Association, Scott Streater of Environment & Energy Daily reports.

The conservation plan will cover Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. "The Midwest is among the fastest-growing wind power regions in the country, but it is also a critical flyway for millions of birds that migrate seasonally between Canada and the United States and Central and South America, as well as federally endangered Indiana bats," Streater writes. The participating states will spend $3.2 million in federal grant money on the project, and the industry has promised to match 10 percent of the grant money.

Tom Melius, FWS's Midwest regional director in Fort Snelling, Minn., told Streater the agreement is a "positive step" that should allow the agency to devise "scientifically sound" approaches to wind development to ensure "the conservation of endangered species and facilitate the development of a renewable energy source at the same time." The industry expects the plan "will streamline the permitting process" in ways that protects wildlife, "while also allowing for more wind energy to be deployed nationally," said John Anderson, the wind energy association's siting-policy director. (Read more, subscription required)

Chesapeake Energy suspends Pa. well-completion operations, including fracking, after blowout

One of Pennsylvania's largest shale-gas producers has suspended production on seven hydraulic fracturing operations after a well blowout spilled toxic chemicals into a local waterway this week. Chesapeake Energy, which will use a mix of plastic, ground-up tires and heavy mud to plug the well, said it was unsure of what caused the blowout a day and a half after it occurred, Edward McAllister of Reuters reports.

"The accident in northeastern Pennsylvania has stoked an already fierce debate in the United States over hydraulic fracturing," McAllister writes. "This is the kind of incident that is likely to shine a spotlight, again, on the fact that despite repeated assurances from industry and regulators in Pennsylvania, things there keep somehow going wrong," said Kate Sinding, senior attorney for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council. (Read more)

Missouri legislature vote to repeal most of 'puppy mill cruelty' measure shows rural-urban divide

Are dogs livestock? Yes, to rural people, but not to urbanites, writes Kansas City Star columnist Barbara Shelly, reflecting on last fall's referendum on what she calls the "puppy mill cruelty" initiative. Voters narrowly passed it, along a sharp urban-rural divide, and the state legislature recentlly voted to largely repeal it. Gov. Jay Nixon, who could veto the bill, has called for a compromise.

Republican Rep. Chris Molendorp told his constituents in Cass County, just south of Kansas City, about the reaction of another lawmaker, whom Shelly describes as "a friend and colleague who farms and represents a rural county" in the General Assembly: “With every fiber of his body, (he) believes that Proposition B is the beginning of the end for animal agriculture. In fairness, he’s not alone. Rural legislators of both parties have absolutely blown a gasket over what most folks in northern Cass County voted to do with little consternation.”

Shelly writes, "City dwellers and suburbanites don’t think of dogs as livestock. But farm communities unabashedly do. And if animal rights groups can get voters to tell breeders how many dogs they can breed and how big their cages should be, what’s next? Telling farmers how many cows they can raise, maybe. Or forcing them to enlarge their barns."

But she adds, "Missouri, however, strikes me as an unlikely place to dismantle animal agriculture. The issue before us is dogs. Many steak-loving Missourians voted for Proposition B because they don’t want dogs crammed into stacked cages, exposed to extreme heat and cold and subjected to a life without exercise or kindness. For the voters who prevailed, Proposition B wasn’t about livestock production. It was about protecting pets. We respect agriculture, but we expect the state’s politicians to honor our vote." (Read more)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Income inequality growing; here's the rural angle

"Income inequality is increasing between counties in both rural and urban America. Income gains in richer counties are outpacing gains in poorer places. Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that inequality has a number of ill effects on society," reports the Daily Yonder, based on a study by Roberto Gallardo and Lionel "Bo" Bealieu of the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University.

"Rural counties are growing more unequal, but they have less income inequality than cities," Galllardo and Beaulieu write. "Rural counties, be they at the upper or lower end of the per-capita market income continuum, could not keep pace with the income growth experienced by metro counties." (Read more)

Rural Midwest bankers see economy improving

"An economic index based on a survey of rural Midwestern bankers this month reached its highest level in nearly four years and indicates optimism about the coming six months," Steve Jordon reports for the Omaha World-Herald.

The Rural Mainstreet Index is based on responses from rural bankers in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. The latest index was was 59.4 on a 100-point scale, marking the sixth straight month above 50. A figure below 50 indicates a declining economy.

“Higher oil prices have yet to derail or even slow the pace of growth for the Rural Mainstreet economy,” said Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, "who originated the index in 2005 with Greeley, Neb., banker Bill McQuillan. A year ago, the index was 44.2," Jordon writes.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund seeking photos of all fallen soldiers for new exhibit

As part of a new education center being built at "The Wall" in Washington, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is seeking photographs of military members who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. Jan C. Scruggs, founder and president of VVMF, says in news releases designed for specific states, "We want to make sure that the 1,058 individuals from the state are honored and remembered in the Education Center."

State kickoffs are featuring "The Wall That Heals," a half-scale replica of the memorial. (VVMF photo) The exhibit includes a scanner so visitors can bring photos of their loved ones listed on the memorial for scanning. The exhibit is on a national tour with its schedule available here. (Read more)

Targeted programs, some rural, survive federal budget cuts again as others are chopped

Four often-targeted federal programs with rural connections again survived the budget ax. "In recent years, leaders in both parties — including, in some cases, presidents from both parties — have singled out four programs, worth a total of about $337 million, to either be eliminated or lose millions in funding," David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post reports. "But they have survived, again and again, thanks to powerful lobbies or high-placed patrons in Congress."

A program that sends millions to states that have already finished cleaning their abandoned mines escaped the federal spending debate unscathed, despite President Obama's attempt to cut it in 2009. And the program that pays cotton and peanut farmers to store their bales and bushels in warehouses was also unchanged by the compromise, regardless of issues raised by Obama and predecessor George W. Bush.

The Agriculture Department's Market Access Program that costs about $200 million a year and pays to promote U.S. agricultural products in foreign markets was also spared from budget cuts. President Obama proposed cutting the Honolulu-based East-West Center's budget from $21 million to $12 million, but that went nowhere due to the project's strong support from Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Some previous "budget immortals" did face cuts this year. Congress cut $42 million from the Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship Program, $10 million from the National Drug Intelligence Center and more than half the federal funds from the Denali Commission, an Alaska development program. "All three programs share one trait," Fahrenthold writes. "Their champions in Congress — [Robert] Byrd, [John] Murtha and [Ted] Stevens — all recently died." (Read more)

Hope for the American chestnut keeps growing

Hope for a revival of the American chestnut tree continues to grow, but it may be decades before its fate is known. Between 1904 and 1940, a blight imported from Asia attacked trees in New York and quickly spread, nearly wiping out an estimated four billion trees across the eastern U.S. Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times reports that a new chestnut strain, created in a chestnut mating project and dubbed B3Fe, may produce a new generation of trees resistant to the blight.

Fred Hebard, chief scientist with the American Chestnut Foundation's breeding program, "gets more requests from chestnut lovers vying for the right to plant a few B3F3s or their seedlings than he can grant," Susman writes. For now most of the test plantings are currently on government-operated forestland. Hebard knows he might not live to see the end of the project, which could take decades to determine new trees' level of blight resistance. "And that only tells you if you have a chance" at full resistance, he said. (American Chestnut Foundation photo)

Revitalizing chestnut populations could have a positive economic impact. "Americans spend $20 million a year importing chestnuts from Europe and Asia," Susman writes. The chestnut is attractive because it is gluten-free, cholesterol-free and less fattening than other nuts. "The trees' absence had a trickle-down effect on wildlife that foraged for chestnuts." (Read more)

Fish populations threatened by habitat loss from agriculture and other human activities

Fish habitats in streams and rivers across America are in danger, says a new report by the National Fish Habitat Board: "Almost 40 percent of the nation's freshwater fish species are considered at risk or vulnerable to extinction. Habitat loss is the most common cause for extinction of freshwater fish in the United States over the past century; many saltwater fish are also in decline due to habitat degradation."

In a statement released by the Fish and Wildlife Service, acting Director Rowan Gould said, "This report clearly illustrates the need for strategic use of existing resources through partnerships that can identify the most effective use of funds and help the nation as a whole make progress in fish habitat conservations." Laura Petersen reports for Land Letter that the habitat board plans to release assessments every five years and fill in the missing data from the original report. (Read more)

Click here to view an interactive map of risk of current habitat degradation for streams and coastal fish habitats across the U.S. "In the Northern Plains region, which includes Nebraska and the Dakotas, 6 percent of the waterways are at "very high" risk of degradation," Cody Winchester reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D. The fish habitat report attributes most of the degradation in the Dakotas to sediment and nutrient runoff from crops and irrigation channeling, and damage from cattle farming. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

EPA boss says it won't regulate farm runoff in Mississippi watershed if voluntary measures work

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said Tuesday that the agency has no plans to regulate farm runoff into the Mississippi River. Jackson, "who visited two Iowa farms Tuesday with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, said she assured a gathering of agricultural leaders that the agency had no plans to impose pollution regulations like those being used to clean up Chesapeake Bay," Phillip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. She said voluntary measures should be given a chance to work.

"I am ruling out the need for us to move directly to a regulatory mechanism when we have folks stepping up and are willing to do the conservation measures," she told reporters after the visits. Jackson has been under fire from Republicans and agribusiness groups amid rumors the agency was going to regulate dust, pesticides and water pollution, Brasher reports. Jackson says she realizes "there's been fear, real fear, that we would take what we're doing in the Chesapeake Bay and translate it here verbatim without regard to what is going on the ground."

"Runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from farms damages water quality in Iowa and elsewhere in the Mississippi basin and contributes to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico," Brasher writes. A recent Environmental Working Group analysis reported Iowa soil is being washed away at a much higher rate than government estimates had indicated. "We've been working at this a long time now with voluntary programs," Craig Cox, EWG's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said. "The problems aren't getting better and in some cases they're getting quite a bit worse." (Read more)

UPDATE, April 22: Jackson reiterated on her visit that EPA does not plan to regulate farm dust, reports Ken Anderson of Brownfield Network. Jackson debunked other "myths" about the EPA and farmers, Ag Week reports.

Rural-urban broadband gap not just availability; speeds are slower and competition is less

The more rural an area, the fewer broadband providers it is likely to have and the slower its download speeds are likely to be, says a study by the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University. Using census tracts, small geographical blocks with an average of 4,000 people, "We were able to find consistent differences in data" from the National Telecommunications Information Administration, SRDC research associate Roberto Gallardo and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder. "That is, as census tracts go more rural, Internet service declined."

"In urban areas, only 2.2 percent of census tracts had a single broadband provider," compared to almost one in four census tracts in rural America, Bishop and Gallardo report. Less than 4 percent of urban census tracts had broadband download speeds under 6 megabits per second while 17.2 percent of rural communities did. (Read more) (Yonder charts)

Pennsylvania asks drillers to stop sending wastewater to ill-equipped treatment plants

Pennsylvania regulators are asking the natural-gas industry to voluntarily stop sending hydraulic fracturing wastewater to treatment plants that are not equipped to remove some contaminants. "Last year, the state adopted new regulations that require most plants that accept drilling waste to meet strict standards for removing pollutants, including barium and strontium," Robbie Brown of The New York Times reports. "But 15 treatment plants are exempt from those tough new rules. Tuesday’s announcement discourages companies from treating waste at those plants."

Most states require drillers to dispose of wastewater by injecting it into deep disposal wells, but Pennsylvania sends hydraulic fracturing waste to sewage and industrial treatment plants, leading state and federal regulators to question whether the plants are capable of removing some contaminants, Brown writes. "Now is the time to take action to end this practice," Michael Krancer, the state’s acting environmental protection secretary, told Brown. "We now have more definitive scientific data, improved technology and increased voluntary wastewater recycling by industry." It is unclear whether the companies will comply with the request. (Read more)

Ramp it up: City dwellers' taste for wild leeks may threaten the species

Ramp harvesting is a long tradition in Appalachian forests from Georgia to Quebec, but some biologists fear harvesting has endangered these wild leeks. "Over the last two decades, the lucrative market for ramps during their short early-spring season has drawn a horde of new diggers, who cart them out of the forest in unprecedented quantities," Indrani Sen reports for The New York Times. James Chamberlain, a research scientist with the United States Forest Service, said "I think we're having an impact on ramp population. I would say that we're overharvesting the plants." (NYT photo by Jennifer May)

"Since the early 1990s, the garlicky allium, with a slender white bulb, dark red stem and succulent green leaves, has gone from a Southern belle to a big-city starlet, with breathless articles in glossy magazines, top billing on restaurant menus and a paparazzi-like reception when the first crates arrive at farmers’ markets in April," Sen writes. The local food movement has pushed prices as high as $12 a pound. "We’re so over winter, and we’re so ecstatic about ramps," New York City chef Marco Canora told Sen. "There’s nothing local right now. These ramps are the first local spring thing."

Lawrence Davis-Hollander, a Massachusetts ethnobotanist, said there is no definitive data on damage to ramp populations but now is the time to investigate before ramps become as rare as ginseng, another plant that used to be plentiful in U.S. woods, Sen reports. Quebec has listed the plant as threatened and banned its sale in 1995. Ramp harvesting was also banned in 2004 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. "At the rate we’re harvesting," Davis-Hollander said, "the honest answer is we don’t know the effect we’re having." (Read more)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Anxiety grows as corn farmers prepare to plant

Pressure on U.S. corn farmers may be at an all-time high as they prepare to plant this summer's crop. "Those huge surpluses of corn that Americans have taken for granted for generations are gone," Dan Piller of the Des Moines Register reports. "The amount of U.S. corn is expected to shrink to scarcely more than a week's supply by late summer, reduced by a smaller crop last year and record demand from ethanol plants and other countries." Any problem with this year's crop could send prices to unprecedented double-digit levels.

"This year there is no margin for error. We especially can't have bad weather," said commodity trader Don Roose of US Commodities in West Des Moines. Any problem with the crop could lead consumers to see soaring prices at the grocery store because livestock producers may reduce their herds in the face of high feed costs. "Prices much higher than the $7.50 per bushel that corn sold for last week could force Iowa's 41 ethanol plants to shut down to avoid excessive feedstock costs, threatening up to 5,000 jobs," Piller writes.  (Register graphic)

Anxiety over the U.S corn crop was high in 2008 and 1993 after huge Iowa floods and in 1998 during a midsummer drought, but experts say this year is different. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects a surplus of 675 million bushels of corn by the end of the summer before the new harvest, the lowest surplus in 15 years and second smallest in 74 years. "We've never had a situation this tight right at the beginning of planting," Iowa State University economist Chad Hart told Piller. "Even if we get a really good crop this year, it will just meet the expected demand." (Read more)

Money for rural electrics' lines will help provide outlets for wind and solar power

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced distribution of $376 million to 10 rural electric cooperatives for new transmission and distribution lines and smart-grid technologies. These projects will affect nearly 20,000 residents in 13 states, Cheryl Kaften reports for TMCnet, a business-to-business and integrated-marketing media firm. Of the total, $14 million is for smart- grid technology such as advanced metering. (Read more)

"This investment is important as many of our renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, are most abundant in remote regions that aren't well connected to the existing transmission network," Johnathan Hladik of the Center for Rural Affairs, writes for the Ennis Daily News in Texas. "By explicitly requiring that these funds be used for building or expanding existing transmission lines, our rural communities are able to take a significant step forward in an effort to better develop the resources we have at our disposal." (Read more)

'Re-imaging Appalachia' photography contest accepting entries until May 2

The Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky recently announced its "Re-Imaging Appalachia" photography contest. The competition, open to all U.S. residents 18 and up except UK faculty and staff, aims to recast the region's image. Zak Pence of the center writes, "Barefoot children. Outhouses. Shacks with no running water. ... These are some of the first images you'll find if you Google 'Appalachia'," and here is one, from Bizarre Foods.

The center will give prizes for the top three photographs. Those pictures and 30 others will be displayed at the university and featured in a calendar. All entries must have been taken after May 1, 2008 and within the region served by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Entries are due by May 2. To enter or see the official rules, click here.

Being gay in Appalachia: one of many stories to be part of national oral-history project

Later this month Shannon Ratliff (top) and Tyler Watts (bottom), will participate in an oral history project focusing on sexual orientation in rural Kentucky. Beginning April 21 the Kentucky Equality Federation will hold sessions with StoryCorps, a national, nonprofit oral-history project that has gathered stories on a wide array of topics, Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "I think it not only gives us a chance to tell our story, it gives us that documentation. It has to do with our struggles and hopes," said Will Taylor, a 26-year-old gay resident of Harlan. (Herald-Leader photo by David Perry)

Ratliff, a Hindman native, told Hjalmarson she did not know she was a lesbian while growing up in Knott County, but her close group of friends from high school have almost all come out as gay or lesbian since. "It was very tight-lipped," she said. "They all came out one at a time. We never discussed being gay. We never talked about anything queer at all. We met as straight people." Ratliff said she began to understand her identity after attending Eastern Kentucky University, which she calls a haven of opportunity for people from the mountains who are at all "different." She added, "The mountains are ... beautiful, and there's still just so much culture; they're comforting, protective. And they're also very isolating."

Taylor had a different experience coming out in Harlan, and told Hjalmarson it was easier than he thought. He said he felt more secure being himself there than in a larger city where he didn't know anyone else. "I thought at first that it was going to be really bad. When I came out, I just came out and told everybody. The first person I told was my dad," Taylor said. "He lit a cigarette, sat there about a minute or two, and then he gave me the speech: 'We still love you, that doesn't change.'" (Read more)

StoryCorps will hold interviews at Veterans Memorial Park in Whitesburg  from April 21 through May 14 and at the Farmers Market Pavilion in Lexington from May 19 through June 25.

Accountability audits show lapses in enforcement at some coal mine safety field offices

Internal documents released by the Mine Safety and Health Administration provide examples of lax enforcement dating back to 2008. Documents from the agency's Office of Accountability show "MSHA supervisors often failed to properly review inspection documents, mine inspectors were sometimes lax and inconsistent in their reviews, and some mine inspections weren't conducted according to agency standards and legal requirements," Manuel Quinones of Environment & Energy Daily reports.

The documents were released Friday "in response to pressure from House Republicans skeptical of a push to expand MSHA's regulatory power after the Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 miners last year in West Virginia," Quinones writes. Field offices in Vansant, Va.; Summerville, W.Va.; Hindman, Ky.; Morgantown, W.Va.; and Harlan, Ky., were among those documented as having enforcement lapses. Specific dates, auditor names and information about specific mines were redacted.

"I firmly believe that, like any responsible government agency, MSHA should continuously review its activities to improve its efficiency and performance," MSHA chief Joseph Main said in a statement. "Conducting audits is not a new practice for MSHA; they've been carried out for years." Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, said at a hearing on MSHA audits, "It's pretty damning, when you look at it. It seems ... that the failure is not having enough tools in the toolbox but people using the tools." (Read more, subscription required)

Missouri sheriff, whose county had few meth arrests, is charged with distributing the drug

Carter County, Missouri (Wikipedia map) appeared to be resisting the state trend in increasing methamphetamine raids and arrests, but that may have been a result of corrupt law enforcement. "Tommy Adams, county sheriff for a little more than two years, was arrested earlier this month after giving meth to an informant at his cabin on a remote and hilly gravel road, according to a court document," Jim Salter of The Associated Press reports. "Authorities would not detail the extent of Adams' alleged meth involvement, but charged him with meth distribution."

Missouri led the country in meth lab busts every year for a decade, reporting over 13,000 in the last seven years, before Tennessee took the top spot in 2010. Other rural Missouri law enforcement officials have been linked to drugs, but Adams is the first to be arrested for meth. Just days after Adams' arrest, his chief deputy was charged with burglary and receiving stolen property, a gun taken from the department's evidence room, Salter writes.

When Adams ran for sheriff his opponent, an incumbent Democrat, died just weeks before the election in what was ruled a suicide. Democrats had no chance to replace him on the ballot, but Adams won the election by only one vote. (A few years ago, Missouri voters elected senator Gov. Mel Carnahan, who had died in a plane crash days before the election.) While other Southern Missouri counties had dozens of meth lab busts in recent years, Carter County had just five since Adams took over as sheriff in 2009. (Read more)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Virginia attorney general OKs guns in church with 'good and sufficient reason,' whatever that is

The Virginia attorney general's advisory opinion released last week on carrying weapons in houses of worship has sparked strong reactions, but guns in churches are not uncommon in some parts of the state. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's opinion, which said people with "good and sufficient reason” to carry a weapon can do so in a house of worship, has led some to call "it an affront to the tradition of the church as a sanctuary from violence," Susan Kinzie of The Washington Post reports. "Others said: 'Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition!'"

A 1632 Virginia law required men to bring their guns to church, Kinzie writes. "In case of an attack on Sunday, when everyone is assembled at church, they don’t have to disperse to get their arms," S. Max Edelson, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, told Kinzie. Today many Virginians "carry guns openly at places such as grocery stores, parks and some polling places. Some conceal the weapons if they have a permit to do so," Kinzie writes.

"But as more people move into the state and the culture shifts from rural to urban — especially in Northern Virginia — the way people see guns has been changing," Kinzie writes. Rev. Jonathan Barton, head of the Virginia Council of Churches, recalls a groom asking to carry his gun during his wedding an says he was saddened by Cuccinelli's opinion. "A house of worship is for celebration of life," he told Kinzie, "and to carry a concealed weapon into that space is to violate that sacred space." (Read more)

Duke Energy finds obstacles to shunning coal from mountaintop-removal mines

Duke Energy announced last week it will purchase non-mountaintop-removal coal when it costs no more than mountaintop-removal coal. Last year Duke asked its suppliers to quote the price and availability of non-mountaintop coal after recognizing growing public criticism of the mining practice, Bruce Henderson of the Charlotte Observer reports. Suppliers informed Duke "about 10 percent could be guaranteed as non-mountaintop without costing a premium," Henderson writes. "Duke says it has signed contracts, mostly for one or two years, for that amount."

"I won't say it's a surprise, but the question had never been asked before," said Duke's senior vice president Paul Newton, who oversees fuel purchases. "It could be more or less in the future. What we do intend to do is continue to ask the question in the future." Duke says suppliers could not guarantee more than 10 percent because coal mined underground and from mountaintop mines is usually blended together. "Duke estimates that about 25 percent of the coal it burns in the Carolinas comes from mountaintop mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky," Henderson writes.

North Carolina law requires fuel costs to be passed on to consumers without a profit margin. "The N.C. Utilities Commission's Public Staff, which represents customers, sees no way the least-cost principle would permit Duke to pay extra for non-mountaintop coal," Henderson writes. Robert Gruber, the commission's executive director, told Henderson, "We don't like blowing up mountains more than anyone else, but we think they have to follow least-cost." (Read more)

Massey executives who won't talk about disaster to maintain key roles in merger with Alpha

Alpha Natural Resources announced Friday that several Massey Energy executives will keep key roles in the combined company after Alpha acquires Massey. Federal documents and interviews with mine-safety advocates show that "Alpha has a safety record and reputation that is better than the record and reputation of Massey Energy," Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports." Despite that record, "Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins will 'spearhead the implementation' of Alpha's main safety program."

Adkins was COO at Massey during 2009 when "four of the company's coal mines had injury rates more than double the national average and 10 had higher-than-average rates of injury," Berkes writes. During that period Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., where 29 miners were killed in an April 2010 explosion, had more closures than any other mine in the country. Adkins is among 18 current and former Massey executives who have refused to be interviewed by state and federal investigators in the Upper Big Branch investigation. "We spent a lot of time ensuring that these people would be a good match with our ethics," says Ted Pile, a spokesman for Alpha. "We have confidence in them that they have a desire to run right." (Read more)

Rural-newspaper correspondent details Ky. corrections reform that still worries local jails

In the latest example of bipartisan cooperation on corrections issues at the state level, fostered by the Pew Center on the States, Kentucky lawmakers agreed last month to overhaul the state's sentencing system and save an estimated $420 million over the next decade. Ronnie Ellis, right, statehouse reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., detailed the process for readers of The Crime Report in a story published today.

The state's prison population grew 80 percent from 1997 to 2009 and the corrections budget grew from $30 million in 1980 to $470 million in 2010 even as lawmakers cut $1.8 billion from the overall budget. "At every opportunity, they stiffened sentences and added offenses to the state’s penal code," Ellis writes. They nearly bankrupted the state." As part of the reform, lawmakers "overhauled the state’s drug laws, as well as its sentencing, probation and parole system" which is expected to lower prison populations and expand drug treatment.

Rural counties had skin in the game. "Jails were bleeding county budgets dry, but counties feared the task force would recommend changing low-level felonies to misdemeanors, thus shifting inmates and additional costs to them," Ellis writes. A bipartisan task force representing all three branches of government held public meetings and conducted research about prison reforms that had worked in other states. "It was abundantly clear that they were going to do something," Chris Cohron, a prosecutor and past president of the Commonwealth Attorneys Association, said. "If we didn’t participate in the process we’d be stuck with whatever they came up with."

The bill received rare bipartisan support in the legislature. Republican Senate President David Williams, who is challenging Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, supported the package, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Jensen said he would resign his the post if he couldn't convince colleagues to pass the bill. "House Democrats concluded they could comfortably support the bill without having the Republican Senate exploit their votes for political advantage," Ellis writes. The relationship between the task-force chairmen, Jensen and Democratic Rep. John Tilley, was also crucial. "They were from two different parties, from two separate parts of the state, but their perseverance caused all of us to lay down our differences for the greater good," Chief Justice John Minton said. (Read more)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

House Democrats release study of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals used in fracking

Democrats in the U.S. House released a study yesterday detailing how "Oil and gas companies injected hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals into wells in more than 13 states from 2005 to 2009," Ian Urbina writes for The New York Times. The report notes that some chemicals used in fracking, including salt and citric acid, were harmless, others, including benzene and lead, were "extremely toxic."

Earlier this year a separate report found 32.2 millions of gallons of fluids containing diesel, considered an especially hazardous pollutant because it contains benzene, were injected into the ground by fracking operations from 2005 to 2009, Urbina writes. Matt Armstrong, an energy attorney from Bracewell & Giuliani that represents several companies involved in natural gas drilling, took issue with the report's methodology, noting it "uses the same sleight of hand deployed in the last report on diesel use -- it compiles overall product volumes, not the volumes of the hazardous chemicals contained within those products." (Read more)

"Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee described their report as the first comprehensive national inventory of chemicals used by companies that engage in a process known as hydraulic fracturing," generally called fracking, Stephen Power writes in The Wall Street Journal. "It is deeply disturbing to discover the content and quantity of toxic chemicals, like benzene and lead, being injected into the ground without the knowledge of the communities whose health could be affected," said Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette who released the report along with California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman and Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Edward Markey.

A spokesman for Energy in Depth, a Washington-based group that represents oil and gas producers, told Power that while fracturing fluids "contain things you would never want to drink ... the only way that'd be relevant in a public-health context is if those materials were somehow finding their way into potable water supplies underground. Naturally, Waxman has no ability to show that, precisely because they aren't, don't, and according to regulators, never have." (Read more)