Saturday, June 04, 2011

New power line to D.C. area illustrates issues in play as electric companies improve the grid

A major new power line is humming across the Appalachians "in a suprisingly quick five years," Environment & Energy News reports: "More elaborate variations of the saga of this power line are likely to be repeated throughout the United States as the nation's power grid struggles to serve the rising transmission needs of renewable power generation. But the variations may not be as quick, or as relatively inexpensive or as easy to justify."
The Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line (TrAIL) of regional grid manager PJM Interconnection runs from southern Pennsylvania to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.  E & E reporter Beter Behr notes, "It won its approval before the recession changed electricity's growth forecasts," and PJM is re-evaluating the need for other lines.

After opposition from owners of horse farms and major estates worried about views, the line's path was moved to parallel a Dominion Power line. That put it through the cattle farm of Virginia Dorkey, left, in southern Fauquier County, Virginia. "There's a hell of a lot more money in north Fauquier County than there is here," she told Behr, noting the 40-foot Dominion towers were "not an eyesore," like the new 140-footers, Behr writes.

The fight against the line in Virginia was led by the Piedmont Environmental Council. Its questions about expected electricity demand did prompt PJM to suspend plans for the Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH), which we reported on here.

The battle "also led, indirectly, to a stunning policy reversal on siting transmission lines," Behr reports. In a Piedmont Council lawsuit, a federal appeals court nullified a 2005 law giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission "siting authority for siting major transmission lines in the mid-Atlantic, one of the 'national interest' corridors where congestion threatens grid reliability. The court ruled that under the law's plain language, FERC could intervene if state commissions failed to act on a transmission proposal lying in a national corridor, but not if a state rejected the project outright. That court decision strengthens the hand of mid-Atlantic state governors who want to build offshore wind power farms on their coasts rather than see Midwestern wind power imported into their urban areas." (Read more, subscription required)

Ky. appeals court upholds convictions of strict Amish who won't put SMV signs on buggies

A strict Amish sect's religious beliefs about symbols and colors do not deserve more protection than motorists who might smash into horse-drawn buggies lacking orange-red triangle signs that states require for slow-moving vehicles, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled yesterday. (Photo by Matt Schorr, Mayfield Messenger)

"The freedom to express and exercise one’s religious beliefs is held in high esteem. However, such practices cannot infringe on the rights and safety of the public at large," said the unanimous decision by a three-judge panel, upholding the 2008 misdemeanor convictions of nine Amish men in Graves County, in far Western Kentucky. Their American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky lawyer said they would discuss an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The men are Old Order Swartzentruber Amish. "They sought alternative solutions, such as using lanterns or gray tape that is reflected in headlights, although neither approach would be effective in daylight and would be even less effective at twilight, when statistics show such accidents are more likely to occur, the court ruled," Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal reports. For his and our initial reports on the case and the Amish in the area, click here.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Horses deliver broadband to remote Vermont

An "anachronistic vehicle," the draft horse, is being used to deliver high-speed Internet to remote areas of Vermont, Erik Blokland writes for, an online service "led by journalists, powered by the public." He focuses on Claude Desmarais, right, who has been laying lines in the Green Mountains with "telephone horses" like Fred for 31 years.

"Without Fred pulling his weight in fiber-optic cable," Blokland reports, FairPoint Communications "would be hard-pressed to meet its 2013 goal, set by Gov. Peter Shumlin, to bring Internet to every home in the state." (Read more)

Daily Yonder editor disputes urbanites' assertions that rural America gets too much federal money

Two pillars of the Eastern liberal establishment keep propounding the false assertion that rural America gets too much federal money, Bill Bishop reports in the Daily Yonder. "The Brookings Institution and The New York Times are convinced the federal government spends 'vastly more' per person in rural areas than in the cities," Bishop writes. "Why do they continue to get this story wrong?"

Bishop, co-editor of the Yonder, generated some data and graphics to rebut the assertions:

Bishop cites data from the Ecomomic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ERS also provided data for this chart:

"The nation doesn’t have a plan for rural communities either and several advocates have concluded that rural America will never get much notice from what they consider the most urban-centric administration in memory," Bishop writes. "Nobody is happy. And blaming Iowa or Obama for the general disinterest in both rural and urban America hasn’t done much good. Better if we all complained less and worked more. To that end, the Daily Yonder will publish a two-part series, beginning Monday, on what a national rural policy should look like." (Read more)

'The Last Mountain' premieres tonight in D.C., N.Y.

UPDATE, June 10: The journalist who knows this issue best, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, has a review of the film.

Coal River Mountain in West Virginia is not the last mountain in Central Appalachia, or even "one of the last," as the trailer below says, but it is the subject of the mountaintop-removal documentary by that name, featuring environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., that premieres in Washington, D.C., tonight and will have a free showing in Charleston, W.Va., in a week. Here's the schedule.

The movie is "unabashedly polemical," reviewer Mark Jenkins writes in The Washington Post. "The film provides evidence of catastrophic health problems, resulting from high levels of lead, mercury and other metals in drinking water, and flood hazards, from earth dams that hold (or fail to hold) water contaminated by toxic sludge. The movie’s credibility is boosted by the weakness of its opposition: Massey Energy," which wants to mine Coal River Mountain but "has been on the retreat" because of safety isuses at its underground mines. This week Massey passed into history, merging into Alpha Natural Resources. (Read more)

The Atlantic's story has a silly headline, "Will 'The Last Mountain' Stop Coal Mining?", and ignores the fact that mountaintop mines do not remain "pockmarked moonscapes." Still, writer David Thier asks a pertinent question, one that he says applies to all "films that double as activism: Do they translate outrage into action?" Kennedy "says that the movie is meant to make viewers understand the economic, environmental and moral costs wrapped up in coal."

For many Americans, especially those working blue-collar jobs in Central Appalachia, such problems and questions are outweighed by shorter-term economic concerns. Thier says director Bill Haney (also the /co-screenwriter and co-producer) focuses "on working-class West Virginians and paint[s] the coal company execs as fat cats. But the ultimate focus on Kennedy, a man whose family is a stand-in for northeastern privilege, may undercut that message. ... It's a well-told story, but its conclusion is unwritten. It succeeds in producing that raised eyebrow and sense of guilt about the power coursing into the TV, but it's hard to tell if it will do much more. The real test of its quality won't be told in box-office receipts, but on the top of Coal River Mountain." (Read more)

The New York Times review displays a disappointing lack of familiarity with the region's landscape. And much of the coverage casts mountaintop removal as an issue only for West Virginia. We hope the film does not; one of the producers, Clara Bingham, has Kentucky roots. Kennedy told The Hill that the most surprising thing he learned during the production was "How much democracy had been subverted in this state" of West Virginia. (Read more)

UPDATE, June 24: Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe writes, "It’s sincere. It’s misguided. It feels like a stunt." Morris also calls it "a righteous embarrassment" and says Kennedy's "outrage just doesn't really connect with anyone else's," and calls the movie "an infomercial for wind farms." (Read more)

'Best of the Road' finalists include friendly, fun, beautiful, patriotic and 'best for food' rural spots

Several rural towns are among the 30 finalists in the "Best of the Road" contest sponsored by USA Today and map firm Rand McNally. The contest has five categories.

The "Most Beautiful" category includes Baker City, Ore.; Pacifica, Calif; Sandpoint, Idaho; and Franklin, Tenn., which has kept much of its county-seat charm while being swallowed by metropolitan Nashville.

"Friendliest" could be Walla Walla, Wash.; Woodward, Okla.; Nacogdoches, Tex.; or Mount Airy, N.C., which has adopted the Mayberry identity created by native son Andy Griffith.

The "Most Fun" category includes Yellow Springs, Ohio; Vacaville, Calif.; Glenwood Springs, Colo.; and Santa Claus, Ind., home of a popular amusement park, Holiday World & Splashin' Safari, formerly Santa Claus Land.

"Most Patriotic" includes Emporia, Kan.; Rapid City, S.D.; and Williamsburg, Va. And "Best for Food" includes Addison, W.Va., better known as Webster Springs. The USA Today story is here.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

U.S. Education Dept. to hold conference call for rural journalists Friday on i3 grant competition

The U.S. Department of Education will announce the design of the 2011 Investing In Innovation (i3) grant competition at 1 p.m. EDT Friday. A press conference call for rural journalists has been scheduled for reporters to speak with Assistant Deputy Secretary Jim Shelton, who oversees the competition, to discuss its potential for rural schools, their partners, and communities. Dial 888-917-8040, and use the password RURAL. Education Week reports that school districts and nonprofit groups who apply are being encouraged to focus on rural schools. For the release about the program, click here.

N.Y. Times rounds up examples of rural areas losing population and power in state legislatures

Rural areas have been losing influence in Congress and state legislatures since the reapportionment and redistricting rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s, and the 2010 census mandates that the trend will continue. We've noted this more than once, but it's an important topic and The New York Times has done a nice job of collecting some interesting pieces of the puzzle "in states that have long been considered synonymous with rural America," as reporter A.G. Sulzberger puts it. He used an excellent source for anyone covering the issue: Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, who told him, “It really is the next chapter in the long saga of the loss of rural political power in America.”

The story's litany begins with Nebraska, where more than half the population is now concentrated in three urban counties in the east; goes to North Dakota, where "More education money has migrated to urban schools and universities;" then to Kansas, where "Rural legislators were unable to block a transportation bill favorable to the thriving metro areas;" and finally to Georgia, where "The Atlanta region appears likely to take control of a majority in the legislature."

In Nebraska, “As political power and population shifts, the legislators are less and less tolerant of the subsidies that have been built in” for rural areas, Nebraska State Education Association research director Larry Scherer told Sulzberger. However, the power of metropolitan lawmakers "is sometimes diffused by infighting between city and suburbs or city and city — a contrast to the more monolithic rural coalitions," Sulzberger reports, quoting Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery: “We haven’t seen the creation of a strong urban identity. It takes a while for people’s attitudes and cultural orientations to catch up with the numbers.” (Read more

Interior Dept. backs off new wilderness policy

The Department of the Interior will not implement a new, controversial policy to protect wilderness-quality lands in the West, Secretary Ken Salazar announced Wednesday. The decision, made under "intense political pressure . . . drew cheers from Western critics but was attacked by environmental groups as a retreat from common-sense conservation," Phil Taylor of Environment & Energy News reports. The move "also resolves a likely battle over the Bureau of Land Management's 2012 budget and could render moot parts of a pair of lawsuits filed in Utah seeking to block the agency's wilderness policy." (Read more, subscription required)

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

32nd New York Mississippi Picnic set for June 11

You may have heard of the New York Mississippi Picnic, but we haven't, and we think it's a fine idea, so we're telling you about it. The 32nd annual picnic, a free event, will be held Saturday, June 11, from noon to 6 p.m. in Central Park (Center Road at 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue entrance, by the bandshell). Photo: Unidentified picnicker with shirt reading, "Mississippi: Hard to spell, Easy to love."

The picnic began in 1979, when a few native Mississippians living in New York "worked together to create an event that would highlight their state in a positive way," a news release about the event says. "The result was the annual picnic that brings thousands of Mississippians together every year in New York’s Central Park and the creation of the New York Society for the Preservation of Mississippi Heritage."

The theme of this year’s picnic is "Find Your True South," and it will pay tribute to blues musician Robert Johnson and playwright and author Tennessee Williams, in the 100th anniversary year of their births. Mississippi bluesman Eddie Cotton, Jr. will be among the entertainers, and Mississippi artists and authors will show, sign and sell their work. The menu: 500 pounds of Southern-fried catfish, 120 pounds of hushpuppies and iced tee, sweet of course.

“This picnic is a way for those residing in the New York City area to connect with Mississippi,” said Rachel McPherson, co-founder of the picnic. “Those who are from Mississippi can reconnect to those things familiar from home. Those who are curious about Mississippi can come to learn about the things Mississippians are most proud of—the food, the music, the culture and our people.” For more information, including a list of artists and authors that will be at the picnic, click here.

Reporters share award for historic preservation

Three reporters for a thrice-weekly newspaper and a local preservationist have won a service award from a Kentucky foundation dedicated to historic preservation. The award from the Ida Lee Willis Memorial Foundation went to Donna Horn-Taylor of Corbin for her efforts to save a historic home that was to be demolished for a new courthouse in London, and to the reporters for The Sentinel-Echo of London for their coverage of the issue.

The newspaper reports, "Staff members recognized during the ceremony were Staff Writer Nita Johnson, former editor Julie Nelson-Harris and former reporter Tara Kaprowy." Johnson said, “Our newspaper tries to reflect the events in the community and the support to save the Pennington House was a community concern.” (Read more)

House panel narrowly backs law that effectively bans horse slaughter for human consumption

Concern about abuse and abandonment of horses may be stirring opposition in Congress to legislation that removed the floor from the horse market by denying federal funds for inspection of horse slaughterhouses. (Sign on US 62 between Summit and Elizabethtown, Ky., offers cash for unwanted horses; photo by Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues)

The House Appropriations Committee voted only 24 to 21 yesterday in favor of an amendment by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., "to continue de-funding inspections of horses to be sent for slaughter for human consumption, meaning commercial horse slaughter would remain illegal in the United States," Agri-Pulse reports. "The amendment effectively keeps in place a shutdown of the practice begun six years ago when the full House passed language in a bipartisan 269-158 vote, Moran said."

The amendment was attached to the appropriations bill for the Department of Agriculture for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Agri-Pulse is a Washington-based newsletter available only by subscription, but it offers a free, four-issue trial subscription.

House budget writers vote unanimously for limit Obama proposed on farm subsidy payments

Budget-cutting Republicans endorsed one of President Obama's ideas to limit farm subsidies yesterday, as the House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the Department of Agriculture's budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The vote was the latest sign that concern over the federal deficit and national debt will trump traditional support for longstanding programs.

"In a surprise move, the committee approved an amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to lower the maximum adjusted gross income a farmer can have to earn certain subsidies," The Associated Press reports. "While many farmers can now make as much as $750,000 annually and still receive subsidies, Flake’s amendment would lower the threshold for some to $250,000."

Obama's attempts to impose such a limit were blocked by a bipartisan coalition of farm-state lawmakers last year, when Democrats controlled the House. But yesterday, Flake's amendment was approved by unanimous consent. “It says a lot that no one is publicly willing to defend this kind of largesse,” he said afterward, AP reports. The bill is expected to pass the House with few changes. For our previous report on the bill, which would cut USDA's discretionary programs, go here. The text of the bill, from, is here and the committee report is here.

The bill would deny funding for the administration's proposed changes in rules of the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration, aimed at protecting small producers. "Supporters of the GIPSA rule say it is needed because too few packers control too much of the meat industry," Brownfield Network reports. "Opponents say it would eliminate marketing agreements which reward producers for providing higher quality beef and pork." The provision's fate in the Senate is uncertain. (Read more)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wind power energizes rural Oregon county

The main image on Oregon's license plates is a tall pine tree. It remains fitting geographically, but the decline of the timber industry and the rise of another means another tall, straight centerpiece would be more fitting economically: a wind turbine.

“Wind is the only thing that is going to save rural Oregon, especially since all the timber is gone and the sawmills and all that are closing down. I think what it is is a breath of fresh air,” Judge Gary Thompson of the Sherman County Court told Lee Van Der Voo of The New York Times.

Sherman County (Wikipedia map) lies partly in the gorge of the Columbia River, "an expressway for hard-blowing wind since long before the turbines arrived," Van Der Voo reports from the county seat of Moro. "Trees here lean to the east from the gusts that rip across the plateau." County taxes, fees and assessments on wind farms have brought it $17.5 million since the first 300-foot-tall turbine was erected in 2002. The county shares the wealth with every head of household who has lived in there for a year, sending annual payments of $590, just under the $600 threshold at which the county would have to file individual reports to the Internal Revenue Service.

The intent is "to reward residents who have made no financial gains from wind energy development, but whose views of Mount Adams and the county’s stunning landscape now include a panorama of turbines," the Times reports. "It’s modeled after a lot of Alaska compensation," Thompson told the newspaper, noting how the 49th state distributes oil wealth to Alaska natives. "There are a lot of people who live in the county who are not necessarily going to benefit from the renewable energy, and we felt we needed to share it with all the county residents." Van Der Voo writes, "Critics say that the incentives are overly generous and that they take money from hard-pressed state budgets. In Sherman County, however, the arrangement has helped build a library and two new city halls, sewers and a bridge." (Read more)

Pawlenty's opposition to energy subsidies may signal change of attitude in Iowa on ethanol

For decades, presidential candidates have come to Iowa, home of the first presidential voting and thousands of corn growers, and endorsed federal subsidies for ethanol. That appears to be changing "with overall federal spending and deficits becoming such a major issue," reports Don Gonyea of National Public Radio.

The main sign came from former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of adjoining Minnesota, who announced his Republican candidacy in Iowa last week and said "We need to phase out subsidies across all sources of energy and all industries, including ethanol." That put him at odds with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but in line with Arizona Sen. John McCain, who campaigned little in Iowa in 2008 but still won the nomination.

Pawlenty "believes times have changed enough to allow him to oppose ethanol subsidies," Gonyea reports. "Des Moines Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich says he may be right." Obradovich told him, "Tim Pawlenty is coming in at a time when the ethanol industry is mature — and some people think it may be oversaturated." The key, she said, is that ethanol be treated no differently than similar subsidies. (Read more)

UPDATE, June 6: Politico reports many GOP candidates still favor the subsidy.

At the same time, Republicans in Iowa are wondering whether their caucuses are losing relevance in the nominating process, report Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, asking: "When the rest of the country is focusing on the economy, will Republicans in other states take their lead from the outcome of an eccentric process that has been dominated by social conservatives? And as the GOP looks to defeat an African American president who mobilized record numbers of young and minority voters four years ago, how relevant are the preferences of 200,000 or so caucusgoers in a rural state that is overwhelmingly white and significantly older than average?" (Read more)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rust Belt states consider abolishing, consolidating or reining in small local jurisdictions

"With shortfalls nationwide that could reach $112 billion in the next fiscal year, states including Ohio, New Jersey, and Michigan are pushing school districts and local governments — each with its own officials and budgets — to share more services and to consolidate for the sake of efficiency and cost," Mark Niquette of Bloomberg News reports.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich "has suggested a bipartisan panel similar to the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission to analyze consolidations and document the benefits," Niquette writes. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has clled for eliminating the state’s 1,008 "venerable but obsolete" township boards, long a target of reformers in the Hoosier State. Niquette's story also mentions a Pennsylvania bill "that would require consolidation among the commonwealth’s 2,652 boroughs — 30 percent of which have 1,000 or fewer residents, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development." (Read more)

Klan leader sentenced for drug trafficking

The founder of the Imperial Klans of America, which has been active in rural Western Kentucky, has been sentenced to four years in federal prison after being convicted of trafficking in methamphetamine and painkillers. Ron Edwards will have three years of supervised release after his prison term. His girlfriend, Christina Ann Gillette, was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and a year of supervised release, Erin Schmitt of the Madisonville Messenger reported. (Subscription required) Early this year, an appeals court overturned Edwards' conviction related to a racially motivated assault at the Meade County Fair.

Arizona town OKs 300-acre solar farm, nixing landowners who fear lower property values

The town council in Chino Valley, Ariz., has approved construction of a 300-acre solar-energy farm over the objection of adjoining landowners. "The meeting marked the end of a contentious debate between the state's largest utility and a group of town residents who have concerns about the farm," reports Jason Soifer of the Daily Courier in Prescott. (MapQuest image locates Chino Valley)

"Arizona Public Service now has the green light to buy 298 acres of the James Deep Well Ranch property for an $88 million solar farm project," Soifer writes. "SunEdison will build the farm, with nearly 81,000 photovoltaic panels, and then hand the keys over to the utility to run over the next 30 years." The utility will plant "trees between the fence and the roughly 70 properties that will eventually watch their serene backyard views turn partially to black." (Read more)

In an editorial, the Courier said, "this is not your typical NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) drum-beating. By the time SunEdison builds and APS operates the nearly 81,000 photovoltaic panels - a 'sea of black,' in the words of Chino Valley Vice-Mayor Ron Romley - on what is now a wide open section of rural serenity, those homeowners, about 70 properties, will have a much different view of renewable energy's 'benefits.' Property values will likely take a hit - in fact, it's already happening." (Read more)