Thursday, August 11, 2011

'Last man on the mountain' featured on NPR

Jimmy Weekley, a former coal miner turned anti-mining activist is "the last man on the mountain" following the arrival of a mountaintop-removal firm in his West Virginia community in the 1990's, National Public Radio reports. Many of his neighbors and family took buyouts and left, but not Weekley. His story aired on "All Things Considered" Thursday afternoon; click here to listen. (New York Times photo by Todd Heisler)

Sept. 1 is deadline to apply for fellowship to Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting Workshop

Daniel Gilbert won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for public service for the Bristol Herald Courier with his reporting on the mismanagement of natural-gas royalties in Southwest Virginia. He was able to crack the case with computer-assisted reporting skills learned at a CAR boot camp of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. Now journalists in the region will have a chance to gain most of the same skills, at the first Rural CAR Mini-Boot Camp, to be held Oct. 21-23 at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City (one of the Tri-Cities, along with Bristol and Kingsport).

With funding from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, IRE and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues will select 12 applicants for fellowships that will include meals, lodging and travel assistance.

Applications are due no later than Sept. 1. To download a PDF of the application, click here. For more background information, go here. For information on the Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting, created at the Institute by a gift from Gilbert, click here.

Rural high schools in New England use federal program to give students real-world experience

Thirteen mostly rural high schools in four New England states are participating in a project, funded by the federal Investing In Innovation or "I3" program, to "produce higher achievement and graduation rates, reduce dropout rates, and ensure students’ continued success after high school" through "an inquiry-based format," Diette Courrege of Education Week reports. (Ed Week photo by Katie Barnes)

Justin Quigley, left, 16, a junior at Pittsfield (N.H.) High School, got the opportunity to shadow a veterinarian as part of the regional program, Courrege reports. Laconia (N.H.) High School had almost 30 percent of its students participate last year, and hopes to offer the program to all 680 students soon. "There are multiple ways to show kids have learned the material and are competent in the subject matter," Laconia principal Steve Beals told Courrege. "We're open to creating new and better opportunities to meet these kids' needs in a student-centered environment." (Read more)

Small bank 'fed up' with federal rules sells out

Increased bank regulations, following the criticism of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's oversight prior to the financial crisis, have brought complaints from many small-town banks, saying they will have to add staff to comply with the new laws and may be forced to merge with larger banks. Now one bank is saying the new rules are putting it out of business.

Main Street Bank in Kingwood, Tex., frustrated by what it calls government micro-management, plans to "surrender its banking charter and sell its four branches to a nearby bank," Robin Sidel of The Wall Street Journal reports. "The regulatory environment makes it very difficult to do what we do," bank Chairman Thomas Depping told Sidel.

In July 2010, the bank was subject to a 25-page order from the FDIC that accused it of "putting too many eggs in one basket" and required the bank "to increase its capital cushion" and "shore up its lending guidelines," among other things, Sidel reports.

Main Street Bank announced it will sell its four branches, all deposits and some loans to Green Bank, a unit of Houston-based Green Bankcorp Inc., with the remaining loans going to a new firm created by Depping, backed by private investors, that will lend money but not be regulated or insured by the FDIC. (Read more)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Industry and local reactions make officials in W.Va. town back off recently enacted gas drilling ban

City officials in New Martinsville, W.Va,. are the latest in the Mountain State to reconsider a local ban on Marcellus Shale gas drilling in the city limits following criticism from the community and the industry. City officials said they were trying to protect the water supply, but many others believe the economic opportunities from drilling in the area outweigh its "public nuisance," The Associated Press reports. (AP photo)

Quinet's Court Restaurant has seen the economic growth first-hand, with business tripling over the past three years. "These gas people have brought new life to this town," Matt Quinet told AP. "Before, it was almost like a ghost town" following layoffs at local industries. The benefits don't stop there. "Besides creating jobs and tax revenue, gas companies donate to libraries, schools, 4-H clubs and other fundraisers they're asked to support," Quinet added.

The final council vote is set for Sept. 5. Mayor Lucille Blum told AP that statements from the West Virginia Independent Oil & Gas Association, which threatened to take members' business elsewhere, and Chesapeake Appalachia "were strong enough that they . . . made us look at that industry a different way." (Read more)

USDA proposes new interstate livestock tracking system to deal with disease outbreaks

Taking another crack at a tough issue, the U. S. Department of Agriculture proposed a new, mandatory livestock tracking system yesterday, in an effort to more quickly locate the origin of animal-borne diseases. The system would require farmers and ranchers to obtain interstate certificates of veterinary inspection or other approved documentation and use an approved livestock identification, such as cattle eartags, for animals being moved across state lines, The Associated Press reports.

"We would not propose this if we weren't confident it would do a better job than we've done in the past," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters in a conference call. The new system would cut animal tracking time down to as little as a few days and would be a "significant improvement" compared to the 150-day investigation of an earlier bovine tuberculosis outbreak, Vilsack said.

"The announcement came 18 months after [USDA] abandoned a program intended to trace the movement of farm animals across the country and said it would begin work on plans for a more flexible program to be administered by the states and tribal nations," AP notes. "A voluntary program implemented in 2004 to pinpoint an animal's location within 48 hours after a disease outbreak was poorly received with just 36 percent of farmers and ranchers participating in 2009."

The proposal, which would cost about $14.5 million annually and require congressional support, will not interfere with existing state regulations or prevent states from developing their own tracking systems, AP reports. For USDA's news release, click here. The proposal will be open for public comment for 90 days before starting Aug. 11. Click here to submit comments electronically.

Idea for farm heritage center in Ky. may be scuttled by heirs' wish to turn site into subdivision

The plan to create a non-profit center to celebrate Kentucky's agricultural heritage, look to its future and attract tourists is in jeopardy, because the heirs of the wealthy man who planned to donate the property have decided to make money on it by selling it for residential development. There was no explicit irony in the story by Greg Kocher in today's Lexington Herald-Leader, but it was implicit:

"Mercer County philanthropist Ralph G. Anderson intended to donate 50 acres of his Anderson Circle Farm north of Harrodsburg for the center. But when Anderson died last year at age 86, the formal transfer had not occurred, and his estate had other plans for the land. Last week, the Mercer County Joint Planning and Zoning Commission approved six preliminary plats that subdivide more than 4,500 acres of Anderson Circle Farm and other properties. Most of the land is zoned for agricultural purposes, but some is zoned for low-density and high-density residential. Included in those plats is the site . . . Anderson had intended for the Agriculture Heritage Center." The land will be sold at auction. (Google map; click for larger image)

Margaret Lane, the center's board chair, said it is trying to find another land donor. "Lane said the board hopes to announce a new site soon that would be 'very close' to the original," Kocher reports. Taxpayers have a stake in the deal; the state Agricultural Development Board has approved $1 million in tobacco-settlement funds for a market study, design and marketing of the center, and a state-backed bond issue would finance construction. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Agroforestry, blending trees and shrubs with crops and livestock, shows promise on many fronts

Agroforestry, "a method of growing trees and shrubs on the same land parcel with crops and/or livestock," shows promise as a way to increase profits and land values for farmers and landowners, prevent soil erosion, reduce deforestation and generate new agribusiness, reports Jennifer Beecher of Landthink, a website that provides knowledge, ideas and networking opportunities to land professionals and investors. (Landthink image)

The U. S. Department of Agriculture revealed its Agroforesty Strategic Framework plan at the North American Agroforestry Conference in Athens, Ga., as a guide to implementing agroforestry plans. The goal "is to continue developing the scientific practice and to provide farmers, ranchers and landowners with the latest information, training and tools neede to implement a plan," Beecher reports.

Rural town and editor say goodbye to its last tobacco warehouse, marking the end of an era

Residents of Somerset, Ky., said their final goodbyes to a landmark recently, with the demolition of the community's last standing tobacco warehouse. For years, burley tobacco was the financial underpinning of Somerset and Pulaski County, but auctions ended in 2005 after repeal of Depression-era production controls and price supports. Many growers had already contracted with cigarette manufacturers and spurned auctions. (Photos by Sharon Dodson)

Developers aren't sure what will replace the warehouse, but many residents will have a hard time forgetting it, including Bill Mardis, editor emeritus of The Commonwealth-Journal. "The best meal in town was at a warehouse restaurant," he writes. "It was a part of the tobacco-selling experience, highlight of a grower's year. Family members came and watched in awe as baskets of hand-tied and later baled burley were bid in by the buyers." (Read more)

EPA and USDA join to help rural water systems

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency are partnering to offer grants to many small communities with limited resources for maintenance and compliance upgrades to their water and sewage systems, Deborah Solomon of the Wall Street Journal reports.

Training will be a crucial part of the program which the agencies say may bring some jobs into rural areas. "A critical part of this agreement is to ensure that we have a well trained, professional work force available to replace workers when they leave or retire, Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Water, told Solomon. For the USDA press release, click here.

Coal's share of electric generation was 46% in first quarter, the lowest figure in 30 years

Coal's contribution to electric-power generation during the first quarter of this year was the lowest in 30 years, the U. S. Energy Information Administration reports. Coal accounted for 46 percent of total electricity, 3 percentage points less than the same period last year and 6 points down from 2008.

Most of the difference was made up by natural gas, which is increasingly competing with coal. A steady increase in the spot price of coal in the Eastern U.S., combined with comparatively low natural gas prices, have contributed to the declining use of coal across the nation. In the Midwest, which depends most on coal, the rock's share fell to 66.9 percent from 70.5 percent in the first quarter of 2010. (Read more)

Congressman who closed horse slaughterhouses again proves his high regard for animals

The congressman who was the top player in ending commercial horse slaughter in the U.S. proved again Sunday that he is an animal lover, rescuing a fatigued stray dog from deadly traffic and donating $1,000 to the animal shelter where he took it.

Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield of Western and Southern Kentucky's 1st District was driving on US 41 when he saw the dog almost get hit by two trucks, he told The Messenger's LaMar Bryan. “His tongue was hanging out as far as it could go,” he told the Madisonville daily.

When Whitfield stopped and called the dog, “He immediately jumped in some bushes,” Whitfield said. “I walked down there and started calling him in a real gentle voice. He stuck his head out and ran up to me.” He got some water for the dog, a mixed breed of about 30 pounds, and called a Hopkins County Humane Society animal-control officer, who took the dog to the shelter.

“He was a beautiful dog and quite friendly,” Whitfield told The Messenger. “I told (the officer) that if they would take care of him I would make a contribution.” Whitfield told the paper he has picked up several dogs, including one that he and his wife Connie, a horsewoman, still have. (Read more, subscription required) Well, after all, Preisdent Harry Truman said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

UPDATE, Aug. 11: "Max’s big adventure ended with a script that would suit Hollywood," as he was reunited with his owner, Bryan reports.

Several years ago, Whitfield sponsored successful legislation to stop funding Department of Agriculture inspections of U.S. abbatoirs that slaughtered horses for human consumption, mainly in Europe and Japan. The ban forced closure of the slaughterhouses, which some horse advocates say has contributed to the problem of horse abuse and abandonment because there is no longer a floor price for horses. The House voted this summer to keep the ban after an attempt to repeal it narrowly failed in committee.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Scranton paper's series on fracking wins second for in-depth environmental reporting in SEJ contest

Some rural reporting won national recognition in the annual awards of the Society of Environmental Journalists, announced today.

Laura Legere of the Scranton Times-Tribune won second place in small-market, in-depth reporting for "Deep Impact: Natural Gas Drilling in the Marcellus Shale." The judges said, "In the much examined field of fracking, Laura Legere went beyond the clich├ęs . . . She also humanized and investigated a story that big media, such as the New York Times, reported on, but Legere’s reporting went further yet and she brought the issues home." Third place went to "Accidental Wilderness" by David Wolman, a freelancer for High Country News. First prize went to reporters for ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for a series on defective Chinese drywall.

In the beat-reporting contest among journalists in small markets, Susan Sharon of Maine Public Broadcasting won third place for "Science Skeptics, Corporate Lobbyists and the Assault on Maine's Environment." For the other winners in that category, and links to individual stories, click here.

Debt deal could spur action on new Farm Bill

The debt-ceiling deal that calls for an even bigger deal "could force 2012 Farm Bill decisions to be made much sooner than expected," reports Ken Anderson of Brownfield Network. "Washington watchers say that deal may force the agriculture committees to decide which ag programs live and die by Thanksgiving of this year," Anderson writes. "Mostly, it depends on whether the new 'super committee' on deficit reduction can come up with an acceptable plan by November 23."

Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, "is suggesting that agriculture programs are likely to fare better under the debt deal if the 'super committee' fails to develop recommendations or cannot get its plan passed by Congress," Anderson reports, because the deal would require across-the-board cuts "that would likely result in lower cuts for agriculture than if the committee targeted specific programs." (Read more)

BLM will use birth-control drug on mares rather than castrate wild stallions in southwestern Wyoming

"Backing away from a plan to castrate wild stallions that has incensed environmental groups, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Friday announced it will instead use a birth-control drug on mares to reduce the growth of wild horse herds in southwestern Wyoming," The Associated Press reports.

Federal appeals court for Del., N.J. and Pa. strikes down official prayers before school-board meetings

A second federal appeals court has ruled that it is unconstitutional for a school board to pray before public board meetings is unconstitutional, Mark Walsh of School Law reports.

"The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, comes at a time of renewed attention to prayers in the public square," Walsh notes. "Prayers before city council and county board meetings have come under greater legal scrutiny, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's decision to lead a prayer rally this past weekend raised concerns among civil libertarians. Prayers before school-board meetings are commonplace in the United States."

The court ruled for two families who sued the Indian River School District in the southeast corner of Delaware, which has a formal policy calling for board members to rotate in leading a prayer or moment of silence to "solemnify" formal meetings. The policy says prayers "in the name of a Supreme Being, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah" or any other entity, but Walsh reports, "Court papers say that in practice, prayers have almost always been Christian."

"The court said the key question was whether the school board's meetings and prayers were closer to the legislative prayers upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court . . . or more like other school events in which the high court's cases have limited school-sponsored prayers," Walsh writes. "The court noted that students are frequently present at board meetings," and "concluded that the board meetings are closer to other school events, such as graduation ceremonies, in which school-sponsored prayers have been held to have a coercive effect on students."

The 3rd Circuit comprises Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In 1999, the 6th Circuit Court, which covers Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, ruled that prayers before board meetings in Cleveland were barred by the First Amendment clause that prohibits an establishment of religion. (Read more)

About 70 police websites hacked; most are rural

An anonymous group "hacked into some 70 mostly rural law enforcement websites in the United States," leaking sensitive information about at least one ongoing police investigation, Raphael Satter of The Associated Press reported.

Dick Mackey, vice president of consulting at Sudbury, Mass.-based SystemExperts, told Nomaan Merchant of AP for a follow-up story, "The smaller the organization, the more likely that they don't think of themselves as potential targets. They're not going to have the protections in place that a larger organization will have."

The majority of the attacks were on websites hosted by Brooks-Jeffrey Marketing, a media hosting company based in Mountain Home, Ark., Merchant reports. "If Brooks-Jeffrey's defenses were breached, that would give hackers access to every website the company hosted," Kevin Mitnick, a security consultant and former hacker told Merchant. (Read more)

The attackers claimed their motive was retaliation for arrests of sympathizers.

EPA proposes rules on air pollution by fracking

Oil and gas drillers, long the target of laws and regulations designed to stop or limit water pollution, are now in the air-pollution crosshairs of the Enivronmental Protection Agency. The proposed rules are of special interest in areas where hydraulic fracturing is used to release natural gas from deep shales such as the Marcellus Shale in the Eastern U.S. “Some of the largest air emissions in the oil and gas industry occur as natural gas wells that have been fractured are being prepared for production,” EPA said in a fact sheet.

Environmentalists said the rules would fill a gap in regulation, but industry representatives sounded alarm. "If this becomes law, many wells will have to be plugged and abandoned, which will significantly increase oil imports and coal usage in power plants," Marcellus Coalition spokesman Travis Windel told Jim Ross of WVNS 59 News in West Virginia. (Read more)