Friday, February 10, 2012

Mobile VA center to treat veterans in rural Tenn.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs is sending a mobile "vet center" loaded with behavioral health counselors to treat veterans living in rural or otherwise medically underserved areas in Middle Tennessee, reports Kristin Hall of The Associated Press. VA health undersecretary Dr. Robert Petzel said mobile centers will bring "services to remote areas and provides a less threatening, more receptive and less bureaucratic way for these people to enter into VA care."

The centers are modified RVs with wheelchair lifts, private meeting areas, showers, computers, fax machines, phones and videoconferencing capabilities. They will provide rural veterans with a range of counseling services, including individual, group, family, alcohol and substance abuse and sexual trauma. Outreach and education about post-traumatic stress will be provided as well as employment guidance. The mobile center will have satellite uplinks, allowing counselors to help veterans sign up for benefits and enroll in VA health care.

"We can do a lot of things that normally they would have to come into a brick-and-mortar building to do," said Christopher Bonner, team leader at the Nashville Vet Center. This will prevent long drives to cities where VA centers are located, a trip some rural veterans often can't make. (Read more)

Meth-lab cleanup a growing business in Indiana

Methamphetamine use and production is running rampant in many rural places, with some "cookers" using increasingly dangerous methods. Meth cooking leaves behind toxic residue that sickens residents long after labs are dismantled. Crisis Cleaning, a rural Indiana company, specializes in meth-lab cleanup in that state plus Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky.

Company officials say business is good because of the epidemic, reports Nick Schneider of the Greene County Daily World. Crisis Cleaning started out cleaning up death and crime scenes, but in 2006 sheriffs across Indiana asked it to clean up meth labs. It's one of about six firms in Indiana specializing in such work, Schneider reports. (Daily World photo)

Business soared after Indiana passed a law requiring property owners to clean up after meth makers, who usually use rental properties. Crisis Cleaning CEO Donetta Held said most people think that when police raid a lab, that's the end of the story; but, everything in a place where meth was produced has to be cleaned to remove liquid and particulate toxins from walls, floors and ceilings. When the company's five inspectors move in, they test each room to determine meth levels. Residences sometimes have to be cleaned three times to fully remove toxins.If decontamination costs are more than the residence's value, often the case with mobile homes, the dwelling is usually scrapped.(Read more)

Oglala Sioux tribe sues liquor stores that supply reservation where alcohol is banned

The Oglala Sioux Indian Tribe of South Dakota is suing owners of four Whiteclay, Neb., liquor stores and the beer distributors and manufacturers serving those stores, accusing them of knowingly providing alcohol that afflicts residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned, reports Kevin Abourezk of the Lincoln Journal Star. The federal suit, filed this week, lists more than a dozen defendants, including Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co. (Rapid City Journal photo by Kristina Barker: Norman Pipe On Head makes six-packs in Whiteclay store to resell)

The suit alleges owners of the four Whiteclay stores violated Nebraska law by selling beer to reservation residents who they knew would transport it to the reservation and resell it. It also alleges the owners accepted sex, pornography and food-assistance vouchers in exchange for beer. According to the suit, 5 million cans of beer were sold at Whiteclay stores in 2010, up from 4.3 million in 2004. It also cites high rates of Indian children born with fetal alcohol syndrome or spectrum disorder, life expectancy between 45 and 52 years, and a teen suicide rate 150 percent higher than the national average.

The suit states "alcohol is a devastating drug to the Lakota people," the name they prefer to Sioux, and they don't "have the resources to properly address families which have been torn apart by alcohol." The effects of alcohol on the tribe and the Lakota "cannot be overstated," it reads. It also says the "vast majority" of beer consumed on the reservation is sold at Whiteclay stores. The tribe is seeking monetary compensation for damages it has suffered. (Read more)

UPDATE, March 6: The New York Times catches up to the story.

More states opening courts to camera coverage

If your state has not opened its courtrooms to cameras, it is part of a shrinking minority. All the state "have declared themselves willing to open up some court business to cameras, although the levels of openness vary from state to state," reports Maggie Clark of Stateline. "Within the last year, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Illinois have all amended their court procedures to be more camera-friendly." (iStock Photo)

But the devil has been in the details. “Lots of states say they permit cameras,” says Kirby, “but there are a lot of barriers,” Radio Television Digital News Association General Counsel Kathy Kirby told Clark. Until last March, Minnesota required journalists apply for camera access before a trial, and a party to the case could refuse access, so few trials were opened. Minnesota’s Supreme Court now allows only district judges to bar cameras.

Clark's story is pretty comprehensive, and mentions several states. To read it, click here.

Companies partner to accelerate adoption of electronic health records in rural hospitals

Anthelio, a health information-technology support company, and Heartland, a hospital information-systems vendor, have partnered to speed up implementation of electronic health records at rural hospitals so the facilities can get federal incentives, reports Ken Terry of Information Week Healthcare. Heartland CEO Angela Franks said the partnership's purpose is to "migrate its customers to a more sophisticated, cloud-based electronic health record system called Centriq . . . as quickly as possible."

Anthelio will provide "migration services," including training and testing and supplement rural facilities' "sparse IT resources." The company expects to bring Centriq to 500 hospitals in two years. Franks said said Heartland focuses exclusively on rural hospitals, providing them with systems tailored to health-care organization in rural places. "Rural America has been largely ignored in terms of what they've done in these small hospitals," she said. "These hospitals go from paper to paperless in 12 months, and they truly are the embodiment of what the country is trying to get to with the electronic health records." (Read more)

Ky. county declares roads in 'state of emergency' because of coal-truck traffic

Members of the governing body of Pike County, Kentucky, in the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfield, voted unanimously this week to declare a state of emergency on two state highways they say were damaged by coal trucks, reports Chris Anderson of the Appalachian News Express in Pikeville. (Google map)

Magistrates of the county's Fiscal Court say the high volume of coal-truck traffic is a traffic hazard on the narrow, winding roads. The fiscal court approved an earlier emergency declaration on a road after a fatal accident there. "There are just so many coal trucks on those roads and the trucks are too big for the roads," Magistrate Hilman Dotson said.

Dotson said the emergency declaration could get both roads in the state's six-year road plan for improvements. Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman Joe Stanley told the magistrates that this is a typical problem on rural secondary roads: "A coal company will move in and within a month’s time, on these little roads, they’ll destroy them." He said the cabinet has tried to work with coal companies to maintain roads, but they've "not had any luck."

Anderson reports the magistrates highly praised coal companies during the meeting, despite complaining about the damage they cause. One suggested the fiscal court support a partnership with companies for a "Coal to Roads" program that would allow companies to turn over mine access roads for county use when mining is complete.

The News-Express makes stories available only to subscribers; its site is here.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

In new Wild West of campaign finance, interests give big; Consol Energy is one, and some are secret

A breakdown of the federal campaign-finance regulation system, topped off by a year-old Supreme Court decision that gave corporations the same rights as people, has opened the doors to large-scale funding of campaigns by interests, some of them secret, that have much to gain or lose at the hands of the government. "Some are already in trouble with the government," note Jack Gillum, Richard Lardner and Stephen Braun, reporters for The Associated Press, who recently produced some examples of contributions that might create expectations that the favors will be returned.

A prime case was the $150,000 given by Consol Energy, which is the top producer of underground-mined coal and also has natural-gas interests, to a group supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Consol, formerly Consolidation Coal Co., "paid a $5.5 million fine last year for violations of the Clean Water Act at six of its mines," AP notes. "It is lobbying to prohibit the federal government from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Weeks after the company gave money to support Romney, who previously had agreed that humans are contributing to climate change, the candidate appeared to back off that position and said he would oppose spending high amounts of federal money to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, like those from coal plants."

The pro-Romney committee, Restore Our Future, "spent $8.8 million on ads in Florida alone, more than Romney's own campaign," AP reports. "A Romney campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, dismissed any suggestion that wealthy donors are motivated by their private interests to fund the committee's operations." As long as the committee doesn't consult with the Romney campaign, it can accept unlimited contributions. The story deals with other candidates, in both parties. To read it, click here.

Not all the givers in the presidential race will be public. "More than a third of the advertising tied to the presidential race has been funded by nonprofit groups that will never have to reveal their donors, suggesting that a significant portion of the 2012 elections will be wrapped in a vast cloak of secrecy," Dan Eggen reports for The Washington Post. "The bulk of the secret money spent so far has come from conservative groups seeking to propel a Republican into the White House, advertising data show. . . . Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group backed by GOP political guru Karl Rove, has spent more than $10 million on ads targeting Obama over the federal deficit, energy policies and other issues in the 2012 cycle." (Read more)

Nevada judge lets wild-horse roundups proceed; appeals court says another erred in barring photographer from earlier roundup

Even though the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has said it plans to reduce wild-horse roundups, a federal judge in Nevada has denied advocates' request to block roundups in the West, reports Scott Sonner of The Associated Press. Texas-based Free Wild Horse Federation said they feared horses were being abused, but Judge Howard McKibben said the group would have to take their concerns to Congress "if they think the animals ... need more protection."

McKibben granted a temporary restraining order last year that cut short a roundup near the Nevada-Utah border after a helicopter flew too close a horse in violation of the law. However, the BLM has made positive changes since then, he said, and he can't issue injunctions based on speculation about future abuse. "This court is not going to police all gathers in the U.S. or even all gathers in the district of northern Nevada," he said.

A lawyer for the group said the judge was its "last vestige of hope" because there is no other accountability. The BLM said in a formal review made public in December that horses in Triple B, a horse round-up facility, were whipped in the face, kicked in the head, dragged by rope around the neck and repeatedly shocked with electrical prods. But, the agency concluded none of the treatment was inhumane. (Read more)

UPDATE, Feb. 14: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that District Judge Larry Hicks did not properly weigh the First Amendment implications when he barred photojournalist Laura Leigh of Horseback magazine from covering the roundup. "A court cannot rubber-stamp an access restriction simply because the government says it is necessary," two judges on the three-judge panel wrote, directing Hicks to reconsider the issues. For details from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, click here.

Prescription-drug abusers are taking dogs to veterinarians to get painkillers for themselves

Law enforcement agencies are dealing with yet another way drug seekers are trying to get their hands on prescriptions pills — through their pets. In Paducah, Ky., a woman was charged with doctor shopping by taking her dog to several veterinarians, reports Lauren Adams of WPSD-TV.

"The dog was diagnosed with something that would be treated with tramadol," said Ryan Norman, a drug detective with the McCracken County Sheriff's Department. The painkiller can be used by dogs and humans. When Tonya Rolison, 46, never brought the dog back for the required treatment, her vet became suspicious and contacted police.

That resulted in a month-long investigation that allegedly pointed to Rolison doctor shopping — going from everyone from physicians to veterinarians to gain prescriptions. "People get creative," Norman said. "They seek other ways to get what they need." (Read more)

Transportation bill would cut funding for programs that improve safety for rural Americans

A transportation bill in the House would cut federal funding to repair roads and bridges, and safety programs for pedestrians, school children and bike-riders, reports Stephen Davis of Greater Greater Washington. The changes would hit rural communities especially hard. Environmental, business and labor groups are all opposed to it and are encouraging people to call representatives telling them to vote "no" on it. Politico reports that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called it "the worst transportation bill" he's seen in 35 years.

The bill would end a 30-year precedent of dedicating 20 percent of federal fuel taxes to fund mass transit, open almost all U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas drilling and eliminate funding for pedestrian and bicycle safety and the "Safe Routes to School" program. Several newspaper editorial boards have expressed disdain for the bill. The Sacramento Bee says that if the bill is passed, "the nation's transportation network will take a giant step backward to a 'roads only' policy," and Congress should find ways to reduce emissions and traffic congestion, which would increase under the bill. The New York Times calls the bill "so uniquely bad" that it defies belief.

10 states get flexibility in No Child Left Behind; officials schedule conference call for 2:45 p.m.

The White House announced this morning that the federal government is giving 10 states much greater leeway in meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which many rural school districts have found difficult to meet.

The states are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Three of the waivers were conditional, depending on changes in their plans, but those states were not immediately specified.

"The administration is continuing to work closely with New Mexico, the 11th state" that met the application deadline for the first round, a White House press release said. "Twenty-eight other states along with D.C. and Puerto Rico have indicated their intent to seek waivers."

In exchange for the waivers, "States have to agree to adopt 'college- and career-ready' standards, such as the Common Core State Standards approved by 46 states and the District of Columbia; put in place new systems for evaluating teachers and principals; and come up with aggressive plans to improve the performance of low-performing schools," Sean Cavanagh of Education Week reports.

President Obama is to make the formal announcement at 1:55 p.m. EST. At 2:45, the director of his Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Munoz, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will hold a conference call to discuss it. Journalists should call 800-230-1096 and ask to join the White House call. No passcode is necessary.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Map showing likely paths of electric transmission lines intended to be resource for journalists

The Center for Rural Affairs' Clean Energy Transmission Database has created a map of clean-energy transmission projects "intended to help journalists, communities, landowners, local and state policymakers and other stakeholders track clean-energy transmission developments in their region," the center reports. The database attempts to provide up-to-date information about projects in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest.

The map is a "rough approximation" of where transmission lines will be constructed because most projects are still in planning stages, the website says, but it will be continually updated when new information is available. Click here to view the map.

The organization has released a report about the economic impact of new energy transmission on rural communities. It has also created a list of "transmission principles" that highlight what it believes are concerns and priorities that should govern transmission planning. "We want to be your source for information, facts, and news regarding clean energy transmission," the website says. (Read more)

Fracking isn't new; ProPublica tracks its history

Investigative journalism website ProPublica has created a chart mapping the history of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the U.S. Lena Groeger reports fracking has only recently become a household name, but "government involvement with the drilling technique goes back decades." What's made it news is its use in deep, dense shales pierced by horizontal drilling, and the resulting boost in gas reserves.

Groeger writes that President Obama has called for expanded drilling and more regulations, and despite "mounting evidence of water contamination," few regulations have been implemented. The graphic, which dates as far back as 1969, "traces officials' moves - and levels of caution - over time. It can be accessed here.

Pa. letting local governments tax gas drilling, but locals say bill cuts their land-use authority, and enviros worry about industry's lobbying of locals

The Pennsylvania Senate passed legislation this week establishing an "impact fee" or tax for natural-gas drillers. The bill would give local governments power to tax drillers and set development standards, and is a compromise two years in the making, reports Amy Worden of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Pennsylvania is the only state with gas drilling that doesn't tax the industry. Supporters say the bill will help the state take advantage of "a valuable revenue stream," but some local officials and environmentalists say it would eliminate local control over land use. It's set to pass in the House today, and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has said he'll sign it into law. (Bloomberg photo: Pennsylvania gas drilling rig)

Revenue is estimated to be $190,000 to $355,000 per well over 15 years, and would be distributed by the state to communities most affected by the industry. Some would remain in state coffers for infrastructure and environmental programs, reports John Micek of The Morning Call in Allentown. A small share would likely be set aside to help develop a petrochemical refinery in the southwestern part of the state. The bill would give the state's Public Utility Commission power to collect and distribute fees and determine which local rules companies must follow.

That riled local officials, who say the bill would "eliminate their ability to decide where gas development could happen," taking away their control over municipal land, Micek reports. Democratic Sen. Lisa Boscola said she voted no on the bill because the fee wouldn't be levied by state government. "We're going to see a lot of these rural commissioners in the rural areas lobbied to death by the big gas companies," she said. "We're a commonwealth. We should do it." Environmentalists contend safety and environmental measures in the bill are weak, reports Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times. A South Fayette Township commissioner said local governments had been "sold out to the gas industry." Environmental group Clean Water Action estimates that zoning laws in 100 to 200 municipalities would be in question.

To reiterate: American Electric Power chief says coal is here to stay

Coal's not going anywhere, according to American Electric Power's CEO, Nick Akins, even though production will decrease to 39 percent from 45 by 2020, reports Megan Workman of The Charleston Gazette. "Once technology is proven, you'll start to see coal come back," he said. "We still need coal. . . . If someone is trying to eliminate that, it's just not going to happen." He made the remarks during a speech at the University of Charleston during its event "Energy: Who's Got the Power?"

Akins said AEP, which serves 38 eastern and central U.S. states, faces the challenge of adhering to mandates that have an impact on electricity rates paid by customers. He said West Virginia's lack of an energy policy is "counterproductive" and state regulators need to "speak up" to change this. He said the company is an advocate for coal, but natural gas will be a "bigger piece of the puzzle" in the future. Before AEP, Akins served as CEO of Southwestern Electric Power, with customers in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. He oversaw AEP's efforts to adopt new technology addressing climate-change concerns. (Read more)

Governor goes to Ohio's booming gas fields for his State of the State address, touts new jobs

By Bill Reader, Ohio University
Partner, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Ohio Gov. John Kasich broke with tradition Tuesday by giving the annual State of the State address at a small-town high school in Appalachian Ohio rather than in the Columbus statehouse. Kasich spent a portion of his speech talking about the dominant issue in that region and a major plank in his administration's priorities — coal mining and natural gas exploration and drilling — just days after announcing a $500 million investment in the region's booming natural-gas industry.

"If we can create a national energy policy, we need an energy policy in Ohio," Kasich said in his speech. "We are the Saudia Arabia of coal. We need to clean it and burn it. We also need to be for renewable energy. We need to embrace renewable energy. We need to have energy conservation, and we need to use our natural gas through fracking. We can't degrade the environment at the same time we're developing this industry."

The first-term governor gave his speech in the auditorium of the Steubenville High School, on the Ohio River across from West Virginia's Northern Panhandle and near the Pennsylvania border. Steubenville has a population of fewer than 19,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The day before Kasich's speech, the Steubenville Herald Star reported that the governor had announced that Denver-based MarkWest planned to expand its processing plant in nearby Marshall County and to build new plants in the region.

The newspaper contacted the company to verify Kasich's claims: "A spokesman for MarkWest, who declined to give his name, said the company could not divulge the cost of the new plants. He also said the company is still working out the details for the exact locations for the Ohio facilities." The development could create hundreds of short-term construction jobs and more than 40 long-term jobs, a MarkWest official told the newspaper.

That region of Ohio has seen considerable activity related to the Marcellus and Utica shale gas exploration and drilling. Last week, the Herald Star reported that another related facility might be built in nearby Belmont County — an "ethane cracker" that would remove ethane from the "wet" natural gases in the shale deposits. A Kasich spokesman would only confirm to the newspaper that Royal Dutch Shell was considering building such a facility in Eastern Ohio. A local county commissioner told the newspaper that such a facility could create thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of long-term jobs.

Not all the news related to the oil-and-gas boom in Ohio has been about economic growth in the traditionally depressed region. Weeks earlier, D&L Energy held a news conference in Youngstown to discuss the company's oil-and-gas wastewater well near the city, which a Columbia University seismologist has said "almost certainly" caused as many as 11 small earthquakes in the region.

Ohio has about 170 such sites to dispose of the brine and fluids used in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," of the shale deposits to release the oil and gas. A special report by The Columbus Dispatch states that "more than half of the brine coming to Ohio injection wells is from the shale-gas fields in Pennsylvania" and "The disposal industry is expected to grow as Ohio’s shale is exploited."

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

If you know of a comprehensive list of post offices that might be closed, tell us; the USPS won't

Millville, W.Va., P.O., since closed
Steve Hutkins of Save the Post Office has found out what we learned months ago, that there is no public, comprehensive list of potential office closures on the U.S. Postal Service's website. "One gets the impression that the service would prefer that the public not have access to this data," he writes, correctly.

On a micro level, the information is not really secret, as Hutkins notes: "Every community that sees its post office close down ... knows about it, and there's usually at least one local news article when a post office closes." But, he says, most closures happen "below the radar," making it hard to see the national scope of the issue.

Hutkins sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Postal Service asking for complete list of closures, but the agency told him it would cost $650 plus photocopying to compile it, and implied it could not do it. He's been trying to get data from local news reports and other sources, but admits that's "time consuming and prone to error." Even the USPS website has incorrect information and isn't frequently updated, he says.

He reports some success: USPS released several lists to Ruth Goldway, chair of the Postal Regulatory Commission. She made a request in January for the information as part of the PRC's annual compliance report. Hutkins notes the lists have several errors and "anomalies," found by Evan Kalish of Going Postal, a photo blog recording offices forced to close. Goldway requested seven lists, five of which have been given with two forthcoming. Hutkins links to each list and adds his commentary about them on Save the Post Office. (Read more)

Postal service plans to let newspapers count electronic subscriptions on their mailing forms

The U.S. Postal Service has published a proposed rule that would allow newspapers to list electronic subscriptions on their annual postal statements, the fundamental documentation of weekly newspaper circulation in the United States. The change would allow newspapers to place on a sworn, official document a form of circulation that is becoming increasingly important to rural papers, partly because of increasingly slow delivery of mailed copies, especially outside the papers' home counties.

"If copies that get poor delivery to distant addresses are sold e-subs instead of print copies, they [will] save printing and higher postage of 30-60 cents per copy, depending on weight and distance," explained Max Heath, postal specialist for the National Newspaper Association, the largest organization for community newspapers in the U.S. The NNA has been lobbying for such a change for four years.

Electronic subscription, as long as they totaled less than 60 percent of total circulation, could help a newspaper qualify for favorable mailing rates for its printed copies. To do that, a paid subscription would have to be sold for no less than 30 percent of the regularly published rate for a print subscription. Many newspapers are selling combination print and electronic subscriptions, but they would not be allowed to double-count them.

The proposal is open for comment until March 5. For the Federal Register pages containing the proposal, click here. UPDATE, Feb. 27: For a column by NNA consultant Max Heath, written for newspapers, go here

Raw-milk advocates in Ky. switch efforts to bill that would allow shared ownership of dairy cows

Even as The Associated Press reports "an outbreak of bacterial infections on the East Coast illustrates the popularity of raw, unpasteurized milk despite strong warnings from public health officials about the potential danger," the fight for raw milk continues in several states. In Kentucky some advocates who couldn't get a raw-milk sales bill passed have substituted the idea of "cow sharing," reports Janet Patton of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Generally, state laws allow people to drink raw milk from their own cows, and "cow sharing" allows people to buy into a herd, supporting care of cows, and share in the resulting dairy products. John-Mark Hack of Marskbury Farm Market in Lancaster said there is a lot of interest in this program because people want access to fresh dairy products. Kentucky Department of Public Health regulations prohibit raw milk sales.

Republican state Sen. John Schickel, sponsor of the bill to facilitate cow-sharing in Kentucky, said it is about "food-liberty issues," and follows the national trend to "get closer to the source" of food. But opponents say his bill could be dangerous because it's a step closer to legalizing raw milk sales. "If you have several people in cow shares, you have to ask, is this a loophole? Is this an effort to have no regulatory oversight in the process to consumers?" said Kentucky Dairy Development Council executive director Maury Cox. Advocate Sally O'Boyle said raw milk is no more dangerous than cantaloupe or spinach, which have been connected to recent outbreaks of food-borne illness. The bill, which would allow local governments to override it, is out of committee and on the Senate floor. (Read more)

UPDATE: The Ky. Senate passed the bill on Feb. 10 with a vote of 22-15. Most "yes" votes came from Republicans. The bill now moves to the Democratically controlled state House. The state's Community Farm Alliance published a break-down of how senators voted.

W.Va. governor asks for mandatory drug testing as main legislative response to drug-free disaster

New West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's main legislative response to the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster is mandatory drug testing for coal miners, even though the state's deputy mine-safety director told legislators this week that drug use wasn't a factor in the disaster, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. The state's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training hasn't released its report about the disaster, but independent reports from special state investigator Davitt McAteer, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the United Mine Workers didn't mention drug use.

"Investigative reports released to date generally agree that the Upper Big Branch disaster was caused by Massey Energy's systematic failure to follow safety rules governing mine ventilation, roof control, and the cleanup of highly explosive coal dust," Ward reports. He writes on his Coal Tattoo blog that McAteer reported no drugs were in the systems of the 29 miners killed at Upper Big Branch, according to autopsy reports.

Tomblin said he wants drug testing as a way to increase mine safety, citing a history of drug abuse among miners. The industry is "pushing the idea, which it has long championed," Ward reports. Some lawmakers and UMW representatives say the bill is unnecessary because companies already require drug testing.

Ward says on Coal Tattoo that one crucial question about the bill hasn't been addressed: "How specifically would either of these bills prevent the next mine disaster?" He also says it's diverting attention from reforms that are actually based on facts from Upper Big Branch, which is "maybe exactly what the coal industry wants." The industry, he says, was opposed to a similar drug-testing measure introduced by MSHA during the Bush administration because it would have required mine operators to "give miners who test positive the first time a chance to seek treatment and get their lives straightened out before they could be fired."

California legislature restores school transportation budget, but just for this year

Cuts to school bus transportation in California started Jan. 1, hitting rural schools especially hard. School officials, parents and students in rural districts rallied, though, and Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that the state legislature restored $248 million to the school transportation budget.

Senate Bill 81 will affect all districts, regardless of location or size. In order to restore funding, lawmakers agreed to cut per-student funding across the board by $42. "We're very happy because at least the cut is being done in a more equitable manner," said Edgar Zazueta, the Los Angeles Unified School Board's chief lobbyist. The district filed a lawsuit against the state when cuts were announced last year to have its funding restored. In Death Valley, students are bused more than 2 hours to school every day, and school board member Debra Watterson said the restoration of funding was a big relief. Restoration could be very short-lived, though: Gov. Jerry Brown has eliminated the school transportation budget in his 2012-2013 budget. (Read more)

Monday, February 06, 2012

Some state legislators want bills to better track metal theft, regulate scrap recycling

Copper and metal theft is a persistent problem in many rural areas where thieves sell it for scrap. Several state lawmakers are trying to tighten restrictions on scrap sales to curb thefts, with most proposed bills aimed at regulating the metal recycling industry. If proposed bills pass into law, it could become an example for other states struggling with metal theft.

In Georgia, farmers whose irrigated fields and crops are torn up by thieves hunting for copper, the state Farm Bureau says the thefts have cost its members about $1 million, not counting those that aren't reported because farmers fear it will make them uninsurable, reports Maggie Lee of The Macon Telegraph. One proposed bill would require metal recyclers get a license and check ID and collect thumbprints from anyone trying to sell metal to them. It would also make it a felony to illegally buy or sell scrap metal worth more than $500.

Similarly, Alabama lawmakers want a current bill revised to combine total worth of stolen metal and total cost of property damage committed, reports Laura Camper of The Anniston Star. The total amount will likely make crimes worth enough to be considered a felony rather than a misdemeanor, and courts would be able to make thieves repay that total to property owners. The bill would require metal recyclers to take a picture of sellers and record their ID, vehicle identification number and address. They would also have to mail checks to customers and wait three days before selling the metal.

Vermont legislators are trying to better regulate scrap yards. A proposed bill in the state would require recyclers hold metal for 15 days, segregated from other metal and keep information on the seller, Gordon Dritschilo of the Rutland Herald reports. It would create a reporting form for purchases from anyone who's not an authorized scrap dealer, and allow someone suing over theft to recover the total cost of metal stolen and property damage. Co-sponsor of the bill Rep. Herb Russell said these changes will make it easier to catch thieves. (Read more)

Rush to build solar farms in West has left environmental concerns of some in the dust

Photo by Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times: Ivanpah solar plant in Mojave Desert
Industrial-scale solar energy development is "well underway" in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, bolstered by the federal government giving the industry 21 million acres of public land on which to build, reports Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times. Hundreds of square miles of desert will be permanently disturbed, even if just a few solar farms are completed, and this has riled those who thought solar development was a non-harmful alternative to burning fossil fuels. Cart reports the Mojave Desert "is about to take one for the team" in the fight against climate change.

"For decades, America's Western deserts have been dusty storehouses for government scrap, a lode for minerals, a staging ground for tanks and military maneuvers," Cart writes, but the newest onslaught of solar development is creating a sense of urgency, with BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar plant in California standing as "an exclamation point in the desert." The plant could generate enough energy to power 140,000 homes during peak hours. Solar is expensive, though, costing three times more than coal or natural gas, so consumers pay 50 percent more for it, according to the California Public Utitlities Commission. The Obama administration has offered $45 billion in tax credits to solar companies, creating a land rush for public desert land.

Bureau of Land Management biologist Larry LaPre said some aspects of BrightSource's project were "carefully considered and painstakingly done," but others are "complete nonsense." Jeffrey Lovich, who studies desert tortoises for the U.S. Geological Survey, said it's unknown what will happen to wildlife when a solar farm is built. (Photo: Desert tortoises have been rounded up and placed in pens near the plant, pending relocation.)

Some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council "have been largely mute" because they helped with development plans. Cart reports 24 environmental groups signed statements supporting solar developers, agreeing with federal officials and solar companies that the urgency of climate change has "forced difficult trade-offs." The National Park Service, Department of Defense and Federal Aviation Administration have voiced concern, though, for various reasons relevant to each agency. (Read more)

End of federal payments to counties with national forest land having huge impact on local budgets

Federal payments to counties dependent on timber production from national forests are expiring this year. Oregon likely faces the biggest hit because more than 50 percent of its land is federally owned. Eighteen of the state's western counties received final payments from the Bureau of Land Management at the end of January, reports Alex Paul of the Democrat-Herald of Albany. The state will lose an allotment that's totaled $2.6 billion since 2000, reports Joel Millman of The Wall Street Journal. That payout has been the primary source of funding for 24 of the state's rural counties, helping "pay the bills for many of these areas since 1937." Many local officials in some counties are worried the cuts in funding will be a major blow to their operations, including those at local schools. (Read more)

Shoshone County, Idaho, is losing 48 percent of its funding, which is used for roads and schools, reports Kelsey Saintz of the Shoshone News Press in Kellogg. Kathie Durbin of The Columbian reports Skamania County, Washington, is losing half of its operating budget. While most of the attention on the program's end has focused on Western states, it affects any county with national forest land. Amy Harris of The Charleston Gazette reported last September that 13 counties and more than 111 public schools would lose almost $10 million a year unless Congress renewed it, which seems unlikely. 

Appalachian author's play focuses on discrimination against LGBT residents in rural communities

Kentucky author Silas House intended to write his first play about mountaintop-removal coal mining, but he changed his mind because of several incidents linked to a failed attempt to establish a fairness ordinance in the town of Berea protecting rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. House is director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College, and says his play, "This Is My Heart For You," is "loosely based on an incident in Hazard," Ky., in which two gay men were kicked out of a public pool for public displays of affection, reports Crystal Wylie of The Richmond Register.

The town where the play is set is divided on whether the pool manager is a bigot or a hero. House told Wylie his play "shines a light on the bigger issues of equality, hypocrisy, and compassion in America today." He got a lot of material from discussion threads about the Berea fairness ordinance and the Hazard pool incident on One whole scene is taken almost verbatim from a discussion on the site. "If you’re looking into the heart of a community in modern America," House said, "you must go to" (The head of Topix has said it gets more traffic from Kentucky than any other state.)

The play is fair to both sides of the debate, House said. It's not a critique or "taking fundamentalists and tearing them apart," he said; it's a look "into the heart of a town and all their complexities." He says faith is a continuing theme in the play, with characters just trying to "stick to their beliefs." He made a point to portray gay and straight people in the play as strong believers. House also says he wanted to show Appalachia as a contemporary place. "This Is My Heart For You" will be performed Feb. 22-25 at 8p.m. and on Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. in Berea College's Jelkyl Drama Center. For reservations, call 859-985-3300. Tickets are $10 for general admission and $8 for students. (Read more)

Kansas dental groups hope loan repayment program will attract dentists to rural areas

Two Kansas dental groups plan to start a college-loan repayment program that will entice dentists to locate in rural areas of the state. Delta Dental of Kansas Foundation and the Kansas Dental Association will use $150,000 to send three dentists to western Kansas where there is "inadequate coverage by dentists, who often are reluctant to locate in areas without a potential client base sufficient to balance revenues with operation costs and education loans," reports Tim Carpenter of The Capital-Journal.

Participants would have to work in a rural communities for three to four years to receive $50,000 for repaying their student loans. The program was modeled after a similar one in Iowa which indicated that incentives draw dentists to "difficult-to-attract" locations. But with some dental school graduates racking up $165,000 in loans, it's hard to convince them to move to sparsely populated places, and some say adding three dentists a year in places would still not meet demand. Delta Dental and KDA hope to have a list of applicants by May. (Read more)

Creative economy thrives in rural clusters in Miss.

The Blues Trail is part of the creative industry.
(Photo by Regional Technology Strategies)
In an attempt to find out how important "creative jobs" are to a state's economy and rural communities, the Mississippi Arts Commission and the Mississippi Development Authority commissioned a study about the state's creative industry. Regional Technology Strategies founder Stuart Rosenfeld, who helped conduct the study, reports for the Daily Yonder that the state's creative industries employ about 45,000 people. That might seem small when compared to metropolitan areas, he writes, but Mississippi's creative industry cluster is larger than many of the state's other clusters, including information technology and defense. The study and what's happening in Mississippi could be examples for other rural states.

Rosenfeld reports the creative economy "depends on non-profit organizations, cultural and entertainment events and venues, and places where creative enterprises can be started, housed, and displayed." The Arts Commission supports the Mississippi Whole School Initiative, which "maintains an emphasis on the arts in the public schools even as so many other states are de-emphasizing these areas." Rosenfeld reports the creative economy "is a home grown industry," because it's "embedded in the culture, traditions, and history" of the state. He profiles a selection of creative industry success stories, including stories from the state's Gulf Coast, the Delta region and the Mississippi School for the Arts, a residential arts school for high school juniors and seniors. (Read more)