Saturday, March 24, 2012

Santorum wears small-town success as an honor, sweeps Louisiana demographically, geographically

Santorum in a batting cage at LSU. (Photo
by George Herbert, The Associated Press)
"Republican presidential nominating contests often reveal a rural-urban split in the party, but what sets this year's campaign apart is the emphasis Rick Santorum is placing on that divide and wearing his successes in small-town America as a badge of honor," Jim Kuhnhenn reports for The Associated Press, getting a deeper bite of an apple previously bitten here.

"To hear Santorum tell it, the ability of front-runner Mitt Romney to win in big-city suburbs is a mark of ideological weakness, not political strength," Kuhnhenn writes, quoting Santorum: "That might give you some indication as to who the candidate is who best reflects the values of the Republican Party."

UPDATE, March 25: Santorum won 49.2 percent of the vote in Louisiana, losing only Orleans Parish, "sweeping virtually every demographic category and apparently picking up supporters from the fading candidacy of Newt Gingrich," Jonathan Tilove of The Times-Picayune reports.

Kuhnhenn notes that the former Pennsylvania senator has consistently won rural areas, where he "happily embraces the culture. He worships with Pentecostals in central Louisiana one day and campaigns at a gun range in the north on another, testing his marksmanship by pulling the trigger of a .45-caliber semiautomatic Colt pistol." As Santorum fired a few rounds at the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office Rifle Range, a woman shouted: “Pretend it’s Obama,” The Washington Post reports. "Santorum said later that he didn’t hear the comment," and said, "It’s a very terrible and horrible remark, and I’m glad I didn’t hear it."

Today's edition of The Advocate in Baton Rouge has a story detailing Santorum's reactions to inflammatory statements by the Rev. Dennis Terry, a local Baptist minister whose "sermon Sunday evening went viral" because he said "If you don’t love America, if you don’t like the way we do things, I got one thing to say: Get out!" Special writer Mark Hunter reports, "His comment drew applause from most, but not from Santorum, who smiled but didn’t clap."

Then Terry said, “We don’t worship Buddha — I said we don’t worship Buddha — we don’t worship Muhammad, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ,” and turned to Santorum, “holding open his arms as the candidate smiled, but didn’t applaud like the rest of the audience.” (Read more)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Judge rejects EPA veto of big mountaintop mine

"In a case that could have far-reaching implications, a federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its authority in revoking permits for a strip mine in West Virginia," Erica Peterson reports for WFPL in Louisville, with help from The Associated Press.

The ruling came from District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C. "EPA vetoed the corps' permit for the mine in January 2011, saying it would cause irreparable damage to the environment,"AP reports. "The move enraged both the coal industry and West Virginia politicians, several of whom have since introduced bills to try rein in the EPA."

The Spruce Mine, already under development, would be the largest mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia and probably in the four Central Appalachian states where the practice is used.

Safety panel says big mine disaster could have been prevented if federal agency had done its job

If the Mine Safety and Health Administration had properly enforced the law, "it would have lessened the chances of — and possibly could have prevented" the explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia almost two years ago, a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health panel given to the mine agency yesterday.

"It’s a remarkable conclusion," writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "The panel’s report puts quite a different face on things than MSHA, the Obama administration, and congressional Democrats (not to mention repeated editorials from The New York Times) have tried to push in their effort to downplay MSHA’s failings and protect their friend, agency chief and former United Mine Workers safety director Joe Main."

Ward contrasted the report with MSHA's internal review of the case and posted a copy of the NIOSH report here.

Training youths in entrepreneurship could make them come back to rural places

The perceived lack of career opportunities is causing many rural youth to believe they have to leave their hometowns and never return, Craig Schroeder reports for the Daily Yonder. But according to a seven-year survey of rural youth, almost half aren't interested in traditional careers, but instead want to own their own businesses. "Rural places that tie their economic development resources to entrepreneurship-education can help these young people pursue their dreams and, in turn, revitalize, grow and diversify their own local economies," Schroeder writes.

The Center for Rural Entrepreneurship at the Rural Policy Research Institute, where Schroeder works, found in the survey that 51 percent of rural youth would move back home if there were job opportunities, but only one-third surveyed said an adult had asked for their ideas or encouraged their efforts to make the community a more attractive place. The findings were consistent in communities across the country. The Center has identified four key elements to developing and nurturing young entrepreneurs: interactive entrepreneurship education, supportive community environment, peer networking, pathways from education to opportunity. Schroeder details each element in the article.

"To be truly successful, youth entrepreneurship must become a priority within a community's economic development strategy," he writes. Youth entrepreneurship requires sustained effort and is vital to rural communities' survival, because as Schroeder writes: "It doesn’t so much matter what we do tomorrow or next week if in 20 years most of the current residents have passed on and the next generation has left town never to return." (Read more)

Federal judge orders FDA to resume hearings on use of antibiotics in animal feed

A federal judge has ordered the Food and Drug Administration to resume hearings about the use of antibiotics in animal feed, citing concern that overuse is endangering human health by creating antibiotic-resistant "superbugs," reports Jessica Dye of Reuters. Magistrate Judge Theodore Katz of New York City ordered the proceedings to start unless manufacturers can prove antibiotics are safe. The agency started proceedings in 1977 in response to widespread concern about use of antibiotics in livestock feed. The proceedings were never completed, so approval for antibiotic use in feed remained in place.

The agency only formally stopped proceedings in December of last year, claiming they were outdated and that it was going to "pursue other regulatory strategies for coping with potential food-safety problems," Dye reports. A coalition of environmental and public health groups filed a lawsuit in May arguing common use of antibiotics in livestock feed has contributed to superbug growth, and claiming antibiotic-resistant infections cost Americans more than $20 billion every year, according to a 2009 study. (Read more)

Ranking Democrat on House Ag Committee says GOP plan cuts to '50-50' odds of Farm Bill in 2012

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, told Mike Adams of AgriTalk that House Republicans' budget outline "is going to cause big problems" for passage of a new Farm Bill this year. They are asking for a reconciliation process to avoid defense cuts, and they want them before writing of the bill begins, he said. He said Republicans are apparently going to ask for $8.2 billion in cuts, and as a result he thinks there's only a "50-50" chance of getting the bill passed this year.

"This is a reconciliation that’s not going to be done in the Senate," Peterson told Adams. "This is being done strictly to get enough Republican votes to pass a budget, so it has no effect on anything at the end of the day, other than to cause a lot of trouble for the Ag Committee in the meantime.” He said there are rumors that Republicans won't extend the current Farm Bill without insisting on further cuts, and he thinks approving the reconciliation without the Senate's approval "is just going to almost guarantee that you’re not going to get a bill done.” (Read more)

Beekeepers petition EPA to stop some pesticides

Beekeepers are petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to stop the use of pesticides they believe are killing honey bees, Perry Beeman of the Des Moines Register reports. The petition follows the release of a report linking an insecticide used for coating seed corn to the mass die-off of bees, or colony collapse disorder. The beekeepers are asking EPA to suspend use of certain pesticides they believe are most harmful to bees and make sure similar chemicals aren't used in the future. Beeman reports more than a million people submitted comments as part of the petition effort. (Altoona Herald-Index photo)

"EPA has an obligation to protect pollinators from the threat of pesticides," petitioner Jeff Anderson of California Minnesota Honey Farms said in a statement. "The agency has failed to adequately regulate pesticides harmful to pollinators despite scientific and on-the-ground evidence presented by academics and beekeepers." The petition claims EPA knew for nine years that pesticide use was harming bees, but did nothing to regulate it. Beeman reports scientists think pesticide use is only one factor contributing to colony collapse disorder. Others are fungi, habitat loss and parasites. (Read more)

Oil and gas companies are exempt from waste injection law

Oil and gas companies are exempt from federal environmental law designed to prevent industrial waste injection sites from causing earthquakes because they are exempt from "key provisions" of federal hazardous waste laws, Mike Soraghan of Energy and Environment News reports. There are more earthquakes caused by injection of oil and gas waste than documented cases of water contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing, he reports. Companies will likely be drilling more injection wells to dispose of fracking waste water because of the natural gas boom. Several recent earthquakes in Arkansas and Ohio have been linked to fracking waste injection.

Seismologist Steve Horton told Soraghan "no one's actually providing any guidelines for how to avoid these problems," and environmentalists say the exemption is an example of why creating loopholes in environmental laws for oil and gas companies is wrong. An Independent Petroleum Association of America representative said "the small number of earthquakes linked to the thousands of oil and gas disposal wells do not show a systemic problem requiring an overhaul of federal rules." He added that closing the loophole in the law would increase costs for the industry.

States can adopt stronger injection laws. Ohio has done this in response to the injection-well earthquakes there, and other states are following suit. The Environmental Protection Agency started a team to develop recommendations for state regulators about man-made earthquakes, and the National Academy of Sciences is studying how several forms of energy production can trigger quakes. (Read more)

USDA secretary says agency is removing barriers for Hispanic farmers

The Center for Rural Affairs is trying to find out why the number of Hispanic farmers in Nebraska and Missouri is declining. It recently published two reports about Hispanic farmer demographics in the states and the barriers in agriculture Latino farmers face. Clay Masters of Harvest Public Media interviewed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the National Farmer's Union convention in Omaha earlier this month about what the Department of Agriculture is doing to help remove barriers for Latino farmers.

Vilsack said the agency is using a combination of several things to help remove barriers. It is taking advantage of it's "strike force" program which focuses on minority communities in which there has been historically high lack of access to USDA programs. He also said USDA is making information available in both Spanish and English, and is trying to increase diversity among employees. He added the agency is making a concerted effort to remove the barriers: "It might not be reflected in a study depending on the time frame of the study, but we are making progress. "We know we're making progress because our equal opportunity claims and our civil rights claims have gone down." (Read more)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Postal Service adopting idea of contract post offices to fill gaps in areas hit by closings

We reported in Janurary that the U.S. Postal Service was starting to contract with rural stores to restore some mail services in areas where stand-alone post offices are being forced to close as part of the agency's plan to pay down billions in debt. Ron Nixon of The New York Times reports the trend is accelerating. (NYT photo by Stephen McGee: Village post office at Nixon's Grocery, Brant, Mich.)

There are now 10 stores contracted to serve as "village post offices." Two more will open this week, and 26 others are under contract and waiting for equipment. The USPS says it's gotten requests from 600 other interested communities about setting up such offices. It has long allowed retailers to sell stamps, but at contract post offices customers can also mail letters and send packages.

The agency hasn't said how much it expects to save by using grocery stores, but has said that closing stand-alone branches will save $200 million annually. It also hopes to offer services in drugstores, retail chains and office supply stores. USPS officials say this will be a "win-win" for the agency and rural communities. (Read more)

In other postal closing news, Steve Hutkins of Save the Post Office reports that the USPS revealed total expected revenue losses from consolidating more than 200 mail processing centers during a Postal Regulatory Commission hearing this week. Market research commissioned by the USPS last summer shows the closures would cost the service $5.2 billion in revenue due to a 10.3 percent drop in first-class mail volume and a 7.7 percent drop in total volume. Hutkins says the agency initially said revenue loss would be far less: $1.3 billion. He speculates that when top USPS officials saw the $5 billion number, they commissioned a new study "apparently designed to elicit better, less damaging results."

Most child injuries and deaths on farms involve visiting children, not working ones

There's been much discussion lately about changing child farm labor laws to prevent injury and accidental death in children working on farms, and some of it has included political misinformation.

But as National Public Radio's Nancy Shute reports from a new study, 86 percent of deaths and 71 percent of injuries in children on farms were not work-related, and many of them were not "unique to farms." They include falls, ATV or other vehicle accidents, assault and suicide attempts, according to the study, published last week in the journal Pediatrics. (NPR photo)

About 84 children die each year in accidents on farms, and more than 26,000 are injured. The injuries are usually severe and the study found they cost about $1.4 billion a year. About one million children live on farms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lists accidents with tractors, motor vehicles and drowning as the top sources of child farm deaths. Shute writes the injury numbers are consistent with other estimates of risks to children, but the dollar figure attached to them is new.

Purdue University professor William Field says most accidents involving children happen when a child visits a farm. Children who grow up on farms learn the hazards early, he said. "A lot of these cases involve a grandfather taking a grandchild for a ride in the field," he told Shute. "Those are some of the most depressing, sad circumstances." (Read more) A good source for information on farm safety is the National Farm Medicine Center

More foreign-born doctors practice in rural areas, come from poor nations, study finds

More than 15 percent of physicians in the U.S. received training in lower-income countries, including India, Pakistan and the Philippines, a peer-reviewed study found, reports Lori Kersey of The Charleston Gazette. The study was a joint effort by the National Research Council and the Stanley Medical Research Institute, and was published online on PLoS ONE. Most doctors from low-income countries practice in low-income areas of the U.S., where most U.S.-trained doctors don't usually want to go. West Virginia has the most doctors trained in low-income countries, at 29 percent of all physicians in the state.

The authors of the study said low-income countries where most doctors immigrate to the U.S. lose more money training them than they receive in U.S. foreign aid. In 2010, the Philippines spent $1.7 billion training more than 20,000 doctors who then came to the U.S., but was only given $33 million in U.S. foreign aid. The authors suggest the U.S. should pay those countries back in some way. (Read more)

Book about Appalachian health reveals region and culture-specific issues for residents, researchers

Editors of a new book hope it will shed light on the health problems facing Appalachia while debunking myths about the culture. Robert Ludke and Phillip Obermiller, both of the University of Cincinnati, compiled work for Appalachian Health and Well-Being from researchers "who present data addressing health disparities affecting urban and rural Appalachians and offers possible solutions," the Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Obermiller said most of the book's 40 contributors are from the region. The book will be officially debuted at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference this weekend in Indiana, Pa.

Ludke said the book is intended to be a resource to Appalachians or people studying public health. He said politicians and the general public need the information to better address Appalachians' health issues. The editors said they also wanted to draw attention to "urban Appalachians," or people of Appalachian heritage living in metropolitan areas. Ludke said the Appalachian population living in Cincinnati has assimilated less than in other metro areas. (Read more)

Appalachian coal taking it in neck from natural gas

The natural gas boom is threatening coal production in Appalachia as utilities are favoring the cheaper energy source, Sonja Elmquist of Bloomberg News reports. The amount of coal mined for electricity production will fall 5 percent this year to less than 900 million tons, the lowest in 16 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Appalachian coal companies have cut 21 million tons of production, and the industry will need to cut about 90 million more to "stem losses." Production from Appalachian companies Alpha Natural Resources and James River Coal have fallen 18 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Cris Ritchie of the Hazard Herald in Hazard, Ky., reported that Alpha recently cut hundreds of workers and closed four mines in the region.

Coal-mining costs in the region rose 9.2 percent to $60.28 a ton last year, while gas futures dropped 51 percent during the same period. Utilities are switching to gas and are only building new gas burning plants, Elmquist reports. Recent focus on coal-mine safety has perhaps added to the decline in production. Coal companies also face lower export prices, as domestic fuel inventories rise toward a 10-year high. (Read more)

Study finds health risks are greater for those living near natural-gas wells

Air pollution from hydraulic fracturing has been linked to health problems in those living near drilling sites, the Environmental News Network reports. The three-year Colorado School of Public Health study shows fracking raises levels of toxic gases, which include traces of cancer-causing elements. "Our data show that it is important to include air pollution in the national dialogue on natural-gas development that has focused largely on water exposures to hydraulic fracturing," said lead author Lisa McKenzie. The study will be published in the next issue of Science of the Total Environment.

Research was conducted with residents living about a half-mile from wells in Garfield County, Colorado (Wikipedia map), where there's been a rapid expansion of gas production. The county asked the School of Public Health to conduct the study for wells in the Battlement Mesa community. Researchers conclude in the report that health risks are greater for those living closest to wells, and suggests emissions be reduced.

The report found potentially toxic petroleum hydrocarbons and carcinogens in the air near wells, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. "Our results show that the non-cancer health impacts from air emissions due to natural gas development is greater for residents living closer to wells," the report said. "The greatest health impact corresponds to the relatively short-term, but high emission, well completion period." Exposure to trimethylbenzenes, aliaphatic hydrocarbons, and xylenes increases during that time, reports Click Green. Those elements can cause neurological and/or respiratory problems, including eye irritation, headaches, sore throat and difficulty breathing. (Read more)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

High court says couple can seek court relief from EPA 'compliance order' to restore alleged wetland

The Sacketts posted signs about their case.
(Photo by Keith Kinnaird, The Associated Press)
"The Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled for an Idaho couple who have been in a four-year battle with the Environmental Protection Agency over the government’s claim that the land on which they plan to build a home contains sensitive wetlands," Robert Barnes reports for The Washington Post. "The decision allows Mike and Chantell Sackett to go to court to challenge the agency’s order."

When the couple filled in a site for a home, EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered them to stop. "Months later, the agency sent the Sacketts a 'compliance order' that said the land must be restored as a wetlands before the couple could apply for a building permit," subject to fines of up to $75,000 a day, Barnes writes. "The question for the justices was whether the couple had the right at that point to appear before a judge and contest the agency’s contention that their land contained wetlands subject to the Clean Water Act." The court's answer was yes. (Read more)

UPDATE, March 30: The Sacketts, left, said they didn't know that they had a wetland, but records unearthed by the Natural Resources Defense Council too late to make the case record indicate that they "knew early on that their property probably was a wetland. An expert they hired said so in May 2007, just after EPA first visited the property but months before the agency issued the compliance order," Lawrence Hurley reports for Energy & Environment News. "Furthermore, on May 23, 2007, the Army Corps gave the Sacketts a permit application and asked them to complete it. Chantell Sackett's own notes also suggest she recognized the land was a wetland, even if she contested EPA's authority to regulate it." (Read more) (Photo by Hurley)

Support for alternative energy as a priority drops as support for increased fossil production goes up

Over the past year, fewer people think alternative energy sources should be developed, while support for oil and gas exploration has increased, a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll has found. In March 2011, 63 percent of U.S adults polled said the more important energy priority was developing alternatives, including wind, solar and hydrogen. This March, only 52 percent held that belief. Now, 39 percent of people polled said the more important priority is increased oil, coal and gas production. The Pew Center says the public's priorities have changed because of rising gas prices.

Even though more people think alternatives are still the higher priority, the gap between the two has decreased "considerably," the report states. Diane Cardwell of The New York Times notes that the partisan divide in the survey was "starker" than the divide over energy sources: 89 percent of Republicans favored more offshore drilling, but only 50 percent of Democrats support it. She writes the survey also found that people polled have a limited understanding of hydraulic fracturing, which has led to a boom in natural-gas production and environmental concerns. (Read more)

EPA says water in Dimock, Pa., is safe to drink, but fracking contamination worse than reported

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that tests showed water believed to be contaminated by hydraulic fracturing in Dimock, Pa., is safe to drink, perhaps "vindicating the energy industry’s insistence that drilling had not caused pollution in the area," reports Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica. EPA did not reveal, though, that water samples from the area "contained dangerous quantities of methane gas," and other contaminants, a finding that confirms the agency's initial concerns and complaints from Dimock residents about contamination, Lustgarten reports.

The EPA finding suggests the substances detected don't violate specific drinking-water guidelines, but standards for some of the contaminants don't exist, and experts say the agency should have said it found them. "Any suggestion that water from these wells is safe for domestic use would be preliminary or inappropriate,” said Ron Bishop, a chemist at the State University of New York-Oneonta. Lustgarten reports Dimock residents are trying to "reconcile" EPA findings with private water testing results. Meanwhile, EPA press secretary Betsaida Alcantara said the agency was trying to be "forthcoming" by giving residents the results. (Read more)

Critic gives most states poor grades for ethics, says 'small town' approach in some thwarts integrity

"State officials make lofty promises when it comes to ethics in government. They tout the transparency of legislative processes, accessibility of records, and the openness of public meetings. But these efforts often fall short of providing any real transparency or legitimate hope of rooting out corruption," reports Caitlin Ginley of State Integrity Investigation. The organization conducted a "first-of-its-kind" data-driven investigation into transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in all 50 states and found that not a single state received an "A" grade. Only five got a "B" grade, and eight got failing grades: Michigan, North Dakota, South Carolina, Maine, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia.

Ginley found that across the board, state laws on ethics, open records and official disclosure lack teeth. Ginley cites "Open records laws with hundreds of exemptions. Crucial budgeting decisions made behind closed doors by a handful of power brokers. 'Citizen' lawmakers voting on bills that would benefit them directly. Scores of legislators turning into lobbyists seemingly overnight. Disclosure laws without much disclosure. Ethics panels that haven’t met in years."

Many of the states at the bottom of the list are "sparsely populated Western or Plains states" where Ginley writes that "a small-town, neighborly approach to government and the honest belief that 'everybody knows everybody' has overridden any perceived need for strong protections in law." (Read more) To see how your state measures up, click here for an interactive map which shows each state's integrity report card.

EPA quietly plans to manage injection-well quakes

The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing recommendations for managing small earthquakes triggered by oil and natural-gas waste-injection wells, Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. The agency hasn't publicized its efforts, but has discussed them with state officials, researchers and interest groups. Scientists have known for decades that injection wells can cause minor earthquakes, but a series of quakes last year in Arkansas and Ohio raised public concern. The natural gas boom has also increased the need for new injection wells. (EPA map: Region 6 injection-site earthquakes over time periods; click on image for larger version)
An EPA team, formally the Underground Injection Control National Technical Workgroup, is preparing the report, and an Ohio agency said it was "in press" last week. EPA officials at the Region 6 office in Dallas, which is handling the issue, declined to comment beyond saying, "EPA is working with states to develop recommendations and best practices to assess impacts to underground storage caused by seismic activity to assist state and EPA UIC programs."

EPA records show there are about 150,000 "Class II" injection wells across the country, Soraghan reports. There are about 500,000 other types of injection wells where nonhazardous waste is stored. "The Safe Drinking Water Act empowers EPA to regulate underground injection. But EPA often hands day-to-day regulation of it to states, including Arkansas and Ohio," Soraghan reports. The earthquake study began quietly in June, and Soraghan reports "The plan was to partner with state regulators and scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, and solicit peer review at the end, according to the presentation slides. The presentation also noted that EPA's national study of hydraulic fracturing excludes examination of earthquakes." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Romney, in Illinois victory speech, misstates Obama administration policy on child farm labor

Photo by Steven Senne, The Associated Press
Mitt Romney easily won the Illinois presidential primary tonight, and gave a good victory speech to a national TV audience. But on at least one point, the former Massachusetts governor strayed from the facts, as he has been increasingly prone to do.

In reciting a litany of over-regulation by the Obama administration, Romney said, "They even tell farmers what their kids can do on their farms." That's not quite worthy of a "Pants on Fire" from PolitiFact, but it's worth a strong reproof from, and from us, because the plain language of it is wrong. (UPDATE, March 22: FactCheck picked up on this item and published an analysis that confirms it.)

The Obama administration initially proposed a regulation that would have allowed children under 16 to do farm work only on farms wholly owned by their parents, excluding grandparents, uncles, aunts and so on.

After farmers complained that the proposed ignored changes in corporate structure over the past few decades and the devices that farm families use to transfer ownership between generations, sometimes gradually, the Department of Labor backed off and said it would issue a rule that took those factors into account.

In the meantime, the department said its policy would revert to a 1966 federal law that prohibits children from doing certain hazardous jobs on farms but "allows children of any age who are employed by their parent, or a person standing in the place of a parent, to perform any job on a farm owned or operated by their parent or such person standing in the place of a parent," a department press release noted.

In 2002 or perhaps earlier, the department began interpreting "owned" to mean "wholly owned," and the proposed regulation would have formalized that policy, a department official said. Now, until the revised regulation is adopted, it will revert to the previous definition of "substantially owned." Asked what that phrase means, the official talked instead about the rule to come: "It clearly will allow for a variety of corporate structures and family owners of a farm while still meeting the intent of Congress that the parent is in a unique position to look out for the welfare of the child in that context."

The new rule could also apply to grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in the press release that her agency "appreciates and respects the role of parents in raising their children and assigning tasks and chores to their children on farms and of relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles in keeping grandchildren, nieces and nephews out of harm's way."

The bottom line? The administration did not "tell farmers what their kids can do on their farms." (Emphasis added.)

Weekly newspaper, radio station rally small town devastated by tornado

The Licking Valley Courier's Miranda Cantrell
talks to school officials for the paper's second
post-tornado issue. (Photo by John Flavell)
How do you keep publishing your weekly newspaper when a tornado has blown away the office? You find a way, and some new ways, because your community needs it.

That is the story of the Licking Valley Courier in West Liberty, Ky., population 3,000, as told by Ivy Brashear of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. She also reports on the local radio station, which suffered much less damage and served as an important source of information for the devastated community.

"In a small town like West Liberty, local news media play an important role in everyday life," Brashear writes. For the story, click here. For an online slide show of John Flavell's photos of West Liberty 20 days after the storm, go here.

Perdue Farms underwriting campaign to help chicken-raising family sued by environmental group

"What began as a grass-roots effort by some Eastern Shore farmers to help one of their own has morphed over the past year into a sophisticated fundraising and public-relations campaign that portrays the lawsuit as a David vs. Goliath struggle between a fourth-generation farm family and a well-heeled New York environmental group bent on crushing what it calls 'factory farming,'" reports Timothy Wheeler of The Baltimore Sun.

The Waterkeeper Alliance filed suit in 2010 against the Hudson family, which raises chickens for Perdue Farms, alleging manure from their chicken farm polluted a Chesapeake Bay tributary. Since then, farmers and organizations across the U.S. rallied and have raised more than $200,000 to help the family pay legal bills. Perdue Farms is also a defendant. Waterkeeper Alliance argues the company "shares responsibility with the Hudsons for manure from their chicken houses that allegedly washed off the farm, because the company owns the Cornish game hens raised there." But, the company says it's not responsible because the family is an independent contractor.

Perdue has donated $70,000 to help the Hudsons, and paid last year to set up the Maryland Family Farmers Legal Defense Fund and to maintain the website of Save Farm Families. The company said it's been "very upfront" about underwriting Save Farm Families. It was listed as one of the group's sponsors and its logo appears on the website's homepage. Lee Richardson, a fundraising trustee, said all donated money goes to pay the Hudsons' legal fees and none is spent on fundraising or public relations.

The Waterkeeper Alliance has raised almost as much money for its efforts. Environmental activists maintain "the litigation has been miscast by the campaign as a war on family farmers, when in fact it's aiming to get big poultry companies to take legal and financial responsibility for the waste its birds produce," Wheeler reports.

People from 'dry' counties in Ky. are more likely to be in an alcohol-related crash, newspaper finds

The rate of alcohol-related car crashes is higher in some Kentucky counties that don't sell alcohol than in those that do, and people in "dry" counties are reports Adam Sulfridge for the Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., amid debate over the latest wet-dry vote in the area.

A review of Kentucky State Police records from 1995 to 2010 shows that alcohol-related crashes dropped in Knox County, where alcohol sales are illegal, when restaurants in two neighboring counties, Whitley and Laurel, began allowing alcohol sales. In a neighboring dry county, McCreary, the rate of alcohol-related crashes were sometimes twice as high as in Laurel and Whitley. Many rural counties in Kentucky and other states don't allow alcohol sales, while some only allow sales in restaurants.

Sulfridge tracked down a 2002 state report which said, “Analysis of crash data revealed a similar proportion of crashes in wet and dry counties are alcohol-related but that a higher proportion of dry counties residents are involved in an alcohol-related crash.”

“An argument we hear is that people can drink closer to home and so they make it home without incident, whereas in dry counties people must travel farther after drinking,” State Police Lt. David Jude told Sulfridge. Local officers told him the decrease in crashes is the result of their hard work to curb drunk driving. (Read more)

Drilling and fracking can release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but how much is unclear

Natural gas is billed as a cleaner energy source because it emits about half the carbon dioxide as coal does when burned. However, sloppy drilling can release methane, the primary component of gas, into the atmosphere. It's 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and mostly escapes during flowback, "when fracking fluids, water and gas flow out of a well after drilling but before the gas is put into pipelines," reports Renee Schoof of McClatchy Newspapers. (McClatchy photo: Gas drilling rig)

The Environmental Protection Agency found that the oil and gas industries emit 40 percent of all methane coming from the U.S. The industries say that number is overblown because they burn or capture escaped methane before it enters the air, but a Cornell University study released last April concluded that the EPA estimate was too low.

Schoof reports there's not enough data about exactly how much methane is released. "Even small leaks can wind up undoing most of the global warming benefit we think we're getting when we substitute natural gas for coal," said Mark Brownstein, Environmental Defense Fund natural gas and oil team director. EDF isn't opposed to fracking, but it does want to work with energy companies to reduce methane emissions. (Read more)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Santorum says he's the one for rural America

As Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum seeks votes in Illinois, where a primary tomorrow could be pivotal, he has cast himself as the rural candidate, Sarah Wheaton and Rich Oppel Jr. of The New York Times report in a story headlined, "Santorum Takes On Urban America." (Photo by José M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune: Santorum in Rockford)

"Because many of the nation’s small towns are suffering economically, Mr. Santorum’s approach means he is taking on his own party," they write, quoting the former senator from Pennsylvania: “Think about it, look at the map of the United States — blue being the Democrats, red being the Republicans — it’s almost all red. Except around the big cities. And yet when you look at the economic plan that Republicans put forward, it’s all about tax breaks for higher-income individuals who live in those blue areas mostly.” Santorum says eliminating the corporate income tax on manufacturing would be a boon to non-metropolitan areas.

Wheaton and Oppel say Santorum seemed to be suggesting that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney "was the candidate of more liberal city dwellers and that he was the candidate of more conservative rural residents," by saying a county-by-county map of their primary contests "almost looks like a Republican versus a Democrat."

The reporters note, "In fact, Republican nominating contests tend to turn on the voting in suburban and rural areas, where the party is stronger, with Democrats much more dominant in the cities. Still, Mr. Santorum used the argument to suggest that he, rather than Mr. Romney, could motivate the Republican base to deliver the party a victory in the November general election." (Read more)

Highway bill amendment to help rural counties includes a big hit for small tobacco sellers

The U.S. Senate amended the federal highway bill last week to provide transportation aid to rural counties losing federal timber payments, but tucked away in the amendment is a provision that would "reclassify tobacco shops that offer 'roll-your-own' cigarette machines as 'tobacco manufacturers,' imposing on them new regulations and higher taxes," reports Rosalind Helderman of The Washington Post. The machines allow smokers to buy cigarettes at lower prices, and supporters of the change say they're "trying to crack down on ultra cheap and unregulated cigarettes, which they contend skirt tax and health laws." (Post photo by Scott Neville)

The schools amendment would provide $346 million for road improvements, with the tobacco provision providing $97 million by closing a loophole that supporters say smokers have been using to avoid taxes. Phil Accordino, whose company makes roll-you-own machines, said the case "illustrates how corporate America can quietly use its political influence in Washington to secure wins on the business battlefield." He said he didn't know about the provision until after it was voted on, and that it's a way to but "little tobacco" out of business. Roll-your-own cigarettes are about $30 cheaper per carton than pre-rolled, and Helderman reports the low cost is partly Congress' fault because it recently raised taxes on cigarette tobacco, but not pipe tobacco. Sales of pipe tobacco, which isn't that much different, have risen sevenfold since. (Read more)

Research links bee colony collapse disorder to insecticides that coat seed corn

A new study indicates that the wave of colony collapse disorder, or the mass die-off of honey bees, is linked to the coating of seed corn with some of the world's most widely used insecticides. The research may lead to more answers about how to curb or reverse the phenomenon, reports Alexandra Ludka of ABC News. The study, "Assessment of the Environmental Exposure of Honeybees to Particulate Matter Containing Neonicotinoid Insecticides Coming from Corn Coated Seeds," was published in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science & Technology journal.

The insecticide is popular because it kills "insects by paralyzing nerves but has lower toxicity for other animals," the report states. Ludka writes beekeepers noticed die-offs around the time corn is planted, adding researchers thought the die-offs were caused by particles of insecticide that were released into the air by machines when the chemicals were sprayed. Researchers tried to find a way to make machines safer for bees, but found all methods that used insecticide-coated corn seeds continued to cause colony collapse disorder. (Read more)

State legislatures trying to limit local authority

Power struggles between state and local governments, like the one in Pennsylvania over hydraulic fracturing, aren't new, but they do carry different subtext when Republicans hold the power, Josh Goodman of Stateline reports. Many Republicans argue the federal government is trying to take power from states, even as they attempt to take power from local governments, and critics accuse them of hypocrisy. Republicans reply that localities are using power in ways that aren't consistent with state values, including property rights and reducing regulation. They also say the only way they can enact the state vision for government is to handle it all and not delegate power to localities.

Local officials in Tennessee think the Republican-led state legislature is attempting to preempt their power with a slew of bills designed to reduce local planning and zoning powers, limit local regulation of signs, ban localities from requiring residential sprinkler systems, and end local regulation of fireworks. In Indiana, the legislature rejected a bill that would have allowed localities to seek voter approval of tax increases for public transit. Florida's legislature considered bills this year to "preempt everything from local fertilizer regulations to Miami-Dade County’s ban on pit bulls." (Read more)

Weekly paper audits custodians of local records

One of the more ambitious local projects we have heard of during Sunshine Week, which ended Saturday, was a local records audit by the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky. The weekly newspaper engaged eight "average citizens" to seek specific records from eight public agencies and published the generally good findings in last week's paper, with an explanation of the audit and the issues, and an editorial by Editor-Publisher Sharon Burton giving her motives.

Burton wrote that since she started the paper 10 years ago, "We have seen a dramatic improvement in the understanding for openness and the cooperation we receive, so "We didn't do it to harass or put local officials on the spot," but rather "to get a better idea of where we are and where we need to continue educating and informing public officials and the public about the role of government."

The audit found the least cooperation when it asked local law-enforcement agencies for salary information. Burton told us in an email, "Our sheriff's department provided a copy of salaries with the names marked out. Numbers only. lol. Then the secretary called and said we made them sound bad. Love this job." The sheriff's department claimed that the auditor said he didn't need the names; "The auditor said he didn't specify that he needed the names," the story by Burton and Allison Hollon reports. The Kentucky State Police didn't reply to a mailed request.

The Voice does not put most news stories online, but we have posted its front page, Page 2 and Page 3 on the site of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. If your newspaper conducted an open records audit for Sunshine Week, please let us know so you can be recognized, too.

For land leased to oil and gas companies, USDA may require environmental review before mortgage loan

UPDATE, March 21: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said USDA"will continue to exempt rural housing loans from environmental reviews that may slow expansion of oil and natural-gas drilling," Alan Bjerga of Bloomberg News reports

The Department of Agriculture may require environmental reviews before giving mortgages to people who have leased their land for oil and gas drilling, affecting people living in rural areas where most drilling is done. Ian Urbina of The New York Times reports that about $18 million in loans was handed out last year through the USDA's Rural Housing Service program to mostly low-income rural residents in Pennsylvania, Texas and Louisiana, where there's been a recent natural gas boom. The decision would also affect the Rural Business and Cooperative program.

Environmental reviews haven't been required before loans are made, but Urbina reports the decision "reflects a growing concern that lending to owners of properties with drilling leases might violate the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental reviews before federal money is spent." In USDA emails sent to Congress and landowners, several reasons for the decision are cited, including cost. The reviews would "give the public a fuller accounting of the potential environmental risks of drilling (and) help protect the agency from litigation from environmental groups -- a cost that would ultimately be borne by taxpayers." It would also mean landowners who already signed drilling leases would "face hurdles if they applied for federally backed mortgages." (Read more)

Bluegrass Local Food Summit set March 22-24

The fifth annual Bluegrass Local Food Summit will "address key issues related to local food systems, including how to integrate farming, food, faith and health in Kentucky; create better direct connections between growers and consumers; and address how local food systems fit into a social and economic development strategy," a press release says. It will offer information, resources and connections for strengthening local food production, marketing and distribution. The event is scheduled March 22-24 in Lexington, Ky.

"Each year we accumulate the wisdom, trust and actions steps that plant seeds of new collaborations, fertilize community connections and harvest the fruits of cooperative projects," the release says. The three-day summit will also recognize Women's History Month by honoring individuals and organizations "for their contributions to the Kentucky movement to connect local healthy food with the conditions of women and our communities." Some of those honorees include: Kentucky Women in Agriculture, the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, Anne Hopkins from Good Foods Market and Cafe, and author and beekeeper Tammy Horn.

Events for Thursday will be about the role of local government. Friday is dedicated to community partners, and Saturday to building community skills. There will also be a film series. Information about the summit, including registration forms, can be found here.