Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bee disorder got much worse in 2012; evidence still points to new class of pesticides

"A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables." Michael Wines reports for The New York Times. (NYT photo by Jim Wilson)

"The main symptom of Colony Collapse Disorder is very low or no adult honey bees present in the hive, but with a live queen and no dead honey bee bodies present," the Department of Agriculture reports. "Often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees are present."

Beekeepers and researchers believe "there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor," Wines writes. "Older pesticides could kill bees and other beneficial insects. But while they quickly degraded, often in a matter of days, neonicotinoids persist for weeks and even months. Beekeepers worry that bees carry a summer’s worth of contaminated pollen to hives, where ensuing generations dine on a steady dose of pesticide that, eaten once or twice, might not be dangerous."

One beekeeper in South Dakota said, "We lost 42 percent over the winter. But by the time we came around to pollinate almonds, it was a 55 percent loss." A coalition of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency last week, saying it exceeded its authority by conditionally approving some neonicotinoids, Wines writes. We reported Thursday that one group claims the EPA used loopholes to approve 65 percent of pesticides that pose a potential threat to public health.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Economist still says Wal-Mart aids local economies

Nearly 25 years after first studying the economic effect of Wal-Mart on small towns in Iowa, economist Kenneth Stone re-visited his study, and came to basically the same conclusion, that the presence of a Wal-Mart usually helps the local economy at large, while hurting some businesses, the Daily Yonder reports.

Stone's 1998 study found that "Wal-Mart took business from local retailers. But, if local retailers could differentiate themselves from the selection of goods found at the retailer, they could benefit from the increased shopping traffic brought to town," the Yonder reports. "The retailers who competed directly with Wal-Mart were hurt. Overall, Wal-Mart helped stabilize or increase local retail sales."

Stone's latest study concludes that "Wal-Mart’s entry into smaller trade centers in Iowa had a big initial impact on host-town retail sales, with some categories experiencing large significant increases while others saw declines in retail sales," the Yonder reports. "Over time, the impact declined, but in general, towns hosting Wal-Mart appeared to have fared better, in terms of total retail sales, compared to similar towns in which Wal-Mart did not locate. This analysis supports the idea that Wal-Mart’s presence helped to stabilize or even expand the local retail sector of most rural host communities." Stone produced this chart:

A look at school violence over 40 years shows it is least common in rural areas

European Press Photo by Andrew Gombert
The Rural School and Community Trust released a special edition of its publication, Rural Policy Matters, that analyzes incidents of reported school violence since 1974. Using 700 media accounts, the publication found 80 accounts of mass violence, claiming 153 lives.

"Although mass violence events tend to capture more general media attention, we found three times more deaths in incidents that were not part of mass violence events," Rural Policy Matters reports. "Overall, students were the most frequent perpetrators and victims of violence in schools."

Violence was less common in rural areas. During the 2009-10 school year, of the 20 or more reported incidents of school violence, only 14 percent occurred in rural areas, 19 percent happened in suburbs, 21 percent were in towns and 25 percent occurred in cities.

"Rural schools have tended to have some advantages when it comes to school violence," one editorial notes. "For one, rural schools have been smaller, closer to home, so if a family or a kid were in crisis or just volatile, someone would likely know and might be able to do something to ease the pressure. It’s usually this personal nature that is credited for the comparatively low levels of violence and discipline problems that rural schools have long enjoyed."

Because many violent acts are not reported by the media and many more happen outside of school events, "this report is best understood as a journalistic exploration rather than a statistical analysis," Rural Policy Matters explains. "Our emphasis is on the patterns and circumstances that run through the stories and on the larger narratives that the stories, taken together, tell. We note that the patterns in our collection of incidents align with empirical research published elsewhere. To the extent that we report numbers, we rely on tallies and rounded percentages to convey the most important themes."

Another editorial reads: "The vast majority of assailants and victims in school violence are kids. Among the many striking aspects of the stories were how few of the kids who committed violence came across in reports as 'evil.' There were, to be sure, some kids who seemed to have no insight or no remorse about what they had done. But far more common were stories that suggested a distraught kid, an agonizing loss, at least in his mind, and the majority were boys, tragic adult failures, a future perceived as hopeless." The graphic is from the special edition, which can be found here.

Colorado gun-control bill leads gun-rights supporters to call for a hunter boycott of the state

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper's decision to sign three gun-control laws has gun supporters calling for a national boycott of the state. The bills "limit ammunition magazines, require universal background checks, and charge gun buyers for the cost of those checks," Tyler Kingkade noted for the Huffington Post.

Boycotters hope hunters spend their money elsewhere to prove a point to the governor. Colorado has a "$1.8 billion hunting industry," Valerie Richardson reports for The Washington Times. "In 2012, 489,327 residents and 86,493 non- residents procured hunting licenses.

The boycott is already taking its toll on Colorado outfitters as hunters from around the nation call in to cancel reservations," Richardson writes. "More than 60 percent of the state’s hunting revenue comes from non-residents, who pay far more for licenses than residents." Chris Jurney, vice president of Colorado Outfitters Association, told Richardson: “We’re getting a flood of emails now that the bills have been signed into law from people who say they like hunting in Colorado, but that these bills go against their beliefs and they’re not coming back.”

Randy Hampton, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, sees things differently. He said his "department has been contacted by hunters concerned about the new gun control measures but insisted the bills would have no impact on hunting," Richardson writes. “We do get people who say, ‘We’re not coming to Colorado because of these gun laws,’” Hampton said. “But there is nothing in these bills that changes their ability to hunt and fish in Colorado. What this is is a protest against the state legislature.” (Read more)

Fear of purchasing limits and official conspiracies has ammunition flying off shelves, or even trucks

Some gun owners are making a mad dash for ammunition, out of fear that purchasing limits will be set in response to the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Mara Rose Williams reports for the Kansas City Star.

The increase is demand is driving up prices, and retailers are having a hard time keeping small-caliber bullets in stock, Williams reports. One store owner said, "Before Christmas, you could buy a brick of .22s — 500 rounds — for $18. Now I’m hearing people paying $60 or $70 for one."

"At Blue Steel Guns & Ammunition the ammo truck rolls into the parking lot on Fridays. Last week, a crowd of customers was waiting for the shipment, and all 60 boxes of .22-caliber and 9 mm ammunition — thousands of rounds — were gone in 18 minutes," Williams writes. “They never even made it to the shelves,” said owner Steve Brackeen. “We just had enough time to slap a price on them and sell. And we ran out before everybody in line got some.”

Another fear driving up sales is the Department  of Homeland Security’s "plan to buy more than a billion rounds of ammunition," Williams reports. "The bullets, ordered in bulk over five years, are used in the training of about 70,000 agents and officers employed by the 90 agencies included within the department."

Larry Swickard, a member of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, told Williams, "My understanding is these are standing, not necessarily take-delivery, orders. But the fact that Homeland Security, and the government in general, has offered no reasonable explanation for such huge purchases would be more than enough to fuel the fears of those inclined to see conspiracies behind every change in a routine.” (Read more)

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Rural counties lumped into metro areas as more of their residents commute to metros' core counties

Rural Minnesota is slowly shrinking, at least in the most common definition, and that's not the only state where it's happening.

The number of metropolitan counties in Minnesota has risen from 13 to 16, Minnesota Public Radio reports. Once rural counties, Mille Lacs, Sibley and Le Sueur counties "are now considered by the federal Office of Management and Budget part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington Metropolitan Statistical Area." (Graphic by MPR shows three counties in green)

"The government uses these statistical areas to make comparisons across the country's urban areas because they are defined more consistently than the legal boundaries of cities and counties," MPR reports. "A county is added to an MSA when more than a quarter of its workforce commutes to the 'core counties' of the statistical area." (Read more)

Corn and soybeans acreage expected to reach record combined high in 2013

There won't be a shortage of corn or soybeans any time soon. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects farmers to plant a record 174 million acres of the crops in 2013, which will include the highest acreage of corn (97 million) since 1936 (102 million) and the fourth highest recorded acreage of soybeans. "Record high corn acreage is expected in Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota and Oregon," USDA reports. (Associated Press photo by Nati Harnik)

"The impact of a smaller corn crop last year left livestock producers paying more for feed, forced ethanol producers to scale back output or shutter plants and lead consumers to pay higher prices for steaks, chicken and other items at their supermarket," Christopher Doering wrties for USA Today. "In addition to domestic use, demand from Asia and other global markets for U.S. corn and soybeans further squeezed already tight supplies, underscoring the need to plant and harvest a big crop this year."

"We're looking forward to potentially record plantings, which should relieve some pressure on the livestock and dairy industry that has been under some stress," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Doering. "A drop in commodity prices may reduce the profitability of corn and soybean growers, but if they get great yields and they still get a decent price, they may be in pretty much the same spot that they were in when they had low yields and high prices. It's really about balance." (Read more)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ohio teachers take course in packing heat, first of its kind for U.S. educators

A new program in Ohio is showing teachers how to kill a potential school shooter. The Armed Teacher Training Program was created in response to the killings in Newtown, Conn. The program, which is the only one of its kind in the country, began Monday with 24 participants, reports Joshua Jamerson of The Columbus Dispatch. (Dispatch photo by Brooke Lavalley)

"Arming teachers is the best way to stop more mass murders, and gun control can’t help," Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearm Association, told Jamerson. "Gun control is purely political and has no place in this conversation."

"Deanna, an elementary-school teacher from central Ohio, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she doesn’t know if she would have taken the training course had the Newtown massacre not occurred," Jamerson writes, quoting her: "Tragedy wakes you up."

As part of the program, "Participants learn tactical maneuvers so that they might be able to take down a school gunman," Jamerson writes. "The program began with classroom sessions and ended with active killer shooting," which involved role playing in school-type situations, where "good guys use model Airsoft guns to shoot plastic pellets at other participants who are playing the bad guys." All participants have already had concealed-weapons training. (Read more)

Polls show declining support for more gun control

Support for gun-control laws appears to be waning, and CNN says the moment to make stricter regulations may have passed now that the killings in Newtown, Conn. are no longer front-page news.

"Polls conducted over the past few weeks suggest that three and a half months after the tragedy, public backing for major new gun laws overall appears to have dropped significantly," reports Paul Steinhauser for CNN. He sites a CBS News survey that indicated a 10-point drop from 57 percent immediately after the shootings to 47 percent now, and a CNN/ORC International poll that saw a drop from 52 percent to 43 percent. "The new polls suggest that federal lawmakers pushing for gun control might have waited too long to act," Steinhauser writes.

CNN Polling Director Keating Holland told Steinhauser: "Support for stricter gun control has fallen dramatically among two groups, older Americans and people who live in rural areas. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, the number of rural Americans who supported major gun restrictions rose to 49 percent but now that support has dropped 22 points. Support for stricter gun laws dropped 16 points among Americans over 50 years old in that same time."

New York lawyer Richard Davis, who served as assistant treasury secretary for enforcement and operations during the Carter administration, opines for CNN: "Many people thought that the massacre of 20 young school children and six educators by a gunman wielding an assault weapon would change the terms of the debate over firearms regulation. It appears that they were wrong."

He also writes, "A sensible approach to gun violence would, among other non-law enforcement steps, include prohibitions directed at assault-type weapons, more regulation of handguns, less regulation of traditional long guns and working to make sure that federal, state and local law enforcement have the tools to enforce the laws relating to firearms. Unfortunately, logic does not always operate when the topic is guns."

Oklahoma OKs bill to allow horse slaughterhouses

A bill expected to be signed by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin would allow horse slaughterhouses in the state, ending a 50-year ban. "The bill would ban consumption of horsemeat in Oklahoma but allow it to be shipped out of the country," reports Barbara Hoberock for the Tulsa World. "Critics said the measure is not necessary and is inhumane. Supporters said it was an issue about private property rights. They say the measure is needed to deal with horses that are no longer useful and those that are abandoned."

No horsemeat processing plants have operated in the U.S. since 2007, when Congress cut off money for inspections. That has been restored, but the industry has not returned, despite widespread problems with abandoned or abused horses during teh economic downturn. Critics say the lack of slaughter plants has depressed horse prices by removing the bottom of the market. (Photo by Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues) The ASPCA reports that the recently closed slaughterhouses, "all foreign-owned, killed and processed more than 90,000 horses for human consumption. Americans by and large do not eat horsemeat, so it was shipped overseas to countries like France, Belgium and Japan." Horse slaughter plants also operate in Canada.

Sen. Eddie Fields, who co-authored the measure said, even if the bill is signed into law, "It could be three years before a horse processing plant could be operating in the state," reports Michael McNutt for The Daily Oklahoman. An editorial in The Oklahoman notes that "An estimated 18,000 horses were shipped from Oklahoma to Mexico for slaughter last year; up to two-thirds of horses sold at auction may already go to slaughter." The editorial, though, takes a stand against the proposal. "From a public relations standpoint, Oklahomans should be hesitant to become the first state to actually revive horse slaughter. Image matters. The economic impact of horse slaughter would be minimal; its effect on the state's reputation could be greater."

Rep. Skye McNiel
Rep. Skye McNiel, who co-authored the bill, said, "The fact is, 46 other states currently do not ban this practice. We have a broad, bipartisan level of support for this bill, especially among rural Oklahomans who see this problem up close,"Hoberock reports. Since the bill passed McNiel has received threats and harassment and has been assigned additional security, Hoberock and Randy Krehbiel report.

Group says EPA used regulatory loophole to approve 2/3 of pesticides dangerous to humans

The Natural Resources Defense Council released results Wednesday from a two-year study that found that the "Environmental Protection Agency used a regulatory loophole to approve 65 percent of 16,000 pesticides that pose a potential threat to public health," Wendy Koch reports for USA Today.

Mae Wu, who co-authored the study, said: "People should be concerned, because we have examples of at least two pesticides on the market that shouldn't have been approved," Koch writes. One of the pesticides is nanosilver, "which was approved as an anti-microbial agent in clothing but may damage brain and liver cells, and clothianidin, which was designed to be absorbed into plant tissue but is passed on fatally to bees and other pollinators. The study says the EPA's database makes it unclear how many of the pesticides received adequate, if any, testing."

The loophole is called "conditional registration, which means they haven't been fully tested to ensure that they pose no threat to human health or the environment, as required by U.S. law," Laura Fraser reports for On Earth magazine. "The fast-track conditional registration process was intended to be used only under rare circumstances, when a product is nearly identical to one already on the market or when the EPA needs to approve a new pesticide immediately to prevent a disease outbreak or other public health emergency."

"The EPA has no system to track whether the data and studies it asked a company to provide for full registration have ever appeared," Fraser writes. "And if the data were provided, there’s no way to evaluate how many of those studies were reliably conducted. Nor is there any way for the public to access any of the records on these pesticides."

Writer explains problem with connecting long-distance calls to rural areas

"In trying to avoid fees that support rural phone service, communication companies have unintentionally created big headaches for rural residents getting calls from cities," the Daily Yonder reports, introducing an article by Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, which advocates open access to the Internet and other technologies. He sums it up well:

"Increasing numbers of rural communities are reporting problems with incoming phone calls. Outgoing calls work fine, but when someone tries to call one of these rural communities from an urban area, the connection doesn’t go through. Though the phone never rings in the rural community, the urban caller might hear a 'false ringback' in his earpiece, inserted so he will think there’s simply no answer and won’t complain about the lack of service. This 'rural call completion' problem, which also includes connections with very bad sound quality, is getting scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission," which has said the problem “causes rural businesses to lose customers, cuts families off from their relatives in rural areas, and creates potential for dangerous delays in public safety communications in rural areas.”

Feld's 1,700-word piece is a clear explanation of the problem, complete with graphics. To read it, click here. UPDATE, May 30: Twelve senators are sponsoring a resolution asking the FCC "to get tough with phone companies that fail to complete calls to rural areas," the Yonder reports.

Fracking brings money, headaches to rural places

Traffic in Watford City, N.D., generated by oil and gas drilling
and fracking operations.
(Bloomberg photo by Matthew Staver)
Hydraulic fracturing can brings jobs and wealth to rural areas, but there can also be negative effects to bringing the drilling business to town, Alan Bjerga of Bloomberg News reminds us.

"Fracking is unlocking new reserves of oil and gas from shale-rock formations in North Dakota, Texas and the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions," Bjerga writes. "The Monterey Shale formation in Central California may provide a $25 billion tax windfall to a cash-strapped state known for environmental activism."

The negative impact is "dealing with mineral-rights disputes, pollution concerns and increased strains on roads, schools and police forces," said Shannon Ferrell, agricultural law professor at Oklahoma State University. "Critics say fracking is fouling water supplies in communities from Pennsylvania to North Dakota and replacing one fossil fuel, coal, with another," Bjerga writes. Burning natural gas releases about half the amount of carbon dioxide as burning coal. (Read more)

Company offering new cell-phone technology designed for sparsely populated rural areas

Better cellular coverage could be coming to rural America. "Range Networks, which says its technology slashes the cost of networks so much that carriers can make money on subscribers paying $2 to $3 per month, is expanding its target markets to include small, rural carriers in North America," Stephen Lawson writes for PC World magazine. 

A Range Networks base station
Range has already supplied private networks in remote locations, including a research station in Antarctica, a remote village in Indonesia that can only reach the outside world via satellite, and temporary sites, such as the Burning Man festival, Lawson notes. "At the heart of Range’s approach is the open base transceiver station, an open-source software platform that can run on standard server hardware that is based on the 3GPP family of standards, which include protocols used by most carriers around the world."

David Burgess, co-founder and CEO of Range, told Lawson that "mobile operators serving lightly populated areas anywhere in the world have a hard time making money because they have so much land to cover and so few customers to absorb the cost of covering it. Range’s answer is a system that talks to standard phones over a radio-access network the same way existing cellular systems do, but uses voice-over-Internet protocol on the back end."

Analysts say "Range’s proposition could help rural carriers get started, expand their coverage or add 3G or 4G service, but it won’t overcome all the challenges they face," Lawson writes. "Trying to convince new folks to move into this space is going to be a tough sell." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Nebraska utility tries to power irrigation with solar

In a move that could save farmers thousands of dollars each, the largest electric utility in Nebraska is investigating the use of solar energy to power center pivot irrigation systems, reports Agri-Pulse.

"The Nebraska Public Power District project is one of the first in which a major utility will explore the solar-powered irrigation option," Agri-Pulse reports. "There are more than 30,000 center pivots throughout the state, with most run by conventional electricity, propane and diesel. The project is expected to show an improvement to a farmer’s bottom line by shaving some of the costs of powering irrigation. Solar energy production peaks during summer months when irrigation is needed most, and the operator can sell the electricity back to the grid when little irrigation is needed."

The cost of the project is $70,000 for solar panels capable of generating 25 kilowatts, and another $10,000 for a meter, Agri-Pulse reports. "The solar panels are estimated to last 25 years. The pilot project is expected to reclaim its costs between 2½ and seven years. If the pilot project is successful, future projects with the federal tax credit could pay for themselves in eight to 24 years."

Agri-Pulse is a subscription-only newsletter, but a free trial is available at

EPA finds more than half of streams are in poor condition; farm interests question methodology

According to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency "more than half of the nation’s thousands of miles of rivers and streams are plagued by poor water quality, including harmful nutrient pollution and mercury," Jim Malewitz reports for Stateline. The waterways play a "vital role in providing drinking water, recreation and fueling the economy."

The study found that "more than a quarter of rivers and streams registered high nitrogen levels and 40 percent had too much phosphorous," Malewitz notes. "Such nutrient pollution sparks algae growth, eroding food supplies and depriving aquatic species of oxygen. More than a quarter of rivers and streams are particularly prone to flooding, pollution and erosion because of a dearth of vegetation cover. Nine percent of waters tested positive for high bacteria levels, making them not fit for swimming. Fish in more than 13,000 of miles of water carried high levels of mercury."

Some farm groups are concerned about the way the study was conducted, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The issues raised by the assessment are “incongruent with what’s going on out there in U.S. agriculture,” including enhanced conservation programs, precision technology and other advances that are reducing farm nutrient runoff, said Don Parrish, of the American Farm Bureau Federation. He said EPA is comparing water samples taken from a dozen or so ecological regions around the country to the “least disturbed” sites in each region.

"Some level of human impact on water resources is a given and that using the very best of today’s conditions as a yardstick sets everyone up for failure," Parrish said. The “least-disturbed standard,” which can also vary from region to region, is an “unrealistic approach that sets unreasonably high expectations. There are far more appropriate standards that EPA could have selected.”

The worst area was "the Coastal Plains region, stretching from Eastern Texas to Florida and along much of the Atlantic coast," Malewitz notes. "There, 71 percent of waters were deemed poor." The area includes the lower Mississippi River. (Read more) For states' measurements of water quality in specific streams, click here.

Rural Georgia hospital fights to stay in business in a state where some others have closed down

Last week we reported that Stewart-Webster Hospital in Richland, Ga., was closing, due in part to high unemployment, fewer patients and a decrease in money from Medicaid and Medicare, all of which led to the hospital running out of money. Calhoun Memorial Hospital in Arlington also closed recently.

Habersham Medical Center
Another Georgia small-town hospital, Habersham Medical Center, vowed to continue fighting and keep its doors open even through tough times, Georgia Health News reports. Demorest has a population of 1,800 and is located in the mountains near the South Carolina border. The county-owned acute-care facility has 53 beds.

Unemployment is high in the area and most of the patients do not have health insurance, Georgia Health News writes. "The hospital has enough cash to meet its payroll and service its debt, but that’s about it," acting CEO Jack Fulbright said.

"Georgia hospitals will lose $400 million in federal indigent-care funds under the Affordable Care Act," Georgia Health News reports. One way state hospitals have responded is to no longer deliver babies. "Roughly 40 counties in Georgia, one in every four, has no ob/gyn."

Habersham continues its delivery service, and "Officials assert that the hospital will survive," Georgia Health News reports. “We’re tough as a boot up here. We’re not going anywhere,” hospital board member Rick Austin said. (Read more)

112-year-old family farm no longer fits into ever-expanding urban area

Lois Brown and Ace.
(Emily Spartz, Argus-Leader)
Steve Young writes a story for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls about a 112-year-old family farm that soon may not exist anymore, now that urban growth has surrounded the area. Lois and Kelly Brown, in their mid-60s, "are ready to ease back on the work it takes to maintain a place that came into the family’s possession in 1901," writes Young. As a result, the Browns are selling the horse farm, and it's only a matter of time before it's torn down.

“The consensus from city staff is that it was more likely a residential development opportunity,” Parks and Recreation Director Don Kearney said. That's nothing new for the once-rural area, where "suburbia has sprung up where corn, soybeans and potatoes once grew." New additions include a four-lane road, a school, apartments, library and a community center.

Young writes of Lois: "She can close her eyes, listen to the roar of traffic to the south and conjure up an image of her grandpa Greg pulling a plow behind a horse into the rising sun and carving Sixth Street out of the earth."

"You think about all the other people in the area who have gone," Lois said. "Slowly but surely, this dairy farm goes and that dairy farm goes, and now the city is here. Things change. Life changes.” (Read more)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Some states ignoring likely link between fracking waste disposal and small earthquakes

Update March 27: "Researchers now say that the magnitude 5.7 earthquake near Prague, Okla., on Nov. 6, 2011, may also be the largest ever linked to wastewater injection," writes the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The earthquake, which was the largest ever in Oklahoma, destroyed 14 homes, buckled a highway, injured two people, and was felt as far as 800 miles away in Milwaukee.

Despite evidence that waste injection wells can lead to man-made earthquakes, some states, including California, Texas and New York, are ignoring the dangers of seismic activity as they re-write their drilling rules to deal with hydraulic fracturing, reports Mike Soraghan of Environment and Energy News.
"Geologists have known for decades that deep injection of industrial waste can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes," Soraghan notes. "Some earthquake researchers now say the nation's drilling boom, fueled by advances in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, could be spurring a rash of such man-made quakes." The map, from a study by the University of Texas, shows the proximity of injection wells to earthquakes near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2009. (National Research Council map)

Wastewater laced with toxic and radioactive chemicals is being disposed of in injection wells, and earthquakes have been linked to injection wells in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas, Soraghan writes.

"The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas production, is doing a large-scale revision of its rules without looking at man-made earthquakes," notes Soraghan. "California officials say they don't see the need to look at injection wells and earthquakes, saying existing rules are sufficient. In drafting regulations that would open upstate New York to drilling and hydraulic fracturing, officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation dismissed the possibility of earthquakes, saying there is 'essentially no increased risk to the public.'" (Read more)

West Virginia House wants bankrupt Patriot Coal to honor promises to retired miners

Coal miners protest March 19 in St. Louis.
Stephanie Cordle/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

When Patriot Coal Corp. filed for bankruptcy March 14, the company said it was "seeking to modify collective bargaining agreements with the United Mine Workers of America and to obtain critical financial relief in a timeframe that avoids severe business disruption," reported The Wall Street Journal. "The proposed modifications include the establishment of a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association trust to provide healthcare for UMWA-represented retirees, as well as changes to wages, benefits and work rules for UMWA-represented employees."

On Monday West Virginia's House of Delegates called on Patriot "to honor its promises to 23,000 retired miners and their families," reports The Associated Press. "A non-binding measure adopted 93-4 decries the threatened loss of pension and retiree health benefits. Estimating its liability at $1.6 billion, Patriot has warned it must end coverage for 10,000 retired miners and 13,000 dependents without court-approved relief."

"This has happened to steel-line workers, airline workers, bakery workers, glass workers and now mine workers," House Majority Leader Mike Caputo said. "Enough is enough. It's time to take a stand." (Read more)

USDA adds 10 states to program designed to help poverty-stricken rural counties

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that 10 states will be added to the StrikeForce initiative, a program designed to boost rural economic growth and opportunity in poverty-stricken rural areas. Ninety percent of America's persistent-poverty counties are in rural America.

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Virginia are the newest additions. Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi started the program in 2011, and Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada in 2012, said a press release from USDA.

Through the program, Farm Service Agency loans have gone up almost 10 percent, the Rural Housing and Community Facilities Program obligated $65 million (a 112 percent increase over 2011), Natural Resources Conservation Service program applications by under-served producers increased by 82 percent, the number of children receiving free or reduced-price school breakfasts rose by 7.4 percent, and the number of children receiving food assistance through the Summer Food Service Program rose from 10.5 million to 11.3 million, according to the USDA website.

Rural Texas town that changed its name for free satellite TV from namesake not all that happy

Dish Network receivers are everywhere
in Dish. (NYT photo by Rex C. Curry)

In 2005, a rural Texas town north of Fort Worth changed its name to Dish, as part of an experimental marketing strategy with the Dish Network. While residents enjoy basic satellite TV service for free, not everyone in the town is happy with the presence of the major company in the small town, reports Manny Fernandez of The New York Times.

Dish, which has a population of 200, and no restaurant, convenience store or school, was originally named Clark when it was founded in 2000, writes Fernandez. Most residents use Justin as their mailing address. "Dish doesn’t exist, in my opinion,” said Scott Bonfoey, a new resident who has DirecTV. “My mailing address is Justin, my school district is Ponder. What’s Dish?”

The name change has not reaped many rewards for the residents. It "did not turn the town into a household name, like Truth or Consequences, N.M., which named itself after the radio quiz show in 1950," Fernandez writes. "Some residents have wondered how they have benefited from the 10-year arrangement."

“It’s not a very publicized item,” said Wester Draper, a town council member. “You tell people you live in Dish, Texas, and they’re like, ‘Where’s Dish, Texas?’ Initially trying to get the service turned on, if you call them up and tell them you live in Dish and you get free TV, they don’t believe you.” 

The agreement expires in 2015, and though the mayor said he supports extending the deal, the town commissioners are in favor of changing the name back to Clark. (Read more)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Big Meat and Monsanto got what they wanted from Congress; small farmers did not

"The meatpackers and Monsanto" seem to "hold Congress these days when it comes to farm policy," David Rogers writes for Politico after picking apart the continuing budget resolution passed to keep the government running through September.

We've written about the packers winning an amendment to avoid plant-closing furloughs of Department of Agriculture meat inspectors, but not about their other victories, as Rogers describes them: denying funds "for implementing reforms sought in the 2008 Farm Bill to provide greater protection for less powerful ranchers and farmers who raise the animals," and "to proceed with rules favored by Western cow-calf operations in their battle with beef packers."

And here's the big one: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, is ordered "to rescind regulations adopted last year to protect growers under contract with the big chicken processors. Even the typically conservative American Farm Bureau opposed this last action. And proponents would argue that the doomed poultry rules were never more than minimal protections for growers, such as requiring 90-day notice before a contract is canceled by a packer," Rogers reports.

The bill also orders Vilsack to help Monsanto and other producers of genetically modified seed avoid the impact of court orders, by "mandating some type of stewardship program under which farmers can continue to plant its seeds as the court fight continues," Rogers notes. USDA said Vilsack has asked his general counsel to review the provision.

The provisions were included in the House appropriations bill for USDA last summer, and the House bill was made part of a House-Senate compromise in December. "All this happened with little or no floor debate and in a period of turmoil for the Senate Appropriations Committee," including the death of its chairman, and the retirement of the Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittee chairman.

"These changes tipped the balance even more toward the National Chicken Council, representing the big poultry processors," Rogers writes. He notes that chicken is big in the states of key Democratic senators such as Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and says "The biggest player may have been Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), left, a battle-scarred veteran of the House GOP leadership who is now rebuilding his power base in the Senate."

All this disgusted Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), right, "one of the few farmers in Congress," Rogers reports. But "Tester waited too long to be a major force," couldn't get votes on his amendments and all he could do was make a speech saying, “We’re back to square one with the big meatpackers calling the shots.” (Read more)  UPDATE: Farm and food columnist Alan Guebert writes on the Daily Yonder, "Big Meat and Big Seed got new, almost extra-legal powers without so much as a Congressional hearing, debate or whimper. That’s impressive. That’s power. And that’s wrong."

Did your county gain or lose people in last 2 years?

Using Medicare payments and tax returns, the Census Bureau keeps track of domestic migration, the relocations of people already living in the United States. From 2010 to 2012, they continued to migrate to cities and suburbs, though "Counties near fast-growing cities, in popular retirement areas and in oil and gas development areas saw an increase," Bill Bishop reports for the Daily Yonder.

"Two-thirds of all rural and exurban counties lost population due to domestic migration," Bishop writes, reminding us that rural counties are those outside metropolitan areas and exurban ones are in metro areas "but have about half their population living in rural settings." He offers a link to an interactive map where you can see data on each county. Here's a non-interactive version; the yellow counties gained and the magenta ones lost:

Fines continue to be slashed in grain-bin deaths

Alex T. Paschal/Sauk Valley Newspapers photo
Fines for 60 percent of the 179 deaths caused by grain entrapment since 1984 were cut, often hugely, report Howard Berkes of NPR and Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity in a series that will continue. "More than $9 million in initial fines were slashed nearly 60 percent. The five biggest fines ever in grain death cases were cut from 50 percent to 97 percent. Department of Labor criminal referral records show that criminal prosecutions are rare in grain deaths."

Ron Hayes, who became a grain-bin-safety activist after his 19-year-old son suffocated in a grain bin in Florida in 1993, told NPR: "If this was the first time that this had ever happened in this country, I could see leniency. But because this happens time and time again, year after year after year, they should pay the full fines, somebody should be prosecuted, and until we do this, until OSHA has the backbone to stand up to do this, we will never see this stop." (Read more)

Writer tells interesting story of Mennonites splitting from a modernizing community

Mennonites from one Central Kentucky community, on the South Fork of the Green River, are moving south to Grundy County, Tennessee, to maintain a more traditional way of life and escape modern technology that has increasingly been adopted by some neighbors in their sect, like Amy and Nathan Sizemore, right, who opened a restaurant supported by tourists and promoted on Facebook.

"Sixty of South Fork’s roughly 80 Mennonite families have already purchased land in Tennessee, and 17 already have made the move," reports Todd Kleffman of the Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky., who also took the black-and-white photographs for his story.

Ammon Weaver "is part of the more conservative 'horse and buggy' Mennonites," writes Kleffman. "He believes that the South Fork community has become too relaxed and loose in its acceptance of modern conveniences such as tractors, electricity, vehicles and even cell phones and computers as it has developed into a significant commercial enterprise and tourist attraction."

Weaver is a commercial success; his machine shop does work for drilling firms that use hydraulic fracturing, and his enterprise was named the industry of the year by the Casey County Chamber of Commerce in 2011. “It’s a shame he’s leaving,” Chamber Director Blaine Staat told Kleffman. “The guy is amazing.”

Weaver, who keeps his award face down on a shelf out of traditional Mennonite modesty, told Kleffman, "It’s really important that we focus on the true meaning, on serving the Lord more and not so much on lifestyle. We are not condemning, we are choosing not to participate any longer." The 3,526-word story is a fine example of reporting and writing for any newspaper, not just this 11,000-circulation  daily. To read it, click here.
Mennonites generally shun photography, but most are willing to allow pictures in which individuals are not clearly identified. The Advocate-Messenger published the story's photos in black and white out of respect for Mennonite ways, and did not publish many excellent pictures because the subjects asked that they not be published, Editor John Nelson told The Rural Blog.

South Dakota governor signs bill to help bring lawyers to rural areas that lack them

South Dakota is giving graduates of the University of South Dakota School of Law a reason to practice in rural areas. On Thursday Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed House Bill 1096, which provides "a post-graduation payback of 90 percent of law-school tuition for lawyers who move into under-served rural counties (10,000 population or less). It would cover 16 lawyers," writes Bob Mercer of the Rapid City Journal.

South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson says the signing "makes South Dakota the first state in the nation to have legislation designed specifically to assist recruiting attorneys into rural parts of the state," reports the Dakota Radio Group.

Utah offering cash reward for dead coyotes

A program in Utah is rewarding people $50 for every coyote they kill. The Predator Control Program, through the state Division of Wildlife Resources, aims to reduce coyote populations to protect mule deer. To qualify, participants only need to complete free online training and registration. Money for the bounties comes from the state Mule Deer Protection Act, which has allotted $500,000 in rewards for dead coyotes.

The program has received enthusiastic support from many local hunters, reports Grant Olsen of KSL in Salt Lake City. One hunter told Olsen he "believes the program has a positive impact on deer herds. Opponents argue that the bounty program has no effect on deer herds, causes ecological problems and is a waste of state resources."

"The bounty program represents one of the nation’s largest hunter-based efforts to manage predatory wildlife," reports Melena Ryzik of The New York Times. "Though no one knows how many coyotes there are in Utah, the law allows for as many as 10,000 animals to be killed. Six months into the collection, the remains of 5,988 coyotes had been turned in."

Deal among frackers, some environmentalists is not going over well with some other greens

Oil and gas companies and environmentalists agreed on Wednesday to a new set of voluntary hyrdaulic-fracturing standards that will encourage companies in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to submit to an independent review of their operations, but some environmental groups have expressed their concern with the deal.

Under the plan, if drilling companies "are found to be abiding by a list of stringent measures to protect the air and water from pollution, they will receive the blessing of the new Pittsburgh-based Center for Sustainable Shale Development, created by environmentalists and the energy industry," reports Kevin Begos of The Associated Press. Organizations involved include Shell Oil, Chevron Appalachia, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Heinz Endowments, the Clean Air Task Force, EQT Corp. (Equitable Resources) and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, writes Begos.

Deb Nardone, a Sierra Club spokesperson, called the new plan "akin to slapping a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. We know that our continued reliance on dirty, dangerous fossil fuels, like natural gas, will not solve the climate crisis, even with the best controls in place. The majority of natural gas must stay in the ground if we want any chance of avoiding climate disaster."

Americans Against Fracking responded to the new plan in a statement: “This center does not represent the interests of the environmental community, and very few members of the movement to protect communities and their vital resources from fracking were consulted in the development of the center’s so-called ‘standards.’ In fact, there is a growing movement that recognizes that fracking must be banned. Partnerships such as this only set the stage to escalate fracking activity, while reinforcing our addiction to fossil fuels."