Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sessions about covering veterans among broad, deep agenda at SPJ conference in St. Louis April 27

More than 2 million American troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since the start of U.S. military operations in the region in 2001, and a disproportionate share of them came from rural communities. The troops' return has created a new kind of reporting challenge for journalists: battle-scarred veterans trying to re-enter civil society. Many have trouble finding jobs, housing and health care for themselves and their families, and often find find that government cannot meet those needs. A nationwide effort is underway to persuade private agencies and businesses to fill the gap.

Two sessions at next weekend's regional Society of Professional Journalists regional conference in St. Louis will examine the issues and how journalists can cover them. Col. David Sutherland with the Center for Military and Veterans Community Services, and Erica J. Borggren of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, will lead the discussions.

The conference also includes sessions on the secrets of great journalism, social media in journalism (three sessions), using Twitter to cover politics, news-media ethics, an overview of laws governing journalism, digital teamwork for online and broadcast journalists, a University of Missouri experiment testing the use of drone aircraft in journalism, and an Investigative Reporters and Editors session on doing investigative journalism on a tight schedule and a meager budget.

The conference, at the Drury Plaza at the Arch hotel, begins with an informal meet-and-greet Friday, April 26 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. The training sessions will be held Saturday. Questions about the sessions can be addressed to SPJ Region 7 Director David Sheets at or send them via Twitter to @DKSheets. The conference website is!sessions/c10fk.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Blasted fertilizer plant's record shows 'patchwork' regulation, raises concern about others' safety

UPDATE, April 22: "There are signs that not all was right with the plant, like the fact that it had as much as 270 tons of ammonium nitrate (which can be explosive) at the site, but no sprinklers or fire barriers. It’s also brought up questions about regulation in Texas, and whether homes and schools should be so close to industry," Terrence Henry reports for State Impact.

UPDATE, April 20: "The explosion Wednesday night at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas, raises questions about the safety of fertilizer storage at a time when nitrogen fertilizer plants are being reopened or built new across the country . . . to take advantage of low natural-gas prices," writes Russ Quinn of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. However, gas prices are rising, and production costs are expected to go up by 2015, says the Energy Information Administration

Baylor University students hold a vigil for
victims of the explosion. (Waco Tribune photo)
West Fertilizer Co., where at least 12 people have been confirmed dead from an explosion, has repeatedy been fined or disciplined by state and federal agencies for safety violations, Eric Dexheimer, Asher Price and Jeremy Schwartz report for the Austin American-Statesman. The record "highlights the patchwork nature of the industry’s oversight, with regulatory authority passed around by a half-dozen state and federal agencies," they write.

The company was fined $10,000 last year by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for failing to write a security plan to transport anhydrous ammonia, a chemical fertilizer stored under pressure. They were also fined twice in 2006. One fine was $2,300 by the Environmental Protection Agency for not updating the company's risk management plan,"which includes an analysis of the potential consequences of a worst-case accident, as well as its emergency planning information," and again after the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality "discovered the company didn’t obtain a required air quality permit. The deficiency was revealed after the agency responded to an odor complaint."

Justice of the Peace David Pareya told the Waco Tribune that Thursday evening authorities began removing the bodies of what are expected to be 12 firefighters and at least two bodies of residents in the complex. "Rescuers haven’t yet been able to search the second floor of the complex, but expect to find two to three more bodies there," Pareya said. (Read more)

Keystone XL fight is about more than a pipeline

Protesters flooded a public meeting Thursday in Nebraska to keep the controversial Keystone XL tar-sands oil pipeline from being constructed across the Ogallala Aquifer, a vital source of water under most of the Great Plains. The TransCanada pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels daily through 274 miles of Nebraska. In 2010, Nebraskans fought the same fight, and Gov. Dave Heineman relented, but has since proposed a new route that he says is safer, but that opponents say still "threatens to contaminate the water that supports life, livestock and livelihoods," Joe Duggan reports for the Omaha World Herald. (AP photo by Nati Harnik)

David Unger writes for The Christian Science Monitor, "If the passionate, opposing sides agree on anything, it's that the debate is about more than just a pipeline. Keystone XL rests squarely at the intersection of energy security, environmental stewardship, and economic growth, making it a useful proxy for a broader argument over the role of energy and environment in America's future. . .. Reports from the area suggest that Nebraskans are as divided on Keystone as is the rest of the country."

Unger cites a New York Times piece by Mary Pipher, a Nebraska psychologist who writes, "Farmers, ranchers, urbanites, Republicans and Democrats, students and senior citizens as well as native peoples continue to oppose this pipeline. In part, our unity came from our shared history and geography. Many of us are the relatives of homesteaders and modern farmers and ranchers. Whatever our politics, we all believe in the sanctity of home. In the Beef State, we understand the importance of water, especially today, when every county in Nebraska suffers drought conditions."

Pipher concludes, "The great global skirmishes of this century will be fought over food, energy, water and dirt. Our remote, conservative, flyover state seems like an odd place to make a stand for clean water and fertile land, but we will be at the heart of those battles. We are fighting not only for ourselves but for people all over the world. And we know that everywhere, in their particular places, people are fighting for us. The campaign to stop the Keystone XL is not over. It won’t be over until we give up, and we aren’t giving up." (Read more)

Earth Day is a chance to celebrate the environment, teach children, visit special places

Around the country Monday people will be celebrating Earth Day. Some will discuss such topics as teaching children to be environmentally-friendly; others will travel around the country to visit seven beautiful tourist destinations that benefited from the environmental movement.

Food Tank, an organization founded to find ways to better feed the world, has compiled a list of things anyone can do, including planning a vacation to a farm, where they can learn about farm living while helping around the farm in exchange for free food or lodging. Other ways to help are to eat more colorful foods, buy food with less packaging, choose seasonal produce, invest in perennial crops, reclaim abandoned spaces in the community, build local and global food communities, cook in batches and freeze foods, and create do-it-yourself food projects. The Food Tank release is here.

Paula Antolini for the Catersville Patch, a daily newspaper in a town of 20,000 north of Atlanta, writes that every day is Earth Day and it's important for parents to teach children about the environment and making the world a better place. "Love begins in the home and so does the love for our earth," she writes. "If you teach your children to respect the earth on every level, they will continue to realize the global impact of environmentalism when they become adults. This is important for the sustainability of life as we know it." She suggests a series of earth-friendly activities to do with your children, including planting a tree or garden, picking up roadside trash, visiting parks, or joining a group that supports Earth Day's issues. (Read more)

While some people are looking at ways to improve their own lives and the lives of others, Jennifer Weeks of Slate takes a look at seven places open to the public that were saved by the environmental movement.

They include Dinosaur National Monument (National Park Service photo) in Colorado and Utah; Storm King Mountain, New York; the San Francisco Bay area; Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida; the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas; Horicorn Marsh in Wisconsin; and the C&O Canal in Maryland and Washington, D.C. (Read more)

Coal-funded researchers suggest that strip mines need to reduce dust emissions

After a two years and $15 million mainly from the coal industry, researchers presented the results of their studies this week, some saying that coal operators need to make a more concerted effort to reduce dust emissions from blasting and heavy equipment at mountaintop removal mines. Ken Ward reports for The Charleston Gazette that researchers found "more thorough mine planning and careful mining practices could reduce dust emissions and help companies control drainage, improve reclamation, and eventually curb water pollution."

The research was conducted through The Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science at Virginia Tech, and "featured a long list of papers that tried to dissect and criticize new federal water quality guidance that mining operators have successfully challenged in court," Ward writes. "An entire session consisted of six papers that tried to pick apart a series of West Virginia University studies that said coalfield residents living near mountaintop removal face increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death."

Ward writes that "a variety of other studies released this week affirmed that mountaintop removal is damaging the environment, and some looked into new and possibly safer ways to handle coal slurry disposal, more efficiently avoid toxic selenium pollution and improve stability of valley fills and mining impoundments." (Read more) Ward's report in advance of the conference is here.

Experts differ on role of climate change in drought

A new study says climate change had nothing to do with the drought of 2012, but some experts disagree with the assessment. The study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found it was a "flash drought" caused by reduction in moisture coming in from the Gulf of Mexico, Ken Anderson reports for Brownfield Ag News. “This is one of those events that comes along once every couple hundred years,” lead author Martin Hoerling said. “Climate change was not a significant part, if any, of the event.”

Nevertheless, Brad Rippey, a meteorologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said climate change had some sort of impact on the drought, Art Hovey reports for the Lincoln Journal Star. "We are in a warming climate," Rippey said. "That’s indisputable.” Rippey noted that 2012 included "a dip of more than 25 percent in the size of the corn crop nationally," and the U.S. has experienced six of the hottest temperatures on record in the past 11 years, with the annual average temperature “way off the charts.” (Read more)

The report has drawn sharp criticism from climatologists, Scott Rosenfield reports for Outside magazine. Dr. Kevin Trenberth, former head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said the report was "needlessly confusing, scientifically problematic" and failed to account for "the cumulative effects of drought on heat and wildfire risk." The 2012 drought had an estimated $12 billion damper on the economy and has been widely attributed to climate change, Rosenfield notes. (Read more)

Here's the latest Drought Monitor map from the University of Nebraska. For a larger version, click on the map.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Urban columnist: Congress bowed to rural gun nuts; Small-town writer: Rural folks aren't stupid or mean

A pair of writers, one for the Miami Herald, the other from a small, rural town, offer differing opinions on rural life and how it affects the gun-control debate. Miami Herald writer Fred Grimm says Congress is too heavily influenced by rural interests, and not just on guns. Center for Rural Stategies President Dee Davis, writing for the Daily Yonder, published by the center, said his friends and neighbors are caring, good people who would gladly face a little extra headache in purchasing a firearm if it meant a safer America.

Grimm opines that gun legislation was doomed from the start because of rural America and the structure of the Senate, which ignores population. "Once again, senators representing less than a third of the national population were able to ignore all those awful images from Newtown and thwart legislation that looked a hell of a lot like the national will. Their disproportionate power was on display Wednesday in the Senate, where some gun nut from Wyoming has 17 times more clout than a no-account from Florida."

Davis, left, says the supposedly rural interests who blocked the gun bill aren't lined up with people in Whitesburg, Ky., where he lives: "In 30 years I still have not locked the door, and I haven’t had a gun in the house." Of the legislation to expand background checks, and Grimm's notion that rural people don't care about events like the Newtown shooting, he said, "The rural people I give a damn about are all people who give a damn about those little boys and girls in Connecticut and those mommas and daddies there living in anguish because they could not protect the ones they held so dear. The rural people I care about here aren’t stupid or mean, and they can handle a momentary inconvenience for the public safety." (Read more)

Grimm, right, says the rural power in the Senate has led to a host of inequties, most recently in the immigration-reform bill: "Farm workers would be given a special five-year path to citizenship, as opposed to the 10-year deal for other illegal immigrants. Another amendment would create a special 'blue card' system exclusively for farm workers. Because with the distorted distribution of political power in the U.S. Senate, a Mexican farm worker in Mississippi has more worth than a Haitian roofer in South Florida. . . . Surely the founding fathers didn’t anticipate a situation in which workers abandon rural America and head to urban job centers even as rural America accrues more political clout. The voters migrate in one direction, the power and money flows the other." (Read more)

UPDATE, April 19: Grimm wants those who think he is "an urban elitist" to know that he is from Pineville, W.Va., worked for papers in West Virginia and Mississippi, and was the Southern Bureau chief for the Herald.

The editors of Bloomberg News, owned by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, agree: "If the nation’s laws fail to represent the views of the overwhelming majority of its people, representative democracy becomes a shallow and unsustainable exercise. Just as gun laws have failed to keep pace with the advance of technology, which puts ever greater firepower in the hands of virtually anyone who wants it, the Senate has failed to adapt to the urbanization and suburbanization of the nation, enabling rural representatives to veto the will of an increasingly metropolitan majority. The Senate cannot, and indeed does not, function if 60 votes are the threshold for every proposal." (Read more)

Dylan Matthews writes on Ezra Klein's Wonkbook for The Washington Post: "The smallest 20 states amount to 11.27 percent of the U.S. population, but if all of their senators band together they can successfully filibuster legislation."

Read more here:

Manchin says NRA killed background-check expansion by making it part of lawmakers' ratings

Manchin, center, with Majority Leader Harry
Reid, D-Nevada, and other supporters of his
gun-control amendment (Getty Images)
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Democratic half of the team that saw its background-check compromise shot down Wednesday, said Thursday that it would have gotten more than enough votes to pass if the National Rifle Association had not told senators it would use their vote in rating them. Many candidates have made much of marginally higher NRA ratings than their opponents.

"The two senators thought they had the NRA's tacit agreement not to oppose their amendment," NBC News reports on its First Read blog.

"If they hadn't scored it, we'd have gotten 70 votes," Manchin said at a Washington breakfast sponsored by The Wall Street Journal. "They made a big mistake." The lobby also gave a distorted description of how expanded background checks would work, Journal reporter Kris Maher writes.

Manchin, noting the immigration reform bill introduced this week, said it is difficult for conservative members to support more than one bipartisan compromise at a time, especially if it involves a change of position on an issue. "If you lose that credibility in any way, shape or form with your base, you're in trouble," he said, adding that a senator in such a position may ask, "How much energy do I have to sell two things?"

"Manchin said he planned to continue trying to persuade colleagues to change their minds and was willing to change his proposal to give lawmakers a basis for embracing it without being accused of flip-flopping," Maher reports.

New reality show, delayed because of Newtown massacre, stars a family of gun lovers

Another reality show is focusing on rural Americans in the act of doing "rural" things. This time the focus in on  a family of gun-loving Kentuckians, who will be featured on Country Music Television in a show called "Guntucky." The show, which premiers Sunday, stars the Sumner family, who live in Bullitt County, just south of Louisville. Most of the show takes place on the family-owned gun range, "where people can shoot a wide array of legal firearms — from cannons to rare collectibles," Christa Ritchie reports for The Courier-Journal. (C-J photo by Aaron Borton)

Range supervisor Steven Sumner told Ritchie, "You’re going to see people do things that aren’t the norm ... kind of like fantasies,” she writes. “Many people would like to blow something up, but you just can’t do that everywhere. We safely provide that area and that scene.” The ten episodes of the show were originally scheduled to begin airing in January, but the show was pushed back after the shooting in Newtown, Conn. (Read more)

Governors want public to take more responsibility for protecting federal forests in West

The Western Governors Association wants the public to take more responsibility for maintaining federal forests damaged by pests and wildfires, and asked the U.S. Forest Service to expand public-private partnerships to lessen the government's role in protecting and caring for the land, while searching for ways for the public to pitch in, Jim Malewitz reports for Stateline.

WGA comprises governors from Texas to the Dakotas and westward. The group says the Forest Service only used 30 percent of its 2010 budget for forest management, down from 70 percent 30 years ago, Malewitz writes. One suggestion for help from the public is to ask loggers to remove dead branches and trees that might catch fire. The governors also want state-by-state specifics on how the agency plans to meet its benchmarks. (Read more)

Transparency Camp promotes open government

Discussing ways to promote a more open government is the focus of a two-day event scheduled from May 4-5 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Created by the Sunlight Foundation, the Transparency Camp invites journalists, developers, technologists, policymakers, other government officials, students, academics, wonks, grassroots advocates, and anyone else interested in sharing their ideas to attend the workshops and conversations, with the event's schedule created and shaped by the attendees, according to a foundation press release.

The cost of the event is $30, and press passes are available. Last year, 400 people attended the event; organizers expect 500 this year. For more information visit the website.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Background-check measure defeated; reporters find anyone can sell or buy guns online

The gun-bill amendment to expand background checks fell six votes short of the required 60 votes to pass the Senate this afternoon. Yesterday, gun-bill advocates suggested adding a rural exception that would exempt residents who live hundreds of miles from a gun dealer, but with the announcement Wednesday that Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) will vote against the proposal, the bill was doomed, Ed O'Keefe and Tom Hamburger report for The Washington Post.

Sixty votes are required for the proposal to get past a filibuster, and the vote was 54-46. Without the expansion of background checks, which was dicey in the House, Congress is not expected to pass any significant gun controls, with the possible exception of new limits on gun trafficking. (Read more)

UPDATE, April 18: The Washington Post reports, "Just 40 senators supported the assault-weapons ban and 46 supported limiting the size of ammunition magazines. In addition, an NRA-backed measure that clarified gun-trafficking laws fell short, with just 58 votes, stunning Democrats. More senators, 57, voted for a provision that would greatly expand gun rights — allowing people with permits to carry concealed weapons in their states to carry them nationwide — than supported expanding background checks."

Meanwhile, The New York Times went online to see how the process of Internet gun sales works, and to uncover the identity of sellers and buyers. What reporters Michael Luo, Mike McIntire and Griff Palmer discovered was that online gun sites are an easy place for people illegally allowed to buy or sell guns to make a quick deal.

Mostly using the site Armslist, the reporters began responding to ads, and found a convicted felon, a fugitive, and a repeat offender trying to buy or sell firearms. They also discovered one seller who has advertised more than 100 guns, and another that has advertised more than 80. Over the past three months, the paper "identified more than 170,000 gun ads on Armslist."

"The examination of Armslist raised questions about whether many sellers are essentially functioning as unlicensed firearms dealers, in contravention of federal law," they write. The reporters site a A 2011  undercover investigation by the City of New York that examined "private party gun sellers on a range of Web sites, including Armslist, to see if they would sell guns to someone who said that they probably could not pass a background check, and found 77 of 125 online sellers agreed to sell the weapons anyway." (Read more)

Immigration reform bill would create new blue-card program for experienced farm workers

The proposed immigration bill, formally filed today, includes a "blue card" program that would allow experienced farm and agriculture workers who are in the country illegally the opportunity to move closer to obtaining a green card and legal residency, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

To be eligible, workers would need documentation of having worked at least 100 days in two years. They would also have to pay taxes, stay out of trouble and pay a $400 fee, Agri-Pulse reports: "Those work requirements include performing at least five years of agricultural employment for at least 100 work days per year, or performing at least three years of agricultural employment for at least 150 work days per year."

The current farmworker visa program, known as H-2A, "would sunset one year after the new visa program is enacted," and would provide three-year visas. Employers of workers would have to register with the Department of Agriculture. The bill calls for workers unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days to be deported. "The program would be capped at 112,333 visas per year for the first five years, and employers would be required to provide housing or housing allowances during employment." Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free trial here.

The 844-page bill is divided into four sections: border security, immigrant visas, interior enforcement, and reforms to non-immigrant visas, or workplace programs, David Nakamura reports for The Washington Post. Opponents of the proposal hope to delay the bill long enough to kill it, which was a successful tactic in 2007 when new immigration was introduced. (Read more)

Rural reporting leads in Mirror Awards nominations for digital stories about the news media

Four of the six finalists for best digital-media article in Syracuse University's Mirror Awards for reporting on the news media focused on rural reporting. The winner will be announced at the June 5 ceremony in New York City. Here's a look at each of the four.

Joplin Globe photographer Roger Nomer took this photo
the day of the storm.  It was broadcast around the world
and appeared on Page 1 of The New York Times.
Bret Schulte, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas, was nominated for his compelling May 2012 Columbia Journalism Review piece, "This is my paper. This is my town," which looked  at the impact of the devastating 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo., through the eyes of the people who work for The Joplin Globe. Despite their personal losses, employees felt a deep commitment to their jobs and their community, and showed up to work to continue reporting the news, and to keep the community informed about the disaster. The EF5 tornado had winds topping 200 m.p.h., and wiped out 25 to 30 percent of Joplin, demolishing 8,000 structures.

Globe reporters continued producing stories, including a first-person account of losing one's home, and enterprise editor Scott Meeker used social media to make contact with community members, Schulte writes. Meeker said, "We were flooded with questions from people on Facebook asking if loved ones were okay," which led to the creation of a separate Facebook page called Joplin Tornado Survivors, a forum for worried residents. In less than three hours it had 6,000 followers. Here is our May 2011 item on the Globe's work, which won it the Local Media Association's award for best small, local paper. Editor Carol Stark was named best local editor.

The storm coverage by the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. paper brought it closer to the community. “What this did was to re-validate our value in our community,” publisher Mike Beatty said. “We were able to identify the kind of thing they wanted to know: Where can they get shelter? Where can they get funds? Where is their help, and who died? Because we’re a community newspaper, we knew who to call and who to talk to. And people were coming to us and giving us information. It was a two-way street. It enhanced our relationship with our readers and our community.” (Read more)

Doug Crews, Beth Pike, Stephen Hudnell and Scott Charlton were also nominated for reporting about The Joplin Globe's response to the tornado, producing a 59-minute video for the Missouri Press Association. Its website says: "In the tornado aftermath, The Globe offers its readers a chance to mourn their community and learn how it will rebuild.  Reporters examine their role as community watchdog and residents see their newspaper as a vital source for local news and moving forward.  Much like the hard-rock miners who settled Joplin in its early years, the long hours, difficult working conditions, and uncovering of stories from the disaster continues for The Joplin Globe." (Read more)

Another nomination went to Chris Robbins and Sue Mende of the Watertown Daily Times in upstate New York for their story, "An udder mess: How the Atlantic got it all wrong in St. Lawrence County," a story that detailed how the small-town newspaper took on the big-city magazine the Atlantic, calling the magazine on its attempt to concoct an online story essentially alleging that new agribusiness locating in St. Lawrence County are hurting the Amish community to the point that some Amish are digging through trash for food and many families are leaving the community. 

The local paper exposed the Atlantic's poor reporting. It turned out the Atlantic reporter interviewed just one person, a man he had known since they were teenagers, and admitted to the Atlantic reporter that he had biased views. Despite that, the reporter still based his story on one person's opinion. We reported on the episode in September.

The Atlantic article was also filled with factual errors, such as using the term "synthetic manure," a which doesn't exist, Robbins and Mende write. Times managing editor Robert D. Gorman said: “The writer didn't know the difference between bail and bale, teats and udders, DePeyster and Canton. Despite acknowledging his factual errors, his editors are still convinced he methodically unraveled an incredibly complex socioeconomic trend in regional farming. I have told them he got that wrong, too, but to no avail.” When questioned by the Times, the Atlantic stood behind its story, and their reporter refused to be interviewed." (Read more)

The other nomination is for Joe Strupp's story for MediaMatters, "How a right-wing group is infiltrating state news coverage." He described  how some media outlets created by the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity write stories based on the organization's own interests, even using facts and quotes from the organization to fuel the story in an attempt to get legislation passed or denied, and to influence readers one way or the other. The organization claims to provide 10 percent of all state government news in the U.S., Strupp writes. Many rural newspapers use the reports; we first reported on the Franklin Center in 2011.

Strupp used a recent example of the outlets' attempt to influence people, highlighting how did six stories in one week arguing against legislation to ban access to commercial tanning beds by minors, with five of the stories quoting the organization's parent company, the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Strupp writes, "The website's coverage of the tanning issue clearly figured into the Idaho Freedom Foundation's efforts to stop the measure and protect that industry's business owners." (Read more)

Yakima Nation, overrun by wild horses, asks Obama to reconsider stand against horse slaughter

President Obama's proposed budget would rule out legal horse slaughter in the U.S., but an overabundance of wild horses has the Yakima Nation Native American tribe in Washington state asking Obama for help in lifting the ban on horse slaughter. The tribe's letter says its reservation is overrun with more than 12,000 feral horses, which through overgrazing are causing serious damage to the environment, the letter states, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter.

“We don’t understand why it is OK to slaughter many animals in this country, but for some reason horses are considered sacrosanct,” the letter states. “We should not manage these horses based on purely emotional arguments, story books or movies we saw as children. There is a market for horse meat in many parts of the world and if we can create jobs, humanely reduce overpopulated herds and feed others, it is absurd to prohibit it. Surely a well regulated processing plant is far more humane than what is happening." Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free trial here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Gun-bill advocates may add rural exemption to get votes, especially from Alaska, North Dakota

Short of votes to pass their bipartisan compromise on background checks for gun buyers, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are considering adding a rural exception, Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times reports.

"They are now trying to bring on reluctant Democrats from conservative states, and in some cases, members from both parties who represent a state together," such as Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska. "One approach designed to entice lawmakers representing large rural areas, particularly in Alaska, would exempt residents who live hundreds of miles from a gun dealer."

Begich "has been cool to new gun measures," and Murkowski "voted against even proceeding to debate gun measures," Steinhauer writes. "Supporters of the background-check amendment believe the exemptions for people who live far from gun dealers might appeal to them." (Read more)

UPDATE: Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post reports that the rural exemption might also be written to affect North Dakota and get the vote of Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, "a moderate with an A-rating from the NRA."

Sequester cuts could leave 15,000 rural people without their rental subsidies, Vilsack says

Tom Vilsack
Federal budget cuts from the "sequester" legislation could cost 15,000 low-income elderly and disabled people in rural areas their rental subsidies, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Appropriations Committee today.

USDA's rural rental assistance program helps low-income tenants live in government-funded housing," Mary Clare Jalonick reports for The Associated Press. "Vilsack said the money for that program could run out in August or September and the lack of rental assistance could not only have an impact on the tenants but also the owners of the apartment complexes." (Read more)

Immigration bill treats farm workers most favorably

The "Gang of Eight" senators (AP via Politico)
The "Gang of Eight," the octet of senators working on the new immigration bill, are expected to introduce it today. It could pave the way for 11 million illegal immigrants to begin the process of becoming legal citizens, based on skills and personal assets, Julia Preston reports for The New York Times.

"The legislation would have a far-reaching impact on virtually every corner of the American economy," Carrie Budoff Brown, Anna Palmer and Manu Raju of Politico report. Agriculture could be the corner most affected. The bill would expand guest-worker programs for farm workers, 50 to 80 percent of whom are estimated to have arrived in the country illegally. They would be able to get green cards as legal residents after five years; most other workers would have to wait 10.

The bill would require employers to verify the legal status of all new hires using a photo matching system within five years, and the federal government to create an electronic system within 10 years for checking foreigners as they leave the country through airports and seaports, Preston notes.
Even if the bill passes the Senate, as seems likely, its prospects in the Republican-controlled House are uncertain. We have reported on this issue several times, most recently about the merit system based on job skills and assets, and here about how agriculture could benefit most.

Weekly's photographer detained by MPs for taking pictures from public place; gets apology

The Defense Department has apologized for twice detaining weekly newspaper photographer Nic Coury for taking photos, while on public property, of the exterior of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. (One of those photos shows the school's entrance.)

Coury, of the Monterey County Weekly, was taking photos from a public sidewalk April 2, then again April 4, when he was stopped, questioned, and told to delete his pictures, Mary Duan writes for the paper. "Coury asked if he was being detained and the officers told him 'no,' but when asked if he was free to leave, they also said, 'no,'" Duan writes. The second time he was detained, when he asked "under what specific law or authority the Department of Defense officers were operating, Deputy Chief of Police Shayne Gardner told him: 'We can arrest you and you can find out the interpretation in court if you want to go that route.'"

The department admitted that its police were in the wrong, but despite the fact that its deputy chief was involved, blamed the incident on a training issue. A school spokesman told the paper in an email, "While the security personnel thought they were performing their duties appropriately, they acted beyond their actual authority. We have no authority to detain personnel outside the base on public property." (Read more)

Journalist who knows TVA well says: Sell it

Cumberland City Fossil
Plant (Roger Smith)
The suggestion in President Obama's budget that the Tennessee Valley Authority could or should be sold to reduce the federal debt seems unlikely to get very far, but one journalist who cut his teeth on covering the federal utility in the 1970s thinks it's time.

James Branscome writes in the Daily Yonder, "Dismantling TVA is no great challenge. It may not happen over the debt issue, but it should happen for an even greater and nobler reason: the failure of a dream, the corruption of key principles of democracy and the arrogance of power. This experiment has not raised the economic livelihood of its region to anything approaching the national average; in fact, its service territory is about at the same economic levels as the Appalachian region. Its power program is far less pioneering than many of the nation’s private utilities. Its leadership for the most part is uninspiring, and given the political spoils to be had, that is apt to get worse, not better. So, for the good of the people of the valley and the nation, let’s dismantle it."

Branscome's call is preceded by a succinct history of TVA, from its promises to its pitfalls, which should be required reading for everyone who uses TVA power. It is followed by some caveats, such as keeping rural electric cooperatives in TVA's region and giving its dams to the Army Corps of Engineers. He also notes, "The 201 counties in the TVA region will immediately gain new tax revenue to replace the in-lieu and low payments made by the agency." (Read more)

Branscome, of Montrose, Colo., is the retired managing director of equity research services for the Standard & Poor's division of McGraw-Hill Cos. He covered TVA and strip mining for The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky., and is a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Pulitzers given for stories on pipeline regulation, Wal-Mart bribes, rural book; carp sharp comes close

The Pulitzer Prizes announced today for the best journalism of 2012 have some rural resonance.

Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan and David Hasemyer of InsideClimate News won the prize for National Reporting for "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen," the citation read. Just today, we have an item based on an ICN report suggesting that Exxon Mobil falsified its reporting of a recent "dilbit" spill.

UPDATE: For a profile of ICN, by Jeff Bercovici of Forbes magazine, click here.

David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab of The New York Times won the Investigative Reporting award for their reports on how Wal-Mart used widespread bribery to dominate the market in Mexico, resulting in changes in company practices.

One finalist in the Explanatory Reporting category was Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for his exhaustive examination of the struggle to keep Asian carp and other invasive species from reaching the Great Lakes and ultimately all of the nation’s inland waters, a story enhanced by animated graphics."

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, by Gilbert King, won the award for general nonfiction book: "a richly detailed chronicle of racial injustice in the Florida town of Groveland in 1949, involving four black men falsely accused of rape and drawing a civil rights crusader, and eventual Supreme Court justice, into the legal battle." Other finalists were Also nominated as finalists in this category were Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a book about Mumbai by Katherine Boo, and The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature," by David George Haskell, right, "a fascinating book that, for a year, closely follows the natural wonders occurring within a tiny patch of old-growth Tennessee forest" in the Appalachian Mountains. For a list of all finalists, click here.

Exxon's response to Arkansas spill questioned; documents contradict company's timeline of reports

Exxon Mobil may have been slow in acting or responding to a pipeline rupture March 29 in Mayflower, Ark., that caused the evacuation of 22 homes and released between 200,000 and 420,000 gallons of oil, Katherine Bagley reports for Inside Climate News. The 65-year-old pipeline, which goes through four states, moves more than 90,000 barrels of crude oil over an 850-mile distance each day.

While Exxon said it shut down the pipeline within 16 minutes after the pressure drop was detected, there is some concern about the company's reported timeline of events, Bagley writes. The leak was first reported through a 911 call at 2:44 p.m., but local records show that it wasn't until 3:19 p.m., 35 minutes later, that Exxon made contact with local authorities, and Exxon arrived on the scene at 3:43 p.m., telling local officials the pipe needed to be shut off.

Exxon told the federal National Response Center that it saw a problem on the line at 1:15 p.m. when it spotted a drop in pressure, but didn't call the NRC until 4:06 p.m., Bagley reports. Two hours later Exxon filed a second report, reporting the time of the incident as 3:20 p.m. In a third report the next day, Exxon again reported the leak was discovered at 1:15 p.m. Exxon then reported on its blog that "it first detected a pressure drop in the line at 2:37 p.m. and initiated a full shutdown of the pipeline that was completed within 16 minutes" and that emergency response personnel arrived in Mayflower within 30 minutes, at 3:07 p.m., 36 minutes earlier than local emergency personnel reported their arrival. Exxon also claimed in one report that the leak was stopped at 6:20 p.m., but the EPA says it wasn't stopped until the next morning at 3 a.m., a fact Exxon confirmed on its blog April 10. (Read more)

We reported on the oil spill April 1. For updated coverage from the Log Cabin Democrat of Conway, click here. The site features an ad from Exxon Mobil touting "A message to Mayflower, Arkansas."

Isolated Marfa, Tex., is revived by art, culture and newcomers' desire to get away from cities

A desert town in West Texas was on the brink of extinction before artists began descending into the area, reviving the economy with a flourish of art and culture. The result is that the 2,000-population town of Marfa, one hour from the Mexican border and 200 miles from the nearest airport, has a unique blend of cowboys, Hispanics, and artistic transplants, some from as far away as New York City, Morley Safer reports for "60 Minutes" on CBS. (Wikipedia map)

Among the one-stoplight town, there are poetry readings that draw 80 to 90 people, galleries with all sorts of works, and art displays, such as a series of concrete boxes that are mostly used as a playground by antelope, and the Prada store that never opens, serving only as a statement even though it has $2,000 bags on display, Safer reports.

"Watching the passing parade, you're not quite sure if you're in Mayberry or Greenwich Village," Safer reports. "For old Marfans, there's the gun show. For new Marfans, a symposium on politics, culture, climate and sustainability." Local resident Buck Johnston said of the town: "I mean, it's nutty. It's just this cultural little hub in the middle of nowhere. We think it's the best small town in America." (Read more)

Rural counties' unemployment rate is 8.7 percent

"Rural unemployment rates are now firmly above jobless numbers in urban areas and the country as a whole," Bill Bishop reports on the Daily Yonder. The rate in rural counties in February was 8.7 percent; the national rate was 8.1 percent.
Green counties were at or below the national average; orange ones were above it. Gray counties are metropolitan. For a larger version of the map, click on it. For an interactive version, with actual numbers of the employed and unemployed, click here.

AT&T loses fight to shed itself of landline phone requirement in Ky.; Illinois next battleground

One of the bills to relieve telephone companies of the obligation to provide landline service in rural areas again failed to pass the Kentucky House in the recently ended legislative session. Now the focus turns to Illinois, Barbara Popovich writes for the Huffington Post. "Members of the Illinois legislature are being inundated with AT&T lobbyists pushing for similar deregulation, she writes. In Kentucky, AT&T promised to increase investments in wireless capability in exchange for no longer guaranteeing basic land line telephone service. But critics pointed to spotty cell phone service, combined with the burden on people who can't afford bundled packages offered by phone and cable companies."

Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, spearheaded the effort against AT&T, which he said used 24 lobbyists, robo-calls and newspaper and broadcast advertising. "Despite that, we prevailed," FitzGerald said. "We worked very well together, and with modest resources, fought a corporate juggernaut that has rolled through statehouses across the country. This was a joint effort to uphold the core principles of universal access, competition, interconnection, affordability, reliability, and safety that have been at the heart of national telecommunications policy for scores of years." (Read more)

Kentucky Senate Bill 88 would have allowed phone companies to stop providing service to new customers in unprofitable areas, or where comparable services, such as cellular service, are available. AT&T had argued the bill was necessary to improve broadband service, Beth Musgrave and Jack Brammer report for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

For background on the issue, including a researcher who tracks it nationwide, click here. We have reported on the issue several times, most recently when the bill was being considered in Kentucky, and how AT&T was accused of using automated phone calls to threaten lawmakers opposing the bill. AT&T denied that.

Conference April 19-21 to focus on ways to build non-coal economy in E. Ky., Central Appalachia

The Appalachia Bright Future conference, designed to find ways to bolster the economy in Eastern Kentucky and the rest of Central Appalachia, while generating new jobs, businesses and new opportunities for families not solely based on the coal industry, is scheduled Friday through Sunday, April 19-21 in Harlan, Ky.

Nola Sizemore reports for the Harlan Daily Enterprise, "Guest speakers will relate lessons learned from other regions who have gone through transitions and examples of entrepreneurs and communities beginning to build a brighter future for their areas." The event features a sliding-scale registration fee of $5 to $100, which covers entrance to conference events, coffee and breakfast snacks each morning, and lunch and dinner on Saturday. Child care will not be available. The conference website is here.