Friday, July 05, 2013

Is EPA caving to pressure on fracking probes as Obama pushes gas as balm for climate change?

"Environmentalists see an [Environmental Protection] Agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas," Abrahm Lustgarten reports for Pro Publica.

In 2011, the EPA said fracking polluted an aquifer in Pavillion, Wyo., the first time such a claim had been based on a scientific analysis, Lustgarten reports. But the agency has since backed off on its investigation, handing its study over to the state, to be funded by the drilling company. (Casper Star-Tribune photo by Dustin Bleizeffer: Examining water in Pavillion)

That wasn't the only time the agency backed away from a fracking investigation. "Over the past 15 months the EPA closed an investigation into groundwater pollution in Dimock, Pa., saying the level of contamination was below federal safety triggers and abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker County, Texas, was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents’ faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding," Lustgarten reports. They also "sharply revised downward a 2010 estimate showing that leaking gas from wells and pipelines was contributing to climate change, crediting better pollution controls by the drilling industry even as other reports indicate the leaks may be larger than previously thought, and failed to enforce a statutory ban on using diesel fuel in fracking."

Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, told Lustgarten, “We’re seeing a pattern that is of great concern. They need to make sure that scientific investigations are thorough enough to ensure that the public is getting a full scientific explanation.”

Publicly, the EPA says the events are not related, Lustgarten reports, "but in private conversations, however, high-ranking agency officials acknowledge that fierce pressure from the drilling industry and its powerful allies on Capitol Hill – as well as financial constraints and a delicate policy balance sought by the White House – is squelching their ability to scrutinize not only the effects of oil and gas drilling, but other environmental protections as well." He notes that last year, the EPA's budget was cut 17 percent, to below 1998 levels, and sequestration has forced further cuts. (Read more)

Man survives five hours trapped in grain bin, a more dangerous device than ever, relatively speaking

When someone falls into a grain bin, the chance of survival is slim. From 1964 to 2008, 74 percent of reported grain entrapments resulted in fatalities, according to a report from Purdue University. But last week, 23-year-old Arick Baker beat the odds, surviving five hours in a bin at New Providence, Iowa. Katherine Klingseis detailed Baker's incredible story in The Des Moines Register. (Register photo by David Purdy: Baker standing on corn cleared from the bin to free him)

Baker, who was trying to remove some rotten corn when he fell, told Klingseis, “My whole life I’ve been told that once you go down in a grain bin, you die. In less than 10 seconds, there was 18 inches to 2 feet of corn above me. I had my left arm above my head, and I think you could only see an inch of my fingers. I just thought about my next breath. It consumed all of my mind activity.”

Baker was one of the lucky ones, and doctors credit that to being just the right age to survive such an ordeal, Klingseis reports. His heart rate was so fast -- 173 times per minute, or 90 percent of his maximum -- that doctors told him "if I were 10 years older, my heart would have exploded from how fast it was beating,” and because of his size, doctors said “If I were 10 years younger, I would have been squeezed to death from the pressure.”

Despite nearly dying, Baker has no plans to stop working on grain bins, or even going back into one if necessary, Klingseis reports. “I’m going to be a farmer the rest of my life. I need to get used to going into grain bins. I will take a little extra safety precautions, but it still has to be done.” (Read more) Grain-bin injuries and fatalities have remained steady as other farm-related casualties have declined, and prosecutions for violations of safety rules are rare.

Ky. will save by no longer housing inmates in private prisons, but closing last one will hurt its host county

Kentucky's plan to save money by no longer housing its inmates in private prisons could significantly hurt the rural county with the last one. The state announced its intention to end its contract with Corrections Corp. of America for the Marion Adjustment Center in St. Mary, saying it could have $1.5 to $2.5 million a year, Stephen Lega reports for the Lebanon Enterprise, but the impact on Marion County could be as great. (Lega photo: Marion Adjustment Center)

Once the prisoners are moved, Kentucky will no longer house any of its inmates in private prisons; one prison houses inmates from Vermont. With the relocation of 1,807 inmates, 166 employees will lose their jobs and the county stands to lose a considerable amount, Lega reports. From August 2012 to May 2013 the center spent nearly $1.77 million with Marion County businesses, including $32,497 for advertising with the Enterprise, a Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. weekly.

The facility also provided more than $132,000 in revenue for the county water district in the past year, invested $250,000 to help start a sewer project, and pays between $18,000 to $21,500 per month for sewer service. Also, the county gets about $52,700 a year in occupational taxes from the facility. Families of inmates also bring money to the county when they visit, and "the prison's community service workers provided more than $34,000 in savings to the Department of Transportation and the community during the first six months of 2013," Lega reports.
In addition to monetary gains, inmate programs have provided helpful services, reports Lega. Prisoners run an obedience training program for shelter dogs that are considered difficult to adopt, with more than 300 dogs having been adopted through the program. Inmates have also been responsible for cleaning up the community, building new bridges, benches and picnic tables, and have done other work to help better the county. (Read more

State parks suffer from budget cuts; situation worsens as facilities deteriorate

Budget cuts across the country are having a big impact on the nation's 7,975 state parks. In 1990, general tax dollars covered, on average, about 60 percent of a state park’s budget, but by 2011, the number had dropped to 34 percent, Brad Cooper reports for the Kansas City Star. The cutbacks are hampering basic repairs and maintenance. (Star photo by Keith Myers: Clinton State Park in Lawrence, Kan.)

State parks are facing mushrooming backlogs of repairs, ranging from $1 billion in California to $750 million in Illinois to $400 million in Missouri, Cooper reports. Without proper funding, the condition of state parks has suffered. The American Society of Civil Engineers this year gave the U.S. a C-minus for the condition of its park infrastructure, saying "states and local governments can’t keep up with recreational needs because of shrinking budgets."

The group says the amount of money states need just isn't available, with federal data showing states are asking for $18.5 billion for outdoor recreational facilities, Cooper writes. As a result, states are trying to make up the money by increasing fees. Illinois, which has a park-repair backlog of $750 million, has raised license-plate renewals by $2. Kansas, which has a backlog of $26 million and a state park budget of $10.6 million for this fiscal year, is offering discounts on annual state-park passes when drivers register their cars.

"South Carolina lists $155 million in deferred park maintenance," Cooper writes. "Texas estimates its backlog at somewhere between $400 million and $700 million, needing roughly $64 million every two-year budget cycle to maintain its system of more than 90 parks. This year, the state received $11 million from the Texas Legislature for capital improvements. New York officials last year identified more than $1 billion in needed park work, including some sites where conditions were so bad that areas had to be roped off to protect the public. In some cases, amenities were closed off completely to ensure safety." (Read more)
Read more here:

Program helps bring broadband to rural Minnesota

More rural residents of Minnesota are getting the chance to experience the benefits of broadband Internet. The $6.6 million Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities program was designed to boost rural broadband by helping people find online resources to better their lives. The recently completed program has already helped 250,000 rural Minnesotans get introduced to online resources for jobs, continuing their education, and strengthening their businesses, reports the Grand Rapids Herald Review, north of Minneapolis. 

The program "leveraged resources of coalition partners to extend small business technical assistance and training, distribute refurbished computers to low-income families, train individuals and businesses, and create and deliver courses for knowledge workers," reports the Review. As part of the program 11 communities received $100,000 "to identify and implement nearly 100 projects that fit local broadband needs and helped communities boost their overall ability to participate in the Internet-based economy." In the 11 communities the subscription growth rate for broadband services increased from 10.3 to 15.9 percent.

"The project was funded through a $4.8 million Broadband Technology Opportunity Program grant through the U.S. Department of Commerce as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and $1.8 million in MIRC partner matches. Blandin Foundation administered the grant on behalf of the initiative partners," the Review reports. (Read more)

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Twice-weekly in Republican county in No. Virginia drops 'Democrat' name, citing need for circulation

If you're in a struggling industry at a time when the country has become politically polarized, being identified with a political party is not good business. That's what the twice-weekly Fauquier Times in Northern Virginia horse country said when it abandoned the name "Fauquier Times-Democrat" June 19.

"In an age which is, perhaps, more shaped and informed by political identity than any other in our history, having a word in our banner that is so associated with a political party is no longer a very astute business decision," Executive Editor Bill Walsh explained to readers in an editorial. The 14,000-circulation paper is part of Times Community News, a family-owned chain.

The Warrenton newspaper, founded in 1817, adopted the partisan name 40 years after the end of the Civil War, when rural Virginia was firmly Democratic. But now Fauquier County is reliably Republican, and Walsh said the paper's circulation department concluded the "Democrat" was a drag, even though the paper is editorially independent and its last presidential endorsement went to Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008.

The change prompted an editorial in The Boston Globe, which said of the paper, "Hopefully its action isn’t a harbinger of things to come. For decades, readers of all political stripes have been mature enough to take newspapers with historical partisan names in stride. If that’s no longer possible, it would be a sad commentary on our hyper-polarized era." (Read more)

Independence Day, by the numbers

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Is Johnny Depp part Cherokee? Or is it Creek? Maybe Chickasaw? He and Disney keep it ambiguous

Part of Johnny Depp's appeal in his role as Tonto in "The Lone Ranger," which premieres today nationwide, is his claim to some Native American heritage. But his ambiguty about just which tribes are in his pedigree, and the Walt Disney Co.'s lack of clarification, are drawing fire from the Native community, reports Indian Country Today. (Disney photo)

"Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage (put forth in 2002 on "Inside the Actors' Studio", although in 2011 speaking to Entertainment Weekly he added 'or maybe Creek'), along with his streaked black-and-white painted face and a stuffed crow perched atop his head, have caused many to cry foul," Angela Aleiss reports. On a more recent program, Depp added Chickasaw to the list of possibilities. All are plausible; he is from Owensboro, Ky., on the lower Ohio River. In the film, he plays a Comanche.

"Native American leaders and educators are not buying it," Aleiss writes, quoting Hanay Geiogamah, a professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, who was was a consultant for Disney’s "Pocahontas" and a producer for TBS’ "The Native Americans: Behind the Legends, Beyond the Myths." Geiogamah, a Kiowa and Delaware, told her, "Disney relies upon the ignorance of the public to allow that ambiguity to exist. If Depp had any legitimate blood of any tribe, Disney would definitely have all the substantial proof of that already.  It’s not that hard to establish tribal connections."

Cherokee Nation policy analyst Richard Allen told Aleiss that many celebrities claim Cherokee heritage, often based on family stories, but don't try to verify it.  “They all tell me they have high cheekbones,” Allen said. Other Native Americans said Disney missed an opportunity to cast a true Indian in the role, and has no officer repsonsible for policy toward Native Americans. The company told Aleiss that its senior vice president for multicultural initiatives provided liaison with Native Americans for the movie. (Read more)

Mary Annette Pember writes in the Daily Yonder that Depp, speaking to the Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque last April, "seems to have tapped into his inner Tonto at a level I would not have dreamed possible. Watching him is more embarrassing than witnessing one of those Unitarian Universalist services in which non-Indians try to sing and play hand drums." Pember also wrote, "I think the real reason that Disney chose Depp is that they couldn’t find any real Indians who could do the Tonto voice while keeping a straight face." (Read more)

Ohio and New Hampshire are latest states to raise speed limit on some interstates; Illinois still in limbo

Speed limits were raised from 65 mph to 70 on several stretches of interstates in Ohio on Monday, and the next day New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan signed the state's first speed limit increase in 40 years, raising a stretch of highway from 65 to 70. Maine and Utah have also raised limits this year, and other states may do so, Governing magazine reports.

The Department of Transportation in Ohio put up 317 new signs Monday along 570 miles of highway alerting drivers to the change, Rick Armon reports for the Akron Beacon Journal. The limit on the Ohio Turnpike (green line on map) had been 70 since April 2011. (News-Herald photo, by Duncan Scott, and map)

Russ Rader, a senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and its Highway Loss Data Institute in Arlington, Va., told Armon, “It’s popular to raise speed limits. It gets people to their destinations faster but it doesn’t come without a cost. There will be more crashes and more deaths as a result of raising speed limits. Instead of raising speed limits, what states should be doing is vigorously enforcing the speed limits they have because speed is a major safety problem on the roads. If we could control speeding, we could have a significant impact on the death toll." (Read more)

Hassan said she decided to sign the New Hampshire bill because it received overwhelming bipartisan support in the legislature and was limited to certain roads, Kevin Landrigan reports for The Telegraph, located in Nashua, in the southern part of the state.

"As of Jan. 1, the speed limit will be 70 mph for about an 80-mile stretch of I-93 north of Canterbury up to the border with Vermont," Landrigan reports. "Currently, motorists can drive up to 65 mph on this stretch of road. The only part of the route not covered by the increase is about 5 miles that go through the White Mountain National Forest and Franconia Notch, where the speed limit will remain 45."

The Illinois Legislature passed a bill in May that would raise the state's interstate speed limit to 70, from 65, but Gov. Pat Quinn still hasn't decided whether to sign or veto it. He can delay action until Aug. 19, which is 60 days from the date he received the bill. For the roundup from Governing, click here. (Thanks to Ray Long of the Chicago Tribune for information.)

If current trends continue, by 2050 there won't be enough food to feed the world, study says

If the world's population continues to grow at its projected rate, and crop yields remain as expected, by 2050 there won't be enough food to feed the world, Population is expected to grow from 7 billion today to 9.6 billion in 2050, but a University of Minnesota study "found that crop yields haven’t been rising at a sufficient pace to meet projected demand by 2050," Brad Plumer reports for The Washington Post. The study was published in PLOS One, the journal of the Public Library of Science, which describes itself as "organization of scientists committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature freely accessible to scientists and to the public."
(Chart by PLOS One: "The study takes a careful look at historical improvements in crop yields for corn, rice, wheat and soybeans...yields per acre have been growing fairly constantly in all four areas," Plumer writes. "The solid lines show what would happen if this growth continued. The dashed lines above show how productivity would need to grow even more rapidly ... to satisfy expected demand and double global food production by 2050 in a sustainable manner, without razing more forests.")
Jonathan Foley, an agricultural expert and one of the authors, told Plumer, “In many parts of the world, we haven’t seen enough investment in agriculture because of economics or policies or institutions." But another problem could be that farmers are reaching a limit on how much yields can keep rising. Foley said, “We can sometimes bust through these walls with technology, genetics, better seeds. But at a certain point we run up against fundamental physiological limits for plants. If billion of years of evolution can’t figure it out, are we going to be able to? That I don’t know.”

If crops yields don't improve quickly enough, food prices could increase, or new farmland will be needed, which means clearing away more forests, and possibly accelerating climate change, Plumer writes. In a 2009 essay for Scientific American, Foley argued that the world should focus on five things: Stop razing forests and savannas for farmland — by, for instance, shifting away from crop-based biofuels; focus on boosting yields where it’s technologically doable, especially in Africa; figure out how to use water and fertilizer more efficiently everywhere; reduce the amount of meat in our diets; and cut down on the enormous amount of food waste worldwide. (Read more)

Big immigration raid in 2008 pushed the issue and made Iowa reporters do much more with it

Fermin Loyes was deported in the raid, but has reunited with
family in Postville. (Photo: Kaitlyn Bernauer, The Gazette)
A federal raid of a meatpacking plant in the small town of Postville, Iowa, in 2008 may have been the catalyst for putting the need for immigration reform back in the national spotlight, and for creating a new breed of journalists who became experts at covering the immigration debate, especially from the human-interest point of view, Deron Lee reports for Columbia Journalism Review.

The raid led to the arrest of 400 workers, who were the victims of deplorable working conditions, and ended up getting caught in the justice system, where they were separated from their families, imprisoned, and deported. The raid decimated the town’s immigrant-heavy population, and its economy, Lee reports.

The raid also changed the way journalists covered immigration, reports Lee. "In a state with a small (though exponentially growing) immigrant population, reporters may not have felt the need to engage with immigration on a local level had Postville not lifted the veil on the shadow world of migrant laborers in the heartland." Jens Manuel Krogstad, who reported on the raid for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, and still covers Postville for The Des Moines Register, said “I think that was a springboard to a lot of immigration coverage.”

Apdullahi Hassan, in his Postville convenience
store, is one of many Somalis who have moved
to the area since the raid.
(Bernauer photo)
Trish Mehaffey, who covered the fifth anniversary of the raid last month for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, told Lee: “I think the Postville raid brought to light the fact that there needed to be changes, because it kind of ruined that town. It really opens your eyes to see how something like that can affect a whole community."

Journalists covering the scene also did something unusual, by interviewing the immigrants, Lee . What the reporters came away with was stories that turned stats and figures into real people with real stories. "The inherent difficulty in reporting on unauthorized immigrants is that most don’t want to be seen," Lee wrotes. "But when opportunities have arisen to talk to undocumented workers . . . Iowa reporters have taken the initiative." (Read more)

Libertarian-oriented foundation says North Dakota still has best state highways in the U.S.

North Dakota continues to have the best state-owned highway system in the country, according to the libertarian-oriented Reason Foundation's 20th "Annual Report of the Performance of State Highway Systems." Highways were rated based on expenditures, interstate and primary road pavement condition, bridge condition, urban interstate congestion, fatality rates and narrow rural lanes. The study was based on spending and performance data submitted by state highway agencies to the federal government, according to a Reason news release.

North Dakota, which has held the top spot every year since 2001, was followed by Kansas, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Missouri, South Dakota, and Mississippi. Alaska was 50th and Rhode Island was 49th. Those two states (the largest and smallest in area) reported more than 10 percent of their rural primary mileage to be in poor condition. The percentage of road miles in a state that are the responsibility of the state varies widely. To view the full report click here.

Volunteers bringing veterinarian care to pets, owners in remote areas of Alaska

Pet owners in remote areas of Alaska have long struggled to get routine medical care for their pets, and the lack of spay-and-neuter procedures has led to an overabundance of animals, many of whom are sick, the Anchorage Daily News reports. Alaska Rural Veterinary Outreach, a non-profit organization, is trying to improve the quality of life for pets by bringing veterinary services to areas in need (Photo by College Village Animal Clinic: Veterinarians providing service in Nondalton)

Nondalton, located on the western shore of the Cook Inlet, has a population of 167, but no resources for pets. The outreach program, manned by volunteers, recently visited the village, providing care for 28 dogs in desperate need of basic services, such as vaccines, the News reports. Nondalton’s community health aide, Ron Lotsfeld said, “Our community has needed this service for a very long time. Their efforts will result in a healthier canine community here, and a more manageable dog population. We hope they can do the same thing for many other villages.”

Outreach founder and President Sally Clampitt said "Reaching out to Alaska’s rural pets and their people is long overdue. We are just getting started, but have received requests for help from all across Alaska.” The group said their biggest challenge is finding "enough veterinarians and trained volunteers willing to donate their time, and sponsors who are willing to pick up the cost of the needed medications and supplies." (Read more)

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

GOP sees Obama's climate initiative as an opportunity to beat coal-state Democrats

Republicans say President Obama's plan to fight climate change could benefit them in midterm elections in coal country, opening the door for their party to grab seats held by Democrats, and to ensure that an incumbent like Mitch McConnell of Kentucky stays in office, Trip Gabriel reports for The New York Times. (NYT photo by Shawn Poynter: Kentucky Power's Big Sandy Plant)

Alison Lundergan Grimes
Senate elections in 2014 include open seats in West Virginia and South Dakota now held by Democrats, and elections in energy-rich Louisiana, where Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu is on shaky ground, and Kentucky, where Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said yesterday she is taking on McConnell, the Senate GOP leader and a top target of Democrats. He would like to become majority leader; to do that, his party would need a net gain of six seats.

Nick Rahall
Following Obama's climate-change speech last week, Republicans immediately went on the attack against Democratic House members in mining states, and Democratic candidates like Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia are trying to distance themselves from the president, Fears reports. But Republicans are trying to link Democratic candidates to Obama and his speech, to get the upper hand. After Grimes announced she was immediately attacked by national Republicans as being joined at the hip to the president in a “desire to destroy the coal industry."

Obama's speech isn't helping Democrats in coal states. Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky (and publisher of The Rural Blog) told Gabriel that Obama “has no more elections to win, and he can play his real cards. He was already the most anti-coal president we’ve ever had, and now he’s doubled down. That is not good for Kentucky Democrats in any shape, form or fashion.”

Rahall sounded nearly as hostile as the billboards dotting coal country bought by mining interests that declare “Obama’s No Jobs Zone,” saying he was “profoundly disappointed” by the president’s new initiative, Fears reports. Rahall said “I’m not ever, ever, ever going to back away from fighting for our coal miners."

Shelley Moore Capito
"Republicans countered that on this issue Democrats can run but they cannot hide," Gabriel writes. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) who is seeking the Senate seat that opened with the retirement of John D. Rockefeller IV, a Democrat, said the president’s climate initiative “is a problem for every Democrat. You are, for better or worse, a part of the party that you put your name on the ballot with.” (Read more)

Fracking waste from Pa., W.Va. going underground in Ohio at increasing rates

Hydraulic fracturing fluids and oil-and-gas waste from Pennsylvania and West Virginia are being injected into Ohio disposal wells at an increasing rate, with a reported 8.16 million barrels of waste from other states found in Ohio in 2012, a 19 percent increase from 2011, Spencer Hunt reports for The Columbus Dispatch. Overall, 14.2 million barrels were injected into Ohio disposal wells in 2012, up 12 percent from 2011. (Dispatch graphic; click on it to enlarge)

Fourteen new disposal wells have been drilled in Ohio since last year, giving the state 191, compared to 63 in West Virginia and seven in Pennsylvania, Hunt reports. "There also is little that state officials can do to keep out-of-state waste from Ohio wells. Federal commerce protections forbid one state from imposing tariffs or bans on legally shipped commodities from other states."

Teresa Mills, fracking coordinator for the Buckeye Forest Council, told Hunt, “I think we’ve been the sacrifice zone for the oil and gas industry long enough. How much can we take before there are more earthquakes and before (drinking water) wells are contaminated?” State officials said the wells are safe. They also say there was a 5 percent decrease in waste injections during the first three months of 2013, compared to the same period last year. (Read more)

Decline of butterflies could be a warning that the environment is struggling

Several subspecies of butterflies are declining in numbers, and some have disappeared completely, which has environmentalists worried, Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post. Robert K. Robbins, a research entomologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, said that if butterfly species are going extinct, "It’s a strong indicator that we’re messing up the environment around us," and when an entire line dies off, "It’s a report card on the health of the environment around us." (University of Florida photo by Dr. Thomas C. Emmel: The endangered male Schaus swallowtail)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced that two species -- the rockland grass skipper and the Zestos skipper -- are probably extinct in South Florida, Fears reports. At least one species has vanished from the U.S., another 17 species and subspecies are listed as endangered nationwide, and two are listed as threatened.

"The same issues plaguing butterflies are also causing populations of frogs, salamanders and toads to plummet, along with bees and other insects," Fears reports. "A recent U.S. Geological Survey study estimated that seven species of amphibians will drop by 50 percent if the current rate of decline, fueled by pesticide use and loss of habitat, continues. Eighty percent of food crops are pollinated by insects such as bees, moths and butterflies." (Read more)

Atheist marker, stemming from settlement of Ten Commandments lawsuit, is called the first in U.S.

Atheists now have a monument, and place to rest, in Florida. And they say they intend to do likewise in every state.

American Atheists, a New Jersey-based organization that says it fights to separate government and religion, unveiled a monument Saturday of a bench next to a monument of the Ten Commandments at the courthouse in Starke, Fla. population 5,500, in the north-central part of the state between Gainesville and Jacksonville. It's believed to be the first public marker dedicated to atheism in the U.S., Morgan Watkins reports for The Gainesville Sun. (Sun photo by Matt Stamey: David Silverman, president of American Atheists, at the unveiling)

American Atheists "sued Bradford County in May 2012, soon after the Ten Commandments monument was erected in front of the courthouse, seeking the monument's removal," Watkins reports. "The Community Men's Fellowship, a Starke-based group that sponsored the religious monument when it was erected, refused the county's request that it remove the display and filed its own lawsuit. During court-ordered mediation, the groups settled on an agreement: The Ten Commandments monument could stay, but American Atheists would establish their own monument in kind."

The group announced that it "will erect up to 50 more monuments across the country in public places where religious structures like the Ten Commandments marker in Starke have been established," Watkins reports. "An anonymous donor has pledged up to $500,000 for this effort." (Read more)

Monday, July 01, 2013

Wildfire kills 19 of 20 firefighters in nation's only city-based 'hotshot' unit that fights such fires

"Prescott is mourning."

That's how Patrick Whitehurst of The Daily Courier in Prescott, Ariz., began his story about the horrific casualties from a wildfire that killed 19 of the 20 firefighters in a special unit of the city fire department yesterday. (Prescott Fire Dept. photo)

The Granite Mountain Hotshots are the only widlfire-fighting team in the U.S. "organized through a city fire department," Whitehurst reports. "It earned its national inter-agency hotshot designation in 2008. Prescott Fire Department Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said the 20th crew member was working in a different location on the fire and was not injured."

Prescott (Google Maps)
Frajo said, "We're devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet. ... Truly, we're going through a terrible crisis right now." Prescott's population is about 40,000.

"Sunday's fatalities amounted to the highest firefighter death toll on a single U.S. wildfire since 1933, when 25 firefighters were killed on the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles," Whitehurst reports. At the bottom of his story are links to other coverage by the Daily Courier, and many reader comments.

Natural-gas producers charging fees that cut into Pennsylvania landowners' royalty payments

In a good example of local reporting on the relationship between gas companies and rural landowners, The Herald of Sharon, Pa. has a story about how gas company fees in the Marcellus Shale region are cutting into royalty payments for landowners who allow drilling on their property, and landowners are being seriously shortchanged while gas companies make huge profits, reports John Finnerty, state-capital correspondent for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.

Republican Sen. Gene Yaw, chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy committee, said “In some cases, these costs have caused royalty payments to be as low as 1.47 percent, well below the 12.5 percent guaranteed minimum,” Finnerty reports. Yaw told him problems with confusing or ambiguous royalty stubs and excessive post-production cost deductions have significantly impacted many leaseholders.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau looked into allegations, finding that one well produced $41,861 worth of gas, but Chesapeake Appalachia deducted $28,249 before making a royalty payment of $13,611, Finnerty reports. "In another case, the gas company post-production deductions consumed 88 percent of the royalty payment. The well had produced $14,481 worth of gas. The company deducted $12,790, leaving the landowner with a royalty payment of $1,690."

The Pennsylvania chapter of the National Royalty Owners Association "is lobbying for changes in regulations to arm property owners with leverage to ensure they are being treated fairly," Finnerty reports. David Sikes, president of the national association, told a Senate committee, “The problem is that most royalty owners cannot afford to file a lawsuit on an oil company that has lawyers on their staff." (Read more)

Firefighters at West, Tex., fertilizer explosion were not trained to fight it; no states mandate it

Firefighters at the West, Tex., fertilizer explosion were not prepared for the hazards they were facing, according to testimony at a congressional hearing by Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, Russ Quinn reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. "Records have shown that West Fertilizer did apprise local emergency officials that dangerous chemicals and fertilizers were stored at the site, but no training or preparation of firefighters took place." (Photo by Longleaf Alliance, School of Forestry and Wildlife Services, Auburn University)

Kimberly Quiros, director of communications for the National Volunteer Fire Council, said there is no nationwide, mandatory training for volunteer firefighters to fight fertilizer-based fires, Quinn reports. She said some states may offer optional training, but she was not aware of any state mandated fertilizer fire training. Quiros said, "It is up to the states for specialized training like fighting fertilizer fires. And not only does training vary from state to state, but also community to community within a state depending on what is in their areas." 

Galen Barrett, a fire service training coordinator for Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, said Iowa is one of many Midwest states that do not require volunteer firefighters to take any specialized training to fight fertilizer fires. Bob Spratt, manager of Le Roy Fertilizer in Le Roy, Ill., said Illinois rural firefighters are trained for awareness of fertilizer fires, but advanced training is optional. (Read more)

Coal played political ju-jitsu with Obama, becoming more victim than villain in Central Appalachia

As the Obama administration started working on climate change and targeted certain strip-mining practices, the Central Appalachian coal industry has battled back with a pro-coal campaign that has turned into a war with environmental interests. The battle continues to heat up as more coal jobs are lost, and environmentalists push for alternatives to coal, John Cheves and Bill Estep report for the Lexington Herald-Leader. (H-L photo by Charles Bertram: A sign in the Knott County Courthouse in Eastern Kentucky)

The group Coal Mining Our Future was created "to ensure that citizens are informed about coal industry activities," according to its mission statement "The group sponsors pro-coal rallies, encourages letters and phone calls to politicians, conducts surface mine tours to show the usefulness of flat land, makes charitable donations and distributes pro-coal T-shirts and bumper stickers, such as the now-ubiquitous decal declaring 'If you don't like coal, don't use electricity'," Cheves and Estep report in the latest installment of a year-long series on Appalachian Kentucky that began in December.

It's all part of an "us versus them" mentality, uniting miners behind their bosses, something new in the coalfield, Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, told Cheves. Coal operators "are in a defensive mode, and they're gathering their friends around them. This has created, I think, kind of a siege mentality and a regional solidarity. There used to just be sympathy for miners. Now there is sympathy for an industry," Cross said in March speech entitled "From Villain to Victim: The Coal Industry's New Image in Appalachian Kentucky." In his column yesterday in The Courier-Journal, drawing from President Obama's plan to thwart climate change, Cross said "The industry has played political ju-jitsu with Obama’s policies, turning its public image from one of environmental and workplace villain into one of political victim. . . . Now there really is a war on coal."

Cross and the reporters cited polls in 2007 and 2011 by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Six years ago, 37 percent of people in Harlan and Letcher counties said natural resources should be used to create jobs today rather than be conserved for future generations, but by 2011, that number had jumped to 52 percent. Cross noted that the Great Recession surely had some effect on public opinion, too. (Map locates Harlan and Letcher counties in officially designated Appalachia)

The Lexington-based Kentucky Coal Association spent nearly $2 million over the past three years to promote the industry, and it backs Kentucky's Friends of Coal, which last year collected $174,790, by selling pro-coal merchandise and sponsoring popular events and a widely seen, official license plate. Kentucky politicians from both parties have appeared at its rallies to criticize President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency. (Read more)

Online paper wins $111,000 in attorney fees, court costs over sheriff's stinginess with public records

The Lake County News of Northern California won a lawsuit against the county, after a judge determined that Sheriff Frank Rivero (Sacramento Bee photo by Randall Benton) discriminated against the online-only newspaper by refusing to provide public information, reporter Patrick Boylan writes. The county will have to pay $110,990 in attorney fees and court costs.

The News's attorney said Rivero didn't like what it was printing about him and decided to cut it off, requiring it to use the California Public Records Act to obtain documents that had already been released to other news media, Boylan writes. The News also had to go to the sheriff's office and pay for copies that were free to other local news outlets. The daily newspaper in the county is the Lake County Record-Bee, owned by MediaNews Group.

Some of the stories at issue were allegations that Rivero lied about a 2008 shooting, and his creation of a "Brady List" for officers with credibility issues, reports Boylan. Elizabeth Larson, co-owner of the paper with her husband, John Jensen, said, “Our coverage has been truthful and accurate; he just doesn't like it. We tried everything to avoid going to court. The sheriff persisted in his retaliation against us for coverage that he didn't like, leaving us no alternative but to sue him.” (Read more)

In an email to the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Rivero said, “To the extent that the judge used his discretion to award attorney’s fees to a non-prevailing party, I believe that exceeded his authority." Rivero said he plans to appeal. Meanwhile, citizens in Lake County have begun a recall campaign against him, needing 7,026 signatures by Aug. 15. (Read more) The group circulating petitions reported June 20 "it had more than 90 percent of the signatures needed to get a recall election on the ballot," Jeremy Walsh of the Record-Bee reports.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

USDA OKs inspections for horsemeat plant in N.M., may do likewise in Iowa and Mo.; fight looms

The Department of Agriculture has agreed to inspect a New Mexico slaughterhouse that plans to process horse meat for human consumption, a move likely to set off another round of battles over whether horse abattoirs can operate legally in the U.S.

Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, N.M., waited more than a year to get the go-ahead from USDA, which gave it only grudgingly, saying the law required it to issue a "grant of inspection" because it had met all the requirements, Charles Abbott of Reuters reports, adding: "The USDA also said it may soon issue similar grants for plants in Missouri and Iowa." UPDATE: Agri-Pulse reports, "The other companies expected to receive USDA inspection permits are Rains Natural Meats in Missouri and Responsible Transportation in Iowa."

UPDATE, July 3: Responsible Transportation, in Sigourney, said it has received a grant of inspection, and the Rains plant, in Gallatin, Mo., "reportedly could receive a permit this week," Julie Harker reports for Brownfield.

USDA's move could prompt a blocking move in Congress, where members of both parties join with President Obama in opposing horse slaughter. Congress effectively banned it from 2007 to 2011 by denying money for inspections, but lifted the ban after a study showed that it had removed the bottom from the horse market and worsened the problem of horse abandonment and neglect.

An estimated 130,000 U.S. horses are shipped annually to slaughter in Canada and Mexico," Abbott reports. Horse meat is sold for human consumption in several other countries, "and is sometimes used as feed for zoo animals. But in the United States, horses enjoy a higher stature, more akin to house pets, than to hogs, cattle and chickens."

Abbott notes, "The Humane Society of the United States and Front Range Equine Rescue threatened on Friday to sue the USDA, saying horses are raised as pets and as working animals. Because they are not intended as food animals, horses are given medications banned from other livestock, the groups said, questioning if the meat would be safe. The USDA says it can test for residues of 130 pesticides and veterinary drugs." (Read more) On Friday, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service updated its instructions for inspection of slaughtered horses; a PDF is here.