Friday, January 10, 2014

Environmentalists, politicians, residents at odds over safety of industrial hog farm in Arkansas Ozarks

A battle is brewing in the scenic, tourist-heavy Ozarks in Northwest Arkansas, where environmentalists, politicians, and state and federal officials fear a hog farm that plans to house up to 6,500 hogs could damage land and water and hurt the tourist trade that draws a million visitors a year to the mountains and the Buffalo National River. But many residents in the mostly low-income rural area welcome the financial gains of the production facility, which says it prides itself on being environmentally friendly, John Eligon reports for The New York Times. (NYT photo by Jacob Slaton: C&H Hog Farms)

"For environmentalists, the development of the Mount Judea (pronounced Judy) hog farm provides a stark example of what they see as lax oversight of such farms by state and federal regulators. Many of them were dismayed last year, for instance, when the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew proposed regulations that would have required all concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, to submit 'basic operational information' and would have increased the number of such farms that require permits," Eligon writes. "But C&H Hog Farms has many supporters, who say that these farms have long dotted the watershed without causing major environmental damage. They argue that the owners of C&H followed all the required steps to obtain a permit and will do all they can to make sure that the farm does not hurt the ecosystem." (NYT map)

Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe "has allocated more than $340,000 to test and monitor the water quality in the watershed" and state senators John Boozman (R) and Mark Pryor (D) "have said they were concerned about the location of the farm, and supported close monitoring," Eligon writes. "Environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit against the Farm Service Agency and the Small Business Administration to try to block $3.4 million in loan guarantees for the farm, arguing that the agencies had not properly considered its environmental impact." But the farm "has received considerable support, not least from some residents who live close by," Eligon writes. "Many see it as an economic bright spot in Newton County, which has high poverty."

The concern, among many, is the 1.5 million gallons of hog manure the farm produces annually, with the manure "stored in large lagoons and sprayed as fertilizer on nearby fields, some of them close to the Big Creek," Eligon writes. "Ten of the 17 fields that will receive fertilizer will have dangerously high phosphorous levels within a year, Kevin Cheri, the superintendent of the Buffalo River for the National Park Service, wrote in a letter to the Farm Service Agency. Environmentalists also worry that rain could cause the manure to run off into streams and creeks."

Supporters "argue that unlike the small operations that have been common throughout the watershed, this one uses more environmentally friendly technology to prevent pollution," Eligon writes. "For one thing, the lagoons holding the waste are larger than required and use a clay liner that will prevent leakage, supporters have said. C&H was the first — and still the only — hog farm in the state approved through a new general permit that officials created for CAFOs to comply with federal rules. That permit did not require the strict procedures for notifying neighbors required for other agricultural permits in the state." (Read more)

Conservative political magazine calls America's poorest county the heart of the Big White Ghetto

Eastern Kentucky's Owsley County is routinely at the top, or near the top, of every list of America's poorest counties. While other news sources have delved into the hows and whys that have led the county and its Central Appalachian neighbors to the bottom of the Amerfican economic order, conservative journalist Kevin D. Williamson has written a story for the National Review Online that goes further, calling Owsley the heart of "America's White Ghetto." (NR photo)

Kevin D. Williamson
Williamson writes: "There are lots of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread-hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in Eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class that picked up where African slave labor left off, mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for the class of people who 500 years ago would have been known, without any derogation, as peasants.

"Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter, women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007. If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation."

Here's one more excerpt: "Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple, desperate, native, enterprising grit to do so, get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades. As they go, businesses disappear, institutions fall into decline, social networks erode, and there is little or nothing left over for those who remain. It’s a classic economic death spiral: The quality of the available jobs is not enough to keep good workers, and the quality of the available workers is not enough to attract good jobs." (Read more)

UPDATE, Jan. 12: In his column in The New York Times, economist Paul Krugman responds to Williamson, disputing his thesis, as Krugman describes it, that "government aid creates dependency."
Jan. 13: Tim Marema, editor of the Daily Yonder, writes, "We’re not sure what the purpose of Williamson’s article is, other than to impugn an entire region. But Williamson’s portrait omits a lot, including the fact that he’s opened his double-barrelled disparagement on one of the most reliably Republican counties in the United States."

Injury rate for children living on farms declines, but rate for those under age 10 jumps

A federal study has found that "Young children face an increased risk of injury on farms, even though the overall number of youth hurt in agricultural accidents continues to decline," both in raw numbers and injury rates, The Associated Press reports.

The Childhood Agricultural Injury Survey estimated that 14,000 people younger than 20 were injured on farms in 2012, about 2,000 fewer than it estimated in 2009. That's probably because fewer children are living on farms, said Barbara Lee, the main researcher for the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.

The rate of injuries among children living on farms fell from 9.9 per 1,000 youth in 2009 to 8.15 in 2012. However, the rate among children younger than 10 increased sharply from 6.6 to 11.3.

"The data do not provide a clear reason for the increase, Lee said, but most of the children in that age group likely were not working on the farm but were injured because they happened to be in a dangerous area," AP reports. "A breakdown of the causes for the injuries has not been released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which collected the data." (Read more)

More than 30,000 Native Americans owed money by U.S. in $3.4B land settlement can't be located

Some Native Americans have become so isolated from society that the federal government can't find many of the Indians who are due part of a $3.4 billion settlement "over royalties for land that was held in trust by the government and never reimbursed in full," Dan Frosch reports for The New York Times. (NYT photo by Paul McPherson: recipient Ervin Chavez)

"About half a million Indians are eligible for payments, which vary in amount from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on how much income their land generated," Frosch writes. "More than 30,000 tribal members have not yet been located. Some may have moved or died or are unaware they are eligible. The government has simply lost track of others. All are owed at least $800, and in many cases, thousands more. The total owed to missing beneficiaries is approximately $32 million, according to Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, a law firm that worked on the settlement and is involved in locating tribal members."

David Smith, a lawyer with the firm, told Frosch, “Historically, there is no question that the government mismanaged these accounts and should have known where these people were. Individual Indians are sometimes some of the poorest people in this country. The absence of that money has caused significant hardship.”

"Since last year, when the first checks were distributed, 293,000 tribal members have received at least a portion of what they are owed," Frosch writes. "A second payment is expected to be made early this year. The Interior Department initially identified 65,000 beneficiaries whose whereabouts were unknown, prompting a sweeping effort to find them. So far, about half of the missing beneficiaries have been found, according to the Garden City Group, a firm appointed by a federal judge in the case to administer the settlement payments." (Read more)

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Dairy issue delays Farm Bill; 'an ominous turn'

"House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas conceded Thursday that final action on a farm bill conference report is now likely to slip into late January — a major blow to himself and an ominous turn for the bill itself," David Rogers reports for Politico.

Lucas blamed the delay on a standoff between House Speaker John Boehner and the leader of Democrats on Lucas's committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of  Minnesota, over dairy policy. Both the House and Senate bills have "a new margin insurance initiative for dairy farmers which would include supply management tools to guard against over production," Rogers notes. "Peterson has argued that the supply controls are vital to keep down the cost of the insurance program. But Boehner believes the increased government role amounts to a bridge-too-far in a world of dairy policy which the speaker is already fond of comparing to the former Soviet Union." (Read more)

Obamacare requirements pose risk for volunteer fire departments that can't afford health coverage

Federal health reform could be complicating the future of volunteer fire departments, often the only source of firefighters in rural areas, Alanna Durkin reports for The Associated Press"The volunteers are considered employees for tax purposes, a classification that grew out of an ongoing effort to attract firefighters by offering them such incentives as stipends, retirement benefits and free gym memberships. That leaves open the question of whether the volunteer firefighters fall under the health care law's requirement that employers with 50 or more employees working at least 30 hours a week must provide health insurance for them. Fire departments say they can't afford to pay such a cost." (AP photo by Robert Bukaty: Freeport, Me., Fire Chief Darrel Fournier)

Under the law, many departments would be forced to pay for insurance, or be fined for not providing it, which means "departments would likely be forced to reduce the number of hours firefighters can volunteer or eliminate the benefit programs, officials said," Durkin writes. In areas like Freeport, Me., the cost to the city and taxpayers to provide insurance to the five full-time volunteer firefighters would be $75,000. The fine could be $150,000. During the harsh Maine winters, the department employs as many as 50 volunteers,and if works more than 30 hours in a week, the department would be required to provide full health coverage.

Freeport and other small towns could avoid the penalty by cutting back hours, and hiring more volunteers, but that's easier said than done in towns with small populations and limited trained volunteers, Durkin writes. In response, "Maine's U.S. senators are backing a recently introduced bill aimed at ensuring volunteer firefighters and other emergency responders are exempt from the health care law requirement." (Read more)

Train carrying crude oil crashes; rail car manager says 80,000 tank cars don't meet safety standards

On Tuesday night a Canadian train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed, with 19 cars coming off the tracks near Plaster Rock, N.B., about 40 miles east of the Maine border. A cracked wheel is being blamed for the crash, which forced 150 homes to be evacuated, Kim Mackrael reports for The Canadian Press(CP photo by Tom Bateman)The crash comes on the heels of a crude oil one in July in Quebec, west of Maine, which killed 47. "Last week a 106-car BNSF Railway Co crude oil train crashed into a derailed car carrying grain in North Dakota, causing multiple explosions and fires," Kristen Hays notes for Reuters.

On Wednesday, William Furman, chief executive of The Greenbrier Companies, said "some 80,000 tank cars that don't meet current industry safety standards need to be replaced or retrofitted," Hays reports. Greenbrier "owns approximately 8,600 railcars, and performs management services for approximately 224,000 railcars," according to its website.

Furman "said 'modest but meaningful' improvements that can be implemented immediately could reduce major risks of a hazardous materials leak by as much as 80 percent in derailments," Hays writes. Furman said during Greenbrier's quarterly-earnings conference call with analysts, "We believe a retrofit proposal if adopted can be completed in a reasonably expedited time frame and do not accept that there is not adequate capacity in the industry to do so. The concern for public safety here is delay. Delay through the inability to act on the regulatory front while the public would like to see something done sooner."

The Railway Supply Institute, a lobby for tank-car owners has urged the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration "to adopt safety standards already embraced in October 2011 by the Association of American Railroads, the rail industry's trade group," Hays writes. "Under those standards tank railcars known as DOT-111s built after October 2011 should have thicker hulls and reinforced valves to better protect against punctures or leaks in derailments. But those built before that date lack those features and the rail industry has said it could cost $1 billion to retrofit older railcars. Furman said on Wednesday that about 80,000 railcars 'that are in question' were being used." (Read more)

Many farmers say they lack time for healthy meals

Despite growing an abundance of healthy foods, many farmers lack the time or energy to eat properly, and opt instead for quick, often unhealthy snacks and meals, Leah Koenig reports for Modern Farmer. "Being a farmer today does remarkably little to ensure good eating. As it turns out, many of today’s farmers face the deep irony of producing beautiful fruits and vegetables for consumers while subsisting on a diet that more closely resembles a McDonald's menu than Old MacDonald’s farm."

Finding time to cook a healthy meal, or even any time at all to eat something nutritious, is the main problem, Koenig writes. "During the planting and harvest seasons the days can get extreme, stretching as long as 12 to 16 hours. Farmers who host onsite CSA [community-supported agriculture] pickups or navigate through rush hour traffic to drop produce off in nearby cities have to cater to their customer’s own hectic work schedules, which pushes off dinner prep (not to mention breakfast and lunch for the next day) until 8 or 9 p.m. at the earliest." 

As a result, many farmers are eating on the go, munching on whatever they can consume while in a vehicle or on the job, Koenig writes. Rachel Kaplan, a Massachusetts farmer, told Koenig, “At the height of the season, it is a feat in and of itself to sustain the energy to work let alone come home and start preparing food. A lot of the times cooking comes at the expense of sleep.”

Nick Hagen, a North Dakota farmer "says eating in the fields also poses logistical challenges.," Koenig writes. He told her, “Throughout our wheat or sugar beet harvests, there is no time to stop for lunch. I typically have one hand on the tractor’s steering wheel all day, and fish around in my lunch box with the other." He said, “You see a lot of running to the gas station for chips, soda and coffee, which helps farmers stay awake during the crazy hours.”

While the traditional farming family included a family member who stayed in the home preparing meals while others worked the land, that option isn't always available today, Koenig writes. "If a farm is set up so that the whole family works in the fields, or one spouse works a supplementary job, those systems can break down quickly." And having an immediate or extended family on the farm is not an option for many young farmers who left urban life in order to farm.

Some people, like Washington potato and onion farmers Greg and Cari Horning, find creative ways to continue to eat healthy by using their tractor as an oven, Koenig writes. Greg told her, “I wrap a spud in foil, or just put it fresh from the ground onto the exhaust manifold. The manifold can be extremely hot, so it doesn’t take long to cook.” Others, like Kaplan, are "considering offering a food prep work share to their CSA members. Instead of volunteering at a CSA distribution or in the fields, the members would spend a few hours each week during the season preparing meals for the staff. These innovations help, but it still takes serious and surprising dedication to eat well as a farmer." (Read more)

With coal jobs disappearing in Eastern Kentucky, miners are leaving home for greener pastures

Eastern Kentucky has lost more than 5,700 coal jobs in the past two years, and the region has very few if any jobs that pay as well, so its people are leaving in search of a more prosperous future. But as coal companies move west to places like Indiana, Illinois and Wyoming, what's being left behind are dying towns and a fading way of life in Central Appalachia.

Coal fields of the Eastern United States
"Out-of-work miners are leaving Kentucky or heading to the state's western coal region, which is part of a separate basin that stretches into Illinois and Indiana," Kris Maher reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The thicker seams of high-sulfur coal there now can be mined less expensively after lying untouched for decades, and mines are hiring." And areas like Harlan County, which has an unemployment rate of 16.3 percent, the 13th highest in the nation, have seen the population drop from 45,000 in the 1980s to 28,000 today. While coal jobs keep falling in Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky has flourished, with jobs increasing from 2,200 to 4,200 in the past 10 years. Coal jobs in Wyoming, home of large-scale strip mines with thick seams, have risen from 4,800 to 6,660.

Brandon Madon, who moved from Harlan County to the western side of the state for a mining job in Indiana, told Maher, "It'd be real hard to get on anywhere now unless you go out west to work. We can ride it out up here. (Back home) it's getting worse every day." Wendell Cohelia also left Harlan County for Western Kentucky, where he not only found a secure job in the coal industry, but for nearly twice as much pay. He told Maher, "It's going to be difficult. I feel lucky that I got a job, not just that it increased my pay." (Read more)

Weekly newspaper tells amazing tale of two hugely successful expatriates who died in the same week

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Some of the best stories to be told in rural news media are those of successful expatriates, those who found success elsewhere but built it on the values, experiences and knowledge they gained growing up in small towns. All too often, their inspiring stories are condensed or even ignored in standard obituaries. But when two remarkable expats from a poor Appalachian foothills county of 10,000 people die in the same week, that's a news peg not to be missed, even if it takes a "citizen journalist" to do it.

William Russell Miller
This week's Clinton County News, in my hometown of Albany, Ky., has a 1,500-word tribute written by my brother, attorney David Cross, to William Russell Miller, who was the first African American vice president of a major rubber company, and John G. Woodrum, who became one of the best-known casino and hotel operators in Las Vegas and first ran electricity to the iconic "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign, across from his business at the end of the Strip.

John G. Woodrum (Las Vegas Sun photo)
They didn't forget their hometown. Woodrum sponsored three reunions of his high-school class; Miller tried to start a small Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Albany, and after his retirement from the company, established a small factory in the town. "That didn’t work out either, but he tried," my brother writes. "The man who wasn’t allowed to go to high school here [because of segregation] still tried to help his home town, and its people."

He concludes, "Both J.G. Woodrum and Russell Miller used their rural raising in Kentucky as an advantage, not as an escape. They learned how to deal with people, and to appreciate people, big and small, but with a love for the little people. . . . Their success stories, as well as the stories of those who have chosen to return home, should help motivate our young people to see what they too can achieve when they put their mind to it.

"J.G. Woodrum and Russell Miller both came from similar origins: large, poor families that lived at the end of their roads in rural Clinton County. Ironically, both of those roads now bear their family names of Miller Road and Woodrum Road, but those roads were not dead-ends for them. It was the beginning of their separate journeys. They both used it to help them achieve success, and to help others along the way. These are two stories of The American Dream, fulfilled and achieved, by two country boys from Clinton County who never forgot where they came from." (Read more)

CBS News profiles Eula Hall, 86, a lifelong champion for health care in impoverished Appalachia

Eula Hall
This week marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty as part of his Great Society program, in his first State of the Union speech. While many stories about poverty in rural America are sad, detailing the struggles people have faced or are still facing, CBS News had an inspiring story Wednesday profiling Eula Hall, an Eastern Kentucky woman who has dedicated her life to fighting to improve health care in rural impoverished Appalachia. Hall's life has also been chronicled in the book Mud Creek Medicine.

Hall, 86, told CBS, "We didn’t have indoor plumbing, we didn’t have running water. There was no health care for the people who didn’t have any insurance or money... people died because they didn’t get the proper health care." Hall, who left school after eighth-grade, "began working with community organizers who taught her how to fight to get things done," Don Dahler writes for CBS. "She eventually became the driving force in changing her corner of Appalachia."

In Hall's neck of the woods, Floyd County, 90 percent of the wells were contaminated with bacteria, Dahler writes. Hall decided to do something about it. "In the late 1960s, she got federal funds to have clean water piped in from the closest water treatment plant. Using federal grants and private donations, Hall also built the first and only medical clinic in the county. What began as a shack in 1973 is now a modern facility with its own doctors, X-rays and pharmacy, serving over 7,000 patients a year." Hall told CBS, "I love this place because I know when they open that door and they walk in, they're going to be treated with respect, and they're going to be treated with the best we've got to offer." (Read more) (CBS News video)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Battle brewing in rural Maine over wind farms

States like Connecticut and Massachusetts, which account for 70 percent of New England's population, are turning to much larger but less populated Maine to build wind farms. And while it could mean a huge boost in the state's economy, some fear it will destroy Maine's beauty, with a number of residents worrying that "more wind turbines will turn the woodsy state into New England's utility closet," Jon Kamp reports for The Wall Street Journal. (WSJ photo by Craig Dilger)

"Maine already leads the region with more than 400 megawatts of wind power installed, according to the American Wind Energy Association, which said 1 megawatt of wind power can cover about 290 homes," Kamp writes. "Recently signed long-term contracts with utilities in Massachusetts and Connecticut could more than double that output in the next few years if the projects all come to fruition."

A 2008 state law "passed under former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci set aggressive goals for adding wind power while simplifying the regulatory process in much of the state," but Republican Gov. Paul LePage is a wind-power critic, Kamp writes. "Larry Dunphy, a Republican state representative for a swath of rural Maine, recently posited a future when 'you won't be able to climb a mountain without seeing blinking red lights and spinning turbines.' Dunphy "sponsored a bill this year that he said would give some sparsely populated unorganized territories, which lack local government, more say over wind projects. The proposed change didn't make it through the Senate."

"The Maine wind buildup also has raised concerns about the eventual need to strengthen transmission links to southern New England, to lessen the risk of curtailing that power due to grid bottlenecks, and debate about who will pay for them," Kamp writes. (Read more)

Reality show seeking family of ranchers with 'big, strong personalities' and 'great and unique looks'

Reality television continues to dig deep into the well of rural American stereotypes. This time around, a proposed reality show is in the process of trying to re-create the wild west in a modern setting. "Orion Entertainment says it’s looking for a family with at least three kids 'that are all great looking cowboys and cowgirls' who work in 'stunning ranches with diverse terrain and challenges," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. "Those challenges might include 'chasing grizzlies and wolves away from cattle.'” (Still from the Orion show "Wyoming's Call of the Wild")

Orion's ad says, “Members of the family and staff should have fun hobbies and skills like [the ability to sing], play the guitar or harmonica, write and recite poetry, cook the best BBQ in the county, make their own clothes, raise bees or have wild animals as pets, raise bulls, or be an aspiring bull rider or rodeo participant. ... All members of the family need to have big, strong personalities with great and unique looks. We’re looking for dynamic, engaging and uninhibited families that live the lifestyle.”

Orion didn't respond to an interview request from the Yonder, but it doesn't have a history of using reality shows to laugh at rural America, Marema writes. "For example, Orion's “Nightmare Build Rescue” features a builder who helps get construction projects back on track. “Wyoming's Call of the Wild” introduces young people to outdoor sporting activities and was produced with Wyoming's Game and Fish Department." (Read more) To read the casting call for the show click here.

W.Va. study of natural-gas pollution failed to include waste from horizontal drilling

A West Virginia University researcher who led a state-sponsored study to examine potential pollution in natural gas drilling acknowledged that the report failed to include data on all types of wastes from the Marcellus Shale formation, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette: "Teams performing the legislatively mandated review examined only materials from the vertical portion of wells, not from the horizontal drilling at those same sites, which would have included Marcellus Shale mud and drill cuttings. The omission is important because researchers believe material from the Marcellus Shale is generally more radioactive, and citizen groups are expressing growing concern about the risks of handling and disposal of radioactive drilling wastes."

During a legislative briefing on Sunday, Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of WVU's Water Research Institute, cited lack of access to data for not being able to test horizontal drilling, Ward writes. Ziemkiewicz said the state Department of Environmental Protection tried on three occasions "to obtain Marcellus drilling mud from a Stone Energy site in August 2012," but "were told each time that 'drilling malfunctions' made it impossible for them to do so."

When a second sampling site, this one operated by Chesapeake Energy, was selected, "poor weather related to Superstorm Sandy stopped the drilling there prior to reaching to Marcellus, Ziemkiewicz said," Ward writes. "The company indicated it would notify WVDEP and WVU when drilling resumed. However, when WVDEP followed up with the company after Hurricane Sandy, the agency and WVU were notified that the horizontal leg was completed and no samples were available." By then, Ziemkiewicz said, there wasn't enough time to analyze samples to complete the report by the end of 2012. (Read more)

Southeastern Ky. and Choctaw Nation are rural 'Promise Zones' in first batch Obama will name today

Today, exactly 50 years after then-President Johnson declared war on poverty, President Obama will announce five "Promise Zones" that "will get priority when seeking federal money for job training, education, housing and other programs," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The zones will be eight chronically poor southeastern Kentucky counties ht hard by a sharp downturn in the Central Appalachian coal industry; the Choctaw Nation in southeastern Oklahoma; and parts of Philadelphia, San Antonio and Los Angeles. Obama announced the program a year ago; these are the first five areas picked for it.

"The federal government has tried a number of ways over decades to revitalize distressed areas, and many of those previous efforts focused on a particular strategy," Chris Casteel reports for the Tulsa World. "Obama's zones are meant to adopt a communitywide approach to improve education, housing and public safety."

Zones must "meet certain poverty levels and have fewer than 200,000 residents," so only part of Whitley County in Kentucky was included, Estep reports. The other counties in the Kentucky zone are Bell, Knox, Clay, Leslie, Perry, Harlan and Letcher, Jerry Rickett of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. told Estep.

Rickett is president and CEO of the venture-capital nonprofit, which was created by the War on Poverty in 1969 and serves 22 counties in southeastern Kentucky. It supervised an Empowerment Zone project in Clinton, Wayne and Jackson counties during the Clinton administration and was the lead applicant for the Promise Zone.

The plan "includes a $1.3 million loan fund for small businesses; expanded job and entrepreneurship training; college- and career-readiness programs in high schools; and increased technical-education programs, according to the White House," Estep writes. "The program also envisions working to improve housing and reduce crime."

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky "said the initiative will complement another called SOAR, for Shaping Our Appalachian Region, that he and Republican U.S. Rep. Harold 'Hal' Rogers set up with the goal of drafting a development strategy for Eastern Kentucky," Estep reports.

Texas oil-and-gas boom puts more trucks on rural roads, and more rocks in air and through windshields

The surge in oil and gas drilling in South and West Texas over the past year has brought more money to the region. But heavy truck traffic is damaging roads, causing safety concerns, and has opened the doors for a suddenly prosperous business -- repairing broken windshields, Aman Batheja reports for The Texas Tribune. (Tribune photo by Eddie Seal: Eddie Posselt, right, and Danilo Estaco install a new windshield)

"Bringing a new gas or oil well into production typically requires more than 1,000 loaded trucks traveling to and from a well site," Batheja writes. As a result, more rocks and debris are kicked into the air, causing more window damage. Sarah Hidalgo-Cook, manager of the Southwest Area Regional Transit District, which oversees public transportation for eight rural counties in South Texas, told Batehja, “We’ve replaced more windshields in one year than we have in 10."

John McBeth, district president for the Brazos Transit District, a public transportation provider covering portions of East and Central Texas, said they were "buying windshields by the dozen because of a spike in incidents," Batheja writes. "The damage occurred most often when one of McBeth’s drivers was behind a truck that had just exited an oil field site. The truck would often have debris stuck to its exterior, and that debris would fly behind it as the vehicle  picked up speed." To help reduce damage, "McBeth said his drivers were recently instructed to change lanes and stay farther back when behind oil field trucks."

While finding cracks in a windshield can be annoying, the real concern is the safety and well-being of other drivers, an issue the Texas Oil & Gas Association says it dealing with, Batheja writes. A spokesperson told Batheja, "The firms drilling in the state’s shale fields emphasize the importance of safety to oil field truck drivers. Some firms use GPS technology to track their drivers and ensure that none are speeding or driving in an unsafe manner."

Still, local entrepreneurs like Eddie Posselt, who quit his job in the oil fields to repair windshields full-time, are cashing in. He told Betheja, “I walked the lots here and noticed that there are many broken windshields in the area. I saw a great opportunity to go into business replacing them. The force and also the size of the rocks in this area, they’re pretty big. Most of the time, the damage is not repairable." (Read more)

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Coal is down in some places, but is far from dead; forecast to be world's most-used fuel in six years

A coal barge moves on the Ohio River, with coal-fired
electric plants on both sides
(WSJ photo by Jeff Sewnsen)
Even though the coal industry has struggled in some areas in recent years, especially in Central Appalachia, coal's future in the U.S. still remains bright, thanks to the growing need for coal in other countries, John Miller and Rebecca Smith report for The Wall Street Journal: "Coal remains the biggest source of fuel for generating electricity in the U.S. and coal exports are growing fast. Even as coal production plunges in the green hills of Appalachia, it is booming in the open-pit mines of Wyoming and under the plains of Illinois and Indiana. Overall, U.S. coal production is projected to remain relatively constant over the next three decades, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration."

Eastern Kentucky and parts of West Virginia have been hit hard by geological, economic and regulatory forces, losing 120,000 coal jobs over the past 20 years, even though "production has increased slightly over that time," Miller and Smith report. Coal companies say Appalachia has become too expensive to mine and have left for places like Wyoming, where two counties account for 40 percent of all coal produced in the U.S. In a companion story, Miller and Smith describe the impact of new air-pollution regulations on the industry.

Some areas have prospered, thanks in large part to China. "Two-thirds of coal's growth will be driven by demand for electricity in China," according to consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, which expects coal to become the world's most-used fuel by 2020. The company's head of global markets said in a recent speech: "China's demand for coal will almost single-handedly propel the growth of coal." U.S. companies are scoring big with exports, having "shipped out 114.2 million tons in 2012, more than triple the level a decade earlier. Coal-export revenue meanwhile jumped to $14.8 billion from $1.6 billion. In 2012, the country's biggest coal customer was Canada, which consumed 42 percent of U.S. exports. Now the top three customers are the Netherlands, Britain and China." (Read more)

UPDATE, Jan. 8: However, the China market may not last. The Chinese government "approved the construction of more than 100 million tonnes of new coal production capacity in 2013 - six times more than a year earlier and equal to 10 percent of U.S. annual usage," David Stanway reports for ReutersJournal graphic: U.S. coal production by county in 2012; click on it for larger version.

War on Poverty was declared 50 years ago tomorrow

Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty as part of his Great Society program, in his first State of the Union speech, so it's time for retrospectives.

The latest is an op-ed piece in The New York Times from Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and former chief economist for Vice President Biden. "Much of what we've done to reduce poverty has been highly successful," but that started with Social Security, which started in the 1930s and was expended in the 1960s, he writes. "Yet I suspect that if I could sit President Johnson down and explain to him all we’ve done to maintain and expand the policy arsenal he helped to introduce half a century ago, he’d be surprised that there’s still so much economic hardship." Bernstein explores the reasons for that: "globalization, deunionization, lower minimum wages, slack labor markets and decreasing returns to lower-end jobs," as well as "not getting enough schooling, single parenthood, or having children out of wedlock." The answer, he says, is strengthening the underlying economy.

Unfortunately, the Times has tripped on some rural nuances of the beginning of the poverty war. Annie Lowrey had a good, relatively short story on Sunday, but it was marred by the line that "parts of Appalachia lacked electricity and indoor plumbing." No parts did, but many homes did. The next day, the newspaper published a written debate about the need for another poverty war, illustrated with a photo of Johnson visiting "the Inez family of Kentucky." That was the family of Tom Fletcher, who lived near Inez.

Poverty is disproportionately rural. "While showing the limits of government intervention to create economic opportunity, the War on Poverty also changed rural America for the better," the Daily Yonder says in an introduction to a retrospective by Timothy Collins, assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb.

Collins includes excerpts from Johnson's speech and notes that his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, was planning a major effort to fight poverty. Hours before he was assassinated, the White House confirmed for Kentucky officials that he would visit the state in early December. Johnson made the trip, including a visit with the Fletchers, in April 1964. Here's a video of it and other stops on his "poverty tours" from the LBJ Presidential Library:

Genetically modified non-browning apples bring objections from other growers, including organic

Arctic Golden apple
Apples genetically modified to not turn brown could be on grocery store shelves as early as next year, a move that has upset apple growers across the nation, Michael Doyle reports for The Washington Post. In November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that the two apple varieties pose no health risks. Since then, the agency has received nearly 80,000 public comments, most of them from those who oppose the apples, as it decides whether to allow them to be sold without further regulation. Among them is the U.S. Apple Association.

The apples were developed by the family-owned Okanagan Specialty Fruits of British Columbia. Across the border in Washington, which grows apples on 146,000 acres, providing 44 percent of the nation's supply, Doyle writes. Christian Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, told Doyle, "This is a huge issue, and it has great ramifications for our industry. We’re concerned about the marketing impact, from consumer impact to the imposition of additional costs.”

While many businesses fear the impact that genetically modified apples might have on marketing, organic growers fear cross-pollination. Doyle writes, "Unlike some other genetically modified crops, the Arctic apple doesn’t include genes spliced in from an entirely different species," but "from the insertion of a certain genetic sequence taken from an apple." (Read more)

Army Corps says keeping invasive Asian carp out of Great Lakes could cost billions, take years

In response to the threat of invasive Asian carp getting into Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, where they could damage the region's $7 billion annual fishing industry, the Army Corps of Engineers released a report Monday detailing eight plans that could prevent migration of the fish from the Mississippi River basins through Chicago-area barge canals. The plans could cost more than $18 billion and could take up to 25 years to complete, Michael Hawthorne reports for the Chicago Tribune. (Tribune photo by Scott Strazzante: one variety of Asian carp)

President Obama in July released a $50 million plan to keep silver and bighead carp out of Lake Michigan, but in October researchers said they found evidence that the less damaging grass carp were reproducing in Lake Erie. Another report said some fish have breached an electric barrier meant as a last line of defense, although no carp were found to have done so.

Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, told Hawthorne, "If you really want to prevent the movement of species and keep Lake Michigan clean, it's going to cost money. We can't just keep patching over these problems and hoping they go away." The Corps didn't recommend any one strategy, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) "expressed their disappointment that the report failed to include fully developed project plans and included only 'conceptual-level details'," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The most expensive and time consuming plans "are those that call for permanent structures to block the carp from entering the Great Lakes." (Read more; subscription may be required; a trial is available)

"Environmental groups and a coalition of mayors from the Great Lakes states say the most effective option is separating the two watersheds," Hawthorne writes.  "They see such a project as part of a larger plan, long discussed by Chicago-area leaders, to upgrade the region's aging transportation network with new facilities that quickly transfer freight between railroads, barges and trucks." David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, told Hawthorne, "Whatever we do, let's do it right. The key is to get a decision sooner rather than later." (Read more)

South Carolina residents fear law exemptions will allow massive farms to deplete water, kill fish

Rural South Carolina residents fear that a 2010 law, "which was intended to control the unchecked withdrawal of water from rivers" but included farm exemptions, is being exploited by a corporation that might deplete water sources. And there's growing concern that it will open the door for other companies to do the same thing in other areas, Sammy Fretwell reports for The State in Columbia.

Walther Farms, which is launching a 3,700-acre potato farm near Kitchings Mill (star on map) and has plans for a 1,500-acre site in a state that only uses 150 acres a year to raise potatoes, "is the first new site approved for withdrawals since the law became effective last year," Fretwell writes. "Unlike other businesses, farm corporations can siphon huge quantities from rivers without telling the public. And while the state will review plans to take water for farming, the law doesn’t allow the public an opportunity to challenge the work before the Department of Health and Environmental Control board, the agency says. In contrast, other businesses that want to begin withdrawing large quantities for the first time will need permits that require public notice and a full review. In both cases, the law does not apply to anyone withdrawing under 3 million gallons per month."

Walther Farms’ two massive potato-growing sites could "withdraw up to 9.6 billion gallons from the Edisto [River]’s South Fork each year," Fretwell writes. "Walther’s plan represents an unprecedented farm withdrawal from a river that, during the dry months of summer, is less than 25 feet wide and under four feet deep in places." Critics say "the lack of protection from mega-farms could turn healthy rivers like the South Fork into water starved channels, killing fish and threatening drinking water supplies."

South Carolina officials say the potato farms won't harm the water supply, Fretwell writes. "The company said it followed the 2010 water law when it approved the mega potato farm’s license last spring. DHEC conducted an in-house study, as required, that found the South Fork of the Edisto has plenty of water to accommodate Walther Farm’s withdrawals, records show." (Read more)

Read more here:

Story difficulties, downsizing, disappearance of much high-school football teams in rural Nebraska

In a great example of reporting on rural areas, Dirk Chatelain writes for the Omaha World-Herald about the fading glory of high-school football in Nebraska, which has seen the number of pigskin programs drop from 355 in 1983 to 282 in 2013. As more people leave rural areas, and populations shrink, more rural football teams fold or downsize, or schools are forced to merge. That leads to greater driving distances to find teams to play, which in turn, costs the school more money for transportation. Still, sports like football are important to small towns, for the pride of students, parents, and everyone who cares about their hometown. (World-Herald photo)

Lindsay Holy Family, a school where enrollment dropped from 336 in 1980 to only 98 this year, including just 16 boys, averaged 23.7 miles to each football game in 1988, but averaged more than 100 miles to each game during their final season this year, including a 368-mile, 19-hour journey for one game, Chatelain writes. The team, which has played eight-man and six-man football, only had 12 boys go out for the team this year, but because of injuries sometimes only dresses seven. The school, which is the only one in Lindsay, Neb., had 32 players in 2000 and 29 in 2004. (World-Herald graphic)

"Population is dwindling on the Nebraska prairie," Chatelain writes. "And football teams are disappearing. Not in Omaha or Lincoln or Kearney. But out there, off the Interstate, where the only structures taller than goal posts are water towers, grain elevators and church steeples. Out there, where Friday night games still leave the streets empty, and come Saturday morning, the quarterback is up early, vaccinating cattle."

The state only has 16 teams that play six-man football, most of which are located on the western side of the state, as opposed to Lindsay (right) in eastern Nebraska, Chatelain writes. That led to the 19-hour trip to the panhandle, which forced Holy Family to rent a 47-passenger charter for $2,600 for players, parents, and fans. After the school football account was drained, head coach Bill Mimick covered the rest of the costs out of his own pocket.

And now football stadiums stand empty, and rivalries are dying, Chatelain writes. "For decades, this two-lane ribbon between Norfolk and Columbus produced some of Nebraska's best high school rivalries. Dodge. Howells. Clarkson. Leigh. Humphrey. St. Francis. All are east of Lindsay, within 45 miles. Last spring, after one-on-one meetings with parents and an open meeting of townspeople, Holy Family decided to merge football programs in 2014 with Humphrey High, 11 miles east. The schools began a co-op for other sports this year. That decision would've been enough change for one decade. But the Bulldogs, coming off a 9-2 season, couldn't make it to '14. Coaches and parents studied the numbers — including a sophomore class of two boys and one girl — and made another tough call. They canceled their eight-man schedule and dropped to six man, even though most people in town had never seen a game." (Read more) Here's a video of Chatelain's interview with 93.7 The Ticket in Lincoln:

Monday, January 06, 2014

Rural obstacles to Obamacare: few providers, lack of broadband, negative talk and misinformation

Enroll America booth (NPR photo: Eric Whitney)
Residents of some rural areas are not buying into federal health reform. They have expressed doubt and fear about Obamacare because of a lack of primary care physicians, a lack of insurance providers and hospitals, or because they don't qualify for benefits in states not expanding Medicaid. Also, Melissa Nelson-Gabriel reports for The Associated Press, many residents in conservative rural areas are being bombarded with negative viewpoints from friends, neighbors and conservative media, and fear the law based on those opinions.

That has caused problems for people like Christopher Mitchell, a marketing director for a network of nonprofit health clinics in Florida. He told Nelson-Gabriel, "I tell people that I am not here to advocate for the law, I am here to support the law and empower people to be able to use and understand the law. But when people are hearing over and over and over that is bankrupting America, it is hard to break through." The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the law will save money by reducing health-care costs in the long run.

But it's easy for rural residents to be wary of the act, with all the hurdles they face -- long drives to doctor's offices, lack of broadband to enroll online, and the many stories about people having trouble signing up, Nelson-Gabriel writes. Kathy Bannister, a self-employed beautician, "secured a plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan with a monthly payment of $215 after subsidies. She now pays $500 for a comparable plan from the same insurer," thanks to some outside help after several failed attempts to do it herself online, Nelson-Gabriel writes. Bannister told her "The whole idea was to make it easier for people. I'd been calling and calling and calling, and a lot of people would have given up. It's discouraging." (Read more)

UPDATE, Jan. 7: Understanding how Obamacare is working, or not working, is difficult because "We have no central clearing house" for information, writes The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff, who is doing the most consistent and comprehensive tracking of the question. She says that creates "what I like to think of as the battle of the anecdotes," which can illustrate how the law is affecting individual Americans, "but they can also be a really terrible way to gauge whether Obamacare is going great -- or is a complete disaster." (Read more)

Water pollution from oil and gas drilling confirmed in 4 states; EPA backing off fracking enforcement?

An Associated Press investigation found that in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas "hundreds of complaints have been made about well-water contamination from oil or gas drilling, and pollution was confirmed in a number of them," Kevin Begos reports for the wire service. That information comes on the heels of a report by the Environmental Protection Agency that analysts say shows the agency is backing off enforcement of pollution from hydraulic fracturing, Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters.

The AP study found "that Pennsylvania received 398 complaints in 2013 alleging that oil or natural gas drilling polluted or otherwise affected private water wells, compared with 499 in 2012," Begos writes. The state "confirmed at least 106 water-well contamination cases since 2005, out of more than 5,000 new wells. There were five confirmed cases of water-well contamination in the first nine months of 2012, 18 in all of 2011 and 29 in 2010." Some of the wells were completed with horizontal hydraulic fracturing, but it wasn't clear how many.

"Ohio had 37 complaints in 2010 and no confirmed contamination of water supplies; 54 complaints in 2011 and two confirmed cases of contamination; 59 complaints in 2012 and two confirmed contaminations; and 40 complaints for the first 11 months of 2013, with two confirmed contaminations and 14 still under investigation, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mark Bruce said in an email," Begos writes. "None of the six confirmed cases of contamination was related to fracking, Bruce said."

"West Virginia has had about 122 complaints that drilling contaminated water wells over the past four years, and in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action, officials said," Begos writes. "A Texas spreadsheet contains more than 2,000 complaints, and 62 of those allege possible well-water contamination from oil and gas activity, said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees drilling. Texas regulators haven’t confirmed a single case of drilling-related water-well contamination in the past 10 years, she said." (Read more)

Analysts say the EPA report, released on Dec. 31 by the agency's watchdog, shows that "federal regulators are unlikely to step up enforcement of potential water contamination cases linked to natural gas drilling, despite new concerns about water safety, given a lack of political will and limited resources to pursue such cases," Volcovici writes. "The report said the EPA was justified in issuing an emergency order in 2011, asking the oil and gas driller Range Resources to improve monitoring and provide clean water to a family in Parker County, Texas, whose water supply had been contaminated with methane as a result of nearby fracking. The EPA inspector general also criticized the agency for backing off enforcement of the complaint in 2012."

The EPA in 2012 "inspected 870 energy extraction sites and concluded enforcement actions against just 53," Volcovici writes. "The agency investigated 836 coal-fired electric units for potential air pollution incidents and controlled 461 of them." (Read more)

Bill would let USPS drop 1st-class mail on Sat., restore benefit cut for young military retirees

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) introduced a bill last week to replace the controversial new cut in pension benefits for working-age military retirees by ending Saturday delivery of first-class and standard mail, Josh Hicks reports for The Washington Post.

The pension cut "trims one percentage point off the annual cost-of-living increase for working-age military retirees as part of the budget deal that Congress and the president approved last month," Hicks writes. "The change is projected to save an estimated $6 billion over 10 years." The U.S. Postal Service budget is separate, but if it keeps running deficits Congress would have to bail it out. Issa claims his bill would save $17 billion over the next decade.

The bill mirrors proposals from USPS. Post & Parcel reports, "Package delivery and express services would continue to take place six days per week, while post office opening hours would not be affected. The proposals would require five days per week mail delivery even when a federal holiday takes place, and appear to require six days per week package delivery for competitive services only, rather than monopoly services," those only USPS offers. (Read more)

New Mexico judge extends temporary restraining order against opening of horse slaughter plant

A New Mexico horse slaughter plant has still not opened in New Mexico. On Friday, a state judge extended his temporary restraining order preventing Valley Meat Co. from opening for 10 days until he could hold a hearing in a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Gary King "alleging that the company's operations would violate state food-safety and water-quality laws," Daniel Enoch reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

King filed the lawsuit last month after a federal court lifted an emergency stay on Valley Meat and plants in Missouri and Iowa, paving the way for the companies to begin processing horse meat for export. Rains Natural Meats in Missouri has "horses on site ready to open but has run into its own roadblocks with its state environmental permits," the companies' attorney said, Jeri Clausing reports for The Associated Press. "The Iowa company switched to cattle after being blocked from opening in August by the filing of the lawsuit by The Humane Society of the United States and other groups."

In a news release, "King said the lawsuit was filed because commercial horse slaughter 'is a new, untested enterprise that poses health and environmental risks to New Mexicans,' adding that horses are often administered drugs that are forbidden for use in food animals," Enoch writes. The Valley Meat attorney said "the horses destined for slaughter are being held in feedlots for about six months to purge any drugs in their systems." (Read more)

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Guns & Ammo fires a top writer after he suggests that some regulations don't violate 2nd Amendment

Dick Metcalf
If you buy Guns & Ammo magazine or one of its competitors, here's fair warning that you may be getting what advertisers want instead of independent reporting and editing, which is supposed to be an essential hallmark of American journalism: The magazine fired one of the nation's top gun writers after he wrote a column questioning whether certain regulations really infringed the right to keep and bear arms and gun makers threatened to pull their ads unless he was canned. It was no surprise to people who know the trade, The New York Times' Ravi Somaiya reports.

UPDATE, Jan. 14: Metcalf writes for Politico Magazine that the magazine's parent company, Intermedia Outdoors, removed its vice president and editorial director from his position as editor of Guns & Ammo. As for the wild replies and threats made by the "social-media piranha swarm" in response to his column, he writes, "The hijacking of our movement by these radical extremists causes me to fear for the future of the right I have spent my adult life fighting to defend. At present, we defenders of the Second Amendment have the American mainstream voters on our side. . . . When we engage in noisy, extremist rhetoric rejecting all firearms regulation whatsoever, or refuse to acknowledge the plain fact that constitutionally validated regulations and statutes already exist, we risk alienating the American mainstream. And if we lose that mainstream, we will lose this war." (Read more)