The Rural Blog Archive: March 2007

This Web log of rural issues, trends and events is regular reading for hundreds of journalists who cover rural issues and need story ideas, sources, comparisons and inspiration. Rural journalism is important because 21 percent of Americans, some 62 million people, live in rural areas. Let us know what items are helpful, and send stories, links and suggestions, to al.cross@uky.edu. Use of items from The Rural Blog by news outlets is encouraged and hereby granted, on the condition that clear credit is given to the original source of the material. If the blog provides information for a story, let us know.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Plan to give Forest Service managers more leeway is struck down

A federal judge has blocked the U.S. Forest Service’s plan to manage national forests and grasslands, saying the agency "violated the basic laws ensuring that forest ecosystems have environmental safeguards," reports Felicity Barringer of The New York Times. The rules require lesser "environmental reviews and safeguards for wildlife, and limited public participation in the development of management plans for individual forests. Instead, they broadened the power of forest managers to decide whether mines, logging operations, cellphone towers or other development would be appropriate uses of forest land."

District Judge Phyllis Hamilton of San Francisco, ruling Friday in a lawsuit by Earthjustice, said the service should have consulted the public and considered the environmental impact of the management plan because it was a "paradigm shift" in the management of 192 million acres of forests and grasslands, reports Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. "Under the old policy, the government had to maintain viable populations of native wildlife in forests and monitor some populations regularly, while limiting logging and drilling for oil and gas," Eilperin writes. "The new rule -- which gave economic activities as high a priority as maintaining the forest's ecological health -- made it easier to conduct drilling and logging in national forests while weakening protections for native fish and wildlife." To read the Post story, click here.

Hamilton "could not determine if the rules were environmentally benign, as the Forest Service argued, or if endangered species would be unaffected, because no studies had been done," Barringer writes. "She sent the management plans back to the Agriculture Department, the parent agency of the Forest Service, to be redone, this time in consultation with the public and with the federal agencies that protect wildlife." Chris West of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber-industry group, told the Times, “The court order is requiring analysis when not a grain of sand or a single hair on a critter is being moved. And we are going to spend millions of dollars doing it. It’s bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake.” (Read more)

Feds slap Massey Energy with record $1.5 million fine in mine deaths

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said yesterday Massey Energy Co. should be fined $1.5 million "for 25 violations that contributed to the deaths of two West Virginia coal miners in January 2006," reports Tim Huber of The Associated Press. "The fine is the largest the agency has ever imposed for a coal mining accident, surpassing the old mark of $540,000."

"The number and severity of the safety violations that occurred demonstrated a reckless disregard for safety," MSHA Director Richard Stickler said at a news conference in Logan, W.Va., the heart of Massey country. "Miners Don I. Bragg and Ellery Elvis Hatfield died in a Jan. 19, 2006, fire after getting lost in thick smoke inside the Aracoma Coal Co.'s Alma No. 1 underground mine in Logan County," Huber writes. "Aracoma is a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Massey."

MSHA referred its initial findings to federal prosecutors a year ago. Federal and state investigators agreed that a conveyor belt was the source of the fire, "and concluded that missing walls that control air flow and faulty firefighting equipment were key factors," Huber writes. "The state also found that water lines for fire hoses and sprinklers at the scene of the fire were shut off and that fire hoses couldn't be connected because of incompatible fittings, a problem that had been reported to management after a similar fire" less than four weeks earlier. "The federal agency also determined the mine was not following its approved ventilation plan. Air that should have gone to the face of the coal seam was being pumped in the opposite direction. Massey Energy said in a statement that it was reviewing the report, but had no specific comment." (Read more)

For a story from Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette on continuing violations at the mine, click here.

Philip Morris makes full settlement payment, hopes to recoup some

Altria Group Inc., parent firm of Philip Morris USA, "made its full payment of $3.5 billion to states under a 1998 health-care settlement," including $400 million that the world’s largest tobacco company says it does not owe because it has share of the cigarette market has declined, reports Bloomberg News.

Settlement payments by Philip Morris, Reynolds American Inc. and the Lorillard Tobacco Co. are based on their market share. "The companies can seek to reduce their payments if they lose more than 2 percent of their market share," Bloomberg reports. "Last year, a report by the Brattle Group, a consulting firm, led Reynolds American and Lorillard to put about $800 million of a total $2.7 billion of annual payments in a so-called disputed-payments account. The report said the companies had lost market share because of restrictions imposed under the settlement. States are challenging the withholding." (Read more)

For the states, the payment was good news for state bonds and programs backed by the $246 billion settlement. For North Carolina and Kentucky, it was also good news to their agribusiness sectors, because the top two tobacco-producing states have dedicated half of the settlement money to improving their agricultural economies. For our report on the differences in how they do that, click here.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Funding for rural schools and agriculture ride on the Iraq spending bill

The U.S. Senate has approved a plan to extend a program to help rural schools hurt by cutbacks in logging national forests, but the rescue effort faces an uncertain future because it is attached to the military spending bill that President Bush has vowed to veto. “The Senate plan would authorize about $2.8 billion to extend the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act through 2011. Another $1.9 billion would be directed to rural states through a proposal to fully fund the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program,” reports the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri. (Read more)

Also attached to the bill are programs aiding various segments of agriculture. “It includes $40 million for a Tree Assistance Program that provides help for Christmas trees and ornamental shrubs,” writes Dana Milbank in a column for The Washington Post. “Also in the Senate's version of the Iraq bill: $24 million for sugar beets, $3 million for Hawaiian sugar cane, $13 million for the Ewe Lamb Replacement and Retention Program, $100 million in compensation for dairy losses, $165.9 million for fisheries disaster relief, and money for numerous other ‘emergencies.’”

Some see these measures as pork barreling, reports Milbank. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at a news conference, “I don't see how the asparagus-spinach problem helps us win in Iraq. This is a bill designed to help people that are getting shot at.” However, Graham voted in support of the rural-schools plan attached to the bill. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) called on citizens to “stand up as Americans, not as spinach growers, not as milk producers, not as tree farmers.” (Read more)

Kansas to allow four non-tribal casinos, with approval of local voters

Kansas yesterday became the latest state to expand gambling, as the legislature narrowly approved a bill to allow "large, tourist-attracting hotel-and-casino complexes in four areas, including in or near Dodge City, the Kansas City area, southeast and south central Kansas," reports Carl Manning of The Associated Press.

The Prairie Band Potawatomi, which has one of four tribal casinos in northeast Kansas, said it would go to court to invalidate the law, which is based on the state constitution's authorization of a lottery -- and a state Supreme Court decision that the "lottery" can include slot machines and table games. (Read more) Efforts to have the constitution explicitly authorize private, non-tribal casinos failed in the legislature. Dodge City is planning a Boot Hill Casino, reports the Dodge City Daily Globe. (Read more)

Casinos would be subject to local referenda that must be held this year. As in states farther east, the bill was spurred by competition from a bordering state. "Several small casinos have recently sprouted just across the Oklahoma border, drawing gamblers and their money from Kansas and spurring local efforts to pass gambling in the state," reports David Klepper, Topeka correspondent for the Kansas City Star. For students of legislative maneuvering, Klepper has a good description of how the bill passed. (Read more)

Telemedicine program connects rural Georgia with medical specialists

A telemedicine program in Georgia allows patients to meet remotely with medical specialists who are not available nearby. At a local presentation center patients and doctors can meet remotely with any of 75 specialists from fields such as cardiology, dermatology and pediatric medicine. The program began 18 months ago with a grant from WellPoint, owner of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, and is now in 39 counties, reports Nancy Ferris of Government Heath IT (Information Technology).

“The specialists practice at 11 urban sites, including the state’s major hospitals,” writes Ferris. “They get paid for their services as if the visit were in person, according to a new Georgia law, state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine said. Oxendine got WellPoint to contribute about $126.5 million to improve rural health care in Georgia when the company was seeking his approval for its merger with Anthem.”

Oxendine said rural areas of Georgia lack specialist physicians. Patients can be referred to doctors in urban areas, but the long drive involved causes them to lose time at work. The long drive also makes patients tend to postpone their visits, allowing their conditions to worsen. “The telemedicine program aims to put a presentation center within 30 miles of every rural resident who lacks access to specialty health care. Primary care doctors get extra reimbursements for using the centers and working with the remote specialists, said Sunil Joshi, director of the program at WellPoint.” (Read more)

Rural, religious voters help keep Prohibition in Georgia on Sunday

Georgia remains one of only three states with a total ban of alcohol on Sundays, following failure of legislation that would have allowed voters to decide locally whether beer and wine could be sold on that day. The other states where Prohibition remains in effect on Sunday are Indiana and Connecticut.

Rural opposition was key to the bill's fate. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found that in January, "68 percent of respondents statewide supported giving voters the chance to consider Sunday beer and wine sales at grocery and convenience stores,” writes the newspaper's James Salzer. “About 80 percent supported the concept in metro Atlanta. Only a little over half did so in South Georgia. Support dropped to under 50 percent in Middle Georgia, home of Gov. Sonny Perdue, who opposes the bill.”

Groups such as the Christian Coalition and the Christian Alliance rallied ministers and volunteers to fight the bill, reports Salzer. “Rural Georgia doesn't want this bill,” Jim Beck, president of the Christian Coalition of Georgia, told the Journal-Constitution after the bill passed a Senate committee. (Read more) Senate Republican leaders refused to send the bill to the floor. Click here for Salzer's latest story.

Arizona town council votes to let guns to be brought into meetings

Last Tuesday the town council of Dewey-Humboldt, Ariz., population 3,613, voted 5-2 to allow people to bring guns to the town's public meetings and inside municipal buildings. “There's nothing wrong with being in favor of what the Constitution says,” said Vice Mayor Warren Rushton. He added that letting citizens bring guns to meetings will deter violent crime. Rushton had pressed the council to vote on the issue since a recent state legislation requiring municipal governments to tell people to disarm themselves before entering public buildings, reports Doug Cook of the Daily Courier in Prescott.

“Council members Len Marinaccio and Candy Lincoln, while agreeing with a person's right to own and carry weapons, cast the two dissenting votes,” Cook reports. “During the council discussion, Lincoln, gun advocate, said people who attend public meetings should leave their weapons at home to avoid any calamity, particularly when emotions run high.” Dewey-Humboldt councilman-elect Floyd Wright supported Rushton’s resolution with a public comment before the vote. “Many armed individuals have wreaked havoc (in schools) because the teachers were not able to defend themselves,” Wright said.

Mayor Tom Hintze, a life member of the National Rifle Association, disagreed with the decision. “I'm all for freedom of carrying weapons, but I agree with Terry,” he told the Courier. “People have the right to do it, but you don't need to publicize it with a resolution. Some people shouldn't have a gun and wouldn't know how to handle it. And I've seen some of these (council) meetings get pretty hot.” (Read more)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Cuts proposed in subsidies for airline service for rural communities

The proposed federal budget would eliminate the Small Communities Air Service Program and cut in half money for the Essential Air Service Program, both of which help maintain commercial airline service in rural areas, notes Niel Ritchie of the League of Rural Voters -- a non-profit group that is based in Minneapolis and tries to increasing the representation of rural people in public policy.

"The budget also slashes funding for the Airports Improvement Program, which means rural airports won't get grants to improve their facilities while the bulk of funding goes to the major commercial airports in big cities," Ritchie writes. "Adding insult to injury, the administration has also backed a radical 'user-fees' plan pushed by the big airlines that could result in a huge tax hike on general aviation — everything from crop dusters to "puddle jumpers" to aircraft used by small businesses."

Ritchie argues that the fees would effectively ground many of small piston and turboprop planes and "severely affect the lives of local rural businesses and residents, limiting their access to specialized medical care, educational institutions and wider markets for rural products." The fee would "offset a proposed tax break for the commercial airlines, which are on the brink of realizing record profits in 2007. The big airlines justify this tax break by saying we need to increase funding to modernize the air traffic control system. But this proposal would reduce funding for the system to the tune of $600 million, taking what should be funds to modernize our air traffic control system and giving a huge tax break for the airlines instead. Moreover, the funding system has generated a $1.7 billion surplus, and increasing airline profits suggest it will bring in even more revenue in the coming years." (Read more)

Arkansas editor dies at 57; did premonition influence his final column?

Bill Bradow, managing editor of the Grand Prairie Herald and the DeValls Bluff Times in Hazen, Ark., died March 16 of a heart attack while on his way home from a local baseball game. On March 7, he celebrated his 57th birthday, in part with a March 14 column that turned out to be his last -- and suggested a premonition, notes Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association in the APA's Arkansas Publisher.

“Despite having a ticker that should have quit working back in ’96 and a general physiognomy that would be considered unusually fragile for a mayfly, I remain above the sod, annoying and occasionally offending everybody within range,” Bradow wrote. “And the Almighty? He’s just sitting back and laughing, ‘Don’t need you up here,’ He chuckles, ‘and the fellow downstairs in the red union suit is afraid you’ll take over.’ However, I can honestly say that, should I roll snake eyes in the crap game of life tomorrow, I can exit with no regrets. I’ve had a ball and I’ve left my mark.”

Bradow's obituary in his newspapers said, “During his career as a journalist, Bill was never afraid to tell the truth, or do what he could to right a wrong. There were generally two reactions to Bill; people either loved him or hated him, but no matter which it was everyone respected him.” That's an epitaph that we think most rural editors would like. Bill Bradow is survived by his wife, Roxanne Woods Bradow; two sons, two grandchildren, a brother and two sisters. A memorial fund (P.O. Box 783, Hazen AR 72064) will establish an annual award to the Hazen High baseball or softball player who best exemplifies the true spirit of the game and “plays the game the way it is supposed to be played.” Bradow was a big baseball fan. (Read more)

Ethanol push may bring corn back to land idled for conservation payments


The push for energy independence through ethanol is having a big effect on federal farm programs, "as well as significant economic impact in the dairy, livestock, swine, and poultry sector," New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor reports in his Weekly Market Bulletin.

"Most recently USDA is proposing that as many as four to seven million acres of highly erodible land that has been placed in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) be released for additional corn production for ethanol use," the Bulletin reports. Most of the 36 million acres in CRP is planted in grass.

UPDATE, April 1 (and no fooling): Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced March 30 that USDA would not allow farmers to put CRP land back into production without penalty "at this time," and "I would not anticipate a change in this policy in 2007." To read the USDA release, click here. Meanwhile, Farm Bureau said corn plantings won't be as large this year as USDA forecasts. (Read more)

Miners, widows ask Congress for better laws, protection from intimidation

A coal miner's widow told a congressional committee yesterday that Congress needs to require "more inspections, methane detectors, and better education and training," steps her home state of Kentucky took this month, and the committee chairman pledged action to protect miners and families who try to hold coal operators accountable and improve safety, reports Janet Patton of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Melissa Lee told the House Education and Labor Committee that she "has witnessed death threats made against her four sons that forced her to leave Harlan County," Patton writes -- adding that a veteran coal miners "has been fired and blacklisted for voicing safety concerns," and that "little has changed underground" since Congress upgraded federal safety laws last year in the wake of disasters.

Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said he would, Patton writes, "do everything possible to make it safe for miners and family members to come forward without facing retaliation in their communities." He said families of killed miners had been denied the opportunity to testify before the committee last year, when the House was controlled by a Republican majority generally friendly to energy-producing interests.

"Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, said that because the mines are often the only industry in an area, communities face huge economic pressure to ignore the toll on families," Patton writes, quoting the freshman Democrat and former newspaper publisher: "These lives are far more than the cost of doing business."

Click here to read Patton's story. Click here for a news release from the National Mining Association on its testimony. We got the NMA release through Government Policy Newslinks, which offers a daily digest of press releases, statements, reports and other information from Congress, the White House and federal agencies. GPN offers a free, 60-day trial subscription to readers of The Rural Blog; to sign up, click here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Texas paper catching up with Tribune on race story after criticizing it

More than two weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune published a story about a 14-year-old African American girl in Paris, Texas, being sentenced to up to seven years in juvenile prison for shoving a hall monitor -- by the same judge who three months earlier probated a 14-year-old white girl for burning down her family's home -- and that the Paris Independent School District was being investigated for alleged repeated discrimination. Yesterday, The Paris News, circulation 10,500, began to catch up with the larger story.

"The Paris News filed an open records request last week under the Texas Open Records Act seeking copies of complaints and actions against PISD by the Office of Civil Rights. The newspaper sought and received records dating to 2003," Mary Madewell writes, reporting that none of the dozen or so complaints have been upheld but five are still pending. Madewell's story began, "U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights continues to investigate Paris Independent School District amid threats of more protests by black activists. Tensions increased in the community after a March 12 article in the Chicago Tribune featured Shaquanda Cotton, 15, a former PISD student who Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville sent to a Texas Youth Commission facility in March 2006 on an indeterminate sentence up to her 21st birthday. The commitment followed a jury determination Cotton committed an act of juvenile delinquency -- specifically, assault causing bodily injury on a public servant." (Read more)

The Tribune story, by Houston-based reporter Howard Witt, reported, "The youth had no prior arrest record, and the hall monitor -- a 58-year-old teacher's aide -- was not seriously injured. But Shaquanda was tried in March 2006 in the town's juvenile court, convicted of "assault on a public servant" and sentenced . . . to prison for up to 7 years, until she turns 21. The story called Paris "starkly segregated."
(Read more)

The story "exploded" on the Internet, Witt wrote in a column yesterday. "It was the top story on digg.com, a site that ranks Internet pages by user popularity and recommendations," he wrote. " And now the story has jumped across the ethernet into the physical world: Dozens of talk-radio stations across the nation were buzzing about Shaquanda last week, protests on her behalf were held in Paris, a petition- and letter-drive aimed at Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the judge in the case . . . is under way, and civil-rights leaders from the NAACP and the ACLU to the Rev. Al Sharpton are weighing whether to get involved. I've written thousands of stories for the Tribune over the last 25 years, from around the nation and across the world, and I've never seen a reaction like this before." To read Witt's column, click here.

Witt said the story is driven by outrage at what seems like excessive punishment, and "There's been some outrage in the other direction, as well: A number of residents of Paris have contended, in e-mails and articles in the local Paris newspaper, that the Tribune story unfairly portrayed their town as racist." He quotes Paris News columnist Phillip Hamilton: "Paris is being burned at the media stake by a journalist that didn't get the whole story poking the hot irons and igniting the fire. ... Does racism exist in Paris? Yes, but not nearly to the extent the Tribune reporter would have readers believe." Hamilton's column, which called Witt's story "a fictional account," appeared March 18. It said that the sentence was probably too harsh, but that the town of 26,000 had been "lashed with false statements, omitted facts and inaccurate information" in "a journalistic lynching" -- a takeoff on Witt's story, which began with an account of lynchings at the local fairgrounds and expressions of fear by local residents that "the racist legacy of those lynchings is rebounding."

In a story published in The Paris News on March 14, Josh Edwards wrote of Witt's article, "Some people are calling the story a smear campaign that inaccurately represents Paris, while others are praising the midwestern newspaper for finally presenting an accurate look at the story." The Paris News is owned by Southern Newspapers Inc. (Free registration required for access to Paris News archives)

In Pa. coal-mine death, feds cite flagrant violations, first under new law

The U.S. Department of Labor has found that "Flagrant safety violations at an Eastern Pennsylvania anthracite mine directly contributed to the death of a miner there last October," reports Steve Twedt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Under the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act passed after mine disasters last year, flagrant violations can be assessed fines up to $220,000. "This is the first mining accident to fall under [the] new flagrant-violation procedures," Twedt notes.

The citations are being reviewed by the assessment office of the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration, which will set amounts of fines against R & D Coal Co., stemming from the Oct. 23 death of miner Dale Reightler, 43, of Donaldson, from injuries suffered in a methane explosion during blasting at the Buck Mountain Slope Mine in Tremont, also in Schuylkill County.

Reightler died because the company "failed to observe basic mine safety practices and violated critical safety standards. As a result, a miner tragically lost his life," Richard E. Stickler, assistant labor secretary for mine safety, said in a press release. Among the violations cited were failing to follow ventilation and roof control plans, failing to conduct a proper pre-shift examination, having unqualified miners do the blasting, and setting off the blast before miners had moved to a safe area. Additional citations may be issued.

"Pennsylvania mine safety officials ordered the mine closed and sealed after finding a number of safety violations leading up to the fatal explosion. They also revoked the certificates of three mine supervisors. In revoking the mine's permit, state officials noted the similarity between last October's explosion and a December 2004 explosion at the mine that injured four," Twedt reports. "After talking to former mine employees following Mr. Reightler's death, officials at the Department of Environmental Protection concluded that mine managers had misrepresented circumstances of the 2004 explosion." (Read more)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ethanol has a growing list of foes who oppose its government subsidies

While President Bush, other politicians and farmers in much of the nation are pushing ethanol as an avenue to energy independence, "ranchers and environmentalists, hog farmers and hippies, solar-power idealists and free-market pragmatists" have found common ground in opposing federal subsidies for turning corn into fuel.

"This ethanol binge is insane," Paul Hitch, president-elect of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, members of which are having to pay more for corn because increasing demand for ethanol has raised corn prices, told Moira Herbst of Business Week. "This talk about energy independence and wrapping yourself in the flag and singing God Bless America — all ... at a severe cost to another part of the economy."

Herbst writes, "Left-leaning economists such as Princeton University's Paul Krugman are joining free-market fundamentalists at the Cato Institute in pointing out the economic pitfalls of ethanol. And green groups worry that aggressive production of corn could have dire consequences for the environment, because of the heavy use of pesticides, fertilizer, and machinery that burns fossil fuels." (Read more)

Where rural meets urban, deer carry ticks that bring Lyme disease

As housing developments expand into rural areas, wildlife often remain. Deer can be the most noticeable, and the most troublesome, dining on landscape plants. Increasingly in some areas, they carry the threat of lyme disease, carried by ticks. "Lyme disease has become a way of life" and "a serious public health issue" in Fairfax County, Virginia, reports Amy Gardner of The Washington Post.

"Suburban lots with azaleas and rhododendrons is just like laying out a buffet for deer," Jorge R. Arias, who fights disease-carrying insects for the county, told Gardner. "We have created in suburbia what is essentially a perfect habitat for them." He said about 15 percent of deer ticks in the area have the bacteria of Lyme disease, which can lead to cause heart, mental, nervous-system and arthritic complications. (Read more)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Judge blocks mountaintop-mining permits, citing ‘alarming’ stream loss

“A federal judge blocked permits for four mountaintop removal mines late Friday, in a major ruling that could force much tougher regulation of West Virginia’s coal industry,” reports Ken Ward of The Charleston Gazette. Judge Robert C. Chambers cited “alarming cumulative stream loss” to the filling of hollows and other narrow valleys with the earth and rock blasted to gain access to coal seams. He “ruled that more thorough reviews of the mines’ potential impacts must be done before permits can be approved.”

“Chambers rescinded four permits issued to subsidiaries of Massey Energy, and sent the mine proposals back to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a more detailed study. The judge found that the Corps’ methods for examining permit applications were severely lacking, especially how the corps measures the ecological loss of burying small, headwaters streams,” Ward writes. “Chambers did not order — as citizen groups had hoped he would — that the corps perform a detailed study, called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, on every mountaintop removal permit application.”

Nevertheless, Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, one of the plaintiffs in the case, called the ruling a victory. “Judge Chambers is the third federal judge in West Virginia to find that the corps’ actions permitting mountaintop removal violate the Clean Water Act.” Those rulings were reversed on appeal, but this case poses different questions, dealing with individual permits rather than a general permit the corps first used. Earthjustice, an environmental group whose lawyers joined Lovett in bringing the case, said the ruling would affect dozens of pending permit applications in Appalachia.

Other plaintiffs are the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Coal River Mountain Watch and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (which provided the aerial photo, above, of mountaintop-removal mining in southern West Virginia). The permits directly affected by the case are in Boone, Logan, Kanawha, Fayette and Raleigh counties. The mines “would strip about 3,800 acres of hills and hollows, and bury more than 12 miles of streams,” Ward reports. (Read more)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Rural youths more likely to abuse prescription drugs, get them from home

Youths in rural areas and small metropolitan areas are more likely to abuse prescription drugs than their urban counterparts. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, most of those who abuse prescription drugs are between 12 and 25. Pain killers such as codeine, Vicodin and Percocet are those most often used. “The NHSDA shows that the annual number of new users of pain relievers has been increasing since the mid-1980s, from about 400,000 initiates to 2 million in 2000. Other drugs being increasingly abused are stimulants, tranquilizers and sedatives,” reports the Muskogee (Okla.) Phoenix.

Rural youths don’t need a dealer to find prescription drugs because they don’t get them off the street, these drugs come from home, reports the Phoenix. However, the solution for parents is not to lock up their medicine cabinets, said Jackie Luckey, a prevention associate at Area Prevention Resource Center, part of Green Country Behavioral Health Services Inc. Children need to be raised with more boundaries, he said. Narconon Arrowhead, a non-traditional drug rehabilitation and education facility in Canadian, Okla., blames much of the abuse problems on the availability of these drugs. (Read more)

Law promises benefits to first responders' survivors, but feds don’t deliver

"More than three years after President Bush signed a law granting federal benefits to families of firefighters, police officers and EMTs who die of heart attacks and strokes on the job, not a dollar has been paid," reports Bill Dedman of MSNBC. "The U.S. Justice Department has denied all 34 claims that have been decided, and has yet to act on more than 200 others" filed under the Hometown Heroes Act of 2003.

About a third of the claims have been filed by survivors of law-enforcement officers, and most of the rest by firefighters' families. Dedman notes a new study by the Harvard University School of Public Health shows a firefighter is up to 100 times more likely to have a heart attack when responding to a fire alarm. The Justice Department didn't say whether it had denied any claims by families of emergency medical technicians.

The law says the presumption that death was caused by duty can be reversed "by competent medical evidence to the contrary," but left the definition of that up to the Justice Department, which "has interpreted this phrase to mean that claims should be denied if there is evidence of a non-duty-related medical factor or event that would have independently caused the stroke or heart attack," Dedman writes.

"At least some of the denials were based on Justice Department judgment that some of the duties the firefighters were performing at the time of their deaths do not meet the law's requirement of 'nonroutine strenuous activity.' . . . Other claims are being held up as the Justice Department searches the medical records for pre-existing medical conditions," Dedman reports. "The Justice Department spokeswoman said that only 20 cases have so far begun the medical review process."

This could be a story for you. Dedman pointed Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute to a searchable database of first responders who have died in the line of duty. Tompkins advises, "Check with your local public safety agency, Fraternal Order of Police and firefighters union or association to see what cases might be pending locally. Here are two groups that help in cases like these -- Concerns of Police Survivors, Inc. and National Fallen Firefighters Foundation." (Read more) For Dedman's story, click here.

Family therapists could help relive shortage of mental help in Louisiana

People in rural northeast Louisiana have may have inadequate access to mental-health providers, leading them to seek such services from doctors who aren’t qualified. Researcher Cathy Parker, a marriage and family therapist from the University of Louisiana, said that mental stress can lead to physical illness. This is not only the case for severe mental illness, but everyday problems that can compound, leading individuals to feel sick and seek medical care, reports Jason Stuart of the Bastrop Daily Enterprise.

There is a lack of psychologists and psychiatrists in the region, but there are more marriage and family therapists who could also help with emotional issues, reports Stuart. “There's nothing preventing doctors from referring patients to MFTs except one thing -- money. A majority of these kind of patients are on Medicaid or Medicare, and therein lies the problem. Though Medicaid and Medicare will cover a patient's expense for a medical psychologist, they will not currently include MFTs.”

"We live in an economically depressed area, and people here generally don't have the money to pay for therapy," Parker told the Enterprise. MFTs could improve the quality of mental health care in the area if they were included in the health care hierarchy, she said. Because of their exclusion, doctors often do not recognize MFTs as licensed mental health care professionals and therefore do not think to refer their patients to them, even if they could afford their services. (Read more)

Virginia faces an aging population, lack of doctors in rural areas

The persistent shortage of rural doctors in Virginia is still growing. The Virginia Department of Health estimates 798,924 of the state’s 7 million people live in rural areas that don’t have sufficient access to primary health care, more than 10 percent of the state’s total population. Virginia’s aging demographic is creating more demand for health care while doctors are retiring and not being replaced, reports the Virginia Farm Bureau. “The minute they retire, it becomes an area of need,” said Dr. Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, associate dean of admissions for the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

The high expense of medical degrees is a major problem when trying to recruit doctors to rural areas, reports the Virginia Farm Bureau. The average medical school graduate has $130,000 worth of debt upon finishing. Virginia Rural Health Loan Repayment Program offers to repay up to $20,000 dollars a year of student loans for new doctors practicing in underserved rural or inner-city areas and specializing in general internal medicine, general pediatrics, family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, or psychiatry. However, new doctors may also be reluctant to move to the countryside. (Read more)

New bill would designate unused airwaves for wireless broadband Internet

Legislation proposed in the U.S. House this week would allocate unused television channels for use by broadband Internet by 2009. The move could possibly provide affordable services to millions of Americans, particularly those in rural areas. The bill mandates a final decision to be made by the beginning of October. A similar bill failed last year, reports the Associated Press, but Democrats now control Congress.

“Under the measure, the Federal Communications Commission would be required to permit usage of the unused TV spectrum, also known as ‘white spaces,’ for Internet broadband service as long as it doesn't interfere with television programming,” reports AP. New technology has been developed that can transmit within these spaces and a coalition has submitted a prototype device to the FCC for testing. However, television broadcasters are doubtful of the device, concerned that it may interfere with meeting their federal requirement to transition from analog to digital signals in 2009. (Read more)

Iowa program mentors rural businesses, seeks economic growth

An Iowa program to help rural entrepreneurs develop and expand interstate commerce has beginning to get off the ground. Last fall the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation launched Renew Rural Iowa, designed to encourage business and expand wealth in the state’s rural communities. “The Iowa Entrepreneurial Report Card shows Iowa ranking last in new business creation and long-term employment growth. That prompted leaders to take action,” writes Kristin Danley-Greiner of Farm News.

The program is target at communities with population of less than 30,000, reports Danley-Greiner. It works with organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Iowa State University Extension, Iowa Department of Economic Development, the Iowa Bankers Association and the Iowa Bar Association. The Entrepreneurial Development Center in Cedar Rapids is contracted to mentor rural communities through their development phase and teach business education.

“Through Renew Rural Iowa, entrepreneurs will be offered a choice of two one-day seminars that will walk the entrepreneur through all phases of developing a business, such as writing a business plan, determining appropriate financing and analyzing market research and various funding sources,” writes Danley-Greiner. “The second day will provide pre-qualified participants hands-on mentoring to accelerate existing businesses or jump start new ones. Successful companies then will have the opportunity to continue in the professional mentoring program as they grow and develop.” (Read more)

“A large variety of Iowa entrepreneurs ranging from landscapers, livestock ventilation systems, dairies, mobile veterinary clinics to sports team equipment manufacturers have attended previous Renew Rural Iowa seminars across the state and benefited by the interactive, hands-on sessions,” reports the High Plains Journal, based in Dodge City, Kan. (Read more)

Virginia road plan favors the wealthier north, could widen urban-rural gap

Rural Virginia residents fear that they will be left behind after a plan to improve roads in the more affluent northern part of the state. “In the transportation package approved last month and awaiting action by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, lawmakers allowed elected officials in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads the option of increasing local taxes and fees to pump an additional $600 million into roads and transit projects.” Some rural residents worry that partitioning the state by region would allow the northern communities to hoard their wealth, reports Tim Craig of the Washington Post.

There is a large economic gap between Northern Virginia and the rest of the state, fueling resentment between them, creating an ideological gap and causing contention on the topic of tax increases, reports Craig. House Republicans, with a mostly rural constituency, have been fighting efforts to increase transportation revenue in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. However, Northern Virginians are an important part of the economy, feeding money into the rest of the state. The region has 25 percent of the state’s population but produces 40 percent of its tax revenue.

Taxpayers outside Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads would not be asked to pay much into their road projects but they also would not get much benefit from the plan, reports Craig. The Richmond area and rural regions would split $150 million to $300 million a year, state officials said. Kaine attended a series of meetings with lawmakers last week over the concern that the road plan might split Virginia into “haves and some have-nots.” (Read more)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Sago Mine stops running; its legacy so far is more state action than federal

The West Virginia coal mine where 12 men died in January 2006 has stopped production. High production costs from “adverse geologic conditions” and weakening coal prices “made the Sago Mine unprofitable in the current coal market,” International Coal Group of Scott Depot, W.Va., confirmed yesterday to Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

A skeleton crew will stay on to maintain the mine so it could resume production if the coal market improves, and the other workers at the mine are being offered jobs elsewhere, the company said. “ICG had previously cut the workforce at the mine from about 85 in early 2006 to 48 at the end of December, according to disclosures filed with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration,” Ward reports. “Last year, ICG reported a net loss of $9.3 million, compared to a net income of $31.8 million in 2005.(Read more)

The disaster, and one that killed five at the Kentucky Darby Mine a few months later, prompted stronger mine-safety laws from Congress and the legislatures of Kentucky and West Virginia. "Most of the progress has been at the state level," says an editorial in The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky.

MSHA "remains an agency in alarming disarray, despite its urgent, life-and-death responsibilities," the Eagle opines. "Veteran inspectors are leaving the agency, and they're either not being replaced or are being rep laded by new hires with, in many cases, very little practical mining experience. Morale in MSHA district offices is distressingly low, and there's a reluctance to take strong stands for fear of the possible consequences" from the "industry-cozy" Department of Labor, MSHA's parent agency. (Read more)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Northwest produces clean power with a blend of wind and water energy

In the Northwest, new energy from wind is being integrated with traditional hydroelectric power, creating a source of electricity with minimal emissions or need for fossil fuel. The region’s wind-power base is growing fast, from 25 megawatts in 1998 to a projected 3,800 megawatts by 2009. One megawatt of wind can power an average of 225 to 300 homes daily. The U.S. is the fastest-growing wind-energy market in the world, jumping 27 percent last year with a similar outlook for this year, reports The Washington Post.

When wind is weak or there’s a high demand for power, the dams can pick up the slack, reports Blaine Harden. “Hydroelectric power plants ramp up faster and more efficiently than coal-fired or nuclear plants, and without the chronic uncertainties in cost that plague gas-fired plants. The Pacific Northwest gets more of its electricity from hydro -- 67 percent -- than any other region of the country.” When the wind is strong, the dams ease up on power production, conserving more water and possibly becoming more fish-friendly.

“Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, said the electrical grid in the Northwest is uniquely accommodating to wind power because of the dominance of hydroelectricity, and because of relatively reliable wind, progressive utility companies and new state laws demanding renewable energy,” writes Harden. “Those laws require utilities, over time, to generate 15 to 25 percent of their energy from sources that do not cough carbon into the air.” Wind power is well-received among county governments and local land owners, largely because they can profit from it. A farmer may receive between $2,000 to $4,000 a year for allowing a turbine to run on his or her property. (Read more)

Democrats propose to fund rural schools without selling forest land

Senate Democrats announced a new plan Tuesday to renew an act that provided funds to rural schools with federal land in their districts. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, which compensated rural schools for loss of revenue from declining timber harvests in national forests, expired at the end of 2006. To make up for this loss of funding, President Bush proposed to sell off $800 million in Forest Service land, and giving half the money to rural schools, the other half to conservation.

Noelle Straub of the Billings Gazette in Montana reports the new plan would extend the program until 2011 without selling off public land, and aim to make distribution of funds more equal. Three states, California, Oregon and Washington, got 75 percent of payments. “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it appears that money for the program for 2007 will be included in an emergency spending bill coming before the Senate soon,” Straub writes. “Reid said Democrats would offer an amendment to the bill next week that would change the formula and provide for the other four years.” (Read more)

Vanderbilt project to test feasibility of wired classroom for rural students

Billy Hudson, director of the Center for Matrix Biology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, shows Chris Cox, an eighth-grade student visiting from Grapevine, Ark., equipment used in his lab to separate molecules for purification. Cox was among Grapevine students who spent a week at the Nashville university last summer in the first stage of the Aspirnaut Initiative, a program designed to give isolated students an advantage in modern technology. Hudson runs the program. He said in a Vanderbilt press release that rural students are at risk for getting left behind in technology, education and employment. The program will go into the field in Arkansas next month to test the feasibility of a wired classroom for isolated rural areas.

The project will be launched April 10 in Sheridan, Ark., about 30 miles south of Little Rock, About 15 “high ability” students will board a bus equipped with laptops, accessing lessons online, connected to broadband Internet via cell phone towers, allowing them to effectively use their time during the 90-minute ride. Their classroom will be a fellowship hall in a Baptist church in Grapevine, where Hudson grew up. There, they will participate in a webcast set up by the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach, partnered with local schools and the Grapevine Historical Society. (Read more)

Virginia ski resort turns to the tropics to fill in seasonal labor gaps

Rural ski resorts are finding it hard to get enough employees. Facing a persistent labor shortage, one resort in Virginia flew in temporary workers from Jamaica this season. The Wintergreen Resort flew in 35 islanders, some so unfamiliar with winter that they didn’t even pack coats. “Students on break used to fill seasonal jobs, but resort seasons have lengthened beyond winter breaks as baby boomers have matured into empty-nesters and their leisure time has become less tied to school schedules,” reports N.C. Aizenman of the Washington Post. Other students aren’t interested in part-time employment when they can have other steady jobs year-round,

The resort has a year-round staff of 500, with 700 at peak, reports Aizenman. It is a major employer in a county of only 15,000 people, but it also faces competition for employees from other industries such as orchards, vineyards and factories. The unemployment rate in the area is rarely above 3 percent. Wintergreen recruited its Jamaican workers through a “10-month temporary visa for unskilled, non-agricultural workers known as the H-2B. Limited to 66,000 a year nationwide, the permits are tough to get. Employers must prove that they have tried and failed to hire U.S. workers at prevailing wages. Last year, the permits were snapped up in about 45 days.” (Read more)

New rules may limit rural Missouri clinics run by physician’s assistants

In rural Missouri, clinics staffed mainly by physician’s assistants may no longer be allowed to operate. New rules may require doctors to be present at clinics for a greater percentage of time, but those doctors might not be available. “Current rules require a physician to be in the facility when a PA is providing patient care, except for certain follow-up visits and when PAs practice in designated Health Professional Shortage Areas. . . . where there is a recognized shortage of primary medical care providers. More than 80 percent of Missouri's 114 counties are designated as HPSAs,” reports the Bolivar Herald-Free Press.

“House Bill 497 and Senate Bill 537 would require supervising physicians to be present at least 55 percent of the time a PA is providing care and 10 percent of the time when PAs are in federally funded clinics in HPSAs,” writes the newspaper's Charlotte Marsch. “Another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 346, would require physician supervision at least 80 percent of the time with no exception for federally funded clinics. If no legislation passes, the Missouri Board of Healing Arts has said it will change the rules to require 100-percent on-site physician assistant supervision of PAs with no exceptions.”

Physician groups argue that requiring doctors to be present more often would improve the quality of care, reports Marsch. “People who live in rural Missouri understand services are not at their doorstep. The people who are going to these clinics are quite capable of driving themselves,” Bonnie Bowles, executive director of Missouri Association of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons told the Free Press. (Read more)

North Carolina legislative panel advances bill for statewide smoking ban

A legislative committee in North Carolina has approved a bill "that would impose a broad ban on smoking at businesses and public places," reports The Associated Press. "The panel voted 9-4 in favor of the measure, which would ban smoking in most restaurants, bars, offices and factories."

The bill "exempts private residences, designated smoking rooms in hotels, private clubs, and research facilities conducting experiments on smoking or tobacco-product development. It also exempts tobacco shops and tobacco manufacturing facilities. Opponents of the measure said business owners should be able to decide how to run their own enterprise. But others on the committee said it's a question of protecting the health of workers who don't want to be exposed to smoke on the job, in the same way that they're already covered by other workplace safety rules. "We don't have asbestos in buildings any more," said Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange. "It's a health risk." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Rural editor an example of investigative journalism's key role in democracy

All across America, there are rural editors like Tim Crews of the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, Calif., who take on local officials, "print the news and raise hell," as Crews likes to say. Every now and then, they get written up by big-city colleagues, as Crews was yesterday by Peter Fimrite of the San Francisco Chronicle, but with a new angle -- as an example of the essential role investigative journalism plays in American democracy, and how that role is being undermined by newspapers' falling circulation.

"Crews won't have any of it. He is a country editor whose little paper is influencing public opinion on a shoestring budget," Fimrite wrote. "A maverick, old-school muckraker, Crews is notorious in this rural farming community of 6,220 people and the governmental center of Glenn County. In 2000, he was jailed for five days after refusing to name his sources for a story about a former California Highway Patrol officer charged with stealing a gun, a case that received national attention. Depending on who is talking, his financially strapped newspaper is either a beacon of journalistic integrity or an unsavory scandal sheet run by a scoundrel. . . . Despite the criticism, the twice-weekly Mirror is surprisingly influential for a paper with a circulation of 2,944. Almost everybody in the community reads it, more than pick up the Willows Journal and Orland Press Register, which have a combined circulation of 2,122 and are distributed twice a week by the Tri Counties Newspapers chain." (Chronicle photo by Lance Iversen)

Crews once managed those papers, but lost his job when he angered officials by publishing questionable concealed-carry permits. (See item below!) He started his own paper. He told Fimrite, "We're shit disturbers. It's what a small county needs." (The Chronicle used hyphens for most of the vulgarity.) "For his efforts, he has been snubbed and threatened, and seen advertising pulled and his beloved dog die in 2004, apparently with poisoned meat that he believes was left by an angry sex offender he named in the paper. An arson fire was set recently in an office adjacent to his newspaper," Fimrite reports. "There have been several attempts to silence Crews, but he has moles virtually everywhere, and the plots themselves invariably end up in print" -- most notably a strategy session by local school officials on how to do battle with the paper.

"Critics claim Crews mixes his opinions so liberally with the facts that it is impossible to decipher the truth," Fimrite notes, and quotes them. "Even some of Crews' supporters acknowledge that his prose often reflects his point of view. . . . But Jim Bettencourt, a landscape contractor and former Glenn County supervisorial candidate, said Crews' aggressive reporting has kept the public involved in government." He told Fimrite, "Tim is the conscience of our community. He addresses issues that others choose not to. He has empowered the downtrodden and instilled fear in the majority of the old guard in this community." (Read more)

In the most recent Mirror, the paper pulls no punches on itself. One story reports that an occasional contributor to the paper was charged with possession of crack cocaine, and suspended from the paper "until his court issue is resolved." There's a mug shot, and a tough headline: "Mirror contributor busted with crack."

For Sunshine Week, under an editorial headline heading, "New Mirror policy: We shall be good and print what we are told to print," Crews writes, "Well, not really. Although there are people hereabout, notably water carriers for the Glenn County Office of Education, who believe it is a newspaper’s job to print what they are told to print rather than to report what they learn, we shall not go down that path. We note with some amusement that our competition suspends its “no personal attacks” letters policy when it comes to assaults on this newspaper and that’s their prerogative, to a point. But there are the issues of responsibility to the public and suppression of facts involving misconduct on the part of government officials." (Read more)

Rural crime and vandalism prompt consideration of urban-type remedies

Rural crime and vandalism are on the rise. In Blue Earth County, Minnesota, "Rural residents fed up with thefts and vandalism that are costing hundreds of thousands of dollars (the overturned grain cart, left, dumped its load into a drainage ditch) are considering some big-city solutions for their problems," reports Dan Nienaber of The Free Press in Mankato. Options "include having farmers park their equipment in consistent locations at night so passing deputies would know if something is amiss."

Farmers, sheriffs, implement dealer Ron Kibble and Commissioner Will Purvis "talked about installing surveillance cameras and alarms in their buildings, on their property or even in their equipment," Nienaber writes. "Alarms can alert deputies so they’re able to respond immediately when buildings or tractors have been broken into and cameras can catch criminals in the act, Purvis said. Technology that’s been used to solve several high-profile crimes in Mankato is becoming affordable enough for farmers to use as well. . . . The cost of those products is easily offset by the expenses farmers face during unwanted planting or harvesting delays while equipment is being repaired or replaced, Kibble said." (Read more)

Posting of gun records leads Va. to consider restrictions on information

The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council created a subcommittee yesterday to study how to protect "personal identifying information" in public records -- an issue raised by The Roanoke Times' Web posting of the list of the 135,000 Virginians with permits to carry concealed deadly weapons. The posting, taken down after many objections, included the permit holders' street addresses.

"The council is made up of state legislators, government officials, media representatives and citizens," reports the Times' Richmond correspondent, Michael Sluss. A legislator from the Roanoke area has "asked for an attorney general's opinion on whether the state police should provide such information. That opinion and the advisory council's work could pave the way for legislation that would restrict access to the data."

The issue has been raised, and could be raised, in many states. In 17 states, such information is public, and in 18 it is private. Other states with concealed-carry permits lack clear statutes or case law on the topic.

The Virginia legislator, Republican David Nutter, said he wants to "find a middle ground that, bottom line, prevents a list like this from being put out in the public domain." Sluss writes that Nutter "later noted that the information still could be obtained from city and county circuit-court clerks." State police have received 17 requests for the data in the last two years. "Four of those requests came from political organizations, including one each from the state Democratic and Republican parties," Sluss reports.

Four requests came from newspapers, one from a Republican legislator and three from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which has used the gun data for membership recruitment. VCDL member Jim Kadison "said the advisory council should focus on preventing 'abuse of the list' without restricting all public access to the data," Sluss reports, and also "raised the idea of allowing permit holders to have their names removed from lists provided to the public." (Read more) See below for earlier blog items.

UPDATE: Virginia State Police, acting on the advice of the state attorney general, said April 6 they will no longer release the information under the state's open records law. (Read more)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Agriculture Week, Ag Day celebrate American farmers, tout ethanol

This is National Agriculture Week, and National Agriculture Day is Wednesday, March 21, the first full day of spring. “Ag Day serves to recognize and celebrate the abundance provided by agriculture and is celebrated by producers, agriculture associations, agribusinesses, academia and others. The day itself is hosted nationally by the Agriculture Council of America, but events are carried out at the state and local level across the country,” writes Kristin Danley-Greiner of The Messenger in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (Read more) Sponsors include John Deere and Archer Daniels Midland, an agricultural processing and fermentation company and ethanol producer based in Decatur, Ill.

This year’s Ag Day theme will be “Convergence of Food and Fuel,” reflecting the growing relevance of ethanol and biofuel to the agricultural sector. According to an ACA release and data from the Renewable Fuels Association in 2006, the U.S. ethanol industry increased U.S. gross domestic output by $41.1 billion dollars and created more than 160,000 jobs.

The week will celebrate the more than 22 million people employed in farm-related jobs. “Today each American farmer feeds more than 144 people compared to 25 people four decades ago,” said Greg Webb, public-affairs vice president for Archer Daniels Midland in an ACA release. “Simply put, American agriculture is doing more - and doing it more efficiently - than ever before to meet growing demand.” The ACA lauds the changing nature of agriculture production, including renewable fuels and advancements in farm technology such as self-guided tractors.

New Hampshire towns press national leaders to address climate change

In New Hampshire, 180 of the state’s towns and cities are voting on whether to petition the federal government to address climate change. As of Sunday, 134 towns had passed the initiative, and some had yet to vote. “While the resolution is non-binding, organizers hope to use it to force presidential candidates to address climate change during the New Hampshire presidential primary,” reports The New York Times.

“The New Hampshire Carbon Coalition, a bipartisan citizens group led by a former Republican state senator and the former chairman of the state Democratic Party, spearheaded the initiative to have climate change considered at town meetings,” Katie Zezima writes. “The last time voters in New Hampshire focused on a global issue at such meetings was in 1983, when more than 100 towns asked that the federal government do something about acid rain, which was polluting the state’s waterways.” (Read more)

The issue has prompted local coverage. Stephanie Hicks of the Littleton Courier reports in the New Hampshire Business Review that scientists and the state's forestry industry say global warming is bad for the industry. An earlier spring causes an earlier onset of mud, cutting down the time that loggers can spend in the forests. The same problem is faced by those in the maple sugar business and the trees may also be dying with the warming climate. “In the last 20 years, $1.3 million in syrup sales have been lost in the Granite State. Kingsley predicts that over the next 100 years, the loss of sugar maples will mean a $7 billion economic loss and the complete annihilation of the industry,” writes Hicks. (Read more)

In his appearance in New Hampshire last Saturday, Arizona Sen. John McCain, 2008 presidential hopeful and winner of the state's 2000 Republican primary, “said he knew little about climate change before his last primary campaign but delved into it after voters in New Hampshire, especially younger ones, brought it to his attention,” writes Eric Moskowitz of the Concord Monitor. “Climate change is real. The debate now, I believe, is how serious it is,” he told the Monitor. “And I believe it's important that we give our children and grandchildren a planet that is not one that is in serious danger.” (Read more)

Rural Virginia faces a graying population, lack of younger workers

Rural Virginia may face a lack of workers as the population ages and young people leave for more populated areas. A study by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service found that in the next decade there will be 825,000 Virginians reaching retirement age. That's 11 percent of the state’s population, up from 9 percent six years ago. “Young people from these rural counties and others tend to leave for college or work, the study says. As a result, the ‘emerging work force’ of Virginians 18-24 is concentrated in college towns and urban areas,” reports The Associated Press.

“While small and rural communities may offer certain dimensions of a high quality of life, the absence of employment opportunities presents significant disadvantages to these communities in attracting younger workers,” Qian Cai, author of the study, told AP. Officials have discussed the problem of an aging population but there are no substantial plans in place to deal with it yet. In some areas young people may find work in the service sector catering to an influx of retirees. However work in places such as industrial parks that have boosted the economies of Virginia towns in the past may not be sufficient to draw in or keep young people. (Read more)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sunshine Week ends; Vermont editor urges Senate to open government

Today ends Sunshine Week, the news media's annual effort to build public support for openness in government. It included progress in Washington, where the House passed four open-government bills, including one to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act, and the Senate heard testimony from a small-town editor on the front lines of getting access to, and publishing, public records.

Sabina Haskell, editor of the 10,000-circulation Brattleboro Reformer and president of the Vermont Press Association, joined media and FOIA experts in testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by her senior senator, Democrat Patrick Leahy. He and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, have introduced a bill to create more enforceable deadlines for agencies to respond to FOIA requests.

Haskell told the committee that when the Reformer asked for financial records of the Vernon Volunteer Fire Co. last week, the fire chief told the reporter who asked, "If you print any of this, I will assure you there will be some retaliation." That request was made under state law, but reflects the "culture of resistance" that Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archive said many officials have toward open-records laws. "The handling of FOIA programs at some agencies suggests that the public is considered the enemy, and any effort to obstruct or interfere with the meddlesome public will be tolerated," Fuchs told the committee.

Leahy said FOIA "faces challenges like never before," and called the Department of Homeland Security's ability to deny requests for records related to "critical infrastructure" the "biggest single rollback" since the law was passed in 1966.

Evan Lehmann of the Reformer wrote, "In 2002, the government had about 138,000 unanswered public records requests, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. That number grew 45 percent by 2005, to about 200,000, the GAO reported. Federal agencies are required to respond to a request within 20 days," but the law can be enforced only by going to court. " In many legal cases, federal agencies provide the documents at the last minute, just before a judge is about to rule, thereby avoiding having to pay attorneys' fees incurred by news outlets."

The Leahy-Cornyn bill "would make federal agencies pay a news outlet's legal fees even if a judge never rules on the case. It would also provide disciplinary action for agencies that fail to turn over documents, hasten responses by tracking FOIA requests, and create an ombudsman who could mediate disputes and minimize lawsuits." (Read more) To listen to Haskell's testimony, click here. For video if it, click here.

Roanoke Times takes a deeper look at issues of gun records, openness

"It didn't take long for Sunshine Week to turn stormy," Laurence Hammack writes in today's Roanoke Times. "At 9:15 last Sunday morning, just a few hours after The Roanoke Times was dropped on doorsteps and shoved into paper boxes across the region, Scot Shippee fired the first shot in what would become the newspaper's biggest Internet controversy.

"In an online discussion forum, Shippee blasted the paper for posting on its Web site a database that included the names and addresses of everyone in Virginia licensed to carry a concealed handgun. Shippee wrote that if the newspaper was so committed to public information, it would only be fair for him to publicly list the home address of editorial writer Christian Trejbal. A column by Trejbal that day had urged readers to celebrate Sunshine Week -- a national recognition of the public's right to know -- by using the database to see who in their community was 'packing heat.'"

Hammack continues, "Even though The Roanoke Times hastily removed the database from its Web site, questions remain: Should people be allowed to know who among them is secretly armed? Or did identifying those who carry concealed handguns invade their privacy and make them targets for criminals? And will this fundamental conflict between advocates of the First and Second amendments be resolved by the General Assembly's restricting public access to gun permit information when it takes up the issue next year?

"Virginia is one of 17 states that treats information about concealed-handgun permit holders as a public matter, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In another 18 states, the information is closed from public view. The remaining states have no laws or court decisions that clearly address the question one way or the other." (Read more)

Alaska town adopts Great Plains gambit of offering free land to newcomers

Some towns in the Great Plains, fighting declines in population, have made news by offering free land to people who move there. Tomorrow a town in Alaska, with a similar problem, will do likewise.

"The community of Anderson, population 300, is offering 26 large lots on spruce-covered land beneath the Alaska pathway of the famed aurora borealis and just a short walk from spectacular views of Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain. And what's an occasional day of 60-below weather in a town removed from big-city ills?" asks reporter Rachel D'Oro of The Associated Press.

"It's Mayberry," local high-school teacher Daryl Frisbie told AP. His social-studies students "came up with the idea for a project exploring ways to boost the town's dwindling population," D'Oro writes." Students developed a Web site and PowerPoint presentation, then persuaded the Anderson City Council to give it a go." Anderson is off Alaska Highway 3, between Fairbanks and Denali National Park.

"The general rules: The 1.3-acre lots will be awarded to the first people who apply for them and submit $500 refundable deposits beginning at 9 a.m. Monday. Each winning applicant must build a house measuring at least 1,000 square feet within two years. Power and phone hookups are already available," D'Oro reports. "City phones are ringing nonstop over the deal despite only local publicity." (Read more) For a March 7 story on the plan, from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, click here.

Farm interests seek more money for university-based agriculture research

"Over the past two decades, public funding of agricultural research and extension has been reduced or declined in real dollars," Farm Foundation reports. "Evidence is now emerging that the rate of growth in agricultural productivity is beginning to decline. At the same time, some U.S. competitors are increasing public funding of agricultural research. Adequate public funding for agricultural research and Extension programs is a critical factor in the future competitiveness of U.S. agriculture."

To address these issue, Farm Foundation held a conference last week in Washington. Among the speakers was Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which issued a press release quoting Stallman as saying, “Congress needs to consider how our land grant universities contribute and verify advancements in agriculture. . . . We need more funding for research, not less.”

The release said, “With new expectations being placed on American agriculture, as well as farmers and ranchers exploring new ways to improve the environment through innovative conservation practices, the need for research is intensifying. . . . Key areas where research is needed, according to Stallman, are bio-security; improved diets; the environment; rural revitalization; biotechnology; and renewable energy.”

Smaller-scale agricultural interests spoke up, too. Bill Nelson, president of WineAmerica, the National Association of American Wineries, said producers of specialty crops need research for many reasons: Such crops are diverse, with complex, site-specific growth characteristics; many require considerable capital and time to establish; and producers and processors face strict and wide-ranging quality requirements. For an outline of the Farm Foundation program and links to presentations of other speakers, click here.

Long bus rides in W.Va. mean less extracurricular activity for rural kids

Students who attend consolidated rural high schools in West Virginia are less likely to participate in extra-curricular activities because of long bus rides. That is among the findings of a new study by the Rural School and Community Trust, a rural-school advocacy group that generally opposes consolidation. "Though the report focuses specifically on consolidation outcomes in West Virginia, the lessons learned are a warning to any state that has pursued or is considering pursuing consolidation," the trust said in a release.

The study found that students bused to consolidated high schools lose an average of 49 minutes each day, compared to students who have other forms of transportation in the same districts; and that bus rides in districts with consolidated high schools are 43 percent longer than in districts that have not consolidated.

The West Virginia Legislature passed guidelines for maximum lengths of bus rides -- 30 minutes for elementary schools, 45 minutes for middle schools, and one hour for high schools -- but they are only recommendations and are not enforced, the trust says. About 7.4 percent of West Virginia students ride buses longer than the guidelines. Rates in individual counties are as high as 31 percent, and every county has at least some students whose ride times exceed the guidelines.

"Over the past several decades West Virginia has closed scores of small, locally-based schools (primarily high schools), as part of district-level consolidation," the trust reports, and "further consolidation is presently being proposed statewide." (Read more)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Copley chain sells all Midwest papers to fast-growing GateHouse Media

Copley Press Inc. is selling its nine newspapers in Illinois and Ohio to GateHouse Media Inc., a fast-growing, debt-laden company that owns 76 small dailies and about 370 other publications in 18 states.

The Illinois dailies being sold are the Journal Star in Peoria, circulation 68,000; The State Journal-Register in Springfield, 55,000; The Register-Mail in Galesburg, 14,700; and The Courier in Lincoln, 6,100. The Ohio dailies are The Repository in Canton, 65,000; The Times-Reporter in New Philadelphia, 23,000; and The Independent in Massillon, 12,800. The weeklies are The Suburbanite in Akron, circulation 26,000; and the Galva (Ill.) News, 1,200 -- the only one that uses a town's name.

GateHouse already owned 16 dailies and 40 paid weeklies in Illinois. The dailies are in Benton, Canton, Carmi, DuQuoin, Eldorado, Flora, Freeport, Harrisburg, Kewanee, Macomb, Marion, Monmouth, Olney, Pekin, Pontiac and West Frankfort. The paid Illinois weeklies are mainly in southern and northwestern parts of the state and include those in Chester, Geneseo, Murphysboro, Newton, Olney and Shawneetown.

Larry Grimes of W.B. Grimes & Co., a media-business consultant, told Dean Calbreath of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Copley's flagship paper, that the purchase fits GateHouse's growth strategy. “They've been on somewhat of a buying streak since they went public a few months ago,” Grimes said. “They're trying to upgrade their portfolio of holdings by moving more to midsized dailies and larger weeklies instead of smaller community newspapers.” (Read more)

GateHouse, based in Fairport, N.Y., paid a total of $410 million last year for Community Newspapers Co., through which Boston Herald Publisher Patrick Purcell owned four smaller dailies and 93 weeklies in the Boston region; two other Boston-area groups, including one that owned the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Mass.; and the Massachusetts papers of Journal Register Co. It quickly cut staff and other costs and consolidated operations, and reported that its fourth-quarter profits doubled over the previous year.

Boston Globe business columnist Steven Syre wrote in October that GateHouse's public offering came at "an odd time," given the state of the newspaper business, but noted that the company has a "hyper-local" strategy for news and advertising. The Globe reported that GateHouse was bought in 2005 by a "New York hedge fund and venture-capital firm," Fortress Investment Group LLC, which also invests in real estate, cell-phone towers, assisted living and aircraft leasing. (Read more, registration required)

Wal-Mart, in face of criticism, drops idea to create limited-service bank

Wal-Mart Stores is dropping its plan to open limited-service banks, "after critics said the world's No. 1 retailer might use the banks as a stepping stone to a broader financial services operation," reports Parija B. Kavilanz of CNNMoney.com. Opposition came from "the banking industry, community banks and labor unions. Mostly banks feared that Wal-Mart would . . . eventually springboard into the commercial bank business, offering deposit, checking and loan services."

Wal-Mart, which has most of its stores in rural areas, already cashes checks, transfers money and offers credit cards. It applied in 2005 to establish a limited-service bank to "help eliminate third-party transaction costs that it currently incurs from processing of credit, debit card and electronic check transactions in its stores," CNN reports. The bank would not have offered checking or savings accounts. Some other retailers, such as Target, have such banks, but Wal-Mart was a bigger target, so to speak, for critics.

Federal regulators welcomed the decision. "Wal-Mart made a wise choice. This decision will remove the controversy surrounding their intentions," Sheila C. Bair, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., told CNN in an e-mail. Jane Thompson, president of Wal-Mart Financial Services, said the application "has been surrounded by manufactured controversy since it was submitted nearly two years ago. At no stage did we intend to . . . establish branch-banking operations as critics have suggested. We simply sought to reduce credit and debit card transaction costs." (Read more)

Kentucky, North Carolina looking at future of tobacco-settlement money

The top two tobacco-producing states, Kentucky and North Carolina, each set aside for agriculture half of the money they got in the national settlement with cigarette manufacturers. They have invested it in very different ways, but now both states are considering changes.

At the first Kentucky Governor's Summit on Agriculture yesterday, called to start drafting a strategic plan for agriculture in the state, there was much talk about the settlement money, most of which has gone directly or indirectly to help the state's cattle industry, the largest east of the Mississippi River. Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican seeking re-election, said the plan should build on past successes but "not shy away from new opportunities and the unknown. . . . The prospects for growth and diversification are endless."

Scott Smith, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture and a member of the board that has made nearly 3,000 grants totaling $233 million from settlement funds, said the state needs to invest "wisely and more wisely" in ag-related projects. "We need to broaden our scope and broaden our vision" to include research and development, workforce and education, infrastructure and leadership, he said.

In North Carolina, where the settlement money is invested and only the earnings are spent, Gov. Mike Easley wants the foundation that handles the money "to be more aggressive in helping rural areas win jobs," report Jonathan Cox and Tim Simmons of The News & Observer. Easley, a Democrat in his first term, "said the Golden LEAF Foundation needs to use more of its money to build infrastructure and buildings in distressed communities so they're more attractive to industry."

Foundation president Valeria Lee told the Raleigh newspaper that Easley's staff had already told her much the same. "She said that the foundation has been aggressive in its efforts to help struggling communities and has done a good job.' What's more, it's planning a new initiative to go into communities and identify needs," Cox and Simmons write. It has made about 560 grants, totaling about $205 million. (Read more)

For a detailed comparison of the two states' settlement spending, from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky, and its partner at the Project on Public Life in the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, click here. For a report on the Kentucky summit from business writer Greg Hall of The Courier-Journal, click here.

UMW says bad mine roof, not lightning, caused Sago blast that killed 12

Blaming federal inspectors and the mine owner, "the United Mine Workers union said yesterday that hazardous roof conditions -- not lightning -- were the likely cause of the fatal methane explosion at West Virginia's Sago Mine last year," writes James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal's Washington bureau.

The state of West Virginia and International Coal Group, owner of the mine, "had said last year that a massive lightning strike ignited the blast," Carroll reports for the Louisville newspaper. "An independent investigation, done for Gov. Joe Manchin, said there was widespread belief that lightning was involved. But it said it was unable to determine a definitive cause for the explosion."

UMW President Cecil Roberts blamed chronically bad safety practices at Sago and poor enforcement by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. "Had the government done its job, and Sago done its job, all these miners would be alive," he said at a Capitol Hill news conference. ICG "criticized the UMW report as an 'attempt to further the union's political and organizing agenda'," Carroll writes.

"The UMW said in its 122-page report that shifting or falling rock, which struck other rock or metal or forced wire mesh on the roof to rub against itself, probably created an electrical arc in a sealed-off section of the mine, igniting methane gas." MSHA's final report is expected in April. (Read more) To read the UMW report, via The Charleston Gazette's Web site, click here. For the Gazette story by Ken Ward, click here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Top Republicans join move to let states out of No Child Left Behind tests

More than 50 Republicans in Congress, including some party leaders, joined Democrats today in sponsoring legislation to let states opt out of student testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act. The sponsors include House Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri; his chief deputy, Eric Cantor of Virginia; and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, "Bush's most reliable defender in the Senate," The Washington Post reports.

Blunt and Cantor supported the bill when it passed in 2001; Cornyn was not yet in the Senate. Blunt spokesman Burson Snyder told Jonathan Weisman and Amit Paley of the Post that his boss switched on the issue after meetings with teachers and administrators in his southwest Missouri district.

"Many voters in affluent suburban and exurban districts -- GOP strongholds -- think their schools have been adversely affected by the law," the Post reports. "Once-innovative public schools have increasingly become captive to federal testing mandates, jettisoning education programs not covered by those tests, siphoning funds from programs for the talented and gifted, and discouraging creativity, critics say."

The House bill would let a state opt out via referendum, or by agreement of any two "of three elected entities -- the governor, the legislature and the state's highest elected education official," Weisman and Paley write. "The Senate bill is slightly less permissive, but it would allow a state to negotiate a 'charter' with the federal government to get away from the law's mandates. In both cases, the states that opt out would still be eligible for federal funding, but those states could exempt any education program but special education from No Child Left Behind strictures." (Read more)

Is No Child Left Behind working? A story in the latest Education Week casts doubt on Bush's claims, saying data he cites are only from the long-term trend in reading and math scores in the National Assessment of Education Progress, "researchers say. All available data, they add, show modest improvements that can’t be attributed to the 5-year-old law," write David Hoff and Kathleen Kennedy Manzo. (Read more)

Roanoke paper's bid to spotlight records with gun list could backfire

The Roanoke Times "continued to feel the wrath of readers" for posting on its Web site the names and addresses of 135,000 Virginians who have permits to carry concealed deadly weapons, the paper reports.

"By midday Tuesday, there had been more than 2,000 visits to an online discussion forum, at least 36 canceled subscriptions and countless angry calls -- some that showed up in company voice mail well before dawn," Laurance Hammack writes. And threatening comments to the columnist who posted the data "led the newspaper to place a security guard, at least temporarily, outside his Christiansburg house. Concerns were heightened early Tuesday afternoon when a mysterious package was delivered to the house. . . . It turned out the box was full of blank postage labels and cardboard mailers."

The list was published Sunday and taken down Monday "because of concerns that state police might have inappropriately included the names of crime victims on a list it provided to the newspaper," Hammack reports. Unfortunately, the columnist's "intent to trumpet open records could result in their being slammed shut," he writes. "Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg, said Tuesday that he is seeking an attorney general's opinion on whether state police were within their legal rights in providing the information to the newspaper. Even if the attorney general finds that police acted correctly, requesting the opinion could be the first step in a move at next year's General Assembly to pass a law exempting concealed-weapon permit information" from the state Freedom of Information Act. "It's something that we're going to have to take a look at," Nutter told the newspaper. (Read more)

W.Va. board approves second coal silo next to elementary school

A state board ruled this week that Massey Energy can build a second coal-storage silo at a West Virginia site that has become a focal point of protests against mountaintop-removal coal mining. If appeals fail, the silo would be within 300 feet of Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County, which is also overlooked by a huge coal-slurry impoundment, sometimes a feature of mountaintop removal.

"In a split decision, the state Surface Mine Board overturned a Department of Environmental Protection order that blocked the silo," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "The ruling is the latest move in a nearly two-year fight between DEP and Richmond, Va.-based Massey." The agency revoked a permit for the second silo "After the Gazette revealed that the silo was proposed to be built outside the permit area shown on the site maps submitted by company engineers."

The board upheld the revocation, but Massey submitted a new permit application that was based on a boundary marker at the site, not maps that the board had called inconsistent. DEP "agreed with Massey that the boundary marker was the proper permit outline," but "still turned down the company’s application," on grounds that " the new silo violated state and federal laws that prohibit new mining operations within 300 feet of a school," and that new operations include even slight modifications, Ward writes. On a 4-3 vote, the board overturned that interpretation, citing a 1988 state Supreme Court decision. (Read more)

UPDATE, March 17: The Gazette reports, "Police arrested 13 protesters Friday afternoon who occupied Gov. Joe Manchin’s reception area to protest" the decision and Massey’s plan. (Read more)

Rural Pennsylvania town welcomes Wal-Mart; large ones fight it

"Wal-Mart has faced fierce opposition lately" when trying to open news stores in central Pennsylvania, but a new store in a more rural setting is being welcomed, reports Jim Lewis of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg.

The store is on U.S. 209 in Washington Township about a mile east of Elizabethville, in northern Dauphin County (Harrisburg is the seat as well as the state capital). "The nearest Wal-Marts are in Selinsgrove and the suburbs of Harrisburg," Lewis writes.

In Lebanon County, just to the east, "residents have hired attorneys and gone to court to stop Wal-Mart from building stores," Lewis notes. "The retailer has dropped plans for the Lower Paxton Twp. store. But Wal-Mart is still trying to build a store in North Cornwall Twp. In York County, residents have opposed a plan to build a retail center near Dillsburg that would include a Wal-Mart, Lowe's and Applebee's. Opposition has targeted Wal-Mart." (Read more)

Focus on local could spur farm renaissance, N.H. commissioner says

New Hampshire is not a typical agricultural state, and state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor is not your typical agricultural politician. He writes, “Does the term 'local' trump the term 'organic' when we’re talking consumer behavior, agricultural policy and the future of the New England countryside? Marketing studies and focus-group research conducted recently show that the concept of local resonates considerably more than does that of organic, and that Americans have become much more interested in seeking out locally produced foods, no matter whether they conventionally or organically grown.”

In his in his Weekly Market Bulletin, Taylor notes last week's Time magazine cover story, which he says “rambled on at length in an on-the-one-hand-but-on-the- other vein before finally concluding that food from nearby farms whether they are conventional or organic rates a slight nod over 'industrial organic' fare shipped in from thousands of miles away.” He says a better analysis came in a speech from John Carroll, a University of New Hampshire environmental conservation professor, to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire's annual meeting this month.

“Carroll is a fierce partisan of local agriculture, and he argues that 'local' is the antithesis of the entire system of industrialized agriculture, totally decentralized and always in the control of local people,” Taylor writes .
“He speaks of a renaissance in New England agriculture, anchored by a revitalization of dairying built on effective utilization of the region’s natural ability to produce forages for grazing and winter feed.”

“What would New Hampshire look like if it could shift that (three to four percent) food self-sufficiency level up to even 30 to 40 percent (by 2020)?” Carroll asked. “New Hampshire would be a very different place indeed, and a far, far better place to live, a healthier place to be, for sure.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Ezzells of The Canadian (Tex.) Record win Gish Award for rural journalism

The Ezzell family of The Canadian Record, a weekly newspaper in Canadian, Texas, are this year’s winners of the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. Pictured at left are the editor, Laurie Brown Ezzell, and her mother, Nancy Ezzell. Pictured below are Tom and Pat Gish, owners of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues established the award to honor the couple who this winter celebrated their 50th anniversary of publishing the Eagle. The Gishes were the first recipients of the award. Their son, Eagle Editor Ben Gish, was among the judges who unanimously voted to give the award to the Ezzell family.

“The Ezzells clearly demonstrate the tenacity, courage and integrity I've been privileged to witness in growing up around and working with my parents,” Gish said. Other judges agreed.

Author and former Los Angeles Times Washington correspondent Rudy Abramson, chairman of the Institute’s advisory board and a longtime friend of the Gishes, said “One cannot but notice a number of similarities between the Ezzell family and the Gish family, not the least of which is the continuity their newspaper represents in their community.”

Retired publisher Al Smith, an Institute founder and its steering-committee chair, said: “The story of this gutsy Texas family is as comparable to the Gishes of Kentucky as anyone could imagine.” The Canadian Record has held local, state and national politicians accountable, fought political extremism, opposed unwise military adventures and helped protect the environment, often against organized and violent opposition. All are “great examples of courage, tenacity and integrity,” Smith said. To read more about the Ezzells, click here.

Laurie Ezzell Brown will receive the award on behalf of her family at a dinner Friday, April 20, at the Crowne Plaza Lexington - The Campbell House, 1375 Harrodsburg Road. Other finalists for the award, and Tom and Pat Gish, will be recognized at the dinner. The guest speaker will be John Seigenthaler Sr., founder of the First Amendment Center.

The Gish Award Dinner is part of the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, which the Institute is holding at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill between Lexington and Harrodsburg. Attendance at the summit is limited, but there will be plenty of additional seating at the dinner. Tickets are $75. Proceeds will support the work of the Institute, which has academic partners at 16 universities in 12 states. For more information on the dinner, the Gish Award or the Summit, contact Institute Director Al Cross at 859-257-3744.

Few U.S. agencies put online all records required, have other FOIA failings

A study by a private research institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., finds that 10 years after Congress required federal agencies to put more information on their Web sites, the sites of 149 agencies surveyed "distinguish themselves more for cyber-foot-dragging than for streamlined access," reports Elizabeth Williamson for The Washington Post.

The National Security Archive found that only 20 percent of the agencies post all records required, and only 6 percent "tell people how to request what does not appear there," Williamson writes. "Two-thirds do not provide indexes to their major records systems, or they provide guides that are so unclear they are worthless." Only one in four agencies includes a Freedom of Information Act request form on its Web site.

"Amid all this opacity, a few agencies stand out," Williamson reports. "One of the most compliant, NASA, was instrumental in the development of the Internet. But so was the Department of Defense," a major violator of the posting requirements, known as E-FOIA, passed in 1996. (Read more)

Roanoke paper publishes, then takes down, list of gun-permit holders

One of our favorite newspapers, The Roanoke Times, wanted to stand up for freedom of information during Sunshine Week, another of our favorite things. But it decided yesterday to take off Web site a list of Virginians who are licensed to carry concealed deadly weapons, "after igniting a firestorm of criticism," the newspaper told readers this morning.

Publisher Debbie Meade said.the list, published in conjunction with a Sunday opinion piece about open records, "was taken down Monday afternoon out of concern that it might include names that should not have been made public," the paper's Laurence Hammack reports. "Although she had received no official word from Virginia State Police, which provided the data at the paper's request, Meade said she was concerned enough about complaints from readers to act out of an abundance of caution."

The list included names and street addresses of about 135,000 Virginians. It was linked to a column by editorial writer Christian Trejbal that ran in the paper's New River Valley Current section. "Hundreds of readers complained on the newspaper's message board and to a gun-rights group that publishing the names of concealed-weapons permit holders violated the privacy of law-abiding citizens and gave potential criminals information that would help them find victims," the paper reports.

Some argued that felons could check the list to see who might challenge them with a gun, and that domestic-abuse victims might not want their former partner to know where they live. "Similar concerns were shared by the director of interactive learning for The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida." Poynter's Howard Finberg told Hammack, "You could take that information and you could do a lot with it," . "I would say it raises some serious concerns about the unintended consequences of such actions." (Read more)

Ethanol becomes more popular, making it less of a presidential issue

"As ethanol becomes more accepted, it appears to be losing its potency as a presidential campaign issue," reports Shailagh Murray of The Washington Post. Murray cites Sen. Hillary Clinton's "ethanol conversion" as an example of "the closest thing in politics to a religious experience." Clinton now supports "bigger ethanol incentives than she previously voted against," before she started running for president and there was "an ethanol boomlet" in New York. "Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an ethanol foe so fierce that he skipped the Iowa caucuses in 2000, says he is willing to give it another look." Iowa is a hotbed of ethanol and the first state to vote in the nominating process.

Even as ethanol became more popular, it became less a voting issue in Iowa. "Starting in the 2004 presidential cycle, public and internal campaign polls have showed that Democratic caucus-goers in particular rate agricultural issues lower than other concerns, including the economy, the Iraq war, health care and education," Murray reports. But "92 percent of Iowa voters rated ethanol as important to the state's economic future" in a January poll, Murray notes. (Read more)

Ky. passes bill to increase inspections, medics at underground coal mines

The Kentucky legislature passed a bill yesterday "designed to stave off incidents like the May explosion that killed five Harlan County miners," writes R.G. Dunlop of The Courier-Journal. The final version of Senate Bill 207 "earned the grudging acceptance of the mining industry and approval of mine-safety advocates."

"The proposal requires that state inspectors complete six inspections of each underground mine per year, including two focused solely on electrical issues," and "mandates constant use of ventilation fans and adequate transportation to evacuate miners during emergencies," writes John Stamper of the Lexington Herald-Leader. It brought "praise from a cadre of widows who have pushed hard for the bill's passage" and were featured in a report on CBS News' "60 Minutes" Sunday night. One was Stella Morris, at left above, with Claudia Cole and Jade Sturgill. (Photo by Mark Cornelison, Herald-Leader)

"Had the bill been law when Bud Morris was injured during a Harlan County mine accident in December 2005, Stella Morris believes her husband would still be alive, Stamper wrote, quoting her: "My husband had his legs amputated and he essentially bled to death because the medic that was on site, who was the coal operator, panicked." An official report of the accident supports her opinion. (Read more)

"Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the industry considers the initiative unnecessary," Dunlop writes for the Louisville newspaper. "But he acknowledged that some of what industry officials considered the bill's more objectionable provisions had been tamped down," such as those on methane detectors and walls built to seal off sections of mines. "Improperly constructed seals have been identified as a cause of a fatal explosion in Harlan County last May that killed five miners." (Read more)

Rural radio projects adapt good old community journalism to new age

Bill Reader of Ohio University, who is working on a rural radio project funded by the "New Voices" grant project of J-Lab at the University of Maryland, writes about some earlier projects on the blog of the Community Journalism Interest Group of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. "Many of the projects were great examples of how good old-fashioned community journalism was being adapted to a very high-tech age," writes Reader, an academic partner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Here are his rural examples:

" Keith Graham at the University of Montana has partnered with Courtney Lowery of Missoula-based NewWest.net to develop 'Montana's Rural News Network,' which is to be a series of community-based Web sites that eventually would feed a statewide news service. The first site, based in Dutton, Mont. (Lowery's hometown, about three hours from Missoula), was created to fill the void left when the farming community's newspaper stopped publishing. The project pairs j-school students . . . with residents of Dutton to generate and edit content, giving the former some real connections with their 'adopted' community and the latter some exposure to formal journalism. The Web site is expected to launch later this year. . . .

"Maryanne Reed, dean of the j-school at West Virginia University, is working on the 'Monroe County Radio Project,' which is training people in rural Monroe County, W.Va., to produce news content for their small radio station, WHFI-FM, operated by the Monroe County school district. Along with WVU journalism students and partners from West Virginia Public Radio, Reed is training teenagers and adults in Monroe County to produce radio news segments, with the eventual goal to provide daily 15-minute newscasts, monthly public-affairs reports, and a Web site for the radio station that provides news and community information. (Judging from the clip Maryanne played, at least one of the high schoolers working on the project is a natural for broadcasting -- great voice, smooth delivery, superb timing.) . . .

"Mia Frederick, project manager of the Community Correspondent Corps at Appalshop based in Whitesburg, Ky. (www.appalshop.org/ccc), is training local residents to produce their own radio reports to be broadcast to the community via WMMT-FM, the radio station operated by Appalshop. The project provides volunteers with access to high-end recording equipment, and training to use the equipment.

"Many of the recurring themes were right out of the community journalism playbook: encouraging students to get familiar with communities, rather than just cover breaking news in them; recruiting, retaining, and replacing contributors from the community (those of us who ran op-ed pages at community newspapers know all about that, eh?); getting students to appreciate the value of hyperlocal news; generating awareness among students that the standards of 'journalism' may not always serve the interests and standards of their communities; and creating a sense of ownership in the product among people in the community. It's encouraging to see how community journalism has been rediscovered in the 'new media' age and is being applied in new and interesting ways."

Monday, March 12, 2007

House vote, Senate hearing on FOIA improvement bills Wednesday

The House and Senate have scheduled legislative action Wednesday on bills that the Sunshine in Government Initiative says collectively represent "the biggest advancement in open government laws in years." And they come during Sunshine Week, the annual effort to build support for open government.

"The reforms that Congress is considering are common sense ideas that are long overdue. They include giving requesters a tracking number to follow the status of their requests online or by phone, creating an ombudsman to help requesters, pressing agencies to resolve Freedom of Information Act disputes without litigation, making agencies pay the legal costs when they improperly delay or deny requests and strengthening agency reporting on their FOIA processing," SGI reports via a Sunshine Week release.

Last week, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, introduced a series of amendments to FOIA, which were voted out of subcommittee the next day. The the full chamber is expected voted on the legislation by Wednesday, March 14.

The House is scheduled to vote on other open-government bills. Sunshine Week reports, "One proposal promotes disclosure of donations to presidential libraries. A third reverses an executive order signed during the first term of President George W. Bush that allows former presidents and their heirs a say in the handling of the papers of former administrations."

In the Senate, Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) are expected to unveil their new version of FOIA reform legislation that they first pushed in the last Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the legislation Wednesday. Slated to testify are Tom Curley of The Associated Press; Meredith Fuchs of The National Security Archive; Sabina Haskell of the Brattleboro Reformer in Vermont; and Katherine Cary from the Texas attorney general's office.

In December 2005, President Bush signed an executive order improving implementation of FOIA, but most agencies have made little progress "in reducing backlogs and delays in responding to FOIA requests," Sunshine Week reports. "Action by Congress reflects the recognition that FOIA has become less reliable and effective in helping the public open the doors of government. Timing these actions with Sunshine Week reflects the surging growing public awareness of – and demand for – open government. (Read more)

UPDATE, March 15: The House passed the bill.

Old high schools may be unknown stores of dangerous chemicals

Several high schools have stumbled upon old stores of dangerous chemicals that they weren’t even aware they had and may not be able to afford to properly dispose of. Although only reported at a few schools, the problem is no doubt a national issue, reports Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute. And it's more likely to be an issue in rural areas, which have seen many of their high schools closed.

The Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho, reports that a crate filled with chemicals was found in an old school that hadn’t had a chemistry class in 50 year. “The [Idaho] Department of Environmental Quality estimates 200 to 300 Idaho schools are storing outdated, decades-old chemicals. Though in most cases the chemicals aren't a serious health risk, officials say they need to be removed before they become a problem,” Tompkins says. In 2005 the Boston Globe reported that 30-year-old specimens preserved in large amounts of formaldehyde were discovered in one high school and pre-Depression era chemicals found in another.

Dangerous substances are sometimes stored improperly in the days before people were aware of the proper procedures, reports the Globe. The chemicals may be stored in bulk in closets and are not discovered until a major cleanup takes place. Many teachers have not had proper lab safety training and don’t know how to deal with the chemicals or when to get rid of them. Tompkins reports several explosions and a list of lawsuits related to injuries in high school laboratories. “When I was in high school, my lab partner, Tommy Wiggington, and I used to play with a bottle of mercury our teacher left sitting out,” writes Tompkins, a native of Princeton, Ky. “That probably explains a lot about my mental capacity.” (Read more)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunshine Week begins; audit funds many emergency plans under wraps

A nationwide information audit conducted for Sunshine Week, which began today, found more than a third of local agencies refused to provide access to their local Comprehensive Emergency Response Plan, which is required by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. How about your local agency?

More than 40 percent were "willing – if wary – to provide copies" of the plans, and "another 20 percent provided only partial reports," according to the Sunshine Week Web site. Some officials "reacted to requests with confusion, outright denials and sometimes by calling police to check out the auditors. Many weren’t sure who had the authority to release the reports, or even where the documents were located." (Read more)

The audits were conducted in early January, when reporters, students, members of civic groups and other volunteers "visited their Local Emergency Planning Committee, which prepares the reports outlining emergency response in the event of a chemical or hazardous material accident," reports Sunshine Week, an effort to maintain and build public support for openness in government.

The audit is a project of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Environmental Journalists. It and Sunshine Week and supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. To download the complete audit and charts, click here. Sunshine Week runs through Sunday, March 17.

Widows of Harlan County blame coal operators for husbands' deaths

The deaths of nine coal miners in 10 months in 2005 and 2006 Harlan County, Kentucky, were “a fluke,” an attorney for coal companies told CBS News correspondent Bob Simon in a report aired on "60 Minutes" last night.

But the “Widows of Harlan County,” for whom the report was named, blamed coal operators' failure to obey mine-safety laws. “I feel like these men are a dime a dozen in the coal operators' eyes,” said Melissa Lee, who lost her husband in one of the accidents.

That has always been the feeling of mine-fatality survivors, Kent Hendrickson, an attorney for mine owners, told Simon. “If I had a family member who died in the mines, I'd feel the same way,” Hendrickson said. But when Simon asked him why so many died in the last two years, he replied, “It’s a fluke.”

However, the widows' attitude was generally supported by Richard Stickler, a former coal executive and head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. He said most fatalities are caused by lack of compliance by operators. Simon noted, “Relatively few mines are prosecuted when they don’t pay their fines,” and the attorney for some widows, former mine-safety official Tony Oppegard, pointed out, “There is no mechanism under federal law to shut a mine down.”

The report gave millions of Americans a view inside a dangerous and controversial industry that is often not regulated as well as the law envisions and provides the fuel used to generate most of the country's electricity. One especially interesting feature was Simon's trip inside a mine to show what happens underground. It was well done, except it failed to note that few Appalachian mines these days have coal seams seven feet thick, allowing miners, inspectors and other visitors to walk around. These days, most mines require crawling.

The mine was in Pike County, two counties away. “Although '60 Minutes' made more than a hundred telephone calls,” Simon reported, “no one would let us into a mine in Harlan County.” (Read more)

UPDATE, March 12: Posters on the popular blog Daily Kos point out an omission in the CBS report: No mention of unions. They also note statistics showing that unionized mines are safer than non-union mines. While the United Mine Workers no longer represents any working miners in Eastern Kentucky, the union has members elsewhere in the Appalachian coalfields and remains active in Kentucky politics and lobbying.

Some of the Harlan widows have been lobbying for stronger mine-safety regulations at the state level, and a bill to do that hangs in the balance at the state Capitol Monday morning. (see Friday item below) UPDATE, March 12: John Stamper of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that the bill was amended and approved by a Senate committee and should clear the floor today. (Read more)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Sunshine Week starts tomorrow; weekly, daily papers should get involved

Keeping government open and accountable is the highest calling of a journalist. Sunshine Week, March 11-17, offers a chance to refresh that mission and remind the public of its value, says National Newspaper Association President Jerry Tidwell, publisher of the Hood County News in Granbury, Tex.

Tidwell called on NNA members, most of whom publish weekly papers, to get involved this year, and suggested several ways to do it. Speeches to civic and school groups, editorials, training sessions on open records laws, and features on the ways citizens use the law are all within a newspaper's expertise, regardless of size. "The Sunshine Week commentary doesn't have to be all negative," Tidwell said. "Our local communities and officials are full of good intentions in most cases, and a great many public servants do their utmost to bring their operations into the daylight where citizens can participate and appreciate the machinery of government. A story about these efforts to prompt citizens to take advantage of these opportunities is an often overlooked tool that newspapers can use."

The week will start with Sunshine Sunday, on which participating daily and weekly papers, magazines, online sites and broadcasters will feature editorials, op-eds, editorial cartoons and news and feature stories that drive public discussion about why open government is important to everyone, not just to journalists. NNA will provide information through its Web site at www.nna.org as materials become available. NNA Public Policy Director Tonda Rush can be reached at tonda@nna.org. For more information, go to www.sunshineweek.org. Sunshine Week is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Dozens of coal-fired power plants being built, scores more on the way

More than a dozen coal-fired generating plants are under construction, mainly in the Midwest, "and about 40 others are likely to start up within five years -- the biggest wave of coal plant construction since the 1970s," reports Steven Mufson of The Washington Post.

"The coal rush in America's heartland is on a collision course with Congress. While lawmakers are drawing up ways to cap and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, the Energy Department says as many as 150 new coal-fired plants could be built by 2030, adding volumes to the nation's emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of half a dozen greenhouse gases scientists blame for global warming. . . . Utility executives say that the coal expansion is needed to meet rising electricity demand as the U.S. population and economy grow. Coal-fired plants provide half the electricity supply in the country."

Environmentalists worry that large coal plants, "built to last 40 to 50 years, will saddle the country with high greenhouse-gas emissions for decades. Peabody Energy, for instance, has proposed two giant 1,500 megawatt plants, one for western Kentucky and one for southern Illinois. . . . Environmentalists prefer integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants that they say will make it easier later to capture carbon dioxide and store it underground. Only a handful of those are being planned. But the IGCC plants can add as much as $200 million to construction costs; only two are operating today." (Read more)

TXU Corp. said yesterday it would use IGCC at two new Texas plants. The decision by the company, which shelved eight of 11 proposed plants in a buyout deal, "may signal a shift in the thinking of utilities that depend on coal to generate energy to try to develop a challenging technology that is accompanied by high construction costs," write Clifford Krauss and Matthew Wald of The New York Times. (Read more)

New Mexico banning cockfighting; will be legal only in Louisiana

A bill to make cockfighting illegal in New Mexico received final passage yesterday, and Gov. Bill Richardson, a presidential candidate who was undecided about the issue last year, "urged lawmakers to pass it," reports Walt Rubel, Santa Fe bureau chief of of the Las Cruces Sun-News.

Senate Bill 10 "would add cockfighting to current state law prohibiting dogfights," Rubel reports. "The penalty will be a petty misdemeanor for a first offense, full misdemeanor for a second offense and fourth-degree felony for a third offense. It would apply only to those actively engaged in cockfighting and not to spectators at the events." (Read more)

"Animal protection advocates had tried for almost two decades to ban the sport, but their efforts were frustrated by rural legislators who argued that cockfighting was part of New Mexico’s culture," Steve Barnes writes for The New York Times. "Louisiana will be the only state in which cockfighting remains legal."

Tobacco migrating off mountains in N.C.; a local story in several states

The end of the federal tobacco program is concentrating production among large-scale growers and reducing the amount grown in hilly areas where large tracts are more difficult to assemble. That trend is illustrated by figures on production of burley tobacco in North Carolina and its Watauga County, reported by Scott Nicholson of The Watauga Democrat in Boone, N.C. This is a story that can be done by any news outlet in a tobacco-growing county, with data from the local office of the federal Farm Service Agency.

“Local tobacco production continued to decline even though last year the state had a historic high production of burley tobacco, the kind most often grown in the High Country,” Nicholson reports. “Statewide burley tobacco production totaled 6.46 million pounds last year, a 31 percent increase. Yield per acre averaged 50 pounds more than the 2005 crop, suggesting large-scale farmers were achieving more efficiency.”

“Those boys down East ... picked up the slack,” FSA man Bud Smith told Nicholson. “Burley just migrated off the mountain.” Eastern North Carolina production has been almost entirely flue-cured, but the end of federal quotas has allowed growers in the region to adopt burley, which is in higher demand by cigarette companies. Those growers were already large-scale, making it relatively easy for them “to find barns and other covered, dry buildings” for burley, which is air-cured, Nicholson explains, quoting Smith. “They’re not growing two or four or six acres like we did up here. They have 50 or 80 or 100 acres.” (Read more)

Friday, March 9, 2007

'60 Minutes' to examine coal-mine safety as Ky. bill hangs in balance

A widow of one of six miners who died in a mine accident in Harlan County, Kentucky, last year will speak on CBS's "60 Minutes" this Sunday. Melissa Lee has spoken out against unsafe industry practices since the death of her husband, Jimmy. She and the other widows are lobbying for a Kentucky-mine safety bill. "Now, the rest of the nation is about to become familiar with Lee," reports the Harlan Daily Enterprise.

CBS spokesman Kevin Tedesco told the paper that a crew came to Harlan County in August for a memorial service and in November "to finish production," reporter Deanna Lee-Sherman writes. "During the November visit, the crew took an underground tour of the James River Coal's Mine No. 15 in Pike County, of which a four-minute clip is posted on CBS' Web site." (Read more)

UPDATE, March 10: The story will air about 14 hours before the state Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to hold a final hearing on the safety bill, which passed the House unanimously after it lost a proposed ban on using conveyor-belt tunnels for mine ventilation. The bill is likely to lose other sections as part of a compromise, Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor told R.G. Dunlop of The Courier-Journal: "We're probably going to split the baby."

"The industry opposes numerous provisions in the bill, including increasing the number of required annual inspections from three to four; requiring methane detectors for each miner working underground; and requiring adequate transportation underground to transport injured miners to the surface -- a provision Caylor contends duplicates existing law," Dunlop writes.

Caylor said, "HB 207 is being driven by raw emotion, a union which wants to hurt the small coal operator and by mine-safety attorneys who want to 'lawyer up' the system. Human error is the cause of the majority of accidents and fatalities." Dunlop adds, "But Tony Oppegard, a mine-safety attorney and former federal and state mine-safety official, said the industry's opposition is rooted in concerns about increased costs. Oppegard said that coal operators serious about complying with the law have nothing to fear from additional inspections," a main feature of the bill. (Read more)

Kentucky on verge of letting billboard firms cut trees on rights of way

Billboard companies are on the verge of a long-sought legislative victory in Kentucky, a law allowing them to cut trees on state rights-of-way if the trees obscure billboards. Three House Democratic leaders overrode Speaker Jody Richards yesterday and sent Senate Bill 155 to the floor, where it could get a vote as early as this morning, opponents of the bill say. UPDATE, March 28: The legislative session ended without the bill being called for a vote on the House floor. The next regular session beguns in January..

The bill would also "extend the life of 'nonconforming' billboards - those that do not meet federal guidelines and are to be phased out as their normal lifespan passes.  The bill redefines 'destroyed' and 'routine maintenance' to allow extensive reconstruction of the billboards, defeating the goals of the federal Highway Beautification Act," says Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council, which opposes the bill.

"Remarkably, it was only this week that the Federal Highway Administration was made aware of the bill," FitzGerald says. "Since Kentucky is a 'bonus agreement' state that made certain commitments in return for federal highway dollars, there is a possibility that SB 155 could require the state to repay that some $2.5 million in bonus agreement monies.  The Federal Highway Administration is reviewing the agreement and their policies and is expected to have an answer within the next few days."

The Courier-Journal says in an italicized editorial, "What's really outrageous about Reps. Adkins, Clark and Wilkey caving in to pressure from the billboard industry is that they didn't even find out from U.S. highway officials whether this bill would cost Kentucky millions of federal dollars." (Read more)

Driven by expensive corn, meat industry urges end to ethanol subsidies

At a hearing yesterday livestock producers called for the federal government to end ethanol subsidies that they say are indirectly driving up the cost of grain and their production expenses. They said there needs to be a balance between the ethanol and livestock sectors. The hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry lasted three hours but there seemed to be no consensus what should be done about the cost of livestock feed, reports Peter Shinn of the Brownfield Network.

The livestock industry is the largest consumer of corn and has used 58 percent of the corn raised over the past decade, said a release from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Corn prices have risen 92 percent in the last year, in large measure due to ethanol production -- now at 5.6 billion gallons, with another 6.2 billion gallons of capacity are under construction. Ernie Morales, a cattle feeder and rancher from southwest Texas, said corn producers will meet the additional demand for corn, but “Until the appropriate acreage and yield adjustments can be made during this transition, USDA’s current projection of a 50 percent year-to-year increase in ethanol-based corn demand from 2.15 to 3.2 billion bushels will be felt squarely in the wallets of every feeder and cow-calf producer in this country.”

Joy Phillipi, former president of the National Pork Producers Council, said ethanol's main byproduct, dried distiller's grains, can’t replace corn for pork producers like the feed can for cows, reports Shinn. “But even DDGs aren’t a perfect answer to corn availability issues for beef and dairy producers. Iowa dairy farmer Rob Wonderlich told the subcommittee he can only include dried distillers' grains at a rate of about 7 to 8 percent without hurting the fat content of his milk. And he also pointed out DDGs are now nearly as expensive as corn itself.” (Read more)

American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle urged Congress to expand research into ethanol byproducts to make distillers' grains more viable as a feed alternative, said an AMI release. He said the Conservation Reserve Program should allow environmentally friendly farming on currently protected land. He also called for other alternative energies such as diesel and methane conversion to get equal treatment with ethanol and to let the ethanol tariff expire to allow more international competition.

Closings of federal Farm Service Agency offices raise farmers' concern

The federal Farm Service Agency wants, and probably needs, to close some of its 2,346 county offices, where farmers get information about farm programs and provide information to the FSA, an agency of the Department of Agriculture.

"As farms get bigger and the number of farms declines, it certainly makes sense that a system that was originally designed to serve almost three times the number of farms we have today should change, particularly at the county office level. And, increasingly, change means the closure of county FSA offices," Farm Week said in an editorial in December, complimenting the agency's decision to leave the decision about which offices to close up to state administrators. (Read more)

But the closing of a county office is still a story for local newspapers, as the weekly LaRue County Herald-News of Hodgenville, Ky., showed this week, covering a hearing that drew about 80 people to complain to FSA officials about the plan to close the county office. "The FSA office assists farmers with commodity programs, crop loans and conservation methods. Nearly 700 LaRue County farmers utilize the grain program alone," editor Linda Ireland explained. (Read more)

Jeff Hall, FSA administrator for Kentucky, said the agency plans to close about a third of the offices in the 120-county state, largely because of the end of the federal tobacco program. Much tobacco is still grown in Kentucky, but by many fewer farmers -- about 7,500, University of Kentucky tobacco economist Will Snell estimates. That's about 10 percent of the number who grew the crop 20 years ago.

Inflatable underground safety shelter for coal miners demonstrated

An inflatable safety room developed after the January 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia was demonstrated for coal officials Tuesday at an industrial park in Esserville, Va., reports Jeff Lester of the Coalfield Progress. The Progress’s stories are good examples of coal reporting by weekly newspapers.

The technology would give miners a shelter providing clean air and food in the case that they may become trapped. “LifeShelter” was presented by A.L. Lee Corp., a West Virginia and Illinois mine equipment manufacturer. The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act was passed by Congress in June 2006. One Mine Safety & Health Administration rule that stems from the act requires “a pre-arranged, pre-surveyed area for barricading or other location that would isolate the miners from contaminated environments, located within 2,000 feet of the working section,” Lester notes.

Leonard Urtso, president of the Lee firm said the refuge facility is designed to sustain dozens of miners for up to four days. Lester writes, “The inflatable room is stored in a reinforced-steel box that is either 32 or 40 inches high and weighs about five tons… The shelter itself is made from five layers of tear- and puncture-resistant material with inflatable high-strength ‘air beams’ for support… The steel box contains a four-day supply of oxygen, food (military-style meals ready to eat) and water, a repair kit, a chemical toilet and a first aid kit. Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide scrubbers and air quality monitors are used to keep the internal air clean, Urtso said.” (Read more)

This technology might prove too expensive for smaller mining operations, reports Lester. Virginia Division of Mines Chief Frank Linkous said small mines could encounter problems trying to meet new safety demands. The MINER Act requires establishing a foolproof two-way wireless communication system in mines, although none exist. The law will also require each mine to have two rescue teams, but funding to help pay for those teams is to be eliminated, Lester reports. (Read more)

UPDATE, March 15: International Coal Group, owner of the West Virginia mine where 12 miners died in January 2006, is ordering shelters, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. (Read more)

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Editor held at gunpoint, released, by brother who admitted killing wife

Kelly Foreman of the Richmond Register in Kentucky had an unusual and probably difficult story to write for today's edition. Her 760-word piece began, "Richmond Register Editor Jim Todd was held hostage at gunpoint for an hour and a half Wednesday in his office by his brother, who admitted he had shot his wife to death Tuesday night in Lexington." Most of the information in the story appeared to come from Todd, though it was attributed only in paragraphs where he was quoted directly.

John William Todd Jr. . . . was waiting in Jim Todd’s office when he arrived at work Wednesday morning saying that he was having marital problems. John Todd then told his brother that he had shot his wife to death about 10:30 Tuesday night following a lengthy, heated domestic dispute. . . . Todd then told the editor that he had come there to kill him and brandished a .38 caliber revolver, holding it about two feet away from the editor’s chest for about an hour and a half. The older brother indicated that he had harbored ill feelings toward his brother and his dad ever since their father’s death in 1989, concerning the father’s will.

After John Todd called his daughter-in-law and told her about the murder, Jim Todd said, “He then had me walk him outside to his van, hugged and kissed me on the cheek and told me he wanted me to live so that I could see my grandson grow up. He said, ‘Please don’t call the police.’ As he drove off, he stuck his arm out the window and waved to me.” When the editor re-entered the building, he found that police had been notified. The editor does not know who alerted dispatch, Foreman wrote.

John Todd turned himself in later in the day. For the rest of the Register story, which led the 7,000-circulation daily and was headlined Editor held at gunpoint in office, click here.

Local news, less competition keeping smaller papers healthy, Post finds

While metropolitan newspapers struggle with declining circulation and profitability, smaller papers are doing better overall, and some are thriving. “Community weeklies and dailies with circulation of less than 50,000 have been a bright spot in a darkened industry,” writes Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post.

“Why? Small papers face less competition from other media outlets, are insulated from ad slumps that have hammered big papers, employ smaller staffs of lower-salaried journalists and have a zealous devotion to local news, both in print and online, industry experts agree,” writes Ahrens.

Small newspapers reach a larger share of their markets than larger papers and have closer relationships with advertisers, reports Ahrens. They have better local coverage, which many surveys indicate is one of the things readers want most. Smaller staffs can be an obstacle, but that factor also makes it easier for smaller papers to innovate and adapt to changing trends. The Internet has become competition for larger papers, “siphoning classified advertising and commoditizing national news,” but small papers provide local news that isn’t likely to be widespread online, Ahrens notes.

In the six months ending Sept. 30, circulation of U.S. newspapers was down 2.8 percent from a year earlier, but papers under 50,000 were down only 2.1 percent, reports Ahrens. “If that seems like cold comfort at best, consider this: Of the 413 papers in the small-newspaper group, 105 of them -- 25 percent -- gained circulation over the year, faring better than any other circulation group.” (Read more)

No offense to Ahrens, who deserves credit for bringing this phenomenon to a wider audience, but our friend Jock Lauterer of the Community Media Project at the University of North Carolina and his colleague, journalism professor Frank Fee, identified it almost a year ago. Click here to read Jock's report.

Pulitzer hunt: Post on farm subsidies, B'ham News on community colleges

A series of stories on corruption in Alabama's community colleges has made The Birmingham News one of three finalists for what is often considered most prestigious award in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize for public service, reports Editor & Publisher.

Another reported finalist has a rural connection -- The Washington Post's series on farm subsidies, excerpted in The Rural Blog late last year. The other finalist is The Wall Street Journal, for its reports on backdating of stock options and other investments, E & P reports.

The Birmingham series began with reports by Brett Blackledge on the resignation of the head of the Alabama Fire College in Tuscaloosa. The paper quickly revealed that the chief "helped set up tens of thousands of dollars in contracts and scholarships for his children and those of administrators who run the state's two-year college system," and that led to other reports on the system and its colleges, and to the firing of its chancellor. Here are a few excerpts from Blackledge's stories:

May 21: The chancellor "and his immediate family received more than $560,000 for jobs and contracts they held last year with the state's two-year colleges." ... June 14: "Half of the eight elected state school board members who are reviewing jobs held by relatives of the chancellor . . . also have relatives paid by the system." ... July 14, with Kim Chandler: "At least 14 college presidents, deans or other administrators have relatives employed within the two-year college system." ... July 23: "Contractors who received work from two-year colleges helped former Postsecondary Chancellor Roy Johnson build a $1 million home."

Sunshine Week poll: Feds seen as more secretive; privacy concerns rising

Americans think the federal government has become too secretive, but are more comfortable with the freedom-of-information policies of state and local governments, according to a poll commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors for national Sunshine Week, March 11-17.

"People also overwhelmingly believe that their federal leaders have become sneaky, listening to telephone conversations or opening private mail without getting court permission," says the Sunshine Week story.

They survey of 1,008 adults was conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University. It found that 25 percent think the federal government is "very open" or "somewhat open," while 69 percent said it is "somewhat secretive" or "very secretive." "That's a shift from a similar poll last year, when 33 percent thought the federal government was open and 62 percent thought it was secretive," the story says. "A clear majority said they believe their local and state governments are open to public scrutiny."

Other findings: "By a 2-1 margin, people want FBI agents and other investigators to obtain search warrants before monitoring private communications, even if they suspect terrorism. And more than a quarter of the people in the survey said they suspect their own phone calls and letters have been intercepted." To read more about the study findings, click here. For poll graphics, click here.

Former Sens. Dole, Daschle preparing bipartisan report on farm policy

The growing debate over the new Farm Bill has attracted the attention of former U.S. Senate leaders Bob Dole of Kansas and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, reports David Broder of The Washington Post: "Dole said that he and Daschle have almost completed a draft report on agricultural policy that will be offered to Congress as the lawmakers take up the reauthorization of the Farm Bill."

Broder's column is about a broader subject, an effort by four former Senate leaders -- Daschle, Dole, George Mitchell and Howard Baker -- to encourage more bipartisanship in Washington, but he gives some policy hints after his discussion with the senators from the two major agricultural states:

"Both men seemed excited by the ideas they had collected at forums around the country and by prospects for converting America's abundance of food and grain supplies into new sources of energy, aiding the rural economy in the process. Listening to them, it was possible to forget, for the moment, that they all were party leaders as well as Senate leaders. 'Common ground,' to use Daschle's term, carried more weight than the Republican labels on Baker and Dole or the Democratic brands on Daschle and Mitchell."

The four have started "the Bipartisan Policy Center, a foundation-sponsored organization with a staff of 20 and a budget of $7 million a year," to show "evidence-based, collaborative approaches can gain the public and political momentum needed to forge political consensus," Broder reports. (Read more)

Union protests deaths of farm workers in abusive working conditions

A farm workers' union and its supporters in Raleigh, N.C., protested yesterday the deaths of immigrants from abusive practices of their employers. The activists said workers have died needlessly from causes such as heat stroke and pesticide expose. They said that because illegal migrant workers have so few rights that they are sometimes afraid to even ask for water and some of the deaths may go unreported, reports Kristin Collins of the Raleigh News & Observer.

“The groups said state records show that six farm workers have died from heat-related illnesses in the past two years, and that in some cases, those workers were discouraged from drinking water or taking breaks,” writes Collins. Union president Baldemar Velásquez said they plan to find out which farms and companies are responsible for the deaths. “Religious leaders vowed to help in the coming months, by visiting farms and gathering information about abuses of farm workers.” With the aid of the religious community the union took on the Mount Olive Pickle Co. with a five-year boycott, prompting the company to sign a union agreement allowing legal migrant workers to be represented.

“Jake Parker, the legislative director for the North Carolina Farm Bureau, said no farmer wants to see his workers killed or injured,” writes Collins. “He said the bureau works to raise awareness about the dangers of heat stroke. ‘The majority of farmers in the state try to treat their workers with dignity and follow the law,’ Parker said.” (Read more)

Energy Department jump-starts six cellulosic ethanol plants with funds

Six biorefinery projects will split Department of Energy grants of up to $385 million as part of an effort to jump-start commercially viable ethanol made from cellulose, reports Agri-Pulse. The Rural Blog previously noted funding for Broin Companies of Sioux Falls, S.D., which will expand a plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, to make ethanol from corn fiber, cobs and stalks. Here are the other grantees and their feedstocks:

Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas, LLC of Chesterfield, Mo.- proposed plant in Kansas. Feedstock: corn stover, wheat straw, milo stubble, and switchgrass.
ALICO, Inc. of LaBelle, Fla.- proposed plant in LaBelle, Fla. Feedstock: yard, wood, and vegetative wastes and eventually energycane.
BlueFire Ethanol, Inc. of Irvine, Cal.- proposed plant in Southern California. Feedstock: sorted green waste and wood waste from landfills.
Iogen Biorefinery Partners, LLC of Arlington, Va.- proposed plant in Shelley, Ida. Feedstock: wheat straw, barley straw, corn stover, switchgrass, and rice straw.
Range Fuels (formerly Kergy Inc.) of Broomfield, Colo.- proposed plant in Soperton, Ga. Feedstock: wood residues and wood based energy crops.

UPDATE, March 30: Broin has changed its name to Poet, reports the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

FCC orders rural phone companies to connect calls using Internet

The Federal Communications Commission has ruled that rural telephone companies must connect calls for customers who use voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP). The order was a victory for cable-TV operators who depend on VoIP for revenue, reportsBroadcast Engineering magazine.

"The decision breaks down of one of the last barriers preventing VoIP to fully compete with traditional phone carriers," letting them offer national phone service, BE reports." The commission ordered rural service providers in Nebraska and South Carolina to connect telephone calls made by customers of Time Warner's VoIP service. State regulators had argued that because the FCC had not classified VoIP providers as telecom services, the local telephone companies did not have to honor their phone calls."

The National Telephone Cooperative Association, a lobby for rural phone companies, called the order "piecemeal regulation that gives VoIP providers a distinct competitive advantage by providing them with local-number portablity without requiring them to pay for the costs they impose on telecom networks," creating "an inequitable playing field that favors Time Warner and the cable industry." (Read more)

Some states cutting farm irrigation to reduce depletion of aquifers

Irrigation is the number one consumer of fresh water in the United States, and the vast quantities of water used by farms is raising contention with governments and environmental groups. Irrigation, particularly in the West, has been said to contribute to dried up streams and lowered reservoirs and may damage the land in the long term, reports Maria Sudekum Fisher of The Associated Press.

“Several states have taken steps to curtail irrigation,” writes Fisher. “Colorado shut down about 400 wells last summer. Farm states such as Kansas and Nebraska have also been developing new plans to stem overpumping. Kansas is paying farmers to stop irrigating and retire the water rights to wells that draw on underground sources like the massive Ogallala Aquifer, which has been showing signs of depletion in some sections for years.”

However, irrigation could not be halted completely without dealing a huge blow to the economy. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that while about 16 percent of all cropland is irrigated, largely in the western states, that acreage generates about $60 billion, or about half the value of U.S. crops,” writes Fisher. (Read more)

W. Va. approving casino-style table games at racetracks; domino effect?

West Virginia's four racetracks, which already have slot machines, would be able to have casino-style table games under a bill that the state Senate passed yesterday. The House is expected to OK Senate changes to House Bill 2718 and send it to Gov. Joe Manchin, reports Phil Kabler of The Charleston Gazette.

The Senate's 20-13 vote followed a debate on "whether table games would be an economic development tool to help the racetracks grow as destination resorts, or another step in the state’s growing dependence on gambling," Kabler reports. The tracks are near Charleston, at Charles Town in the Eastern Panhandle, and at Wheeling and rural Chester at the tip of the Northern Panhandle, wedged between Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Chester and the rest of Hancock County have been "hard-hit by the decline of the state’s steel industry," Kabler writes, quoting local Sen. Ed Bowman: “Like it or not, the only jobs we have available in Hancock County are at the racetrack.” Bowman works for Mountaineer Racetrack and Gaming Center.

The bill would make table games subject to countywide referendums. It was spurred by Pennsylvania's approval of slot machines and the possible approval of a similar measure in Maryland. There may be a domino effect in Ohio, where voters turned down casinos last year, or in Kentucky, where all the major Democratic candidates for governor this year favor putting the question to voters. (Read more)

UPDATE, Thursday, March 8: The bill is expected to get final passage today. (Read more)

Ky. House revives bill to improve coal-mine safety; Senate in doubt

After a bitter dispute between lawmakers from the state's two coalfields, the Kentucky House has unanimously approved a bill to strengthen safety in coal mines, but the bill's Senate prospects are unclear because only six days remain in the legislative session, which in odd-numbered years lasts only 30 days.

House Bill 207 would "require the continuous operation of mine ventilation fans, methane gas detectors for underground miners and an on-duty electrician at surface and underground mines," reports Sarah Vos of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "It would increase the number of early mine inspections by the state from three to six and require two medics be on duty at underground mines. Underground mines would have to have an adequate way to transport miners out during an emergency, and mine supervisors would have to certify in writing that seals used to close off unused areas of mines are constructed properly."

To get the bill passed, its sponsor, Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, dropped a proposed ban on using conveyor-belt shafts to provide mine ventilation. Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, "said the provision would have closed one coal mine and hurt five others," Vos reports. Webb, a miner-turned-lawyer, is from Eastern Kentucky. Yonts, a lawyer from Western Kentucky, accused Webb of hijacking his bill in committee last month, and refused to bring the watered-down version to the floor. They compromised. (Read more)

UPDATE, Thursday, March 8: The Senate president says he expects some version of the bill to pass.

Kentucky bill would let billboard companies cut trees on state property

For a dozen years, billboard companies have been trying to get the Kentucky General Assembly to pass a law allowing them to cut trees on state rights-of-way if the trees obscure billboards. A House committeee approved the latest version, Senate Bill 155, again yesterday. "Similar bills have reached this point in the 15 years since state officials banned such cutting on highway rights of way," reports Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "In each case, House leaders killed the bill. . . . House Speaker Jody Richards later said through a spokeswoman that he has opposed the bill in the past and still does."

Mead reports, "Keith Eiken, executive director of Scenic Kentucky, noted that states that have banned billboards have a thriving tourist industry. But several committee members made it clear they value billboards more than trees that might get in the way. State Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, said he likes seeing billboards as he drives down interstate highways. 'I kind of enjoy knowing that Cracker Barrel is at exit 74 and I will be able to eat a hearty breakfast soon,' he said." (Read more)

Tennessee law to connect rural counties to interstate faces short budget

In Tennessee, a law saying all counties should have four-lane roads to an interstate highway has been in place since 1995 but has been making slow progress. The Legislature is considering imposing a deadline, but the plan has drawn criticism from those who say that the money could be better spent in more populated areas. Easier access would boost the economy of rural areas, but would also take money from city and suburb projects. Finishing the roads would cost $4 billion, reports Kate Howard of The Tennessean.

“A bill proposed this session would require the Tennessee Department of Transportation to improve all the highways by 2015,” writes Howard. “No deadline currently exists. Highway officials said the deadline would mean canceling everything else the department has planned in the next eight years.” The state’s transportation department is already looking at a budget shortfall of $2 billion over the next ten years.

There is little question that a lack of access hurts the economy of a rural area. “According to the most recent monthly numbers from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the average unemployment rate in the 35 counties without expanded roads is 5.69 percent, about 1 percentage point higher than the statewide average,” writes Howard. However, the state is trying to balance the needs of its various constituents and its population is becoming increasingly suburban. (Read more)

Anti-tax Miss. politicians block bill to raise cigarette tax, cut grocery tax

Dr. J. Edward Hill, the immediate past president of the American Medical Association and a physician in Tupelo, Miss., is frustrated with Gov. Haley Barbour, who opposes what seems like a logical trade in a poor state: Raise the 18-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes to $1 and halve the 7 percent sales tax on groceries.

“We have the worst health indices in almost every category of any state in the country,” Hill told The New York Times. “Reducing the percentage of citizens who smoke and increasing funding from cigarettes would have tremendous advantages. . . . It’s political so-called principle — ‘I’m never going to raise taxes on anything’ — which is actually also relatively stupid.”

It's not just Barbour, the The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson writes in an editorial, blaming “Sen. Tommy Robertson, R-Moss Point, chairman of the Finance Committee . . . is protecting Barbour and some senators who don't want to offend Big Tobacco in an election year.” Barbour is highly popular and considered a lock for re-election. (Read more) For a profile of Robertson by The Clarion-Ledger's Natalie Chandler, who says the senator's “blunt style and controversial decisions make him a polarizing figure,” click here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Newspapers exempt from Ky. ban on sale of high-school tourney photos

After objections from the Kentucky Press Association and member newspapers, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association has dropped its demand that in return for media credentials to its state tournaments, papers agree in writing not sell photographs published on their Web sites but not on newsprint.

With high-school basketball tournaments in full swing in most states, the issue has flared up in several. The Louisiana High School Athletic Association rescinded its policy last week after unfavorable stories in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans and the Monroe News-Star, a smaller paper noted for good sports coverage. LHSAA Commissioner Tommy Henry said the group will give photographers a flier reminding them that it has an exclusive contract with a photography firm to sell pictures on the Internet, and"hoped news organizations would honor that agreement," wrote Pierce Huff of The Times-Picayune. (Read more)

In Kentucky, the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville refused to sign the agreement but still got credentials, reports David Thompson, executive director of the press association. Now the KHSAA says its ban on sale of photos does not apply to KPA members. "Freelance photographers and photographers for web sites apparently will be required to sign the agreement," Thompson said in a message to members today.

From a Rural Blog posting of a week ago: High-school athletic associations, which represent mainly public schools but in most if not all cases are not public agencies themselves, are increasingly adopting the policy as newspapers find a new market for sports photos on the Internet. The policy has been adopted in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, according to the Bulletin of the Iowa Newspaper Association. Milwaukee-based Visual Image Photography is a contractor for the Iowa High School Athletic Association and the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. VIP President Tom Hayes told Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "If anybody is at a game and can post pictures and sell them, that would hurt our sales and therefore hurt our revenue source." (Read more)

INA Executive Director Bill Monroe wrote in the Bulletin, "IHSAA entered into its contract with VIP two years ago not fully understanding how it would affect the very media which help make IHSAA events successful." Monroe acknowledged that the IHSAA is not a government agency and had obligations under the contract, but should "take whatever steps necessary to maintain the positive working relationship they have enjoyed up to now with the newspapers of Iowa." The Iowa groups plan to meet on the issue.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Experts warn antibiotic for cattle could create resistant microbes

The Food and Drug Administration is on track to approve a new antibiotic to treat a respiratory disease in cattle, in spite of critics’ fears that it could create drug-resistant microbes that could spread to humans. The drug is permitted under Guidance #152, “a checklist of points to consider when weighing the potential human impact of a new animal drug” because it is not defined to pose a direct threat to human health, reports Rick Weiss of the Washington Post.

InterVet developed cefquinome to treat bovine respiratory disease, the most common disease in cattle, although there are several effective drugs to treat that disease already on the market, reports Weiss. “Only one medicine from that family has been approved in the United States -- a powerful human drug called cefepime (brand name Maxipime), which is the only effective treatment for serious infections in cancer patients and a reliable lifesaver against several other nearly invincible infections.” Concern rose that use of that drug in animals would spread a resistance to those important antibiotics, reports Weiss. At an FDA advisory meeting in September, members voted 6 to 4 against the drug, yet Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA's Veterinary Medicine Center said the vote wasn’t binding and only the language of Guidance #152 should be considered.

“The agency adopted language that, for drugs like cefquinome, is more deferential to pharmaceutical companies than is recommended by the World Health Organization,” writes Weiss. “Cefquinome's seemingly inexorable march to market shows how a few words in an obscure regulatory document can sway the government's approach to protecting public health.” Experts say the playing field is tilted toward the drug industry. The WHO recommends rejecting drugs that would lead to resistance to antibiotics that are important for fighting “serious human disease,” not just illnesses caused directly from food. (Read more)

Strip-mine agency restores ‘Reclamation and Enforcement’ to Web name

Under pressure from Rep. Nick Joe Rahall of West Virginia, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has restored the last three words of its name to the home page of its Web site, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

The issue may seem small, but Rahall, who became chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee when Democrats gained the House majority, told Ward it has a larger meaning: “For far too long, Congress failed in its constitutional duty to conduct oversight over the executive branch. This is just one example and just the beginning of what I intend to accomplish through the power of the gavel.”

At a hearing last week, which Rahall didn't attend, Vice Chairman Jim Costa, D-Calif., told agency officials, “Chairman Rahall strongly believes that Reclamation and Enforcement is a critical part of your mission. And he observes that Reclamation and Enforcement is something your bureau has not always done very well.”

By week's end, the full name was on the agency Web site. An agency spokesman told the Gazette that the full name appears in its letterhead, budget book and other documents, but the pronunciation of the full acronym, "Oz-Marie," was never generally accepted. That's understandable; it requires adding a vowel and has the same number of syllables as OSM, the monicker by which the agency is almost universally known.

Ward tracks the name shortening to the tenure of Kentuckian Harry Snyder, who ran the agency for the first President Bush. "And at some point . . . the agency wrote a regulation that specified either OSM or OSMRE could be used to abbreviate the full agency name." (Read more)

Railroad seeks big expansion to tap into Wyoming coal country

Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad wants to create the biggest U.S. rail expansion in decades in order to create easy access to Wyoming's Powder River Basin. The company proved unsuccessful in getting a $2.3 billion loan from the Federal Railroad Administration but is seeking out private investors. If it manages to expand, it would benefit the utilities of that region, creating another coal carrier for power plants, reports The Associated Press.

“It's been almost 10 years since DM&E, a regional carrier with an east-west line across Minnesota and South Dakota, said it wanted to add 260 miles of new track to extend its line into Wyoming coal country,” reports AP. DM&E had hoped to be hauling 100 tons of coal a year by now but have encountered difficulties in environmental and regulatory approvals.

“Much of the attention on DM&E has been focused on environmental issues and whether its tracks through Rochester are dangerously close to the Mayo Clinic,” reports AP. “But its financial impact would be major, too. Utilities are major buyers of coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin, but two-thirds of coal's cost is transportation. And that is controlled by the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific duopoly on coal hauling there.” (Read more)

Western coal may prove useful than Eastern coal for gasification

Although coal is often considered a trademark of the Appalachian region, Western coal may be more useful in gasification -- an alternative, possibly cleaner, way to produce power from the material, reports Dustin Bleizeffer of the Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune.

Eastern coal, which tends to burn hotter, has been more popular in coal-fired power plants. But “Powder River Basin coal is more reactive in the gasification process than Eastern bituminous coal, and that makes up for the Western coal's lower heating value,” writes Bleizeffer. “The proof is that right now Tampa Electric is building a fluidized-bed coal gasifier in Florida, and the operators already know they're going to haul coal all the way from Wyoming's Powder River Basin to fuel the plant.” (Read more)

Methane from landfill may fire up arts and crafts industry in Boone, N.C.

In Watauga County, North Carolina, a coalition wants to build an arts and crafts center over the county’s landfill, including greenhouses, classrooms, and "a glass-blowing operation, pottery kiln, and metallurgy using heat" generated from methane gas now being vented from the local landfill and burned, reports Frank Ruggiero of the Mountain Times in the tourist town of Boone.

The Watauga County Arts Council and the art department at Appalachian State University "have also pledged to use the gas to heat county-owned buildings on the property, including the solid waste weigh station, maintenance building and animal control office," Ruggerio reports.

The decomposing garbage can produce 123 cubic feet of gas per minute, reports Ruggiero. The landfill is estimated to keep producing methane for another 20 years, and coalition members assume there will be other sources of renewable energy by then. The center would also utilize and showcase other sources of alternative energy, including solar and wind power, and might even include a biodiesel facility. (Read more)

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Just in case you think you have it tough: A rural journalist in Darfur

Stephanie McCrummen of The Washington Post writes from El Fasher, Sudan: "For the past 10 years, Awatif Ahmed Isshag (in photo by McCrummen) has handwritten monthly dispatches and commentary about life in El Fasher and hung them on a short, wiry tree that scatters shade along the yellow-sand lane by her house. For the past four years, the dispatches have included items about the conflict in Darfur that appear to represent the only independent local reporting about the fighting in a region where most media hew to the official government line."

Isshag, 24, "has satirized the local governor and described the suffering of displaced families and gun battles in the markets of El Fasher," McCrummen writes. "Recently, she found financial supporters abroad who had heard about her work and sent a computer and printer. In the next week or so, she plans to launch a printed newspaper that she will distribute around town for free. For now, her articles sometimes appear in a newspaper about Darfur published by the African Union, which has troops deployed in the region to enforce a failing peace agreement."

The tree newspaper, Al Raheel, which translates loosely as "moving," was started by Isshag's sister, who died in 1998, when Isshag was 15. She took over, using experience she had doing interviews for a student radio program. "From the beginning, I liked journalism," she told McCrummen. "I wanted to discover those who are intelligent and have talent, and I wanted to talk to them." (Read more)

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Cherokees vote to exclude from tribe those with black ancestry

“Cherokee Nation members voted Saturday to revoke the tribal citizenship of an estimated 2,800 descendants of the people the Cherokee once owned as slaves,” The Associated Press reports.

With a majority of voting places reporting, 76 percent of ballots favored amending the tribe's constitution to limit membership to those who can trace their heritage to a 1906 tribal census that had a separate roll for Freedmen, the “descendants of black slaves owned by Cherokees, free blacks who were married to Cherokees, and the children of mixed-race families,” reports The New York Times.

“Those with any African blood were put on the Freedmen roll, even if they were half Cherokee,” Evelyn Nieves wrote in Saturday's Times. “Those with mixed-white and Cherokee ancestry, even if they were seven-eighths white and one-eighth Cherokee, were put on the Cherokee by blood roll. More than 75 percent of those enrolled in the Cherokee Nation have less than one-quarter Cherokee blood.”

The referendum raised “ugly accusations of racism, from both inside and outside the tribe, Nieves wrote. “The Freedmen became full citizens of the Cherokee Nation after emancipation, as part of the Treaty of 1866 with the United States. But in 1983, by tribal decree, the Freedmen were denied the right to vote in tribal elections on the ground they were not 'Cherokee by blood',” as defined by the tribe. The Descendants of Freedmen group, headed by Marilyn Vann (in photo by Paul Hellstern for the Times), sued and won, but lost at the polls today.

Advocates of the amendment said it was not about race, but the right of a sovereign nation to define itself and prevent “non-Indians” from lining up for the tribe's “federal benefits and tribal services, including medical and housing aid and scholarships,” Nieves reports. But she also quotes amendment foe Taylor Keen, an at-large tribal council member who represents Cherokees around the country: “This is a sad chapter in Cherokee history.” (Read more)

Ellen Knickmeyer of The Washington Post writes, “People on both sides of the issue say the fight is also about tribal politics -- the freedmen at times have been at odds with the tribal leadership -- and about money.” (Read more) A story by Donna Hales in Saturday's Muskogee Phoenix highlighted the possibility that the tribe could lose federal funding, just as the Seminole tribe did "after a move to oust Seminole freedmen." (Read more) A detailed story by Teddye Snell in Friday's Tahlequah Daily Press, published in the headquarters town of the Cherokee Nation, said the election was open to tribal members in the nation's 14-county Eastern Oklahoma bailiwick and those elsewhere who requested ballots by Feb. 7. (Read more)

Some Kansas counties gain full-time jobs but still lose population

"A curious thing is happening in some rural Kansas counties," writes Fred Mann of The Wichita Eagle. "While they are losing population, they are seeing an increase in the number of residents with full-time jobs, according to a Wichita State University study. "But it's not a trend that is likely to continue, said Janet Harrah," director of WSU's Center for Economic Development and Business Research, who did the study.

Harrah found that 57 counties, most of them rural, "lost population between 1990 and 2000, but 29 of those saw an increase in the size of their labor force, and 16 of the 29 experienced an increase in the number of people who work full-time. Those 16 counties lost population as young people ages 20 to 29 left, Harrah said, but the labor force grew as people 30 to 49 moved in. The net result for the 16 counties was a 2.7 percent decline in total population and a 3.7 percent increase in labor force," Mann writes, noting that the study did not examine what kind of jobs those people were taking. One possible factor is that more workers are commuting across county lines.

"Whether working-age people will continue to move to rural counties is a question of critical economic importance, according to Harrah. The movement of workers to rural areas may reflect a lifestyle choice -- people wanting to live on more land than they can afford in urban areas, Harrah said." (Read more)

Friday, March 2, 2007

NPR's Berkes: Giving voice to rural America, bridging rural-urban gap

Our friend Howard Berkes invented his beat as rural correspondent for National Public Radio, reports Jonathan Nicholas of The Oregonian, in a column about a visit by Berkes and journalist Bill Bishop to "a seasonal gathering of policy wonks and people affected by their wonking" at Wallowa Lake in northwest Oregon: "This year's topic: the 'divides' that dominate so much of current civic discourse."

Such divides, including one between urban and rural, worry Berkes. "It's important, in order for democracy to work, for people to become as familiar as possible with people who are not like them," he said. (Photo by Michael Schoenfeld)

Bishop's forthcoming book The Big Sort will show how America is becoming politically segregated, a topic reported previously in The Rural Blog. "Today, half of all Americans are living in polarized communities," he said. "Patterns of belief now have a geography." Bishop is a founding member of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues advisory board.

Berkes said the phenomenon hurts rural areas most because they are governed by public policies established mainly by urban Americans, "so many of whom hold dual and conflicting images of rural America. They think of it as a place to recreate, to find solace and solitude. For them, rural America is a sort of repository of romanticism. Yet at the very same time, we demonize rural America as a place that is full of inferior, uncultured, uneducated people not worthy of our attention."

Nicholas asks for the Portland paper, "But really, with more and more of us living in cities, why should we care about the few remaining holdouts who cling to life beyond walking distance of Starbucks?"

Berkes answers, "Rural America is important because rural areas contain some of the highest negative measures of quality of life. Rural Americans are more likely to be poor, more likely to be less educated, more likely to be hungry. . . . I'm not an advocate for rural America. I just believe that, in a democracy, everyone should have a voice." (Read more)

The Oregonian has cut its rural circulation: Since we're quoting from The Oregonian, we take this opportunity to note that is is also among the regional papers that have cut back on their rural circulation lately. The paper said on Nov. 30 that it would no longer deliver in "some rural areas of far eastern Oregon and parts of the southern coast. The area in which delivery is being limited represents less than 3 percent" of the paper's circulation, and "In some of those outlying areas, The Oregonian will still be available for sale in retail stores, news racks and also by mail delivery."

After noting the growing audience for its online service, OregonLive.com, the paper concluded, "Even with this change, the distribution area of The Oregonian is still far larger than most daily metro papers. For much of 155 years, The Oregonian has been delivered every day as far east as Boise, Idaho, south to Crescent City, Calif., and north to Olympia, Wash., an area encompassing almost 100,000 square miles."

Head Start important in educating, socializing disadvantaged rural kids

In rural areas, Head Start pre-school programs are key to disadvantaged children prepare for school and adopt healthy lifestyles. The nationwide program has served some 22 million children in 50 states, but rural children may be some of those in the greatest need, reports Candi Helseth of the Rural Monitor, published by the Rural Assistance Center of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs.

Children in rural America have a higher poverty rate than other age groups and they are still getting poorer, reports Helseth. According to a report by the Carsey Institute, in 2005 22.5 percent of non-metropolitan children were poor, up 3 percent from 2000. West Virginia Head Start Executive Director Becky Gooch-Erbacher said that “all 23 Head Start programs in this Appalachian region include rural areas experiencing declining populations, limited resources and high rates of poverty.”

“Poverty, domestic violence and substance abuse go hand in hand,” Gooch-Erbacher told Helseth. “Many of these families are very isolated, and Head Start gets the whole family involved in positive social experiences.” Head Start has education centers but also does home-based visits, which are especially important in rural areas where children may live far from town and their parents may not have adequate transportation. The program also requires children to have dental, vision and medical exams and tries to promote healthy eating to combat childhood obesity. (Read more)

Coal-powered cars could save oil but might be bad polluters

Developing technology that could use liquefied coal to fuel cars has been getting political support lately, because it would reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and lower energy prices. But it would not be friendly to the environment, reports Mark Clayton of The Christian Science Monitor.

“Coal-to-liquids (CTL) fuels could end up emitting nearly double the carbon dioxide that the equivalent amount of gasoline does, mostly because of the way it's manufactured,” writes Clayton. “The CTL industry says new technology will fix the problem. But because such technology is not yet developed, it's unclear whether CTL fuels would be competitive without state and federal subsidies, even competing against high-priced diesel, jet fuel, or gasoline, analysts say.” Supporters say that this fuel would have less nitrous oxides and other chemicals found in diesel fuels and if 85 percent of the carbon dioxide put out by refineries were captured, the emissions would be about the same.

The National Mining Association has proposed a bill to support the technology and it has gained a range of Washington backers, from Sen. Barack Obama to President Bush, reports Clayton. Some analysts say the President’s call for “alternative” rather than “renewable” fuels leaves the door open for products like CTL. There are at least nine coal-to-liquid plants in the planning stages in states such as Illinois, Wyoming and Pennsylvania and various states are offering incentives to lure these productions. (Read more)

CEO wants to use radar-surveillance facility to revitalize his hometown

A tiny West Virginia town may have a radar-surveillance research facility taking over its abandoned elementary school soon. The program, called "Dark Eyes", was developed by Perry Casto, president and CEO of ARES, a business specializing in missile defense. Casto said he wants to bring the program to his hometown of Sylvester, population 195, reports the Coal Valley News of Madison, W. Va..

Casto, who has retained close ties to his hometown, said he wanted it to have a viable economic source that wasn’t dependant on the coal industry, reports Valerie Carpenter. Besides being the place he grew up, he chose it for two other reasons, Carpenter writes:“First, ARES needs an economical location to provide a competent, steady work force to both produce the system and to conduct research and development of product improvements. Secondly, Casto believes that the program will provide employment opportunities in a highly technical field and bring jobs back to West Virginia.”

“Dark eyes” is a technology that can be provide security where there are few people, and is ideal for industrial sites, ammunition-storage facilities and high-risk areas, Casto said. If set up in Sylvester it would mean 25 jobs and over $1.5 million in revenue for the town, reports Carpenter. (Read more)

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Coal mines are still dangerous and reform is slow, union chief tells senators

Many dangers that took the lives of 50 coal miners last year still exist today, a United Mine Workers official told a Senate subcommittee yesterday. “Congress passed a sweeping mine-safety law last year that, among other things, required extra air supplies for trapped miners, development of improved communications underground and better response by rescue teams,” writes James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal.

“The hearing, called by Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was the first in a series of mine safety reviews planned by the new Democratic-controlled Congress,” writes Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette. Davitt McAteer, a former top mine safety regulator and adviser to Gov. Joe Manchin, Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, and other witnesses said the progress in implementing mine safety reform has been slow.

Fireproof conveyor belts to reduce to risk of an accident like the fire at Massey Energy's Aracoma Mine in West Virgina last year are not required. There have been no proposals to reduce the risk of toxic gases seeping into work areas and no funding has gone into improving training, reports Carroll. Byrd said the proposed fiscal 2008 budget would not include enough money to research improved breathing equipment and safety chambers where miners could await rescue. (Read more)

“Richard Stickler, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration for the past four months, said his agency has been following congressional directives in evaluating technology and other safety measures before issuing formal rules,” writes Carroll. The coal industry has spent or will spend almost $160 million on safety improvements in this year and the last, said Bruce Watzman, a lobbyist for the National Mining Association, reports Ward. (Read more)

Colorado farms may use prisoners in place of illegal immigrants

Colorado is considering a program to use prison inmates as cheap farm labor in place of illegal immigrants. Ever since the immigration crackdown, farms have had difficulty finding workers to harvest their crops. “The Department of Corrections hopes to launch a pilot program this month — thought to be the first of its kind — that would contract with more than a dozen farms to provide inmates who will pick melons, onions and peppers,” writes Nicholas Riccardi of the Los Angeles Times.

“Prisoners who are a low security risk may choose to work in the fields, earning 60 cents a day,” writes Riccardi. “They also are eligible for small bonuses. The inmates will be watched by prison guards, who will be paid by the farms. The cost is subject to negotiation, but farmers say they expect to pay more for the inmate labor and its associated costs than for their traditional workers.” Some of the state’s 22,000 prisoners have agriculture experience and prisoners can already participate in programs on prison grounds to grow crops or break wild horses.

Farmers aren’t happy with the solution, but it might be better than going under. One farmer, Joe Pisciotta told the Times “he hoped the program highlighted what he viewed as the absurdity of Colorado's position — dependent on immigrant labor but trying to chase migrants away. He said the people leaving were not just those who entered the country illegally.” (Read more)

$365 million in grants given for cellulosic ethanol; first commercial plant?

Six companies have received a total of $365 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop commercially viable distilleries that make ethanol from cellulose rather than corn. The process of extracting ethanol from fibrous plant matter is still difficult and expensive, but if perfected it would open vast opportunities for fuel sources, reports Ben Shouse of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Broin Companies of Sioux Falls will get $80 million for what it says will be the nation's first commercially viable plant to make cellulosic ethanol. “Broin's share will go toward a $200 million expansion of its existing corn-ethanol facility in Emmetsburg, Iowa,” writes Shouse. “It could start accepting stalks, leaves and cobs in addition to grain by 2009. And it could spawn similar plants as early as 2011, said Chief Executive Officer Jeff Broin.” The facility will still use corn but will utilize “stover and portions of the kernel that are currently wasted as feedstocks for the cellulosic process,” writes Peter Shinn of Brownfield Network. (Read more)

Unlike corn, cellulose resists breakdown and has to be freed from a complex of other molecules. Hydrolysis, the process of breaking down cellulose into sugars with enzymes, has not yet been perfected and researchers are still working on the microorganisms used to ferment the sugar. The technology to harvest the materials is also under development. If the technology expands it could create revenue for farmers growing corn, who could then sell the waste parts of their corn in addition to the kernels, switchgrass or nearly any crop, Shouse reports. (Read more)

Rural areas struggling to recruit and keep doctors use incentive tactics

To attract doctors to underserved areas, rural communities have hired recruiters, applied for federal grants and offered to pay back school loans from medical school. There is a high turnover rate for doctors in rural areas where there is less money to be made and they may be unprepared for a small town lifestyle, reports Chana Joffe-Walt of Marketplace, a radio service of American Public Media.

“Rural areas across the U.S. struggle to find family doctors,” reports Joffe-Walt. “The money is in specializing. Plus the workload in a small town is intense — you have no colleagues, and you have to convince your spouse to move to the sticks.” Foreign doctors seeking American citizenship have been made to work in underserved communities for a mandatory amount of time, but they often leave once that time is up. Doctor Syed Zafar is moving from Pomeroy, Wash, population 1,400, to Atlanta, where he won’t be the only Bangladeshi.

This week the National Governors Association has been meeting in meeting in Washington and rural health coverage is among the lobbying, reports Joffe-Walt. “But the problem is only expected to get worse. Baby boomers are aging and fewer Americans are going into the medicine. The situation will be especially bad in rural areas.” (Read more)

Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. names an executive news editor

Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., one of the largest owners of rural newspapers, has named David Joyner executive news editor, effective April 1. Joyner is senior managing editor of the CNHI-owned Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. He will ne based at CNHI headquarters in Birmingham. Bill Ketter, CNHI's vice president for news and former E-T editor, said Joyner’s responsibilities will include news training, content development, integration of print and electronic newsgathering, and special news and public service projects. CNHI is developing local newsrooms that blend staff and reader content in print and online, including the Web and other electronic platforms, Ketter said, and “We need to accelerate the process.”

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary on local issues and on broader issues that have local impact. Its initial focus area is Central Appalachia, but as an arm of the University of Kentucky it has a statewide mission, and it has national scope. It has academic collaborators at Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgia College and State University, Indiana University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marshall University, Middle Tennessee State University, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Washington and Lee University, West Virginia University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows Program at the University of Alabama. It is funded by the University of Kentucky and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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