Thursday, July 24, 2014

07/24/2014 at 7:07am

Photo by Scott Goldsmith / The Marcellus Shale Documentary Project A gas drilling rig in the middle of Hopewell Township in Washington County, Pennsylvania.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in ProPublica on July 2, 2014.

For the last eight years, Pennsylvania has been riding the natural gas boom, with companies drilling and fracking thousands of wells across the state. And in a little corner of Washington County, some 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh, EQT Corporation has been busy 2013 drilling close to a dozen new wells on one site.

It didn't take long for the residents of Finleyville who lived near the fracking operations to complain 2013 about the noise and air quality, and what they regarded as threats to their health and quality of life. Initially, EQT, one of the largest producers of natural gas in Pennsylvania, tried to allay concerns with promises of noise studies and offers of vouchers so residents could stay in hotels to avoid the noise and fumes.

But then, in what experts say was a rare tactic, the company got more aggressive: it offered all of the households along Cardox Road $50,000 in cash if they would agree to release the company from any legal liability, for current operations as well as those to be carried out in the future. It covered potential health problems and property damage, and gave the company blanket protection from any kind of claim over noise, dust, light, smoke, odors, fumes, soot, air pollution or vibrations.

The agreement also defined the company's operations as not only including drilling activity but the construction of pipelines, power lines, roads, tanks, ponds, pits, compressor stations, houses and buildings.

"The release is so incredibly broad and such a laundry list," said Doug Clark, a gas lease attorney in Pennsylvania who mainly represents landowners. "You're releasing for everything including activity that hasn't even occurred yet. It's crazy."

Linda Robertson, a spokeswoman for EQT, said in a statement that the company had worked hard and conscientiously to address the concerns of the residents. She said consultants had been hired, data collected on noise and health matters, and that independent analysis had shown the company was in compliance with noise and air quality requirements. She would not comment in detail on the financial offers.

07/23/2014 at 5:12am

A poster for Bliss Ragsdale's forthcoming movie "Firebox Lake."

In a world where people live in a moonlit village at the base of a towering mountain, eerie, spooky and downright dangerous things are bound to happen. And when grizzled gray beards can’t even walk through the woods without being hacked apart by a chopping maul, you know you’ve come to Firebox Lake.

But first, 42-year-old Bliss Ragsdale, native of Laramie, Wyoming, needs to make his horror movie by that name. Not only is he the writer and director, he’s willing to do his part as cannon fodder, growing out his beard to play the role of the chopping maul victim named “Shots,” which he says is an homage to the 1980s horror movie Chopping Mall. But in general, he sees two things wrong with most horror movies: too much money and too few bodies.          

Ragsdale describes his film as a “Scooby-Doo episode with a really high body count.” In the average action movie, hundreds of people die. But in horror movies, an average of only five people die, he says. “I want to up that. I kill ten people by page five. The opening scene is a slaughter-fest.”            

It starts with a few people with a little too much curiosity. He’s trying to decide whether he wants an ending that suggests a sequel, or whether to “just kill everybody.” The former prospect would be satisfying and allow the killer to be caught. But the latter would be fun, too.       

Photo via Julianne Couch Bliss Ragsdale relaxing at the Buckhorn Bar, Laramie's version of the Algonquin Hotel.

If all this sounds horribly twisted and graphic, Ragsdale is quick to point out it is actually intended to be funny. “My concept is to move away from the saw generation, the gore porn.” He believes too much gore desensitizes an audience and deadens a film’s power to scare and shock. His approach is more along the lines of Hitchcock, or John Carpenter, who directed the Halloween films: show something shocking and then cut away, leaving the audience to interpret how ghastly it really is.

07/22/2014 at 5:37am

Photo by Ed Suominen The EPA is cracking down on woodburning stove emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed new restrictions on emissions from wood-burning stoves have garnered praise and criticism from a variety of health, manufacturing and small business organizations.

The proposed rules, which will reduce allowable emissions for many new woodstoves, could have a bigger impact in rural areas, which burn up to twice as much wood for heat as metropolitan areas, according to a George Mason University report.

The American Lung Association and the Alliance for Green Heat support the tighter restrictions, reports Jim Gillam in the Chimney Sweep News, an industry publication. The Lung Association says the changes will help protect the environment and human health.

“The EPA set the current standards for wood-burning devices in 1988,” the Lung Association states, according to Gilliam, “years before the first of the landmark studies that demonstrated that particles like those that make up wood smoke can be deadly.  Improved technologies in use today can greatly reduce the harmful pollution from these devices.”

But the claim that the tighter standards will improve human health doesn’t take into account that most wood for heat gets burned in rural areas, says Stonehill College economics professor Sean Mulholland.

“If a tree burns in the forest and no one’s there to breathe the smoke, does this reduce human health?” he writes in a U.S. News and World Report online opinion piece.

“Because most of the emissions reductions will take place in rural areas with low population densities, the [EPA] rule overestimates total health benefits realized by averaging these reductions across all U.S. residents,” Mulholland writes. “So a reduction in particulates in the rural community of Forest City, Maine, has the same estimated value as a reduction in the densely-populated urban city of Oakland, California.”

07/21/2014 at 5:50am

Photo via Risky Business Road washed away by extreme flood in Jamestown, Colorado.

Back in his day, Dad always stressed the risky side of farming. As proof he’d pull from a desk drawer his personal handwritten record of Langdon yearly corn prices during the 1950’s. Next to those were annual yields. The message was clear; if prices don’t get you, yield and weather will.

I should have asked more questions.

I thought I had all the answers. When I looked around the neighborhood all I saw was accumulated wealth of successful farmers rooted all the way down to the Depression era. Now I’ve figured out the hard way, secrets are held not in the answers you have, but in the questions you ask, like:

Why were they there?

Because the only farmers I saw were those who had survived.

How does one farmer succeed where so many have failed?

Being optimistic helps. Farmers believe hail storm losses won’t be total, the drought won’t last and rain will fall, the levee could hold if the river drops and, if all else fails, prices should rise. But as optimistic farmers like me grow older, they’ve learned that even if the government doesn’t mess things up, Mother Nature might.

Like an old farmer once said, “I’d rather be lucky than smart.”

Anyhow, Dad was right.

Farming is risky.

07/18/2014 at 3:04am

Photo by Lauren Rosenfeld for Al Jazeera America Kate Swift-Scanlan, a nurse practitioner in Raleigh, North Carolina, speaks at a rally for Medicaid expansion spearheaded by the Moral Monday movement.

Rural hospitals are suffering from state decisions not to expand Medicaid, reports Al Jazeera America. In the "Coverage Gap", an Al Jazeera Fault Lines feature that aired this week, the network exposes the reality of hospital closings and shortages in rural America.

Rural hospitals have historically relied on federal subsidies that allow them to serve large numbers of Medicaid-dependent patients. In states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid, these hospitals no longer have access to the federal money that supported their practices. In many states, the hospitals have been forced to cut budgets, lay off staff, and in some cases, close entirely. 

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The United States has overtaken Japan as Australia's largest beef export market. As US cattle numbers drop to the lowest they have been in 60 years, American businesses have been forced to look overseas. Australia's market has been able to fill the gap left by American suppliers, despite the fact that Australia's herd numbers have also sunk to the lowest they have been in 20 years.

According to Tim McRae, Meat and Livestock Australia's chief economist, seasonal weather conditions are the key to cattle farmers' success. Beef and veal exports are expected to reach 1.1 million tons this year, matching the record set in 2013. However, Australian cattle farmers hope for the price of beef to increase soon, as prices have not significantly changed despite the record-high global demand.

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Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep Hal Rogers have issued two requests for proposals to create a high-speed Internet network within Kentucky. The project will take approximately two years to complete and will include more than 3,000 miles of fiber infrastructure. The Kentucky politicians hope that one of these proposals, one seeking private partners to establish, open, and operate the network and the other seeking equity partners for this same purpose, will further advance the statewide project.


This plan is particularly important for Kentucky, the 46th state in the nation for high-speed broadband Internet availability and the state within which almost a quarter of the state's population cannot access broadband.  The statewide broadband network aims to improve these conditions, placing emphasis on increasing service in Eastern Kentucky.

07/17/2014 at 6:23am

A baseball glove with Mickey Mantle’s signature – presumably authentic – is up for auction with a starting bid of $150.

We bought two new ball gloves for the grandkids, and it turns out Grandma and Grandpa are the only ones using them.

Since we have several grandchildren at various stages of T-ball, softball or baseball, my wife just knew they’d latch onto the new gloves, which she tossed into our big tote of toys.

That’s the first issue — most of the kids have outgrown that toy box, which is rather sad.

Secondly, the old game of “catch” doesn’t compare with the gadgets and backyard shenanigans enjoyed by today’s kids.

Oh, sure, they still like a little game of baseball, but we notice that a half inning is plenty for them. That’s enough to make Grandma and Grandpa huff and puff anyway.

But those ball gloves — exactly alike with “softball” stamped on one and “baseball” on the other — are still getting a good workout.

After the grandkids went home, Grandma and I started picking up the backyard and stowing away the play things.

That’s when she picked up a glove, pounded it with her fist and said those magic words: “Wanna play some catch?”

She didn’t have to ask twice.

07/16/2014 at 5:52am

Photo by Sam Beebe The urban-rural interface is a porous, productive place. Understanding the interaction that occurs there could help create economic and social gains for all of us, the authors say.

This article is adapted from “Choices: The Magazine of Food, Farm and Resource Issues.

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 Most Americans—taxpayers, politicians, and policy makers—have an urban-centric world view. Yet all Americans have a large and growing stake in the demographic and economic vitality of rural people and places. At a minimum, we cannot forget that urban Americans depend on rural America for food and fiber, natural resources (for energy), recreation and entertainment, and much more.

The so-called urban-rural divide is not a divide at all. It is a space of intense social, economic, political, and environmental interaction. It also is space where rural and urban interests are sometimes in competition, for example over land use management, while in other instances rural and urban interests are conflated.  

The new interdependency of urban and rural America is perhaps illustrated best in the agricultural sector. America’s “food system” cannot be examined in isolation from other aspects of the economy and society. The restructuring of the meatpacking industry makes our point. Rather than shipping cattle or hogs to slaughterhouses in faraway cities, such as Chicago and Kansas City, most are now processed close to where they are raised in rural areas. For some small towns, this has been a demographic and economic boon, especially in the Midwest and Southeast, such as poultry and pork processing.

The contemporary agricultural economy has also opened up niches for some small- to medium-sized producers who benefit from direct access to large urban markets. This development has been especially rapid at the urban-rural interface. The metropolitan farmer is not an oxymoron.