Thursday, October 23, 2014

10/22/2014 at 6:30am

The trailer for "Uranium Drive-In," a documentary film that follows residents of Naturita and Nucla in western Colorado as they grapple with an environmental fight over a proposed uranium mill.

When the man from Energy Fuels comes to Montrose County, Colorado, promising to open a uranium mill that could employ people from Naturita and Nucla, many of the locals start looking forward to better jobs, health insurance and improved prospects.

But before the promises can be kept, Telluride-based environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliances challenges Energy Fuels and the proposed project in court. People who had been hoping for economic progress from the new uranium mill live in limbo for the next two years. Do they stay and hope for the mill to open, or do they move on with their lives? Are Naturita and Nucla ghost towns in the making?

This is the story behind "Uranium Drive-In," Suzan Beraza’s second feature film, which became available on DVD this week. The impartial and beautifully filmed, character-driven documentary offers an honest look at people facing matters of rural poverty, sustainable development and the long reach of environmental advocacy.

Along the way, Beraza touches on the fascinating history of uranium production in the American West. She shows us a mining town that was demolished and carted off. She shares the stories of survivors of the less regulated uranium industry of the past.

But at heart, the piece is not an environmental advocacy film, and its nods to concerns about the safety of nuclear energy add little.

Rather, "Uranium Drive-In" succeeds best when it sticks with people and depicts the stories of individual lives caught up in big ideas and policies.

I spoke with Suzan Beraza by phone.


Courtesy of Suzan BerazaSuzan Beraza said the stories in her documentary became more complex as she spent time with residents of the rural communities affected by the proposed uranium mill.When you first heard about this story, did you see it as a rural issue?

No. I don't think I did. I saw it more as an environmental issue. And something that became pretty clear to me early on in the film-making process is that to be an environmentalist, you have to be able to afford to be an environmentalist, if that makes sense. It's usually not people who are struggling to survive who turn around and say “I'm an environmentalist.”

While we were there, the story just raised more and more questions. And even though today I'm not gung ho on the uranium industry by any means, the project made me realize that the people of Naturita/Nucla are between a rock and a hard place, and they are willing to make sacrifices in order to survive. They don't see the uranium industry as being that dangerous. It's something they are very used to; their families have been doing it for generations. It's not that the people there necessarily want the uranium industry. They just want something. And that's when it became more clear that it was a rural issue. That thousands of small towns across the United States are in a similar situation, whether it’s a resource extraction town or a town where the major industry has left. Heck, even a place like Detroit. That's not a small town. But it sticks to a theme that is echoing throughout the country.

10/21/2014 at 6:19am

Photo by the Los Angeles Times Hens on a poultry farm in California.

From the beginning of time a single unanswered question has plagued the minds of men who wanted to know just one thing;

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Thanks to Missouri politics we now know the answer. It was trying to get to California.

In 2008 California voters passed the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (Proposition 2) with a resounding 63% majority. Prop 2 dealt with allowing certain farm animals freedom to stand up and move around in confinement. At issue were crates for veal calves and gestating sows, and battery cages for laying hens.

When passed in 2008, the law was set to take effect in five years. That's now.

That's why Missouri State Attorney General Chris Koster joined up with AGs in five other egg-producing states to contest the new law by suing California for violating interstate commerce rules.

Everybody knows California has the largest gross domestic product of all the states, larger even than all but 10 countries in the entire world. It's also about seven times larger than Missouri's economy.  Consuming about $4 billion in eggs every year makes California an important market. But west coast egg producers worried they would be at a competitive disadvantage if egg farms in other states didn't obey California law.

They didn't need to worry.

10/20/2014 at 6:37am

The slow rate of jobs recovery is one of the biggest stories in rural America over the past six years.

Metro America is nearly back to pre-recession levels of employment. But job growth in nonmetro, or rural counties remains flat-lined more or less since 2010.

As with most things rural, there are tremendous regional variations. A report from USDA’s Economic Research Service looks at some peculiar job trends in rural areas and asks why.

A key trend we observed throughout the recession, and which holds true through today, is that Plains States counties fared better than other rural counties in their unemployment rates.

So why the regional variations? Authors Tom Hertz, Lorin Kusmin, Alex Marre and Tim Parker look for answer.

In the map above, the green swath through the nation’s midsection shows that unemployment has been lower in this region than the nation overall.

ERS analysis shows that several factors combined to create lower unemployment rates in the Plains States.

10/16/2014 at 3:24pm

Photo by Shawn Poynter/Rural Archive Coal is processed in the Big Sandy power plant near Louisa, Ky.

Major environmental groups can’t ignore the coal states and hope to make the progress they want on climate change. That’s just one of the many relevant observations in Ken Ward Jr.’s rejoinder to the Grist’s David Roberts' two articles on  the progressive movement and coal country (here and here).

Ward, as usual, is precise and polite. But there’s no mistaking his frustration with mostly urban environmentalists who seem ready to write off coal country’s votes, economy and people in the quest to reduce dependence on carbon-emitting fuels.

Ward writes in his West Virginia Gazette blog “Coal Tattoo”:

 Including some sort of coalfield economic diversification program in the Obama clean energy program — and in the agenda of national progressive organizations that back Obama and the EPA — would help coalfield Democrats politically. Would it magically and immediately reverse the Red State trends in West Virginia? Of course not. But it would provide some ammunition for local Democrats. It’s pretty hard to convince a coal miner in West Virginia that you care about them when your base  of supporters — groups like the Sierra Club — celebrate every time another coal-fired power plant closes, putting more miners out of work.


The Marshall Project, a new journalism organization focusing on the criminal justice system, writes about the growth in juvenile incarceration in West Virginia. While the rest of the nation’s youth incarceration rate is dropping, West Virginia’s is climbing, reports Dana Goldstein. Goldstein sees the aberration as part of a trend in some rural states and quotes one source who says geography is part of the problem.

10/15/2014 at 10:19pm

Photo by Karen Fasimpaur Members of the seed library meet in the community library in Portal, Arizona.

The remote corner of the southwest that I call home straddles a beautiful swath of the Arizona-New Mexico border. There are two small nearby towns – Portal, Arizona, and Rodeo, New Mexico – each with fewer than than 300 people. The nearest grocery store is about an hour away, we have no cell coverage, and most of us live on dirt roads.

The people who live here have come for a variety of reasons and span a wide spectrum of backgrounds and worldviews. There are ranchers and scholars, writers and astronomers, craftspeople and artists, affluent and poor, retirees and youth, natives and transplants. Some have come to immerse themselves in the rugged beauty and rich biodiversity here. Others are here to escape urban sprawl. Still others have come to establish independence and self-sufficiency.

Despite these varying outlooks on life, there are things that bring us together. One of them is food. We all enjoy food and also know that our food choices are important and make a difference – to ourselves, to our community and to the larger world. As rural residents, we also have food challenges. Supermarkets are far away; food can be expensive; healthy, sustainable food is not as readily accessible as it is in urban centers. There are concerns about being cut off from the commercial food supply, and many wish for a way to become more self-reliant as a community.

About two years ago, these issues were discussed by some in the community, and the idea of starting a local seed library was raised. The hope was that establishing a seed library would guarantee a supply of local seeds that would be viable and free to all. We also wanted to preserve heirloom varieties and to fight against GMO seeds, both of which are challenges in the era of increasing corporate control of seeds, as well as the whole food chain.

10/15/2014 at 1:54am

Photo by Mark Jamison The big chair stands about 12 feet high and adorns Mark Jamison's front yard in Webster, North Carolina, along with many other art objects. Some adults ask why, but kids understand the ornament's "impeccable logic."

It’s a big chair. Actually it’s a very big rocking chair and it sits at the head of my driveway. At its highest point it’s 12 feet tall. The seat is about four and a half feet off the ground. Although it doesn’t need much help in standing out, it’s painted a sort of marigold color that is, umm, eye catching.

The front rail of the chair is inscribed “The County Seat,” a reference to the fact that Webster was the original county seat when Jackson County, North Carolina, was carved out of two surrounding counties in 1851. There are also two dedications “In Memory of George Penland” and “For the Nitpickers.” These refer to my dear friend and neighbor George and his battles with the mavens of Webster.

George lived next door to my house in what was the original Jackson County jail. My house, or some iteration of it, was built around the time of Webster’s founding in 1851.

When I bought the house it was a wreck. It had been a rental for 40 years, but it had been vacant for five years before I got it. After my divorce I had to come down off the mountain, and I needed a project to take my mind off things. Restoring the house seemed like a good idea; besides, it was right next door to my workplace, the post office. Restoring the house was a labor of love.

10/14/2014 at 1:09pm

Photo by Bruce Crummy/Associated Press A derailed oil train near Casselton, North Dakota, goes up in flames, one in a series of recent fiery crashes.

After several train accidents that resulted in fires, pressure is being put on oil companies working in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to make their oil less flammable before loading it onto the rails. The oil companies, unsurprisingly, are pushing back on the idea of more regulation.

"Statoil believes the current conditioning of crude oil is sufficient for safely transporting Bakken crude oil by truck, rail and pipeline," said Keith Lilie, an operations and maintenance manager for Statoil, one of the largest oil companies operating in the Bakken oil fields.


Al Jazeera takes a trip to eastern Kentucky to look at what one small town is doing right economically. Spoiler alert: They’re investing in local, diverse businesses instead of pinning their hopes on a big company to swoop in and make it all better. The town is one familiar to us -- it's Whitesburg, home of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.  


Forrest Pritchard at the Huffington Post has pointed out that a New York Times event about food production includes everyone except farmers. You know, the folks who actually produce food.

Out of 19 speakers [at the “Food for Tomorrow” gathering], not a single attendee grows food for a living. Wal-Mart vice president? Check. Investigative reporters? Double check. Politicians? You betcha. But how about a solitary, full-time professional farmer, someone who actually works the land for a living?

(Insert sound of crickets chirping).

Seems like an oversight, doesn't it? Like holding a conference on education and forgetting the teachers, or hosting a book festival without any authors.

… Discussion about food is certainly important. But so is the actual farming, by people who know how to do it. The New York Times missed an opportunity to broaden the food conversation, overlooking the best experts of all.