WNC CONFIDENTIAL: Your key to hard-to-find public information and records.

WNC CONFIDENTIAL is a Wmforo feature about official secrets and public disclosures — all from, about or relating to the mountain region. On selected Thursdays, we’ll give you the key to recent revelations and put hard-to-find records at your fingertips.

Also: A new WikiLeaks-style resource for Appalachia and Asheville’s 60th anniversary as the nation’s weather central

More North Carolina methamphetamine producers than ever were shut down in 2011, and the trend held true in Western North Carolina, according to new data from the N.C. Department of Justice.

Statewide, 344 meth labs were busted last year, up from 235 in 2010 and 206 in 2009, Attorney General Roy Cooper announced on Jan. 12. A monthly breakdown for every year since 2003 is available here.

Map of 2011 busts of meth labs, courtesy of the N.C. Department of Justice. Click to view full-size image.

In the state’s 17 westernmost counties, 63 labs were shut down in 2011, up from 40 in 2010. Click here for a State Bureau of Investigation map of each county’s totals in 2011. [PDF]

Burke County logged a state record of 34 meth lab busts in 2011, up from only seven the year before. And the county’s narcotics officers expect meth arrests to rise in 2012, according to a recent article in the Morganton News Herald.

Cooper’s office was quick to point out that while there have been more busts, that’s due in large part to the shrinking methods of making the highly addictive drug.

“Although the overall number of meth labs has increased, [State Bureau of Investigation] agents report that approximately 50 percent of those busted used the one pot method,” Cooper announced in a lengthy release.

The so-called one pot method is “generally used to make a smaller amount of meth for personal consumption,” as opposed to traditional labs that make meth for customers, the release said. Small-scale producers “can use the method to make meth in a two-liter plastic soda bottle using a small amount of pseudoephedrine,” the cold-medicine ingredient that’s part of many meth recipes.

Buying large quantities of pseudoephedrine in North Carolina recently got harder, the release noted. A law that went into effect Jan. 1 makes it considerably easier for law enforcement to track and limit sales of the drug, using an interstate program that cuts off frequent sales at the main source: pharmacies.

“More than two-thirds of the pharmacies in the state are now using the system, with more in the process of joining,” the release said, adding that, as of Jan. 12, the new law had already blocked “1,669 questionable purchases of more than 2,000 boxes of pseudoephedrine.”

Honest Appalachia: A new outlet for the region’s whistleblowers

The rising tide of whistleblowing websites has reached Appalachia.

A screenshot from the Honest Appalachia website. The new Wikileaks-style website launched in early January.

Earlier in January, a small group of young volunteers launched Honest Appalachia, a site loosely based on the WikiLeaks model. The goal, according to a Jan. 10 press release announcing the launch, is “to assist and protect whistleblowers who wish to reveal proof of corporate or government wrongdoing to citizens throughout the region.”

For now, the site will focus on seven Appalachian states: Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. It offers a secure online platform for anonymously leaking documents, and the site’s organizers say they’ll vet any contributed materials to make sure they are authentic before posting them publicly.

The site was built over a year-long development effort, aided in part by a seed grant from the Washington, DC-based Sunlight Foundation.

A week after the launch, Wmforo spoke with Jim Tobias, a 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate who is one of Honest Appalachia’s co-founders. Here are excerpts of the conversation:

CPP: What was the origin of Honest Appalachia?

Tobias: I’ve been involved in journalism during and since college, and I knew other students in Pennsylvania and Ohio who were working on media and technology issues. A few us came together and came up with the idea after witnessing WikiLeaks in action for the past couple of years. We thought that a project like that would be really valuable at a local and state level, with a focus on the region’s politics and economy.

We’re really interested in supporting journalists, to help them do what they do best. One motivation was the fact that during the past 20 or 30 years, there’s been a decline in resources for journalists and especially for investigative journalists at state and local papers. We’re trying to help fill a gap that’s been left by [media] consolidation and downsizing.

Why did you choose Appalachia as the region to focus on?

We’re open to any states in Appalachia, and even to whistleblowers beyond Appalachia. But in terms of outreach, we’re mostly focused on those seven states, because those are the states the project organizers are most familiar with. A lot of us grew up here or went to school here, so we felt like we understood the media and political landscape best here. Also, we felt this project would be valuable in rural areas, where political activities and institutions too often go unobserved.

What types of records are you hoping to get and share on the site?

We’re kind of equal opportunity on that — anything from gas and coal companies to banks, from zoning boards to local and state governments. We’re looking for documents that reveal things the public doesn’t already know, or reveal evidence of corruption, wrongdoing or deceit — things that the public really should know about.

How do you plan on getting the word out to potential whistleblowers?

The media coverage of the project has been good so far, so we’ll try to keep plugging away with that. We’ll also be e-mailing people in various government agencies and corporations. We’re using Facebook and Twitter to spread the word too.

The site has only been up for a few days, but have you received any leaks yet?

Not yet. I think it’s going to be sort of a waiting game. You know, WikiLeaks was around for years before they really started getting the kind of documents that made them well-known, and I think it will probably be similar for us. We’ll be here though, as a resource, and we’ll continue the outreach. We’re willing to be patient, to wait for people to get comfortable with us.

60 years as weather central: How Asheville became the country’s climate research headquarters

As the anniversary of one of Western North Carolina’s key federal institutions quietly blows by, its role in assessing the global climate situation is as big as ever.

The National Climatic Data Center, based in Asheville in one form or another since early 1952, is recognized by many as the planet’s most authoritative source of weather data.

The center is rooted in a post-World War II alliance of the civilian U.S. Weather Bureau and two military branches, the Air Force and the Navy.

Previously, the government had kept its centralized weather data at a facility called the New Orleans Tabulation Unit, where, among other problems, such data proved too vulnerable to the Gulf Coast’s volatile weather.

In November 1951, the U.S. Weather Bureau announced that the new office would be called the National Weather Records Center and housed in Asheville’s Grove Arcade, which was then in federal hands.

“The primary business of the new Records Center will be the handling, filing, cataloging, tabulating and summarizing of what possibly amounts to the greatest assembly of observational meteorological data in the world,” the bureau’s newsletter noted. [PDF]

The center’s name has changed a few times over the years, but today the NCDC, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, continues its original mission on a grand scale. Last month, it announced that the United States weathered a record number of climate disasters in 2011.

The 60th anniversary of the facility was officially celebrated last July with a small ceremony, as Gov. Bev Perdue proclaimed National Climatic Data Center Week in North Carolina. [PDF]

But the Asheville-based weather center didn’t become operational until January 1952, when the key records were moved from Louisiana, so a birthday notice seems fitting right about now.

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Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Wmforo. Contact him at [email protected].

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