Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween not affected by obesity epidemic; ADA study says candy not kids' favorite part of event

Don't expect the obesity epidemic to put a damper on distribution of Halloween candy. Even though more than one-third of American children are classified as overweight or obese, 75 percent of Americans plan to hand out candy tonight, says a survey by the National Confectioners Association, Ann Tracy Mueller reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The survey says that 70 percent of Americans plan to take their children trick-or-treating and 23 percent of adults admit they will sample their children's candy haul. (Childhood Obesity News photo)

Seniors are the most likely to hand out candy, with 84 percent of respondents over 60 saying they plan to hand out candy, Mueller writes. In the Midwest, 79 percent of respondents said they plan to give out candy, compared to 76 percent in the South, 74 percent in the West and 71 percent in the Northeast.

And don't expect the candy business to suffer a financial crisis anytime soon, Mueller writes. About $2.5 billion in confectionery sales are expected during the holiday season, while confectionery manufacturers in more than 40 states employ more than 70,000 workers in more than 1,000 facilities.

But candy is not the main draw of Halloween, says a study by the American Dental Association. The study, which in August asked 755 children between the ages of 5 to 13 what their three favorite parts of Halloween are, says 75 percent of respondents said trick-or-treating, 71 percent said dressing up and 66 percent said getting candy. The older children getting less candy was a factor, with 70 percent of children 5 to 7 saying candy was one of their favorite parts, 69 percent of children 8 to 10 and 62 percent of those 11 to 13.

Children are also aware that candy is not good for them, the study says. When asked if too much candy is bad for them, 78 percent said they strongly agree or somewhat agree, while 67 percent strongly or somewhat agree that they eat too much Halloween candy. Although 65 percent said they strongly or somewhat agree that Halloween is the best holiday, 89 percent said they would still like Halloween if it was less about candy and more about other types of fun. Children are also open to receiving other treats, with 93 percent saying they would rather receive a video game than candy. (ADA graphic)

To delete or not to delete: State laws vary on how long government emails are kept

How long should emails sent by state officials be saved? In some states, emails are purged after five days, while in other states those emails are kept for five years. While laws vary by state, advocates of open government say those emails should be preserved for transparency and historical value, Jenni Bergal reports for Stateline. (Associated Press photo)

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told Bergal, “It’s the public’s information. The fact that it can be deleted without consequence or review—everyone should care about that. The public cannot hold their government accountable if they don’t have access to the records. It shouldn’t matter whether that record is written on a piece of paper with ink or whether it’s written on a computer screen.”

Content is the main issue in many states, Bergal writes. "An employee may be required to keep certain types of email, such as official memos or messages dealing with administrative policy, which may be retained for several years. But they also may be allowed to delete email that is deemed 'transitory,' which means it has little value after its use and nothing important in it. Transitory email can range from a 'help yourself to cookies in the break room' note to a list of staffers who participated in a meeting to drafts of a presentation."

"While states have strict retention schedules, it’s often up to the individual agency to determine how to make that work," Bergal writes. "Problems often arise when retention rules bump heads with information technology policies, which favor unclogging email boxes, deleting junk mail that can bog down the system and keeping the cost of storage to a minimum."

Tanya Marshall, president of the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, told Bergal, “It’s a little bit of the Wild West. The processes that are being used are based on paper records. You often don’t see much of a process set up for electronic records. There are very few states where it’s clear to the employee what they need to do and how to manage it.”

The National Archives and Records Administration "has proposed a new approach that would designate email accounts of senior level federal officials as permanent records that would not be deleted and would save nonofficials’ emails for at least three to seven years," Bergal writes. "The idea is to shift the burden of deciding which messages should be erased or archived away from the individual user."

Frederick Frank, an attorney representing several newspapers, "said that he’s even more disturbed that there’s no way to restore deleted email once it’s purged after five days," Bergal writes. Frank told Bergal, “The potential for mischief here is very clear. That’s particularly true when an employee feels that there may be an investigation. When he is asked where his emails are, he says they were all transitory and they’ve been deleted. There’s no way to get them back from the server.” (Read more)

Rural graduates less likely to attend post-secondary institute than urban peers

Urban high school graduates are more likely than urban graduates to attend a post-secondary institution, according to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study, The Rural School and Community Trust reports. This applies regardless of the demographics of the high schools they attended. However, of those who attended low-income/high-minority schools, only approximately half continued their education after high school.

The following chart shows the percentages of students who attended college immediately following high school with no gap year. Graduates who went to high income, low minority and suburban schools "had the highest college enrollment rate. Seventy three percent of students who graduated from these high schools in 2013 enrolled in college immediately after high school graduation.
College enrollment rates in the first fall after high school
graduation, class of 2013,  public non-charter schools
According to past research, high school context variables not only influence whether or not students decide to continue their education but also continue to affect outcomes throughout college if they choose to attend. "School-based resources are especially important for students from families in which no adults have attended college," according to the report.

High cost of living in remote areas means some Alaska schools pay sports opponents to travel

High school sports are getting costly in remote rural areas of Alaska. Ketchikan, the state's southeasternmost city, not only has to raise thousands of dollars each year for travel costs for road games, but if it wants to host games against schools located far away, Ketchikan is forced to pay the other school's transportation costs, which includes airfare for players and coaches, Emily Files reports for KRBD 105.3 in Ketchikan. In one instance this year, Ketchikan had to dole out $8,700 to fly in a team of 20 football players from Seward.

A large portion of Ketchikan's $1.2 million budget goes toward travel, while the North Slope Borough School District budgets approximately $1.8 million each year just for activities travel, Files writes. During a recent assembly Ketchikan Superintendent Robert Boyle told concerned citizens, “We’re in awkward spot. People don’t have to come play us. . . . we’ll be on their schedule, but they won’t actually be required to come play us in Ketchikan. We couldn’t get home games if we didn’t do it.” (Experienceketchikan.com map)

Opposing schools in the region pay their own costs, but with a limited number of opponents to choose from, Ketchikan usually fills out its athletic schedules with teams from farther north, Files writes. While Ketchikan pays its own way to road games, getting other schools, especially ones in urban areas where there are plenty of opponents to fill the schedule, means adding extra incentives, such as paying the other team's way.

Billy Strickland, director of the Alaska School Activities Association and a former athletic director in rural remote Alaska, told Files, “Off the road system schools, we’re more used to that philosophy of we have to pay the money to go. The urban schools or on-the-road-system schools have options that don’t cost as much. If you’re Seward, you’d probably really like to go to Ketchikan and play that game. But you’re not going to spend money to do it when you could drive to Nikiski, Kenai, Soldotna.”

Strickland "says ASAA doesn’t and shouldn’t dictate who pays for travel to the games," Files writes. "He thinks the fact that outlying schools have to pay is just another aspect of living in a more remote part of the state." Strickland told Files, “Those of us that live in remote places—part of that remoteness is just the cost of everything’s higher. Whether it’s a gallon of milk in the store or what it costs to get a basketball game. There’s a high cost of living in remote areas.” (Read more)

Bear necessities: U.S. Forest Service warns tourists to stop taking bear selfies

It doesn't sound like something anyone should have to tell people—especially if you've seen the documentary "Grizzly Man"—but the U.S. Forest Service issued a press release last week warning visitors to Taylor Creek Visitor Center in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., to not get too cozy with the park's bears. It seems the new fad at state and national parks is bear selfies, posing safety risks for both humans and bears.

"Black bears tend to swarm Taylor Creek this time of year thanks to an annual run of kokanee salmon, according to Mother Nature Network," Jacque Wilson reports for CNN. "And Taylor Creek staff say they are 'routinely' seeing people getting friendly with the animals in an effort to update their Instagram feed. If park visitors continue to ignore instructions and venture too close to the bears to take photos and videos, Taylor Creek may be closed to the public, the Forest Service said." (Instagram photo: This guy posted a bear selfie from the Great Smokey Mountain National Park)

Drug manufacturer offering research grants for porcine epidemic diarrhea virus studies

Zoetis Inc., one of the drug manufacturers to receive conditional regulatory approval to market vaccines for porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, is "seeking proposals for well-defined studies that focus on optimizing the immune response of sows and gilts for the control of PEDV," says a press release from the company. A total of $125,000 in grants will be awarded by Zoetis for studies that provide insights into new methods that can help control PEDV in breeding and farrowing herds. The virus has been reported in 31 states and has killed millions of pigs. (Wall Street Journal graphic)

Research must be conducted in the U.S., and proposals need to be submitted by Dec. 5, says Zoetis. "To receive a copy of the abstract template or to submit questions, email PEDvResearch@zoetis.com. A committee will review the proposals, and an announcement of the successful applications will be made in January." (Read more)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

College student creates an 'ambulance drone' equipped with a defibrillator

A lack of ambulances in rural areas has been a constant concern. Wait times often stretch to critical points, and lives hang in the balance. Many rural areas, such as in Iowa, Kansas and Kentucky—where a woman died earlier this year because the county skimped on ambulance services—are faced with a shortage of ambulances and personnel and often rely on volunteers during emergencies. (Getty Images by Bas Czerwinksi)

A recent college graduate says drones are the answer to a shortage of emergency services, Matt McFarland reports for The Washington Post. Alec Momont, whose family friend died of cardiac arrest because an ambulance arrived too late, concentrated his final project at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands on an "ambulance drone" that could carry emergency supplies quickly to those in need.

"Momont developed a drone with a defibrillator built in," McFarland writes. "The drone is capable of traveling at 62 mph, but the battery lasts for only 10 minutes. He says a network of 3,000 drones could canvas the Netherlands, each drone responding to 12 square kilometers within a minute. He envisions the drones being stationed on telephone poles. The nearest drone could be summoned following a 911 call and flown—either autonomously or controlled by a human—to the site."

"Once the drone lands, a panel is opened up, and the defibrillator paddles are removed," McFarland writes. The drone, which weighs 8.8 pounds and includes a separate battery for the defibrillator, which is capable of delivering up to 50 shocks, includes a camera so that an emergency technician watching from afar can offer personalized advice."

Momont also envisions a drone with a heat sensor that can locate people, such as a skier trapped in an avalanche, McFarland writes. "The Belgian graduated from his Master’s degree program Tuesday and now is focused on finding more funding to make his dream a reality. He estimated a $19,000 price tag for each drone and noted that additional technology such as a Sonar system still needs [to be] factored in." (Read more)

ACA has most helped rural residents, Hispanics, African-Americans, young people, study says

Rural residents, Hispanics, African-Americans and people ages 18 to 34 have most benefited from federal health reform, says Enroll America, which released county-level data showing who the Affordable Care Act has helped most, Kevin Quealy and Margot Sanger-Katz reports for The New York Times. (For an interactive county-level map click here)

"The areas with the largest increases in the health insurance rate, for example, include rural Arkansas and Nevada; southern Texas; large swaths of New Mexico, Kentucky and West Virginia; and much of inland California and Oregon," Quealy and Sanger-Katz write. "Each of these trends is going in the opposite direction of larger economic patterns. Young people have fared substantially worse in the job market than older people in recent years. Blacks and Hispanics have fared worse than whites and Asians. Rural areas have fallen further behind larger metropolitan areas."

About 10 million Americans who had no insurance in 2013 signed up for Obamacare this year, and the national uninsured rate for adults under 65 dropped from 16 percent to 11 percent, Quealy and Sanger-Katz write.

"People with the lowest incomes tended to benefit the most from the law," Quealy and Sanger-Katz write. "In states that expanded Medicaid, low-income people can get insurance without having to pay a premium. And for middle-income people who qualify for tax credits to help them buy insurance, the subsidies are most generous for those lowest on the income scale. Poorer people were always the least likely to have insurance because their jobs rarely offered it and private premiums were often unaffordable." (Read more) (NYT map of changes in insured Americans)

'Mini-Smithsonian' in rural Tennessee exceeds expectations in first year of operations

When Discovery Park of America, a mini-Smithsonian, opened last year in rural Union City, Tenn., officials hoped the attraction would draw tourists and help boost the local economy. With the park's first-anniversary coming up on Saturday, it's clear that the park has been a booming success, having shattered projected attendance records, Adrian Sainz reports for The Associated Press. Officials had said they hoped to have 150,000 visitors during the first year but have had about 270,000. (Sainz photo: Discovery Park)

Discovery Park CEO Jim Rippy told Sainz, "We're out here in rural America, and I think the exhibits are such quality and the word spreads. They don't expect something like this to be out in the country. They expect something like this to be in Atlanta, Chicago, New York."

Location has been one key, with the park located near Interstate 55, U.S. Highway 51 and the Interstate 69 corridor, Sainz writes. But the exhibits are the real draw. They include regional history, dinosaurs, Native Americans, energy, transportation, science, the military and space flight, an earthquake simulator, a 120-foot (36-meter) glass observation tower, a 50-foot metal replica of the human body with a 32-foot slide, an old train depot, a century-old church, a rotating grist mill, antique tractors, log cabins and flower gardens.

Susan Searcy, a guidance counselor at Union City Elementary who has visited several times with groups of third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students, and who also visited on her own, told Sainz, "The kids that I take, I see no dampening of their enthusiasm, even if it has been open for a year. Discovery Park is not a flash in the plan. It's going to be here for a long time." (Read more)

Toxic chemical rates exceed federal guidelines at fracking sites in five states, study finds

Rates of eight toxic chemicals in fracking sites in Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wyoming far exceed federal guidelines, says a study published on Thursday in the journal Environmental Health. Benzene, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide were the most common compounds found to exceed health-based risk levels.

For the study "trained volunteers living near the wells conducted air measurements, taking 35 'grab air' samples during heavy industrial activity or when they felt symptoms such as dizziness, nausea or headaches," Alan Neuhauser reports for U.S. News and World Report. "Another 41 'passive' tests—meaning samples were taken during a designated period, not merely when levels spiked—were conducted to monitor for formaldehyde. The tests were then sent to accredited labs." (Concentrations of volatile compounds exceeding health-based risk levels in samples collected in Arkansas. Dashed lines represent EPA IRIS 1/10,000 cancer risk for formaldehyde and 1,3 butadiene.)

"Not every sample exceeded the recommended limits," Neuhauser writes. "But in those that did—slightly less than half the samples taken—benzene levels were 35 to 770,000 times greater than normal concentrations, or up to 33 times the exposure a driver might get while fueling his or her car. Similarly, hydrogen sulfide levels above federal standards were 90 to 60,000 times higher than normal—enough to cause eye and respiratory irritation, fatigue, irritability, poor memory and dizziness after just one hour of exposure."

Author Dr. David Carpenter, of the University of Albany, told Neuhauser, "This is a significant public health risk. I was amazed. Five orders of magnitude over federal limits for benzene at one site – that’s just incredible. You could practically just light a match and have an explosion with that concentration. It’s an indication of how leaky these systems are." (Read more)

West Virginia lab that falsified reports back in business; DEP refuses to accept its reports

After an Alpha Laboratories employee testified that water samples had been falsified for coal companies, an appeals court temporarily blocked the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection from revoking the lab's certification. Even so, DEP officials say they will not accept pollution monitoring reports from the lab, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman told Ward, “I cannot accept data from the laboratory for purposes of enforcing the Clean Water Act and issuing permits. Their data is meaningless. We don’t want it.”

The certification was revoked earlier this month, but this week the state Environmental Quality Board was asked to consider a request from Appalachian Laboratories to block the revocation. The company said without certification it would have to close down, putting 35 employees out of work, Ward writes. Board members granted the request "pending a full appeal hearing, scheduled for Dec. 11." (Read more)

U.S. proposes putting four freshwater turtles on international endangered species list

The U.S. has proposed putting four species of freshwater turtles, whose meat is considered a delicacy in some Asian countries, on "an international endangered species list, in part to better monitor exports of the species," Ros Krasny reports for Reuters. "Under the plan, the common snapping turtle, Florida softshell turtle, smooth softshell turtle and spiny softshell turtle would be listed under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a global pact ratified by 180 countries." (Wikipedia photo: Common snapping turtle)

Turtle exports have been on the rise in recent years, with 811,717 live common snapping turtles exported from the U.S. in 2011, a 24 percent increase from 2009, Krasny writes. Live Florida softshell turtle and spiny softshell turtle or turtle egg exports also jumped from 2009 to 2011. The proposal is open to a 60-day public comment period. (Read more)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Many Americans favor GMO labeling on food products, but few understand what it means

Independent polls keep reporting that many Americans favor genetically modified labels on foods, yet ballot measures requiring such labeling keeps getting shot down, sometimes in the same states where surveys said residents were strongly in favor of labels. While some people argue that industry lobbyists are swaying votes, the real reason GMO labeling doesn't pass at the ballots is because most people have no idea what it means, so they vote against it, Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post. (Associated Press photo)

"The data supporting this interpretation—that Americans don't actually know a lot about genetically modified foods, and so polls suggesting they support their labeling should be taken with a major grain of salt—are fairly compelling," Mooney writes. "One 2013 survey conducted by researchers at Rutgers University found that 54 percent of Americans say they know 'very little or nothing at all' about genetically modified foods, and 25 percent have never even heard of them. Only 26 percent of Americans, meanwhile, were actually aware that GMO labeling is not currently required."

William Hallman, lead researcher of the study, told Mooney that "when people don’t know much about a subject, how you ask them a question about it largely determines the answer you get back." Hallman said 90 percent of Americans say GMO labeling is a good thing when asked directly about it, but when respondents are asked what labels they'd like to see, only 7 percent come up with GMO on their own.

John Gastil, a professor at Penn State University who studies ballot initiatives, said these initiatives generally do worse than initial polls suggest they'll do, Mooney writes. Gastil told him, "The reason is that fortunately, we have an instinct which tells us, if we don’t understand something, perhaps we should vote against it. That’s a general phenomenon that many voters use as a heuristic." (Read more)

Weather researchers say drones could be valuable tools before, during and after storms

With winter approaching, and some weather experts predicting another brutal winter, weather researchers say drones could be the answer to providing better and more timely information on storms such as those associated with the Great Lakes shoreline, Cary Giles reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. (NOAA photo: NASA’s unmanned Global Hawk is used in hurricane research, but can only be flown over water)

"These lake effect snows happen when 'cold air masses move over warm lake waters,' according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration," Giles writes. "They are common in the Great Lakes region from November to February."

"Derrick Herndon, a research specialist at a satellite center at the University of Wisconsin, said unmanned aircraft would be useful to research and predict this type of weather," Giles writes. "Lake effect snows happen in only a few hours, and they need to be reported with accuracy, Herndon said. Drones can get a full picture of the temperature and moisture of the region to help determine if they are likely."

Jeff Masters, the director of meteorology at the Weather Underground, a service that predicts weather for major cities worldwide, said drones also could be used to assess storm damage. Masters told Giles, “Another ideal use would be in damage surveys immediately following a major tornado or hurricane. The drone could photograph the damage, advise first responders on how to avoid blocked roads and pinpoint areas most in need of search and rescue efforts.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has not approved drones for such uses, Giles writes. But they should, weather researchers say. Herndon said satellites are useful because they measure cloud height, temperature, water vapor, winds in the atmosphere and sea surface temperature, but drones can get closer than a satellite. Herndon told Giles, “Laws often don’t keep up with the technology.” (Read more)

Minnesota considering banning or restricting use of neonicotinoids blamed for honeybee deaths

Minnesota regulators are considering banning or regulating neonicotinoids, a pesticide blamed for the deaths of large numbers of pollinators, including the loss of 40 to 50 percent of the honeybee population, Tony Kennedy reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Honeybees pollinate about 90 crops worldwide and pollinate more than $15 billion worth of U.S. crops. (Star Tribune photo by Renee Jones Schneider: A bee with resin on its leg)

"The possibility, disclosed this week by the state Department of Agriculture in a revised outline for a study of the chemicals, followed an outpouring of public concern over the dramatic decline in honeybee populations in recent years," Kennedy writes. "A revised outline published this week states that the range of state action could include 'restrictions on or cancellation of products.'” The in-depth review will take more than six months.

"Insecticide use in Minnesota is governed by both state and federal law," Kennedy writes. The Environmental Protection Agency "is also reviewing the effects of neonicotinoids on bees and other pollinators, while New York, Oregon, Canada and Europe all have placed bans or restrictions on them." (Read more)

Obesity epidemic forcing safety engineers to create fatter crash test dummies

Obesity is a national epidemic. Forty-three states have rates above 25 percent, and nine of the top 10 most obese states are in the South, led by Mississippi and West Virginia, where 35.1 percent of the adult population is obese, according to The State of Obesity.

The epidemic has gotten so bad that Humanetics, the leading manufacturer of crash dummies, has to create fatter crash test dummies to better mirror the population, Kieron Monks reports for CNN. The company has a prototype that weighs 273 pounds and has a body mass index of 35.

Chris O' Connor, CEO of Humanetics, told Monks, "Obese people are 78 percent more likely to die in a crash. The reason is the way we get fat. We get fat in our middle range. And we get out of position in a typical seat."

A 2010 study from the University at Buffalo and Erie County Medical Center analyzed data from more than 150,000 car crashes between 2000 to 2005, finding that "moderately obese drivers faced a 21 percent increased risk of death, and morbidly obese drivers faced a 56 percent increased risk of death," Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post. Lead author Dr. Dietrich Jehle said, "Crash test dummies have saved lives and provided invaluable data on how human bodies react to crashes, but they are designed to represent normal-weight individuals." (Read more)

Oil producers band together to lobby for an end to 40-year-old ban on crude exports

Reuters photo by Beck Diefenbach
A group of 14 oil producers are lobbying the federal government "to reverse the 40-year-old ban on U.S. crude exports, a move that supporters say would create jobs and keep the energy boom alive," Timothy Gardner reports for Reuters.

"Producers for American Crude Oil Exports, or PACE, is the first lobbying group to form to reverse the trade restriction passed by Congress in the 1970s after the Arab oil embargo caused fears of domestic oil shortages," Gardner writes. "As the U.S. oil boom of the last six years builds an excess of crude, calls have risen for Congress and the Obama administration to relax the ban."

Daren Beaudo, a spokesman for ConocoPhillips, one of the member companies, told Reuters that the groups have "united to create an advocacy initiative to help repeal the outdated ban on crude oil exports." He said the ability to export crude is "vital to the country’s economic growth and national security, job creation and strengthening our competitive position in the global marketplace."

Last week the U.S. Government Accountability Office "issued a report that concluded domestic consumers could save on gasoline bills if the ban was lifted because it would bring more oil to global markets, where fuel is priced," Gardner writes. "It was the latest in a string of reports to reach a similar conclusion." 

The main opposition for exports comes from four oil refiners called Consumers and Refiners United for Domestic Energy, or CRUDE, "who want to keep the ban in place, saying that exports could add costs to their processing," Gardner writes. (Read more)

EPA sends long-awaited proposed coal ash storage and disposal regulations to White House

The Environmental Protection Agency's long-awaited proposed regulations for coal ash storage and disposal have been sent to the White House for final review, Laura Barron-Lopez reports for The Hill. "Regulations propose classifying coal ash as 'special wastes' rather than 'hazardous,' but that is subject to change pending the final rule."

Coal ash regulations were originally proposed in 2011, but the House voted to block the standards," Barron-Lopex writes. "Republicans argue the rules would hurt jobs and raise compliance costs for utilities and plant operators. Law firm Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of 11 environmental and public health groups in 2013 to push the EPA to finalize the protections." EPA repeatedly put off setting a deadline for proposed rules, despite orders from a federal judge, before finally announcing it would finalize rules by Dec. 19.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Substitute teacher shortages a concern in rural areas, especially during cold and flu season

With winter approaching and cold and flu season on the horizon, an obstacle facing schools that are already struggling with teacher shortages—especially in rural areas—is a lack of substitute teachers to fill in for teachers who are ill. (WQOV 18 photo)

The Valley City School District in Valley City, N.D., is discovering that it isn't staffed to handle this problem, Christina Craig reports for Valley News Live. Jimmy Howard, who has worked as a substitute for two years, told Craig, "I just think a lot of younger teachers as they are coming out of school—they are not looking for rural experiences; they want city experiences. And as rural teachers are getting older and start to retire, there's a higher need now."

Valley City School District, which has 22 substitute teachers, has never had to cancel a class because of a lack of teachers, but administration staff members have had to act as substitutes at some schools, Craig writes.

The Chippewa Falls school district in Chippewa Falls, Wisc., currently has about 200 substitute teachers, 50 fewer than in previous years, Bridget Currant reports for WQOW 18 in Eau Claire. Superintendent Brad Saron told her, “I think our substitute shortage is a symptom of less people considering the field of education as a career choice."

Carmen Manning, the Dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences at UW-Eau Claire, told Currant, “I think it has to do with the fact that substitute teachers do not get any benefits and they work very part time." And substitutes in rural areas often earn less than those in urban ones, with the Chippewa Falls school district paying $85 per day, compared to $110 in Eau Claire.

Last year the Sun Prairie Area School District in Dane County, Wisconsin, posted 14,458 substitute teacher openings, with 426 of the postings going unfilled, Rebecca Rudolph reports for The Star in Sun Prairie, Wisc.

The average teacher misses 11 days per school year, and finding help has been a real problem, Rudolph writes. Annette Mikula, the district's human resource director, told Rudolph, “Years ago, it was easier to find subs because if someone didn’t find a job (out of college), then they’d sub to get a foot in the door. In today’s economy, many people don’t have that luxury.” (Read more)

National Parks that charge fees given permission to increase prices for first time in eight years

Yosemite National Park
Beginning in 2015 it could cost a little more to visit some national parks, Katia Hetter reports for CNN. "For the first time in eight years National Park Service sites that charge entrance and amenity fees can increase their rates by set amounts."

One of the biggest increases will be at Yosemite National Park, which announced Tuesday that its entrance rates will increase from $20 to $30, and its camping fees will increase "from the current range of $5 to $20 per night for family sites ($40 per night for group sites) to a range of $6 to $24 per night for family sites ($48 per night for group sites)," Hetter writes. "The cost of national park passes will remain at $80 for the regular annual pass, $10 for the lifetime senior pass and free for the annual military passes and access passes (for those with permanent disabilities)."

The increase in prices is drawing strong opposition, Paul Rogers reports for the San Jose Mercury News. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) said on Monday, "Raising fees in a stagnant economy makes as much sense as a shopkeeper raising prices in a sales slump. Contrary to assertions by park managers, tourists don't go where they're not welcomed, and the national parks compete for tourism with a vast array of other destinations."

In addition to Yosemite, Mount Rainier National Park and Crater Lake National Park "are likely to see price hikes of 50 percent, while prices at some lesser-known gems like Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park might rise upwards of 150 percent," Brad Tuttle reports for Time. "Price increases are also being proposed for annual passes, campsites, boating permits and other services at dozens of park and recreations areas." (Read more)

Questions arise about whether chemicals played a role in oil tank deaths

Petroleum poisoning in oil fields is a growing concern that has led to several deaths and left many medical professionals baffled or unwilling to place the blame on chemicals, Mike Soraghan reports for Environment and Energy Publishing. (Soraghan photo: Marathon's Buffalo 34-12H well pad near Killdeer, N.D.)

Robert Harrison, an occupational medicine specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center who has investigated fatal chemical exposures in the workplace, "said authorities such as coroners and medical examiners may be missing the signs of petroleum poisoning in oil field death cases," Soraghan writes. Harrison told him, "That's certainly something we should be checking into further and doing additional investigations on whenever deaths occur suspiciously like this in the oil fields. And I'd say dying alone in the middle of the night in North Dakota is a pretty unusual circumstance."

In a sworn statement to the attorney of the family of a worker who died of "hydrocarbon poisoning due to inhalation of petroleum vapors," environmental engineer Fred Bremseth said, "With that excessive gas, you get lightheaded. It would be just like carbon monoxide. You're gonna doze off, and Katy bar the doors, man—you're dead."

Confusion and a "look-the-other-way" attitude have hampered investigations, Soraghan writes. Trent Vigus's death certificate states his cause of death as "hypertensive and atherosclerotic heart disease"—hardening of the arteries, Soraghan writes. "Essentially, it says he died of hardening of the arteries and a sudden cardiac 'event' from an undiagnosed heart condition. But some of the postmortem results contradict that and suggest Vigus' exposure to chemicals may have contributed to his death."

"Laboratory tests turned up small amounts of propane and butane in Vigus' blood. Both these chemicals are found in Bakken crude," Soraghan writes. The pathologist who did the autopsy, Thomas Bennett, "wrote only that the toxicology test found caffeine and nicotine, ignoring the propane and butane results. Bennett wrote that Vigus died from a 'sudden cardiac event, most probably due to his underlying enlarged heart from hypertensive cardiovascular disease.'"

"But Bennett didn't find any hardening of the arteries in Vigus' 30-year-old body," Soraghan writes. "He wrote in his description of the heart that there were 'no gross atheromatous narrowings' of the arteries. That would usually mean there is no atherosclerotic heart disease."

Another instance involved a Marathon health, environment and safety specialist, who said when he was interviewed, the only question he was asked was "Can you keep your mouth shut?" Soraghan writes. "The problem turned out to be not what he said, but what he wrote," according to the attorney for the family of Dustin Bergsing, whose autopsy said he died of "hydrocarbon poisoning due to inhalation of petroleum vapors."

"Marathon managers were upset that he put his questions and concerns in writing in emails," Soraghan writes. "Unlike a spoken conversation, those could turn up as exhibits in a lawsuit." The employee was fired not long after Bergsing's death. (Read more)

Eastern Band of Cherokee invokes sovereignty, bans fracking on tribal land in North Carolina

Fracking has been banned on Eastern Band of Cherokee land in North Carolina, reports Indian Country Today Media Network. The resolution, passed last month and signed into law on Sept. 10, reads: “The Eastern Band of Cherokees will not permit or authorize any person, corporation or other legal entity to engage in hydraulic fracturing on Tribal trust lands. The State of North Carolina is without legal authority to permit hydraulic fracturing on Tribal trust lands.” (Eastern Band of Cherokee map)

North Carolina legislation in June "that lifted the state’s moratorium on fracking included a clause keeping local governments from outlawing the practice in their jurisdiction, so their resolutions are an expression of opinion rather than an act of law," Holly Kays reports for the Smoky Mountain News. "But the Eastern Band is a sovereign nation, so the tribal council is able to completely prevent drilling on Cherokee land." (Read more)

Lab that had certification revoked for falsifying water samples could soon be back in business

Less than a week ago, a West Virginia lab had its certification revoked because an employee admitted falsifying water quality samples for coal companies. Soon it could be back in business, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette. The state Environmental Quality Board is considering a request from Appalachian Laboratories to block the revocation and allow the company to remain open.

Lawyer Joseph Jenkins "told board members the DEP order puts the lab out of business and its 35 employees out of a job," Ward writes. "He said the DEP hadn’t performed its own investigation of allegations against the lab and that agency officials were acting out of concern that some third party might challenge DEP permit or enforcement decisions based on data from the lab."

Appalachian Laboratories President Kenny Fox "said that several major coal producers, including Patriot Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, CONSOL Energy and United Coal, have pulled all or part of their business from the lab," Ward writes. "Most employees have been told to stay home, pending resolution of the lab’s efforts for a temporary stay of the DEP order." Fox told the board that if the stay isn't granted, “We’ll have to shut our doors. We can’t gather samples. We can’t analyze them.” (Read more)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Journalists owe it to readers to expose the truth behind 'war on coal' campaign ads, writer says

In states like West Virginia and Kentucky, politicians are airing coal-related advertisements—many of which blame President Obama for the loss of jobs and downturn in economy. Republicans want to link their Democratic rivals to Obama, while Democrats try to distance themselves from the president. But the ads don't really say anything. And journalists are doing little to clear up the confusion of the ads that are typically geared toward getting an emotional response from voters—without the benefit of facts.

"The television ads are bad enough, and now we’ve got to endure career campaign consultants insulting each other via social media," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette. "So it would be nice if we had more actual journalism—the kind that gives voters the sort of information that helps make good choices."

Ward cites stories in The New York Times that skirt around the edges of coal-related campaign stories and never really tell the reader what's going on. "Huge advertising campaigns, first by the coal industry and then by coal-backed candidates, have created such widespread fear—based on false descriptions of what’s really killing the mining industry—that coalfield residents will back any measure, action or candidate that they think might save jobs that simply aren’t going to be saved," Ward writes. "Journalism should do more to help readers connect these dots. It should tell the truth."
 
"These kinds of concrete, no-nonsense facts—In Appalachia, the first casualty of the 'war on coal' is the truth about what is causing the steep decline in mining jobs—need to find their way into campaign stories, most clearly and more prominently," Ward writes. "Because elections matter." (Read more)

Bakken and Eagle Ford basin leaks emitting 9 to 10 percent of natural gas into atmosphere

Oil and gas basins in North Dakota and East Texas leaked large amounts of natural gas into the atmosphere between 2006 and 2011, says a study published this month in the journal Earth's Future, Gayathri Vaidyanathan reports for Environment and Energy Publishing. "The study finds that the Bakken and Eagle Ford basins leaked between 3 percent and 17 percent of the natural gas produced between 2009 and 2011, with the Bakken most likely emitting 10.1 percent and the Eagle Ford most likely emitting 9.1 percent."

Those are significant numbers, considering North Dakota's Bakken Shale produced 485 million cubic feet per day of gas in September 2011, while the Eagle Ford of East Texas produced 1,232 million cubic feet of gas per day in 2011, Vaidyanathan writes. "A methane leakage rate above 3.2 percent may negate the fuel's climate benefits in the power plant, scientists say. And in such a case, gas will be as bad as coal."

"The study used a European remote-sensing instrument, SCIAMACHY (affectionately referred to as "Scia" by scientists), to get a picture of emissions from the Bakken, the Eagle Ford and the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania," Vaidyanathan writes. "The instrument, aboard the Envisat satellite, captured a range of atmospheric conditions between 2006 and 2012. Scientists led by Oliver Schneising, a researcher at the University of Bremen in Germany, spent years deciphering the signature of methane from the satellite data." (Read more)

Michigan, Ohio, Indiana get USDA grants to reduce phosphorus blamed for toxic algae growth

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded Michigan, Indiana and Ohio $8.6 million in grants to reduce phosphorus runoff blamed for harmful algae growth in the Great Lakes, John Flesher reports for The Associated Press. The grants will "provide farmers with technical assistance and incentives while improving the measurement of phosphorus loads in Lake Erie tributaries, regional director Susan Hedman said."

In August toxic algae was blamed for Toledo losing its drinking water for two days. In response to the incident, Ohio officials passed a measure requiring farmers to get fertilizer licenses. But some fear the law has a loophole that benefits large manure users. The Great Lakes Commission said last month that it wants to reduce phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie by 40 percent. (AP photo by Haraz Ghanbari: The City of Toledo water intake crib is surrounded by an algae bloom on Lake Erie)

"The grants will enable Ohio to expand water quality monitoring in the Maumee River watershed, a leading source of phosphorus, said Craig Butler, director of the state’s environmental protection department," Flesher writes. "Michigan will hire four technicians to join three others working with farmers in the Lake Erie watershed to cut phosphorus runoff, said Jim Johnson, environmental stewardship director with the state agriculture department. Among practices they’re encouraging is keeping water on croplands long enough for sediments and nutrients to drop off before it flows to streams and lakes." (Read more)

Oil and gas worker deaths on the decline, but still higher than all-industry rate

The U.S. Department of Labor says that 823 oil and gas extraction workers were killed on the job between 2003 to 2010, a fatality rate seven times greater than the rate for all industries, Mike Soraghan reports for Environment and Energy Publishing. "The 2012 fatality rate for oil and gas extraction was a record 24.2 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was more than double the rate of construction worker deaths, higher than coal mining and even above that of the notoriously dangerous agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector."

While the fatality rate for oil and gas workers is unavailable for 2013 but is estimated to have decreased, "the fatality rate for the mining sector, which includes drilling, dropped from 15.9 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2012 to 12.2" in 2013, Soraghan writes. Despite the big drop, it's still "substantially higher than construction and nearly four times higher than the all-industry rate."

R. Dean Wingo, who retired in January 2013 as assistant regional administrator in the Dallas office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, told Soraghan, "It's still a long way to go, but we're headed in the right direction. They don't like this black eye for the fatalities they've had."

Dennis Schmitz, a safety trainer with 15 years of experience in the oil field and chairman of the MonDaks Safety Network, a group of safety officials from companies drilling in the Bakken Shale, told Soraghan, "It's a highly hazardous industry. We don't have a very good safety record." (Read more)

Rural, remote Arizona school thrust into national spotlight over controversy of 'Redskins' nickname

The national debate over whether or not the National Football League's Washington Redskins' nickname is offensive has reached a small remote rural town in Arizona. Red Mesa, a largely Navajo-populated town, which has the same nickname and similar logo as the NFL team, has faced scrutiny from activists who say the mascot is offensive, Ian Shapira reports for The Washington Post. Not only do most players and residents say they don't think Redskins is offensive but also many point to more pressing concerns facing their community—such as high unemployment and low test scores.

A 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll that found nine out of 10 Native Americans were not offended by the Redskins name, Shapira writes. In Red Mesa, 88 percent of students and 71 percent of faculty surveyed by the school said they wanted to keep the name Redskins, while 60 percent of students said Redskins is not offensive and 33 percent said they were not sure if it was offensive. (Post photo by Ricky Carioti: A Red Mesa player leads the football team during the homecoming parade.)

In fact, Red Mesa has a Washington Redskins connection. Team owner Dan Snyder offered students free tickets to a recent game played against the Arizona Cardinals, Shapira writes. Many students accepted tickets and were met at the game by protesters, including Navajo and Arizona resident Amanda Blackhouse, who is the lead plaintiff in a legal case that threatens the Washington Redskins’ trademark protection.

But the town has other concerns, Shapira writes. Red Mesa is 90 miles from the nearest major shopping center, the town's tap water is undrinkable with high levels of arsenic and uranium—forcing the school to spend thousands on bottled water—most of the school buildings were built in the 1970s, many students travel an hour to get to school and most students qualify for free student meals.

Add in that "about two-thirds passed the state’s reading exams, but only 36 percent passed the math component," Shapira writes. "On the Arizona Report Card, which gives an overall letter grade to every high school in the state, Red Mesa received a D." As senior football player Arlo Begay told Shapira, “There’s more important things to worry about than ‘Redskins.’” (Read more)

Main Street historic preservation great for looks, not always good for community, writer says

Preserving historic downtown areas in small towns is great for tourism but does little to compliment the day to day life of local residents, Kelley Snowden opines for the Daily Yonder. Snowden, who lives in East Texas, says towns that follow the National Main Street Center’s methods for restoring and revitalizing historic downtowns don't provide anything practical for local residents. (Kent Kanouse photo: Las Vegas, N.M. is part of the Main Street movement)

"The historic downtown is chock full of 'unique entrepreneurial businesses,' in the language of the Texas Historical Commission, including a seemingly endless variety of antique stores," Snowden writes. "But I don’t spend a lot of time downtown. There’s nothing I need there. I don’t need antiques. I need toothpaste, something to cook for supper and toilet paper. I can’t get those downtown."

"On those rare occasions when I do go downtown, I have to compete with tourists to get my business done. The streets and sidewalks are congested with traffic, and parking is at a minimum," Snowden writes. "While I’m glad that tourists come and spend their money, I really don’t want to get into a nest of them. That’s the problem with the Main Street program. It does a great job of helping towns preserve and gussy-up their downtowns, but in and of itself, does it really serve the broader local community?"

While the program encourages small businesses opportunities, many of those businesses don't last, Snowden writes. Few hire outside of family members, and the ones that do, often pay low wages with little to no benefits. Additionally, tourism is not a consistent business and often has highs and lows and seasons.

"All this taken together means that before your town jumps on the Main Street wagon, you need to seriously consider what it will do to—and for—your community," Snowden writes. "If your goal is to restore your downtown and create a hub for tourism, that’s great. It can do that. What it can’t do is single-handedly bring larger economic development to your town."

"If you are counting on Main Street to increase the number of people moving to your town, think again," Snowden writes. "People will come for good jobs, good schools, good neighborhoods and a good local economy. They don’t come for interesting architecture, quaint antique stores or old time soda fountains." (Read more)

Friday, October 24, 2014

More workers in oil and gas industry die from fires, explosions than in any other private industry

Despite employing fewer than 1 percent of workers in the U.S., the oil and gas industry has more deaths from fires and explosions than any other private industry, accounting for 10 percent of such fatalities, Mike Soraghan reports for Environment & Energy News. The only profession with more deaths is firefighting.

The oil and gas industry apparently fails to see this as an issue, Soraghan writes. The American Petroleum Institute, the industry's biggest lobbying group, wrote earlier this year in a filing with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration: "There is little performance data showing there is a safety problem at these facilities. The risk level is not high." (E&E graphic)

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board "found 26 explosions and fires since 1983 at conventional oil and gas sites that killed 44 members of the public and injured 25 others," Soraghan writes. "The board, fashioned after the National Transportation Safety Board, made six recommendations to government agencies and industry groups when it released the study in 2011. None has been implemented." So far this year, at least eight fatal oil and gas explosions have occurred in the U.S.

Fire and explosions pose a threat to more than just workers, with 15.3 million people living within a mile of a well that had been drilled since 2000, The Wall Street Journal reported last year, Soraghan writes. But the oil and gas industry is heavily active in politics, spending $145 million last year lobbying the federal government, more than any other industry except pharmaceuticals and insurance, says the Center for Responsive Politics. ()

Many states with large rural populations are not energy efficient, state-by-state study says

Many states with large rural populations are less energy efficient than states with fewer rural citizens, says an annual ranking released Wednesday by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). North Dakota tops the list as the least energy efficient, followed by Wyoming, South Dakota, Mississippi, Alaska and West Virginia. The most energy efficient states are Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

"The rankings account for each state’s electricity and natural gas efficiency program budgets, annual savings from efficiency programs, greenhouse gas emissions standards, electric vehicle registrations, transit funding and legislation, the strictness and enforcement of state building codes, use of combined heat and power, state financial incentives for energy efficiency and other factors," Bobby Magill reports for Climate Central

"Massachusetts has led the country in energy efficiency for four years in a row, mainly because the state has begun to save energy by setting annual electricity savings targets of up to 2.6 percent through 2015 and natural gas savings targets of up to 1.2 percent per year through 2015," Magill writes. "States at the bottom of the list have not made energy efficiency a priority." (Read more) (ACEEE map: Energy efficient rankings by state. To view an interactive version click here)

Candidates, Appalachian news media shy away from studies on mountaintop-removal health risks

Coal has become a major issue in election campaigns. But despite the mounting scientific evidence of the health dangers of mountaintop removal—a recent study linked its dust to lung cancer—candidates and local media have largely ignored the subject, Ken Ward Jr. reports for the Charleston Gazette. (Gazette photo)

"It would be one thing if—as some political leaders continually try to suggest—this was just one isolated study," Ward writes. "But it’s not. It’s a growing body of studies that continues to present a compelling case that something is going on. And, of course, while the human health studies are the most troubling, the evidence of environmental destruction from mountaintop removal also continues to grow."

"Just this week, there was another important paper out of the University of Kentucky, reporting on how mountaintop removal is reducing the salamander population in Kentucky’s coalfields," Ward writes. "This is a follow-up paper to one that produced a similar finding in West Virginia. We wrote about that paper in a Gazette story that summarized the findings of a study many of the overlooked environmental effects of mountaintop removal."

"Another important study published in August reported that the coal industry’s much-touted “mitigation” efforts aren’t really doing much good at restoring streams damaged by mining," Ward writes. The Washington Post wrote an editorial saying that coal advocates claim the studies are nothing but an "anti-coal, anti-business agenda."

But few in coal country are jumping in to defend editorials like the one in the Post, Ward writes. "You don’t see much coverage of these important scientific studies in the West Virginia media, and you don’t see many editorials like the Post’s in our state’s newspapers." (Read more)

USDA awards grants to create jobs and boost economic development in rural areas

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced today that 43 non-profit organizations and higher learning institutions in 27 states have been awarded between $71,998 to $1 million in grants and loans to help create jobs and boost economic development in rural areas.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement: "Many rural businesses and organizations are succeeding but with access to additional resources, can create more jobs, promote growth and create an environment where more products can be made in rural America. The awards we are announcing today will not only provide funding, but they also will provide the critical training and technical assistance rural cooperatives and non-profit groups need to enhance the work they are doing to strengthen America's Main Street businesses."

Funding is through the USDA's Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program and the Intermediary Relending Program, says USDA. "The funding can be used to conduct feasibility studies, create and implement business plans, offer technical assistance, establish low-interest loans and help rural businesses develop new markets for their products and services." (Read more)

EPA proposes removing 72 chemicals from list of substances that can be used in pesticides

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed removing 72 chemicals from the list of substances that can be used as ingredients in pesticides, Laura Barron-Lopez reports for The Hill. "The move comes in response to calls by the Center for Environmental Health, physicians and others across the U.S. for the EPA to propose rules mandating companies disclose the 371 ingredients found in pesticide products." The public comment period on the proposal is open until Nov. 21.

Most of the 72 chemicals are on the list of 371 ingredients deemed hazardous by environmental groups, Barron-Lopez writes. Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told Barron-Lopez, “We are taking action to ensure that these ingredients are not added to any pesticide products unless they have been fully vetted by EPA.” (Read more)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Coal companies and miners keep leaving Appalachia for energy boom in Wyoming, Montana

Coal companies are heading west where mining is cheaper, and with many Appalachian coal mines cutting jobs or shutting down, some workers in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia are packing up and trekking their families thousands of miles to follow the coal boom to Wyoming and Montana, Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg. (Loh photo: Peabody Energy Corp.'s North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming)

"With the U.S. coal industry in its worst decline in decades, companies including Alpha Natural Resources and Peabody Energy Corp., the biggest producer, are pivoting toward pockets of future profit," Loh writes. "No prospect is bigger than the Powder River Basin, a high, mineral-rich plain of yellow grass and sagebrush stretching from central Wyoming to southern Montana. Coal output in the Powder River Basin increased 2.6 percent in the first half from a year earlier while total U.S. production inched upward a mere 0.75 percent. Mines there are vast open holes that cost less than half to operate than those in West Virginia where workers head underground to extract the fuel."

"Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming is the country’s biggest, with five pits that span 100 square miles," Loh writes. The company sold 123.3 million tons of Western U.S. coal in the first three quarters of the year, an increase of 4.6 percent from 2013, with most of the coal coming from the Powder River Basin.

Jobs are plentiful in areas like Campbell County, Wyoming, even if housing is not, Loh writes. Campbell County has an unemployment rate of 3 percent, well below the national average of 5.9 percent, with the region's mines supplying 41 percent of the country's coal. Gina Michael, visitor services manager with the Campbell County Convention & Visitors Bureau, told Loh, “We have more jobs than people and more people than housing.”
 
And it doesn't appear that the boom will end any time soon, Loh writes. "In Wyoming, it cost Alpha an average of $11.06 a ton to mine 17.4 million tons of coal in the first half of the year." Meanwhile, "the company spent an average of $63.86 a ton to extract Appalachian coal." (Read more)

Rural Nebraska school to allow guns in senior portraits; other schools have passed similar rules

Seniors at a rural high school in central Nebraska can now pose for yearbook portraits with their firearms. The school board for Broken Bow Public Schools unanimously passed the rule Monday night, allowing senior portraits to contain guns, as long as the photos are done tastefully, Joe Dejka reports for the Omaha World-Herald. One official said posing with guns is nothing new, with about half the state's districts allowing such photos. (Baer Photography: Senior portrait of Jillian Dixon of Northwest High School in Grand Island, Neb.)

Hunting, skeet and trap are popular in Broken Bow, and firearms are common, said Superintendent Mark Sievering, Dejka writes. Sievering told him, “The board, I believe, felt they wanted to give students who are involved in those kinds of things the opportunity to take a senior picture with their hobby, with their sport, just like anybody with any other hobby or sport." (Wikipedia map: Custer County, site of Broken Bow)

The new policy says "that students may pose with objects that illustrate their accomplishments or interests, including hunting, shooting and other outdoor sporting activities," Dejka writes. "If posing with an item normally considered a weapon, such as a rifle, shotgun or knife, the student may not be brandishing the weapon or pointing it at the camera. The display must be 'tasteful and appropriate.' For example, the policy says, a student 'should not submit a photograph of game shot by the student if the animal is in obvious distress.'" 

School board member Matthew Haumont told Dejka, “So we’re going to have to take these as a case-by-case basis. But I think that goes with any photo, whether it’s a scantily clad girl or something like that.” (Read more)

Webinar for journalists on Oct. 28 to focus on covering Medicare Advantage and Part D issues

Because Medicare's open enrollment began last week and will run through Dec. 7, Kaiser Health News is holding a webinar for journalists at 12:30 p.m. (ET) on Oct. 28 on covering Medicare Advantage and Part D issues, says Kaiser Health News. "During Medicare's open enrollment period, beneficiaries can change their prescription drug coverage or change or enroll in private health plans called Medicare Advantage, which replace standard Medicare."

The webinar will feature a brief introduction by Kaiser Family Foundation’s Senior Vice President Tricia Neuman, who directs the KFF Program on Medicare Policy, and Kimberly Lankford, Contributing Editor of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, followed by a question and answer period. For more information or to register click here.

USDA releases state-by-state reports on impact of Made in Rural America

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released state-by-state Made in Rural America reports that "highlights specific USDA investments in rural businesses, manufacturing, energy, water and other infrastructure development," says USDA. "They also outline how USDA is helping rural communities attract businesses and families by investing in housing and broadband."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement: "This report shows what investment in rural America means in real terms for families and businesses across the country. Throughout the Obama Administration, USDA has created employment opportunities in rural America through investments in manufacturing, energy and small businesses. At the same time, we are bringing reliable services like water, housing and broadband to make these same communities attract and retain a talented workforce. This report proves that the entrepreneurial spirit is strong in rural America." To read the reports, click here.

Certification revoked from West Virginia lab that falsified coal water quality reports

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has revoked the state certification of Appalachian Laboratories after an official plead guilty to falsifying water quality samples for coal companies, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette. The official testified before a federal judge that he was pressured by coal companies to alter results.

DEP released an order saying that Appalachian Laboratories “submitted false, inaccurate data to its clients” and to the agency and ordered Appalachian to notify its clients that its certification had been revoked, Ward writes. In West Virginia, companies are required to be certified to perform water quality analysis. DEP rules allow the agency to revoke a lab certification if the lab "commits any falsification relating to certification, testing or reporting of analytical results." (Read more)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fear of high winter heating costs raises demand for firewood in rural Minnesota; supplies are low

Rural residents in the Midwestern U.S. who rely on propane spent about 54 percent more last winter than in 2012-13. Because of anticipation of another brutal winter, the fear of propane shortages and the high costs of keeping warm, firewood is in high demand in rural Minnesota, and supplies are running low, John Enger reports for Minnesota Public Radio.

Minnesota officials say propane shortage won't be a problem this year, with residents having already stocked up on 1.35 million gallons of propane, a 30 percent increase in pre-season sales, said Roger Leider, Minnesota Propane Association executive director, Enger writes. "Firewood, on the other hand, is in critically high demand. Reserves were bled dry last year, and spring logging was stalled by muddy ground. Last month Twin Cities-area firewood suppliers made news when they were unable to keep up with orders." (Enger photo: Chris White cuts wood to sell to lumber mills)

Loggers Tim, Dean and Duane White typically cut 500 cords for area lumber mills in the northern part of the state but have already met that demand this year with another 500 on order that have already been sold, Enger writes. Because of the high demand and the difficulty of getting to greater supplies, the Whites have had to raise prices from $75 to $80 per cord for green, lower-grade firewood and bump up the cost for oak from $80 to $85.

It's estimated that in northern Minnesota heating a typical home with wood costs about $640, Enger writes. "Beltrami Electric Cooperative estimates it costs about $2,100 to heat with standard electricity, though that cost can drop to $1,340 if there is a secondary source of heat, like a wood stove, and off-peak pricing kicks in." (Read more)

USA Today index shows how U.S. counties have become more racially and ethnically diverse

The U.S. is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. And not just in cities. Rural America is seeing an influx of immigrants as the country experiences a second wave of immigration, Greg Toppo and Paul Overberg report for USA Today. "The first, which stretched from the 1880s to the 1920s, coincided with the opening of Ellis Island and the social and political transformation of the nation. The people in this second wave, arriving roughly since 1970, are more likely to be middle-class and, because of improved transportation and technology, can assimilate more quickly."

USA Today has created a county-level Diversity Index to calculate the chance that two random people are different by race or ethnicity, Toppo and Overberg write. The index went from 20 in 1960 to 40 in 1990 to 55 in 2010 and is projected to rise to 70 by 2060, meaning there will only be a 30 percent chance that two random people next to each other will be the same race or ethnicity.

The index has risen dramatically in many rural areas, Toppo and Overberg write. In Finney County, Kansas, where the population is 47 percent Hispanic and two meatpacking plants employ more than 2,500 immigrants, the index rose from 46 in 1990 to 60 in 2010. Buena Vista County, Iowa, increased from 6 in 1990 to 49 in 2010, and Monroe County, Pennsylvania rose from 9 in 1990 to 48 in 2010. Overall, 14 percent of counties had an index above 50 in 2010, compared to only 3 percent in 1990. (Read more) (USA Today map)

Documentary examines effects of proposed uranium mill in rural impoverished Colorado

"Uranium Drive-In," a documentary film now available on DVD, follows the plight of a proposed uranium mill in rural Montrose County, Colo., offering "an honest look at people facing matters of rural poverty, sustainable development and the long reach of environmental advocacy," Natalie Axton reports for the Daily Yonder. The mill would provide jobs to residents in Nucla, where 17 percent of people live below the poverty line, and Naturita, where 10 percent of people live below the poverty line.

Filmmaker Suzan Beraza told Axton that the residents "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." (Read more)

Urban areas are increasingly voting Democrat, rural areas are supporting Republicans

Urban areas are more likely to vote Democrat, while rural areas are more apt to support Republican candidates, reports Philip Bump for The Washington Post, which has created county-level maps and graphics detailing rural vs. urban populations and how they voted in the 1988-2012 presidential elections. Counties where the population is at least 90 percent urban "were 32 percentage points more Democratic in their voting than the average," while counties that are 90 percent rural "were about 11 percentage points more Republican—shifting right an average of two percentage points each election." (Post graphic)

"If you plot every county's urban-versus-rural divide by the per-election average change in the vote, the pattern is clear," Bump writes. More urban areas have been voting more Democratic. "The national average of all counties in presidential elections has become more Republican than the overall vote because there are more rural counties—but fewer rural voters." (Read more)

NTCA-Rural Broadband Association recognizes Smart Rural Community Showcase Award winners

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association recognized 13 rural communities in the U.S. and Canada as Smart Rural Community Showcase Award winners, "as part of the association's initiative to highlight efforts that make rural hometowns vibrant places in which to live and do business," says the organization.

The organization says its goal "is to foster the development of smart communities throughout rural America and Canada by recognizing innovators, highlighting innovative implementation of broadband solutions and identifying resources to assist other broadband providers and connected industries." Winners were selected for "promoting access to next-generation applications and platforms such as distance learning, telehealth services, public safety and security."

The winning broadband providers were: Copper Valley Telecom, Valdez, Alaska; Consolidated Telecommunications, Brainerd, Minn.; FTC, Kingstree, S.C.; HuronTel, Ripley, Ont.; North Central Telephone Cooperative, Lafayette, Tenn.; Premier Communications, Sioux Center, Iowa; Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative, McKee, Ky.; Solarus, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.; Triangle Communications, Havre, Mont.; Tri-County Communications Cooperative, Strum, Wis.; Twin Valley Telephone Co., Miltonvale, Kan.;Vernon Telephone Cooperative, Westby, Wis.; Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom, Waitsfield, Vt. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

USDA needs to decrease high poultry pathogen rates, Government Accountability Office says

The U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to strengthen the way it approaches protecting humans from pathogens in poultry products, says a report by the Government Accountability Office. To do so, USDA "must set strict pathogen limits for poultry products with the highest contamination rates and find ways to measure a poultry plant’s success with these new standards," Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post.

USDA set a standard of 7.5 percent for salmonella on whole chicken carcasses, but "ground poultry products and chicken parts—breasts, wings and drumsticks—have pathogen rates in the double digits, partly because of the cutting and grinding processes that expose the meat to more bacteria," Kindy writes. "A pathogen standard establishes the level of a bacteria that can be found on a poultry product before it is declared unfit for commerce."

"Federal law does not prohibit the sale of poultry products that are contaminated with pathogens, so the department has pledged repeatedly to set limits for the most dangerous pathogens—salmonella and campylobacter," Kindy writes. But the report noted that USDA "missed a Sept. 30 deadline for setting salmonella and campylobacter limits for chicken and turkey parts as well as campylobacter in ground turkey. It also missed a deadline for updating the rate of salmonella allowed in ground poultry, which is currently more than 44 percent for both chicken and turkey."

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said that by the end of 2014 it will issue new pathogen standards and create a way to measure how well poultry plants are meeting the standards, Kindy writes. (Read more)