Thursday, May 26, 2016

Southern electric cooperatives lack diversity among their elected directors, critics say

Rural electrical cooperatives in the South lack diversity among their elected directors, says a study by the Rural Power Project, a joint project of Labor Neighbor Research and Training Center and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. ACORN founder Wade Rathke writes for the Daily Yonder that the study, which looked at 313 cooperatives in the South, found that of the 3,051 democratically elected members, 2,754—or 90.3 percent—are men, with only 297 elected female members. Women make up 51.1 percent of the South's population.

The study also found that 95.3 percent of directors are white, 4.4 percent black and 0.3 percent Hispanic, Rathke writes. The study report says "Many cooperatives do not have a way for regular members to gain access to the ballot by signatures, petitions, or floor nomination."

Jeffrey Connor, interim CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, told The Rural Blog in an email: "Electric cooperatives, under the cooperative business model, rely on open and transparent governance and the positive involvement of the communities they serve.  We are member-owned and not-for-profit.  Electric cooperatives bear a unique responsibility to meet the needs of their member-owners with safe, reliable and affordable power, as well as the cooperative principle of concern for community."

In most rural counties, a two-bedroom apartment is out of reach for many workers

Individual renters need to earn, on average, $20.30 an hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in the U.S., says a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The Washington Post broke down the numbers by county, finding that a two-bedroom apartment would eat up 30 percent—more than 30 percent is considered unaffordable—of most workers' earnings, with numbers well above 50 percent in some counties, particularly in the South, where rural poverty is high. (Screen shot of interactive Post map: Residents earning minimum wage in Walthall County, Mississippi, where the poverty level is 26.4 percent, would need to spend 82.4 percent of their income on a fair market value two-bedroom apartment)
"The national pattern—the minimum wage isn't really a 'housing wage' anywhere in America, even at 40 hours a week—hints at the difficulty of being a poor single parent," Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham report for the Post. "And it's just the most dire expression of an affordable housing crunch affecting renters much farther up the income spectrum, too."

Report: Nearly 1/3 of Pennsylvania's hospitals, many of them rural, lost money in 2015

Many of Pennsylvania's most remote hospitals are operating in the red, says a report released today from the independent Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) state agency. Overall, 29 percent of the state's hospitals are losing money, Steve Twedt reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But numbers are grim in rural areas. For example, Ellwood City Hospital, a 70-bed facility in the eastern part of the state, has not reported a profit since 1998. The hospital, which is looking for an affiliation partner, recorded a negative 7.62 percent margin for fiscal 2015.

Other rural hospitals report similar losses, Twedt writes. Denis Lukes, chief financial officer for the Healthcare Council of Western Pennsylvania, told Twedt, “And these tend to be the only hospitals for miles and miles around. I think there’s a real need for some protection from across the state, just in terms of access to care.” Lukas said "the western part of the state gets hit harder because Medicare, in addition to its overall cuts, reimburses hospitals at a lower rate based on a formula that factors in hospital employee salaries."

N.M. sues EPA, Colorado mine owners for $136M over 2015 toxic wastewater spill ruled preventable

New Mexico has filed a $136 million lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency and the owners of southwestern Colorado’s Gold King Mine over an August spill that released three million gallons of toxic wastewater from the defunct mine, Ollie Reed Jr. reports for the Albuquerque Journal. In October the U.S Bureau of Reclamation determined that the spill was preventable. An EPA document released after the spill said EPA knew of the dangers of a polluted water blowout when it sent a crew into the mine. (EPA photo: Yellow wastewater at the entrance to the mine in San Juan County)

The lawsuit, which cites economic setbacks and environmental damage, "demands reimbursement of $889,327 for short-term emergency-response costs paid by the state, more than $6 million to pay for long-term monitoring of the Animas and San Juan rivers and $130 million for lost income, taxes, fees and revenues suffered by the state because of the spill," Reed writes. Ryan Flynn, New Mexico environment secretary, told Reed, "The river only flows one way. Trouble could still be coming for New Mexico. We have been pushing for a monitoring effort since October. Our concept is $6 million plus and five years of comprehensive monitoring that would give us a firm grasp of what is happening in the watershed. All EPA has said is we will give you is $465,000. That just doesn’t cut it.”

EPA, which does not comment on pending litigation filed by outside parties, said in a statement released Monday that "the agency takes responsibility for the mine spill cleanup and has been working to reimburse response costs and fund tribal and state monitoring plans as well as conduct its own monitoring of the Animas and San Juan rivers," Reed writes.

Iowa latest state to release wasps in an attempt to stop borers that are destroying ash trees

Iowa is turning its hopes to wasps to defeat the invasive emerald ash borer that has infested ash trees in 31 of the state's 99 counties, Donnelle Eller reports for The Des Moines Register. In the coming days officials will begin releasing thousands of wasps, a natural enemy of the ash borer, to attack it. "Iowa will use two species of parasitic wasps. One lays its eggs inside the emerald ash borer egg; the other, its larvae. Both use the borer to feed its offspring." While the wasps won't be a silver bullet, the hope is that they "lessen the impact" of the ash borers, said Mike Kintner of the state Department of Agriculture. He said the wasps, which are the size of a grain of rice, are harmless to humans. (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources photo by Bill McNee: Eulophid wasp)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture blames the ash borer for destroying tens of millions of trees nationwide, Eller writes. "Iowa has an estimated 52 million rural ash trees and about 3.1 million more ash trees in urban areas." USDA says ash borer have been detected in 25 states: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Wasps have been used in most of those states to combat ash borer.

Rural Texas town to be home of detention center for transgender immigrants

Officials say a new detention center in rural North Texas for transgender immigrants will improve conditions for transgender detainees, but critics say it will open the door for further abuse, Kate Groetzinger reports for Quartz, which is owned by Atlantic Media Co.,  publisher of The Atlantic. Alvarado (Best Places map), a town of 3,800 about 30 miles outside Dallas, will be the site of the Prairieland Detention Center, which will house up to 36 detainees when it opens in November, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The only other such institution is in Santa Ana, Calif., which officials recently voted to shut down in 2020, following a report by Human Rights Watch documenting abuses of detainees at the facility.

Prairieland "is the first to include a unit built specifically to house transgender detainees," Groetzinger writes. "According to ICE officials, the construction of a transgender unit in Texas is meant to improve conditions for transgender detainees. Transgender activists and advocates say it represents an expansion of an abusive system that can’t protect transgender individuals’ safety and rights. Prior to last year, the government had no protocol for handling transgender detainees, according to Flor Bermudez, a director at the Transgender Law Center."

"In June 2015, ICE released a memorandum addressing the treatment of transgender detainees, instructing detention centers to adopt new provisions governing everything from strip searches, clothing options, and medical care to housing assignments. The ICE unit at the Santa Ana City Jail agreed to implement the memo’s provisions on June 1, 2016, according to ICE officials, and the Prairieland Detention Center has also pledged to adopt the provisions upon opening in November. This does not guarantee better treatment, according to Adam Frankel, one of the researchers who helped compile the Human Rights Watch report on Santa Ana." (Read more)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Trump has twice as many rural backers as Clinton

If rural votes were the only ones that counted in the November election Republican Donald Trump would win the presidency by a landslide. But Democrat Hillary Clinton leads 46 to 43 percent in the latest poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, which found a bigger rural-urban divide than usual.

Trump leads Clinton in rural areas, 60 percent to 29 percent, says today's "First Read" by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann of NBC. Clinton makes up ground in urban areas, where she leads Trump 58 percent to 33 percent, they write: "The advantage here for Clinton and Democrats: There are a lot more votes in Urban America than Rural America." (Click on table for larger image)
Trump is outperforming Mitt Romney's 2012 performance in rural areas, while Clinton is doing worse than President Obama did in rural areas in 2012, NBC reports. Clinton is under-performing in college towns and Trump is under-performing in counties NBC labels "Faith Driven America" and "Urban America," especially places with a significant Latino population, where he is often met with protests and unrest. (Read more)

Georgia weekly leads David vs. Goliath battle against proposed disposal of coal ash in landfill

The Press-Sentinel, a twice-weekly newspaper in southwestern Georgia, has spent the better part of 2016 leading the crusade to stop coal ash from being dumped in a landfill in Wayne County (Wikipedia map), home county of Dink NeSmith, president of Athens-based Community Newspapers Inc., which owns the paper.

Some say allowing coal ash in the landfill will boost the local economy through host fees and rail-yard jobs, but others fear the hazards of having toxic materials nearby. County Commissioner Mike Roberts, who said commissioners knew little to nothing about coal ash before the issue arose, said it will take help from state and federal officials to keep coal ash out of the landfill. He told Derby Waters of The Press-Sentinel that it's "the federal government we are fighting, and it’s not an easy fight. We won’t stop fighting it."

Wayne County residents say they fear having coal ash in the vicinity, Candice McKinley writes for The Press-Sentinel. Local resident Judy Butts told her, "We didn't bargain for a mountain of coal ash. We settled in a place with few people and few distractions, because that's the lifestyle we wanted to live. We are scared now that we will no longer have that."

The Press-Sentinel, which is behind a paywall, published a 20-page special section about the controversy on March 12. It included stories, opinions, cartoons, photographs, maps, public notices of meetings, letters to the editor, a timeline of events, a list of Wayne County officials and their contact information, and no advertising, making the section a big investment for the paper. It later ran a full page that included photos of local officials and their views of the proposal.

The story began Jan. 4, when a South Carolina company applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit for a rail spur to dump coal ash in 250 acres of the Republic Services landfill. Officials and residents in Wayne County were not informed of the permit application, despite a required public-comment period. The Corps, which merely put a notice of the application on its website, is involved because the applicant "proposed a discharge of dredged materials into almost 25 acres of jurisdictional wetlands," Waters wrote. "It proposed to construct at rail-yard operation including unloading structures, rail-car wash down stations, parking and an office."

An environmental lobbyist told the newspaper he had seen the notice on the Corps website. In January the county commission asked the Corps for a public meeting on the plan. Officials were concerned that the application was limited to basic information about the physical operation, but nothing about environmental and safety issues or where the coal ash and other materials would come from, Waters reported. Officials also met with Republic officials to find out more about their plans, and discovered that Republic is a subsidiary of Central Virginia Properties, the permit applicant. Commission Chair Kevin Copeland told Waters that Republic was opposed to a public meeting, claiming it was properly licensed to take in coal ash.

In February the commission approved funding for a landfill study and the Corps extended the comment period, after prompting from state leaders. In March, Republic agreed to meet with county elected officials as part of an open house at the landfill.

Meanwhile, The Press-Sentinel learned that if coal ash is dumped in the landfill Republic "could be faced with thousands of dollars in penalties for breaching the terms of timberland conservation easements it now claims when paying county property taxes," Waters writes. For the past seven years "the company has saved in property taxes by making use of conservation easements. The penalty the company could have to pay were all the easements removed at one time could be $326,406."

Dwayne Powell has done many cartoons for the paper. 
The fight has already reaped some rewards, Drew Davis reports for The Press-Sentinel. Legislation by state Rep. Bill Werkheiser (R-Glennville) to require greater transparency, after an apparent leak in the landfill was never reported, was signed into law last month. "The bill requires landfill owners and operators to notify local officials and the county legal organ of toxic leaks."

The fight is an example of the power and value of community newspapers that live up to their responsibilities. "If it is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell, the Press-Sentinel is answering the call and rattling Satan’s rafters," Teri Saylor reports for Publisher's Auxiliary, the newspaper of the National Newspaper Association.

NeSmith "vows to never stop until he has accomplished three goals: to extract a guarantee from Republic Services that no coal ash will ever be brought into Wayne County; to convince the Corps of Engineers to deny the permit for the rail spur; and to convince the county to renegotiate its contract with Republic, imposing strict rules on the volume and type of solid waste the landfill is allowed to accept," Saylor writes. He told her, “If I were on my deathbed, I’d get up and keep fighting. I will do whatever it takes, and then some. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”

Drug firms shipping millions of painkillers into Appalachia; closing pill mills isn't slowing deaths

Drug firms have been pushing prescription painkillers into pill mill pharmacies in the poorest and most rural Appalachian towns, where drug abuse and overdose death rates are among the nation's highest. Court records unsealed this week—stemming from a 2012 lawsuit by the West Virginia attorney general—show that "prescription drug distributors shipped large quantities of oxycodone and hydrocodone tablets to small towns like War, Kermit, Oceana, Van and Crab Orchard, supplying mom-and-pop pharmacies that filled prescriptions from doctors, some of whom were later convicted of federal crimes," Eric Eyre reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette graphic)

Records show that from 2007 to 2012 "AmerisourceBergen, the nation’s third largest drug distributor, shipped 60.9 million hydrocodone pills and 26.6 million oxycodone tablets to West Virginia," Eyre writes. "That’s 33 hydrocodone pills and 15.5 oxycodone pills for every man, woman and child in West Virginia." Also, H.D. Smith shipped 12.4 million hydrocodone pills and 3.2 million oxycodone tablets, Masters Pharmaceuticals supplied 1.5 million hydrocodone pills and 859,000 oxycodone pills and Top Rx shipped 1.7 million hydrocodone tablets. "West Virginia spends more than $430 million a year on problems caused by prescription drug abuse, according to the state’s lawsuit."

Similar problems are found in neighboring states, such as Kentucky, which had 76 pain clinics in 2012, Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policytold Rich Lord and Adam Smeltz of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Melborne Williams, an Eastern Kentucky psychiatrist whose license was suspended, prescribed 1.35 million doses of the sedative Xanax in 2012, tops among the state's doctors, according to Kentucky's prescribing database. Danny Finley, coroner of Clay County, population 21,013, in 2012 classified 43 fatalities as drug-related. Finley told investigators that 11 of those deaths were patients of Williams.

Shutting down pill mills hasn't stopped drug deaths, Lord and Smeltz write. When states began making it harder to get prescription painkillers, drug users switched to heroin, which has become cheap and easy to get. Seven states analyzed by the Post-Gazette—Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia—all saw a rise in fatal overdoses from 2010 to 2014. West Virginia leads the nation in drug deaths.

Philanthropies need to be more invested in rural areas, says Appalachian advocate

Justin Maxson
Less than 20 percent of the nation's population is rural areas, but rural areas only received 6 to 7 percent of private foundation grants awarded from 2005 to 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those are numbers that need to change if philanthropies are going to make any progress, Justin Maxson, executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, told Bestey Russell, a writer for the Daily Yonder. "Maxson said one problem is the assertion by some foundations that rural communities lack capacity to put grants to good use," Russell reports. "But that’s often more a matter of perception than reality foundations, he said."

Maxson, who has been in Appalachia for 15 years, previously with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, told Russell: "I think there are a range of civic associations, non-profit organizations, and local leaders who bring skills from their work in all sorts of settings that translate into capacity to support changing those places. It’s hard for foundations to go deep enough to really learn a place. If you look across rural America, it’s a big landscape. It takes settling in a place and building relationships, scratching beneath the surface to understand that capacity, to resource it, to figure out what the needs are, and what the opportunities are in those places."

"It’s not easy," he said. "I don’t want to pretend there’s a Harry Potter spell you can say. It’s not that simple. We spend a lot of time building relationships with partners and communities. We don’t pretend that we can be of a place, but we sure the heck can be authentic. We can ask good questions. We can listen well. We can, through local partners, build the connections that result in a better understanding of the place. We spend a ridiculous amount of time on the road. There is cost in that, to staff. There is cost in that financially. There’s cost in that in terms of our organizational culture, but I think it absolutely improves our grantmaking."

"There aren’t easy bumper stickers about rural capacity," he said. "It’s there, but part of the endeavor is slowing down enough, and sinking into a place enough, and caring enough to scratch that surface. It’s not a matter of finding an easy way of talking about it, or of measuring the right things, or of lifting up the right evidence. I don’t think that’s quite it. I do know that if you want to win statewide on any issue, you can’t forget rural places. I also think there’s a moral argument that says, If people are important, you can’t think about injustice without acknowledging the plight and the opportunity in rural America. There are political arguments, climate arguments, and moral arguments about why rural America is important to creating a healthy country, and we’ve got to do a better job at articulating those."

Organic farming boosts local economies, says report; organic sales increased 11% in 2015

Organic agriculture boosts local economies, says a study by Penn State for the Organic Trade Association. The study looked at "225 counties considered organic hotspots—counties with high levels of organic agricultural activity that have neighboring counties with high organic activity—and then looks at how these organic hotspots impact key county-level economic indicators," OTA reports. Research found that being in an organic hotspot increased median income household income by more than $2,000 and lowers a county's poverty rate by 1.35 percent.

U.S. organic sales increased by 11 percent in 2015, Carol Ryan Dumas reports for the Western agricultural news site Capital Press. "Total organic sales in 2015 marked the fourth-consecutive year of double-digit growth, adding $4.2 billion in sales over 2014. Those sales represent a 209 percent growth since 2005, when sales totaled $14 billion." Last year "total sales of organic food and non-food products reached $43.3 billion, with organic food sales claiming about 92 percent of all receipts at $39.7 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association." Organic sales accounted for nearly 5 percent of all food sold in the U.S.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Veteran editor and reporter offers advice on how to get local stories from national stories

"Finding local stories in national and international news isn’t always easy. But many big stories have local angles, and the news organizations that make the effort can tell important local stories that the community will be talking about," veteran editor and reporter Steve Buttry writes on his blog, The Buttry Diary.

"The local people with personal ties to these stories don’t appear in the places you routinely find news," Buttry says. "You won’t hear these stories on the scanner or see them on agendas or police blotters. But they are the biggest news of the day, sometimes the biggest of the year, in small circles of your community. And you often can learn of the stories with a few calls or social media inquiries," or crowdsourcing.

Steve Buttry
Buttry acknowledges, as part of an online debate with Howard Owens, editor of The Batavian in New York state, that the "size of the story, size of your community and size of your staff all make a difference in pursuing and finding local connections. . . . A bigger staff can devote more staff time to pursuing local connections to national news."

That caveat established, Buttry offers many examples of localization: "A local college or university has experts on national and international topics as well as exchange students from nations that might be in the news. . . . A military base also might have units deployed abroad and people who have been stationed in countries in the news. Or individual troops from your community might be involved in a military story. . . . Your local Red Cross or Salvation Army might be sending volunteers to assist in disaster relief ... or local religious groups might be helping victims of a distant disaster. . . . A large local company might have national experts in some of the topics related to its business." He suggests using LinkedIn's advanced people search engine to look for local experts and connections.

One obvious angle is the local impact of big national stories. "Many national stories play out in each community, providing powerful local stories," Buttry writes, using his coverage of Omaha-area connections to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing when he was a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald. He was named editor of the year in 2010 by Editor & Publisher for his work as editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and is now director of student media at Louisiana State University.

Localizing national stories is sometimes best done with data. "When Bill Clinton was trying to start a national conversation on race in 1997, I used local, state and national data to show how different life was, in nearly every respect, for black and white people in Omaha, Iowa, Nebraska and nationally," Buttry writes. "That story would be much easier today with much of the data you’d need readily available online."

Business startups are lagging in smaller counties

Starting a new rural business and keeping it running is becoming increasingly difficult. "From 2010 through 2014, U.S. counties with 100,000 or fewer residents combined to lose more businesses than they created—despite a growing national economy and a falling unemployment rate," Jim Tankersely reports for The Washington Post. "In the recovery beginning in 1992, by comparison, those counties created a third of the nation’s new businesses on net." (Post graphic)

"In the ’90s recovery, less-populated counties accounted for more than 1 in 4 new jobs in the country," Tankersely writes. "In the recovery beginning in 2002, that had fallen to 1 in 5. In this recovery, it is less than 1 in 10. Nearly 2 out of 3 rural counties lost businesses, on net, from 2010 to 2014. That is up from just over 2 in 5 counties in the early 2000s and just under 1 in 5 in the ’90s. The counties shedding establishments span the country and include almost every variety of rural areas, from farming and manufacturing communities in Missouri to coal-reliant swatches of Appalachia to coastal counties in the Pacific Northwest where the timber and fishing industries have dwindled."

According to data from a Brookings Institution's analysis of Moody’s Analytics the 100 largest metros in the U.S. recovered all the jobs lost—6 million total—during the Great Recssion, Tankersley writes. "The rest of the country, combined, was barely 300,000 jobs over its pre-recession peak."

One problem is that "the sort of businesses and jobs they used to create in economic expansions simply aren't appearing at the same rate anymore, particularly in blue-collar industries such as construction and manufacturing," Tankersley writes in a separate story. The other problem is that six metros—San Francisco, San Jose, New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.—account for two-thirds of all venture capital money. Most of those companies are high-tech startups. During the first five years of economic recovery 20 cities—mostly in Silicon Valley or New York City—combined for half of America's net new business formation.

New rules will make it harder for many elderly, poor, black and Latino voters to cast ballots

New rules created ostensibly to stop voter fraud are making it more difficult for poor, black, Latino and elderly Americans, particularly in the South, to register for elections, Sari Horwitz reports for The Washington Post. "In November, 17 states will have voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election. Eleven of those states will require their residents to show a photo ID. They include swing states such as Wisconsin and states with large African American and Latino populations, such as North Carolina and Texas. Many of the residents struggling to obtain a valid photo ID are elderly and poor and were born in homes rather than hospitals. As a result, birth certificates were often lost or names were misspelled in official city records."

Supporters of the laws argue that everyone should easily be able to get a photo ID, while "opponents say that the laws were designed to target people more likely to vote Democratic," Horwitz writes. "Many election experts say that the process for obtaining a photo ID can be far more difficult than it looks for hundreds of thousands of people across the country who do not have the required photo identification cards." (Post map)
In Texas, which has one of the strictest voter laws in the nation, a federal court found that "608,470 registered voters don’t have the forms of identification that the state now requires for voting," Horwitz writes. Overall, "about 11 percent of Americans do not have government-issued photo identification cards, such as a driver’s license or a passport, according to Wendy Weiser of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law."

University of California at San Diego researchers analyzed turnout in elections between 2008 and 2012, finding "substantial drops in turnout for minorities under strict voter ID laws.” The study's authors wrote: “These results suggest that by instituting strict photo ID laws, states could minimize the influence of voters on the left and could dramatically alter the political leaning of the electorate."

Retired journalist says federal buyout of bankrupt coal firms' land could revitalize Appalachia

James Branscome
James Branscome, who covered the Tennessee Valley Authority and strip mining for The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky., in the 1970s before becoming managing director of equity research for Standard and Poor's, has a big idea that could revitalize economies in Appalachia hurt by the loss of coal jobs.

"Anyone who has spent time in the mountains and hollows from Middlesboro, Ky., to Beckley, W.Va., understands that most of the land is owned either by coal and timber companies or the federal government with its national forests and parks," Branscome wrote in an essay appearing in several Appalachian newspapers. "Coal companies alone own 1.3 million acres in the Cumberlands of Kentucky and even more in the Alleghenies of West Virginia. The federal government is actually the largest single landowner in Appalachia."

"With the region’s largest coal companies in bankruptcy or nearly so, I have an idea for Clinton and Trump: Let’s buy those bankrupted acres and release some of those federal holdings," he writes. "Then we can give the people something they have not had since industrialization and coal mining started in Appalachia in the 1880s — land. Land for farming, for gardens, for housing, for grazing cattle, horses and hogs, and for sustainable forestry."

"Let’s call this the Appalachian Homestead Act, in homage to the federal initiative that helped settle the West and build wealth in the 19th century," he writes. "The Appalachian Homestead Act may be today’s best solution to the enduring problem of mountain poverty. And it may well be the most important opportunity for a new generation looking for a place to build an economy and a community that make sense in a time of global warming and economic dysfunction."

"This is the perfect policy for both candidates," he writes. "Trump could probably make some real deals negotiating with these bankrupt companies. Clinton might find favor in a region that has not looked kindly on her of late, trimming some federal holdings, swapping with others, all the while turning property back to mountain communities." (Read more)

Branscome, who lives in Montrose, Colo., is a member of the national advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

U.S. is importing more beef than it exports; USDA only highlighting the positive side of trade

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is only highlighting the positives of trade in beef, obscuring the fact that the nation is importing more beef than it exports, Harwood D. Schaffer and Daryll E. Ray of the University of Tennessee write in their latest "Policy Pennings" column. The April issue of Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade (L&P), produced by the Foreign Agricultural Service and USDA, says "Trade of All Meats to Expand in 2016." For beef and veal it says "Exports by major traders are forecast 1 percent higher to 9.6 million tons as growth to Asia offsets soft demand in other regions" and U.S. "exports are expected to grow 8 percent as production expansion and declining U.S. beef prices spur demand. Lower Australian supplies will enable the U.S. to regain some market share in Asian markets. However, exports will remain below the 5-year average as the strong dollar continues to hamper shipments, especially to Canada and Mexico."
"If the decline in price is greater than the 8 percent that beef and veal exports are expected to grow, we could be selling more and still see total revenue fall," Schaffer and Ray write. “We understand that the USDA may want to put a positive spin on an otherwise difficult picture for U.S. cattle producers, but we believe that in doing so the department does farmers and ranchers a disservice with analysis like that found in the April 2016 L&M. It is particularly problematic when we hear people following the lead of the USDA in promoting the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement by predicting an increase beef exports but not discussing its impact on U.S. imports.”

"When government publications talk about trade, as referenced in the title of L&P, they should be expected to discuss both sides of the trade equation, even when the numbers may not be to the liking of US producers," Schaffer and Ray write. "To make informed policy evaluations, policy makers and producers alike need full information." (Read more)

Each week, newspaper makes an obit a feature; latest one is on famed Appalachian Trail hiker


The Valley News, a daily newspaper in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, publishes a weekly feature called "A Life," in which the paper turns an obituary of someone with local ties into a fuller portrait of that person. On Sunday it featured Leonard "Baltimore Jack" Tarlin (Mike Sisemore photo), a renowned hiker who walked the entire Appalachian Trail eight times. Tarlin died May 3 at the age of 57.

Josh Weinreb started the story this way: Mike Sisemore was heading north on the trail 17 years ago "and found himself on a slow-moving stretch up a hill in Virginia. About 100 yards ahead he saw a disheveled form. Another hiker, presumably, but this one was different. His backpack was crooked, with long straps hanging from its sides. His shoes were untied. He wore a bandana on his head. He wore black nylon shorts and a black T-shirt."

"As Sisemore put it, the hiker was 'bouncing' along the trail," Weinreb writes. "And then Sisemore saw him fall, slip on a mud patch and front flip into a bed of rocks. When Sisemore caught up, the hiker was sitting on the ground holding his broken glasses. 'You got any tape?' he asked Sisemore in a grizzled voice. It was, Sisemore knew immediately, Baltimore Jack, a legend along the Appalachian Trail."

Tarlin "was known for his gruff personality, his deep knowledge of history and his uncanny thoughtfulness,' Weinreb writes. "He also had strong roots in Hanover and thru-hiked the trail eight times. He “had no need for the finer things in life,” Sisemore told Weinreb,. “He was absolutely content sleeping in a sleeping bag in the middle of February under a tree in New Hampshire. Nobody could understand that about Jack. He just didn’t need a lot of things in his life. He was mobile. He carried his life in his backpack." (Read more)

The Valley News is based in Lebanon, N.H., just south of the trail's crossing of the river.

Soybean farmers concerned about using new Roundup Ready product not yet approved in Europe

Grain farmers are being warned to be wary of planting Monsanto's latest biotech soybean due to concerns that it has not been approved for sale in the European Union, Tom Meersman reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Roundup Ready 2 Xtend, is "a genetically modified soybean seed that is resisistant to a pair of herbicides called glyphosate and dicamba." It "was developed because weeds have become resistant to Roundup Ready varieties with traits that used glyphosate alone. The genetic modifications in the new seed allow both pesticides to be used without harming the soybeans." (Associated Press photo by Dan Gill: Roundup Ready soybeans)

Concern about marketability the European Union is leading to fear that the new bean "will cause price declines, confusion and disruption in international trade," Meersman writes. "The reason it’s a risk is because unapproved soybeans and approved soybeans often get mixed together in grain elevators, unit trains or ships when they’re exported, and it’s difficult and expensive for grain buyers and sellers to try to keep them separate."

In Minnesota in 2015 "farmers planted 7.6 million acres of soybeans, making it the nation’s fourth-largest producer with estimated sales valued at $3.25 billion," Meersman writes. "A similar problem with unapproved seeds occurred in 2013 and 2014 with a different seed company and a different market. China turned away shipments of U.S. corn containing a Syngenta AG trait called Viptera — engineered to control insects—that it had not approved. The resulting confusion resulted in lawsuits against Syngenta by Cargill Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co. and individual producers claiming millions of dollars in lost sales or lower prices." (Read more)

Monday, May 23, 2016

How much do people in your state drink and dope?

People in Colorado love marijuana, cocaine, alcohol and painkillers used for non-medical reasons. Colorado is the only state where residents rank in the top 10 in all four categories, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey of the proportion of population 12 and older who use each substance, Keith Humphreys reports for The Washington Post.

Reported marijuana use was highest in the states where it is legal—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, Humphreys writes. "Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire are leading consumers of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, with Maine and Connecticut also being leaders in two of those three. New York, in contrast, is a top consumer of only cocaine." Three border states—Arizona, California and New Mexico—have high rates of cocaine use, while Arizona is also a leader among opioid use.

"As the most religious region of the country, the Southeast and Bible Belt have long tended to have lower consumption of intoxicating substances—particularly alcohol—than the rest of the country," Humphreys writes. "Yet non-medical painkiller use is an exception to this general rule, with most of its top consumers being in or near this region: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Virginia, Maryland and Ohio. The Midwest and Plains states are not leading consumers of any of the three illicit drugs. But Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota are all national leaders in their proportion of drinkers, continuing a pattern established during the period of heavy migration from Scandinavia and beer-loving, beer-brewing Germany." (Post map)

Residents of Syria, Va., mostly favor ban on Syrian refugees, and many Americans agree

U.S. Beacon map: Syria is in Madison County
The rural town of Syria, Va., is saying no to Syrian refugees and yes to Donald Trump. And a lot of the country feels likewise, Mary Jordan reports for The Washington Post.

"Unlike its faraway namesake, this Syria has no Muslims. It’s a pretty village with trout in its rivers and black bears in its hills, home to many who cheer one of Donald Trump’s most derided proposals: a ban on Muslims," Jordan writes. Syria, which lies along the Old Blue Ridge Turnpike at the edge of Shenandoah National Park, is a Republican-leaning village of about 203.

"Of all Trump’s ideas, the ban on Muslims is considered by his critics to be particularly off the rails," Jordan writes. "With 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, it aims to shut out nearly one in four people on the planet. It has been called racist, unconstitutional and unenforceable. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has said that it is 'shameful' and 'dangerous.' Yet the idea turns out to have broader support than many of Trump’s critics expected. Nationally, 64 percent of Republican voters said in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that they approve of the ban—and so did 45 percent of independents—while 26 percent of Democrats did."

Many Trump supporters in Syria say the businessman can be over the top at times—and acknowledge that the ban on Syrian nationals will probably never happen—but like the sentiment behind the statement, Jordan writes. Syria resident Laurie Richards said "no other candidate is telling her what she thinks: Just about anybody can set foot in the U.S., and those days should end." But others think Trump's statements are dangerous. Another resident, Molly Sanford, asked Jordan, “Ban people of a certain religion in a country founded on the idea of freedom of religion? More puzzling than what he is saying is that he has so many followers.”

Jordan writes, "An hour’s drive from Syria, leaders in Northern Virginia’s growing American Muslim community say the way Trump talks about Islam is bigoted and scary, whether he intends to follow through on a ban or not. But around this village of white clapboard Christian churches, many are supporting Trump and they welcome his proposed ban, even though they said it will never pass Congress—and shouldn’t." More significantly, Syria farmer Jimmy Graves said, "People hear a new, clear voice saying the country need to do more to 'keep out people who are unsuitable'.” (Read more)

Poor pay more for everyday goods because stores they shop stock fewer new products, study says

Poor people pay more for everyday purchases, says a study by Harvard University graduate student Xavier Jaravel. He found "that prices are increasing by more than 2 percent a year on average for goods purchased by consumers with household incomes under $30,000, but by just 1.4 percent annually for those with incomes above $100,000," Max Ehrenfreund reports for The Washington Post. "While apparently small, that divergence—if it continues—would become hugely important in a relatively short period of time. After 20 years, for example, every dollar in the pocket of a poor consumer would be worth just 88 cents compared to what a wealthier consumer would be able to buy with it at the grocery store, given the differences in inflation and in both consumers' preferences."

Those numbers are especially bad news in rural areas, where residents are poorer and often have less access to big discount stores. Poor people with less money to spend each week buy items such as toilet paper in smaller packages, "increasing the prices they pay," Ehrenfreund writes. "In addition, poor families must rely on a whole range of alternative financial services, which might charge exorbitant fees and expose customers to serious risks." (Post graphic)
The study found that the difference between what poor and rich people pay for products "resulted from the fact that within specific kinds of products—beef jerky, say, or tortilla chips—more affluent consumers were buying premium brands, and those brands' prices were more stable over time," Ehrenfreund writes. Jaravel "found that relatively few new products made it into stores that weren't premium goods. In other words, poorer consumers were more likely to be buying the same products from year to the next. When a new product arrives on shelves, retailers typically have to discount the price of older products somewhat. Using data on markups from a large national grocer with a few hundred stores, Jaravel found that the absence of new products for poorer consumers allowed grocers to increase the prices on the old products more from year to year."

"Jaravel's research contradicts a couple of assumptions that economists typically make about consumer goods," Ehrenfreund writes. "One is that when new kinds of products are introduced, they'll be purchased mainly by the wealthiest consumers, who will pay higher prices for them. Over time, prices will fall, and less affluent consumers will purchase the goods at lower prices. Jaravel found little evidence of that pattern in the data. Whole categories of new, premium products never made it into the shopping cart for poorer families." (Read more)

Cops call growing movement of rural, white, armed citizens who distrust government 'Vanilla ISIS'

A growing movement of "largely white and rural" residents are taking up arms to defend themselves against a government they distrust, Kevin Sullivan reports for The Washington Post. The groups, which refer to themselves as patriots, demand "that the federal government adhere to the Constitution and stop what they see as systematic abuse of land rights, gun rights, freedom of speech and other liberties." BJ Soper, leader of Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, a group of about 30 started two years ago, told Sullivan, “It doesn’t say in our Constitution that you can’t stand up and defend yourself. We’ve let the government step over the line and rule us, and that was never the intent of this country.” (Post photo by Matt McClain: Soper)

Law enforcement officials say the groups are "dangerous, delusional and sometimes violent, and they say that their numbers are growing amid a wave of anger at the government that has been gaining strength since 2008, a surge that coincided with the election of the first black U.S. president and a crippling economic recession," Sullivan writes. "Law enforcement officials and the watchdog groups that track the self-styled 'patriot' groups call them anti-government extremists, militias, armed militants or even domestic terrorists." Some even jokingly call them “Y’all Qaeda” or “Vanilla ISIS.”

There are currently about 1,000 such groups, up from 150 in 2008, said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremism. "Potok and other analysts, including law enforcement officials who track the groups, said their supporters number in the hundreds of thousands, counting people who signal their support in more passive ways, such as following the groups on social media," Sullivan reports. "The Facebook page of the Oath Keepers, a group of former members of police forces and the military, for example, has more than 525,000 'likes.'"

"Much of the movement traces its roots to the deadly 1990s confrontations between civilians and federal agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and in Waco, Tex., that resulted in the deaths of as many as 90," Sullivan writes. "Timothy Mc­Veigh cited both events before he was executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, and he said he had deliberately chosen a building housing federal government agencies. Now a 'second wave' is spreading across the country, especially in the West, fueled by the internet and social media." (Read more)

Stargazing lights up the sky in many rural areas

One advantage of living in rural areas is that the night sky can often be more clearly seen than in urban areas, making it easier to see stars and the Milky Way galaxy. In Emmet County, Michigan officials at The Headlands International Dark Sky Park are trying to make night-sky preservation a state priority, Marie Orttenburger reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a project of the journalism department at Michigan State University. (Photo by Tony Andrea: Milky Way)

"There’s yet another natural resource we’re squandering, but the fix is easy, Just turn off the lights," Orttenburger. "We don’t really think of the night sky as a natural resource, maybe because we don’t see it as much more than an aesthetic pleasure – if we see it at all. But the truth is, a dark night sky plays much more of a role in the natural world than we credit it for, and light pollution interferes with that role." To listen to a podcast with Orttenburger interviewing members of The Headlands International Dark Sky Park click here.

W.Va. town is for sale for $1 million; part of NSA base that allegedly collected cellphone data

If you have a cool $1 million sitting around, a rural West Virginia town three hours outside Washington, D.C., could be yours for the taking. Sugar Grove, W.Va, which includes "80 homes on 122 acres, together with a gym, full-size basketball court, bowling alley, soccer field, and police and fire stations," is on the market for $1 million, Lori Aratani reports for The Washington Post. Keeping up the extensive grounds costs the federal government about $4.6 million per year.

The town, which also includes 12 guest cabins, is "nestled between the Allegheny Mountains and the South Fork of the Potomac River," Aratani writes. It's seven miles from George Washington National Forest "in the midst of a 13,000-square-mile area of the U.S. known as the National Radio Quiet Zone. All radio communications in the area are restricted." Online bidding began in February, but has yet to receive any takers.

The town's lifeblood was the Sugar Grove Station naval base, which closed in September, leading to mass layoffs, Aratani writes. One problem is the secrecy of the base's nature. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed that the base was "one of 10 'signals-intelligence activity designators' used by the National Security Agency to collect international cellphone location information and other data. An array of giant parabolic dishes obscured by thick forest cover are housed on a mountain ridge just over a mile southeast of the main property. These, however, are not part of the sale. The NSA, through a spokeswoman, had no comment on the matter."

"For nearly a half-century, the base served as an anchor for the tiny towns that dot rural Pendleton County—7,471 residents spread out over nearly 700 square miles. In an area where good jobs are hard to come by or require a one-hour trip over winding mountain roads, the loss of civilian jobs with their benefits and health coverage was deeply felt," Aratani writes. William Smith Jr. is the only employee on the base, hired to take care of the property until an owner can be found. When asked by a prospective buyer the nature of the base, he responds, “Don’t know. And if I did, I don’t know that I could tell you.”

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Lack of doctors and insurers, hospital closures and more make rural health outlook 'grim,' writer says

"In many rural counties, due to a range of contributing factors — including a shortage of doctors, a sicker-than-anticipated population, lack of competition in the marketplace, the closing of hospitals and a raging opioid crisis — the outlook is grim" for health care under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, John Collins writes for the liberal magazine In These Times.

Collins points to the demise of more than half of the state-based health cooperatives that provide price competition for traditional, for-profit insurers; and UnitedHealth Group's recent decision to pull out of most state Obamacare exchanges next year, coming after "other insurance providers have abandoned their less profitable rural exchanges." He notes the Kaiser Family Foundation estimate that 11 percent of policyholders will be in counties with only one insurer, and 18 percent will be in counties with two — up from 2 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

"By early 2017, The Wall Street Journal reports, it is estimated that in more than 650 counties — 70 percent of which consist of rural populations — only one option for health care coverage will be offered on the ACA exchanges," Collins writes. "According to Inovalon, the health-care information and technology firm . . . cited in the WSJ piece, rural exchanges are having trouble realizing a profit for two reasons—people are requiring more care (they’re sicker) than anticipated and the cost of that care is significantly more than it is in urban areas."

At the end of his story, Collins looks ahead and then puts his tongue in cheek: "The next administration will ultimately decide whether this six-year-old law gets put into therapy, replaced by a single-payer healthcare system for all Americans, or triumphantly repealed and replaced with something so fantastic that you can’t even imagine how good it is going to be."

Friday, May 20, 2016

Congress reaches agreement to overhaul U.S. chemical safety laws for first time in 40 years

"Congress has reached agreement on the most sweeping overhaul of U.S. chemical safety laws in 40 years, a rare bipartisan accord that has won the backing of both industry officials and some of the Hill’s most liberal lawmakers," Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears report for The Washington Post. "The compromise, which lawmakers unveiled Thursday, will provide the industry with greater certainty while empowering the Environmental Protection Agency to obtain more information about a chemical before approving its use. And because the laws involved regulate thousands of chemicals in products as diverse as detergents, paint thinners and permanent-press clothing, the result also will have a profound effect on Americans’ everyday lives."

The measure, which has the tacit approval of the Obama administration and the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), "could come up for a vote in both chambers as soon as next week," Eilperin and Fears write. "After passage, the EPA must start reviewing at least 10 toxic chemicals that permeate communities across the country, a list that is likely to include asbestos, formaldehyde and flame retardants. Many are interwoven into people’s experience with everyday products, including the ink on their morning newspaper and the fabric protector on their family’s sofa."

The deal "gives the EPA the power to require companies to provide health and safety data for untested chemicals and to prevent substances from reaching the market if they have not been determined to be safe," Eilperin and Fears write. "Under current law, the agency must prove that a chemical poses a potential risk before it can demand data or require testing, and that substance can automatically enter the marketplace after 90 days. In the past four decades, the EPA has required testing for just 200 of thousands of chemicals, and it has issued regulations to control only five of them. More than 8,000 chemicals are produced in the U.S. at an annual rate of more than 25,000 pounds each, according to the agency. Under the bill, instead of going through a lengthy rulemaking process to trigger product testing, the EPA can order companies to test their new products. The measure also imposes user fees on industry to help expand the testing of chemicals."

"In return, chemical manufacturers will be subject to a single regulatory system, although states will still have the right to seek a federal waiver to impose their rules on a given chemical," Eilperin and Fears write. "Currently, California, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have placed their own restrictions on some chemicals in the face of federal regulatory inaction.The bill’s provisions include prioritizing the review of chemicals stored near drinking water as well as those that are human carcinogens and highly toxic with chronic exposure. House Democrats were still seeking to insert language that would allow some states in the midst of regulating chemicals the chance to finalize those actions before the EPA starts reviewing its first batch of chemicals under the law." (Read more)

Coal bankruptcies leaving many states with IOUs that could make taxpayers fund mine cleanup

The widespread practice of "self-bonding" in the coal industry could end up leaving taxpayers footing the bill for cleaning up an increasing number of abandoned mines, Mead Gruver reports for The Associated Press. Self-bonding allows companies with certain assets "to promise to eventually cover the cost of cleaning up abandoned mines without first setting aside the necessary money. Because of self-bonding, billions of dollars in legally required reclamation funding exist only as IOUs, without dedicated assets or bonds backed by third-party investors. Nationwide, self-bonding in the coal-mining industry tops $3.3 billion. That includes $2.3 billion in IOUs that the three biggest bankrupt coal companies—Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Peabody—owe in five states, according to an Associated Press analysis of bonding obligations in the top 16 coal-mining states." 

"The dilemma for state and federal regulators got even bleaker when the nation's largest coal producer, Peabody, filed for Chapter 11 protection from its creditors in April," Gruver writes. "Peabody alone holds more than $1.1 billion in self-bonding obligations for mines in Illinois, Indiana, New Mexico and Wyoming, where its North Antelope Rochelle mine produces almost 12 percent of the nation's coal. ...Wyoming, which produces almost 40 percent of the nation's coal, has more than $2 billion in self-bonded coal mining, almost two-thirds of the nationwide total."

"The 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act enabled companies to open strip mines on the condition that assets be set aside to contain any pollution and return the mines to something resembling the pre-existing landscape," Gruver writes. "But companies with debts no greater than 2.5 times their net worth were allowed to avoid tying up capital by "self-bonding" instead. Self-bonding has grown to represent more than a third of the industry's cleanup costs. With several companies now in bankruptcy, states have reached agreements to secure pennies on the dollar for reclamation should Chapter 11 reorganization proceed to Chapter 7 liquidation."

Drones will be the future of collecting agricultural data, says Agriculture Dept. technology officer

Drones are the future of advanced agriculture data, said Michael Valivullah, chief technology officer at the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which is housed at the Department of Agriculture, Corinne Lestch reports for FedScoop. Valivullah, who was speaking Wednesday in Washington D.C. at the MarkLogic Data Innovation Summit, said, “Farmers are going to be more dependent on drones. Drones are a lot cheaper and can gather high-resolution, sensitive data. So a farmer or rancher will be able to understand what they have in their operation.”

Of the more than 2.3 billion acres of land across the U.S., about 900 million are farmland, Valivullah said. "USDA keeps track of farmers who produce and sell products that are worth more than $1,000 in a central database. The agency once used traditional paper and pens to collect information, but it started sending out electronic forms—as well as iPads and tablets—a few years ago to researchers in the field." Valivullah said drones will be a better way of collecting data.

Bayer looks to acquire Monsanto; would make agriculture 40% of combined entity’s business

"Bayer AG has approached Monsanto Co. about a takeover that would fuse two of the world’s largest suppliers of crop seeds and pesticides, the companies said," Jacob Bunge and Dana Mattioli report for The Wall Street Journal. "Details of the offer couldn’t be learned and it was unclear whether Monsanto would be receptive to it. Should there be a deal, it could be valued at more than $42 billion, which is Monsanto’s current market capitalization. Should the bid succeed, a combination of the companies could boast $67 billion in annual sales and create the world’s largest seed and crop-chemical company."

Mergers an acquisitions are booming in the industry. Last month Sygenta struck a deal to be acquired by Chem China, a state-owned enterprise. DuPont and Dow have announced they are merging. If all the deals go through, it's estimated that three of these companies will control more than half of global seed sales, Dan Charles reports for NPR.

If Bayer absorbed St. Louis-based Monsanto, the world’s top seed company in terms of sales, it "would push Bayer far more deeply into agriculture, which currently accounts for about 22 percent of the German company’s business," Bunge and Mattioli write. "Monsanto’s $15 billion in seed and herbicide sales could make agriculture about 40 percent of the combined entity’s business, with the rest coming from pharmaceuticals and consumer health products."

"Folding Monsanto’s world-leading seed franchise and its trademark Roundup herbicide business into Bayer would create a company that could market products ranging from Aspirin pain-relief pills to crop genetics that enable plants to withstand bugs and weedkillers," Bunge and Mattioli write. "The combination would sell about 28 percent of the world’s pesticides and about 36 percent of U.S. corn seeds and 28 percent of soybean seeds, according to Morgan Stanley estimates." (Read more)

UPDATED: Newspaper lobbying group says new overtime rule will reduce jobs, news coverage

The main lobbying group for community newspapers is objecting to the Obama administration's new rule making more employees eligible for overtime pay. The rule "will create disruption at small newspapers and likely lead to more job cutbacks" and less news coverage, said National Newspaper Association President Chip Hutcheson, publisher of The Times-Leader in Princeton, Ky.

The new rule, set to take effect Dec. 1, will make employees eligible for overtime if they earn less than $913 a week or $47,476 a year. The current threshold is about $23,660.

An NNA survey suggested that the rule would force a third of community to eliminate staff positions or reduce news coverage. Many papers "are already under financial pressure from weak local economies and they can't afford to pay additional overtime," NNA said in a statement. "For them, the unintended consequences include lost jobs and less news coverage."

UPDATE, May 20: However, those surveyed apparently did not know that the Labor Department had retained an exemption for weekly newspapers with a circulation under 4,000, while limiting it to "employees in rural areas," said Richard Karpel of American Pressworks, NNA's lobbying contractor. "The entire section is a bit perplexing so we will be seeking clarification about why it was included. . . . There is an indication that group-owned newspapers must total all circulations together," meaning that "even if one or two properties fall below the 4,000 threshold, their circulation total would be included in the cumulative total and not subject to the exemption."

Hutcheson had rejected calls by small businesses to introduce a more modified and gradually-rising threshold that sets overtime-eligible employees apart from professional staff. "NNA agreed that it was past time to adjust the salary levels," he said. "The Labor Department failed to do its job for a decade by creating more graduated adjustments that small businesses could live with. Then it decided to try to force the small business economy to leap the whole chasm in a single bound. Its ruling fails to recognize the realities of a slow-growing business climate. It also ignores the big differences between costs of living and earnings potential in small towns and major cities."

NNA said that "newsrooms have difficulty managing a 40-hour week, and that legal barriers for private-sector enterprises to offer meaningful flex time meant that news and sports staff could not take advantage of time off during slow seasons to compensate for extra hours spent on breaking news and sporting events. NNA requested consideration of a regional scale and joined the Newspaper Association of America in suggesting that thresholds should be set at a level of twice the annual earnings of a minimum wage earner. The minimum wage index would have given states and cities the ability to effectively set the overtime-eligibility standard."

NNA is now backing legislation (S. 2707 and H.R. 4773) that would block the rule and require the Labor Department to do more analysis of the impact on small businesses, nonprofits and public employers.

Rural Western residents say local papers need more economic news, rigorous reporting

Only 21 percent of people in a sample of the rural West believe their local news is reliable and consistent, says a study by Solutions Journal Network for the LOR Foundation. The study consisted of a focus group (164 people) and a Google survey (1,540 people) in 10 communities in Colorado, Montana and New Mexico and analysis of a week's worth of stories—900 in all—from local and regional outlets in the targeted area, Leah Todd reports for Solutions Journal Network.

The survey found that 52 percent of respondents said "their local news is, at best, sometimes valuable, and a significant number said their local news is rarely or never relevant," Todd writes. Still, newspapers are the No. 1 source for local news, with 81.7 percent of respondents from the focus group saying they get local news from the newspaper, 63.4 percent from interactions with other people, 44.5 percent from local government and community organizations and 40.8 percent from social media. Newspapers also tied with television for top news source among rural respondents to the Google survey.

Respondents were mostly unhappy with coverage of the local economy, Todd writes. Nearly every focus group said jobs and the local economy were the biggest concerns. "Yet very little — just 8 percent — of the news coverage we analyzed focused primarily on the economy ." There was a discrepancy between coverage and perceived coverage. Respondents said they wanted more education coverage, which analysis showed to be the second most covered topic, after crime.

Many people complained that news coverage is too negative, Todd writes. In some areas, such as Española, N.M. respondents "complained bitterly about what they saw as the local paper’s relentlessly negative slant on news — but nearly all admitted they still read it religiously." Española is home to the Rio Grande Sun, whose owners won last year's Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

"People said they want more rigorous reporting that exposes the context of complex issues, and more stories about how their communities and others are responding to problems, in addition to spotlighting the problems themselves," Todd writes. One Whitefish, Mont. respondent said, “If there’s one thing that’s missing, it’s the in-depth reporting or the enterprise-type reporting that goes beyond…what was stated at last night’s council meeting or what we send out in a press release, and tries to get to the root about the issue and have impact on it." A respondent in Anaconda, Mont. said, “I get to the bottom of an article and I say, ‘Where’s the rest?’”

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Oil and gas boom helps most local governments but some very rural areas struggle to keep up

The oil and gas boom has helped most local governments in the U.S., but some in very rural areas "have struggled to keep pace with rapid industry growth," says a news release about research from Duke University.

"The shale revolution has created a variety of opportunities and challenges for local governments," said Richard Newell, a professor of energy and environmental economics. His team traveled to 21 oil- and gas-producing regions in 16 states to interview more than 200 local officials and look at government finances.

While oil and gas activity generated local property taxes, state severance and sales taxes and other revenues, "industry truck traffic can cause substantial damage to local roads, and population growth can strain government services such as police, fire and emergency services," the release says. "In regions experiencing the most rapid growth (such as parts of North Dakota, Texas and Colorado), city governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading water and wastewater infrastructure to serve their growing populations."

The recent downturn in gas and oil prices "can create substantial financial challenges for regions where the oil and gas industry is a central part of the economy. In Alaska and North Dakota, for example, a prolonged slump in oil prices could lead to longer-term fiscal challenges for state and local governments." Newell's associate, Daniel Raimi, said, "Looking forward, local governments that have become heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry may look to diversify their economies."

The study is part of a three-year Shale Public Finance project funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The reports were released at a May 18 workshop on the local impacts of oil and gas development. To see a webcast of the workshop go to www.rff.org/live. For more on the project, including previous reports and an interactive map of findings, see http://energy.duke.edu/shalepublicfinance.

Guy Clark, a great songwriter who got much respect but not much money, dies at 74

Guy Clark (Beth Gwinn/Redferns via Getty Images)
Guy Clark, who kept drawing on his West Texas upbringing as he became one of Nashville's most respected songwriters, died Tuesday in the Tennessee city after a long illness. He was 74.

"He never got rich, but earned the admiration of countless songwriters, including Bob Dylan," Ian Crouch writes for The New Yorker. "It’s tough to pin down precisely what made his songs so distinctive. He wasn’t a poet genius like Townes Van Zandt, or a blazing, righteous performer like Steve Earle. He never enjoyed wide popularity like Willie Nelson. Mostly his songs were strong and steady, projecting a deep, indisputable, and ultimately persuasive confidence and sense of self."

Clark, a lawyer's son who preferred to be called a poet, may have been best known for "L.A. Freeway," recorded in 1973 by his friend Jerry Jeff Walker; "Heartbroke," which was a No. 1 hit for Ricky Skaggs in 1982; and "Desperados Waitin' for a Train," from his first album, "Old No. 1," in 1975. That was "perhaps his most vivid song," Tamara Sorvino writes for The Oxford American. Her biography of Clark is due out in October.

"His songwriting evinced a keen eye not just for narrative detail but also an unerring ear for spoken vernacular and a wry, existentialist bent akin to that of Kris Kristofferson or John Prine," Bill Friskics-Warren writes for The New York Times. "A laconic though riveting storyteller, Mr. Clark was adept at getting at the heart of an experience or event."

Visiting consulting clinics reduce rural orthopedic doctor shortages, says Iowa study

Visiting consulting clinics greatly reduce rural orthopedic doctor shortages and drive times for patients, says a survey by the University of Iowa. Only 35 of the state's 99 counties have a full-time orthopedist, reports Tom Snee for Iowa Now. However, when VCCS are factored in, 88 counties are covered by an orthopedist. That's good news, considering orthopedic patients are "more likely to be older, overweight and less physically active," making it harder for them to travel long distances to seek care. Many end up delaying treatment rather than travelling.

"VCCs are outreach sites regularly visited by an orthopedic surgeon, typically a rural hospital located in a community too small to support a full-time specialist," Snee writes. "Patients meet with doctors in person and receive diagnostic services and some outpatient procedures. More complex procedures are usually referred to larger hospitals with the appropriate resources to support them. The researchers used data from 2014 to estimate average trip length for participating orthopedic surgeons and patients in all of Iowa’s census tracts."

Researchers found that VCCs reduced the average distance rural patients drove to see an orthpedist by 50 percent, from 19.2 miles to 8.4 miles, Snee writes. The survey found that 45 percent of all Iowa-based orthopedists visited at least one VCC since 2014. Lead author Thomas Gruca said, "Orthopedic surgeons in Iowa have been invested in rural outreach for more than 25 years. By traveling to 80 different sites every month, these physicians from Iowa and surrounding states reduced patient travel time and improved access to orthopedic care."

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Income inequality brings rise in rural child poverty

Income inequality has led to a rise in rural child poverty, says a report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From 2003 to 2012 rural child poverty increased by 6.6 percent, while incomes among rural families with children declined 6.5 percent, compared to a decline of 3.8 percent among urban families with children. The report says that was "partly due to the fact that average incomes for rural families with children did not rise during the economic expansion of 2003-07, and fell during the recession and the early years of the recovery."

"Roughly two-thirds of the rise in rural child poverty and three-quarters of the rise in urban child poverty between 2003 and 2012 resulted not from declining average incomes but rather from changes in the distribution of income around that average," says the report. "Child poverty rose more than might be expected, given average income changes, because income declines were especially large for families with children that were close to the poverty line." (USDA graphic)
"The poorest one-quarter of American families saw a bigger decrease in their incomes before and during the Great Recession than families in higher income brackets," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. "And the earnings of these low-income families didn’t bounce back as quickly or as much following the recession. Child poverty in rural America dropped by 3 points from 2012-2014. Though this was a bigger drop than urban children experienced, the overall rural child-poverty rate remained higher during the period (23.7 percent for rural vs. 20.7 for urban)."

GMO foods safe for humans, but could be bad for agriculture, National Academy study finds

A report by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found no evidence that genetically modified foods are harmful to people, animals or the environment, Adam Darby reports for The Kansas City Star. "However, it is unclear whether genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have increased crop yields, the study says, and the evolution of resistance in insects and weeds is a problem." The study's author said "evolved resistance to current GE characteristics in crops is a major agricultural problem.”

Researchers say "that new techniques, like a way to make small genetic changes in plants using genome-editing, are blurring the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding, making the existing regulatory system untenable," Andrew Pollack reports for The New York Times. They call "for a new system that pays more attention to the attributes of the crop, as opposed to the way in which it was created."

Calls for mandatory labeling "has steadily grown louder for mandatory labeling, as consumers and food advocates say they have a right to know what's in their food," Greg Trotter reports for the Chicago Tribune. "Meanwhile, many food companies have maintained such labeling would be misleading because there's nothing harmful about GMO ingredients."

The report was widely criticized before it even came out, Seth Borenstein reports for The Associated Press. "Food & Water Watch criticized the National Academy as taking funding from biotechnology firms and using 'pro-GMO scientists' to write its reports. The report was funded by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the New Venture Fund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the academy itself—none of which have direct connections to the agricultural biotechnology industry. It was peer reviewed by outside experts and committee members are vetted for financial conflicts of interests, said academy spokesman William Kearney."