Wednesday, April 01, 2015

EPA to require weed resistance management plan for glyphosate, key ingredient in Roundup

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected next week to announce that "it will require a weed resistance management plan for glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto's immensely popular Roundup weed-killer," Carey Gilliam reports for Reuters. "An EPA spokeswoman declined to give specifics of the plan but told Reuters that its requirements will be similar to those placed on a new herbicide product developed by Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical Co."

"Requirements for the Dow herbicide include weed monitoring, farmer education and remediation plans," Gilliam writes. "The company is required to provide extensive reporting to the EPA about instances of weed resistance and to let 'relevant stakeholders' know about the difficulties of controlling them via a company-established website."

At least 14 weed species and biotypes in the U.S. have developed a resistance to glyphosate, which has made farming more difficult and expensive on more than 60 million acres of U.S. farmland, Gilliam writes.

The plan will not address health issues, Gilliam writes. Recent studies have linked glyphosate to cancer and say herbicides like glyphosate induce antibiotic resistance before the antibiotics have time to kill the bacteria.

NPR re-focusing attention on winning over audiences with creative, fact-based journalism

The Internet has created a vast source of news outlets, a large number of which focus on celebrities, sensationalism, sports and entertainment. And that's exactly why NPR CEO Jarl Mohn feels now is the right time for NPR, which has had its fair share of layoffs, to flourish by taking advantage of its connection to a diverse audience that craves news stories.

"With 34 bureaus, evenly split between domestic and international, NPR News is a fixture for many Americans, a dependable daily friend," reports Ken Doctor for Capital. Mohn, who was hired nine months ago, told Doctor, “Most of the world is moving away from fact-based journalism. That creates a lot of opportunity for us in public radio. The world has enough sources of info about Kim Kardashian.”

NPR has about 1,500 journalists, but some have expressed concern about the quality of reporting, Doctor writes. "NPR’s own staff sets a national standard for serious, if often entertaining, national coverage; local coverage can be as good but often flags in reporting smarts, voice and quality. Anyone who has ever listened to local public radio traveling across the country can recognize the great disparities in reporting. Closing that gap is central to the next generation of NPR News—and public radio itself."

That's where Michael Oreskes comes in, Doctor writes. Hired to run NPR news operations, Oreskes will have to find a way to manage money—funding for new initiatives, beats and projects—while meshing a legacy/digital mix to its news success. As he said in a first interview, "NPR’s success will be found 'grabbing [audience] attention with stories told in creative new ways.'” (Read more)

Minnesota radio station series examines impact of crude oil derailments on local areas and residents

WCCO News Radio 830, a CBS affiliate in Minnesota, is running a five-part series called "Tracking Danger" that examines crude oil train derailments and the impacts those derailments could have on local areas. (CBS photo)

"Rice is a sleepy town of about 1,200 people, but every 15 minutes or so, trains come flying through the heart of it at 50 mph. These trains are carrying a variety of freight, but much of it is oil from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota," reports Jennifer Lewerenz. "City Fire Chief Scott Janski is in charge of a 24-man volunteer fire crew and says a derailment would overwhelm their department and worries about their ability to respond."

While Rice can rely on help from 13 other area fire departments, the closest one is 17 miles away, Lewerenz reports. That doesn't comfort local residents, one of whom told Lewerenz, "It’s actually kind of scary because I live in a residential neighborhood where there’s lots of kids, and if they’re outside playing and there’s a train that derails, I mean, they’re not really protected."

Fridley fire chief John Berg said being located near the Mississippi River is helpful and state training has been beneficial, but there is only so much a fire department can do in the event of a train derailment, reports Laura Oakes. Berg told her, “Are we prepared to respond to 30,000 gallons, 90,000 gallons, 120,000 gallons of fuel burning and put the fire out immediately? No. I don’t think we’ll ever get to that point. Are we prepared to respond to something like that, evacuate people, protect exposures and know what resources to call in? Yes.”

Oakes reports, "It’s a different story in Minnesota’s tiny rural communities with much smaller water supplies and maybe a handful of volunteer firefighters." The big challenge there, said Kevin Reed, Operations Director with the state’s Emergency Management Division, "is getting enough water to the scene to activate the chemical foam needed to fight an oil fire."

Another story looks at the impact on the Twin Cities.

Respected North Carolina community newspaper lays off 16 employees; cities declining revenue

The Fayetteville Observer, one of the top community newspapers in North Carolina and a frequent contest winner, announced on Tuesday that it has laid off 16 employees because of declining revenue, Catherine Pritchard reports for the Observer. The layoffs included seven members of the news staff.

Charles Broadwell, the newspaper's publisher and president of Fayetteville Publishing Co., the Observer's parent company, told Pritchard, "These were deep and painful cuts today. We lost some very good people, and that's sad to say." Pritchard said there are no plans for further cuts.

The Observer is the state's oldest paper and largest independent paper, as well as being one of the largest family-owned papers in the country, according to the newspaper's website.

Two Kansas counties with oil and gas operations declare earthquakes a threat to public health

Officials in two Kansas counties where disposal wells are operated have "declared earthquakes 'an immediate threat to public health, safety and welfare,'" Ziva Branstetter reports for the Tulsa World. The Kansas Corporation Commission ordered operators of disposal wells in parts of Harper and Sumner counties "to dramatically reduce the volume of oil- and gas-production wastewater they were pumping underground."

The order "says the commission can fine companies that fail to comply up to $10,000 per day. It also says the agency will no longer issue permits for some types of high-volume wells in the affected area," Branstetter writes.

Harper and Sumner counties have seen an increase in earthquakes over the past two years, and "earthquakes in Kansas are on pace to double this year," Branstetter writes. The Kansas counties are just across the border from Oklahoma, where disposal wells have been blamed for a dramatic increase in earthquakes in recent years. Oklahoma led the lower 48 states in earthquakes with 585 of magnitude 3 or higher in 2014, more than the state had in the previous 35 years combined. (Kansas Geological Survey graphic)

USDA awards $31 million in loans and grants to promote rural economic development

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday announced that it has awarded $31 million in loans and grants to 38 projects in 12 states to promote rural economic development. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement: "These infrastructure investments will help rural residents start or expand businesses. The funds can be used for a wide range of needs. They can help businesses increase production and manufacturing capacity and can even help rural homeowners save money by making their homes more energy efficient."

Grants and loans were awarded to organizations in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee. For a complete list of loans and grants, click here.

National Trust names award-winning Main Streets

Cape Girardeau, Mo.
As commercial centers and social hubs, the best Main Streets can unify a town or city and draw visitors, Ben Abramson writes for USA Today. Every year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation chooses winners for its Great American Main Street contest. The award-winners for 2015 are Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Montaclair Center, N.J.; and Rawlins, Wyo. Fond du Lac, Wis., was named the "one to watch."

Winners were cited for "a great convergence of old and new," as "historic commercial buildings are being repurposed to house the arts, high-tech businesses and entrepreneurs," said Patrice Frey of the National Main Street Center in a statement, Abramson writes.

To see this year's winning Main Streets and past winners, click here. (Read more)

Printer-publisher in hard-hit Appalachian coalfield uses business-school help to revitalize company

A printing and newspaper company in southeastern Kentucky that relied heavily on the coal industry has learned to survive in an area where many residents have fled by going back to school, Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic. (Semuels photo: A new machine has helped)

CFO Paul Whitaker, whose parents started Superior Printing and Publishing in 1956, credits the company's renewed success with his attendance at 10,000 Small Businesses, a program sponsored by Goldman Sachs, where business owners attend 100 hours of courses.

"So far, around 4,600 business-owners have gone through the program in the United States and in the U.K. According to a report from Babson College, within six months of graduation, 64 percent of them had increased revenue, and 45 percent had added new jobs," Semuels writes. "When it came time for him to come up with a new business plan for the company, Whitaker took the feedback from Babson professors and the other small-business owners and decided he could expand Superior Printing and Publishing. Professors helped him outline the steps he’d need to take to put that plan into action, and helped him figure out what was viable and what was not."

Whitaker "decided that employees, who were located in two offices in two different rural towns, should come in to a weekly meeting to keep everyone up-to-date," Semuels writes. "He kept in touch with his peers from Babson and some of them became clients, allowing him to expand to print for businesses in other states and cities. He got financing to upgrade some equipment and then decided to buy a newspaper in a neighboring county, since small-town local newspapers, as far as he could tell, weren’t imploding like the rest of the media industry."

"Now, business is triple what it was three years ago, and the company has 18 employees, up from the 13 they had when Whitaker went to Babson," Semuels writes.

Superior publishes the Letcher County Community News-Press, much the smaller of two weeklies in the county. The Mountain Eagle, long known for its coal-industry coverage, has a story this week reporting that productivity of miners in the region has increased but still lags behind those of other coalfields. The Eagle has a paywall; non-subscribers can read stories two weeks after publication.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Reporters say federal data, officials are increasingly off limits under the Obama administration

A growing number of reporters say that when seeking information from government agencies, they get the run-around, especially when it involves stories the Obama administration fears will hurt public support for a project, Paul Farhi reports for The Washington Post.

"Tensions between reporters and public information officers—'hacks and flacks' in the vernacular—aren’t new, of course. Reporters have always wanted more information than government officials have been willing or able to give," Farhi writes. "But journalists say the lid has grown tighter under the Obama administration, whose chief executive promised in 2009 to bring 'an unprecedented level of openness' to the federal government."

One example involves Dina Cappiello, who as the national environment writer for the Associated Press met a stone wall when she asked the Interior Department for federal data about bird deaths on wind-energy farms in 2013, Farhi writes. Cappiello, who still hasn't received an answer, believes that because the Obama administration supports the development of wind power, releasing data that wind farms kill large numbers of protected species, such as eagles and falcons, will hurt public support.

Cappiello has received similar treatment on other stories unpopular with the Obama administration, Farhi writes. She told Farhi, “I think the thread here is that all of these stories are questioning the goals and policies of the administration. All of these have the potential to set off controversy.”

Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward had to wait a week to get an official comment from the Environmental Protection Agency about the Elk River water’s potability in relation to the January 2014 chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 residents in West Virginia.

But not all instances involve major news, Farhi writes. Linda Petersen, managing editor of the Valley Journals newspapers in the Salt Lake City area, said when she called the parks and recreation department to find out what time the Easter egg hunt started, she was told by an employee, “I’ve been instructed not to talk to a reporter ever about anything.”

Those reporters are not alone, Farhi writes. The Society of Professional Journalists conducted a study in 2012 of 146 reporters who covered government, finding that 76 percent "said they had to get approval from a public information officer before speaking to an agency employee; two-thirds said they were prohibited by the agency from interviewing an employee at least some of the time. The vast majority—85 percent—agreed with this statement: 'The public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.'"

Most federal agencies received poor grades on the Center for Effective Government's second annual Access to Information Scorecard for responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. But funds are available to journalists to fight freedom of information requests.

Roundup linked to cancer, study says; separate study says herbicides cause antibiotic resistance

Officials at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization, have declared that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, "probably" causes cancer in people, Andrew Pollack reports for The New York Times. The study, published in the The Lancet Oncology, bases its information on the same 1985 and 1991 studies by the Environmental Protection Agency, which first said Roudnup might cause cancer, then reversed that decision.

Aaron Blair, a retired epidemiologist from the National Cancer Institute and one of the researchers of the study, told Pollack, “All three lines of evidence sort of said the same thing, which is we ought to be concerned about this.” Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, accuses "the agency of having an 'agenda' and 'cherry picking' the data to support its case."

In a separate study published in the online journal MBio, researchers from New Zealand and Mexico looked at the effect of glyphosate, dicamba (Kamba) and 2,4-D to antibiotic resistance, reports Sustainable Food Trusts. They found that "even low levels of the herbicides had the effect of inducing antibiotic resistance before the antibiotics had time to kill the bacteria; in a few antibiotic/herbicide combinations they actually made the bacteria more susceptible to the antibiotic, while in other cases they had no impact."

"Residues of these herbicides typically found in food were not sufficient to induce resistance, but the researchers have identified a number of situations in homes and on farms where more direct exposure to the herbicides could result in antibiotic resistance in children and pets or farm animals and pollinating insects, such as honeybees, which can need treating with antibiotics to cure bacterial infections," Sustainable Food Trusts reports.

As many as 1/3 of rural hospitals in Kentucky are in financial trouble, state auditor says

Rural hospitals have been struggling to remain open, with 48 rural hospitals closing since 2010—including 10 in Texas—and another 283 hospitals, mostly in the South, in trouble, said the National Rural Health Association. Most of the struggling hospitals are in states that chose not to expand Medicaid.

On Monday, Kentucky state Auditor Adam Edelen said that "as many as one-third of Kentucky's rural hospitals are in poor financial shape, and the survival of some will likely depend on their willingness to adopt new business models," Melissa Patrick and Al Cross report for Kentucky Health News, which is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which also publishes The Rural Blog.

"Unveiling a nine-month study, Edelen said 15 of the 44 hospitals examined were in 'poor financial health,' and warned, 'Closure may be an unfortunate reality for some,'" Patrick and Cross write. Gov. Steve Beshear argued that the data was dated because it was from 2013, before Kentucky, which has been one of the most successful states under the Affordable Care Act, expanded Medicaid.

Beshear said in a statement: "Hospitals received more than $506 million in 2014 through new Medicaid expansion payments, while seeing significant reductions in uncompensated care costs. Those are huge changes to hospitals’ bottom lines that are not shown here."

Edelen's "report noted that Kentucky hospitals have had higher-than-average penalties from Medicare for readmitting patients within 30 days, a newly implemented feature of the law," Patrick and Cross write. "Forty of the 63 hospitals penalized were rural, and nine of the 39 in the U.S. that got the maximum penalty were in Kentucky."

Edelen, who said the report "is 'a baseline for monitoring' by policymakers at the state and local levels" said "that to survive, rural hospitals must adapt to new business models, such as merging with larger hospitals or hiring them as managers, forming coalitions with other rural hospitals or finding a health-care niche that hasn't been served," Patrick and Cross write.

Minimum wage worker says she was fired for talking to The Washington Post about wages

A minimum wage worker at the Days Inn in Pine Bluff, Ark., said she was fired from her job for talking to The Washington Post about how the minimum wage increase would help her financially, Chico Harlan reports for the Post. Shanna Tippen "says she was fired by her boss, hotel manager Herry Patel. Earlier that day, Patel had called The Post to express frustration that he had been quoted giving his opinion about the minimum wage hike. (He objected to it.). It was soon after, Tippen says, that Patel found her in the lobby and fired her." (Post photo by Russ Scalf: Days Inn in Pine Bluff, Ark.) 

Tippen told Harlan, “He said I was stupid and dumb for talking to [The Post]. He cussed me and asked me why you wrote the article. I said, ‘Because he’s a reporter; that’s what he does.’ He said it was wrong for me to talk to you."

Patel argues that Tippen quit, Harlan writes. "He said that Tippen was not fired and instead walked out on the job after a disagreement. Patel said that he’d approached Tippen to ask about her past criminal record, which was described in the original Feb. 17 article. Patel said he would not rehire Tippen because of the way she’d spoken to him during the dispute." Patel told Harlan, “She walked out herself. I didn’t fire her.”

Tippen disputes those claims, Harlan writes. In fact, Harlan writes that when he went to Pine Bluff to write the story, he first interviewed Patel, who then suggested he interview Tippen. "Several days later, after I’d spent additional time with Tippen, Patel called me and threatened to sue if an article was published. Tippen, though, felt it was important to tell her story; she said many people shared her experience earning the minimum, and she had nothing negative to say about her employer.​" (Read more)

Rural Indiana town facing HIV epidemic; local doctor said they saw this coming, asked for help

A rural impoverished Indiana town is facing an HIV crisis. Austin, (Best Places map) home to about 4,300 residents, has had at least 81 cases of HIV infection, well above the five reported cases in a typical year, Shari Rudavsky reports for The Indianapolis Star. The epidemic forced Gov. Mike Pence last week to declare a public health emergency, allowing local authorities to begin a short-term needle-exchange program.

Pence's order, which lasts for 30 days, at which time it will be re-evaluated, "applies only to Scott County, and it remains up to local authorities there to decide whether they wish to establish such a program under the supervision of the Indiana State Department of Health," Rudavsky writes. Scott County Sheriff Dan McClain, who has 11 HIV positive inmates housed in the local jail, "said he would like to see a needle exchange program in his area, particularly one that includes testing, education and treatment for those who require it." He told Rudavsky, "I think if you're just flat out giving out needles, you're not going to do much good." (Read more)

William Cooke, the only doctor in Austin, said the high number of HIV cases is not surprising, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post. Cooke said he believes "that people addicted to injectible painkillers might be plucking used needles off lawns, shooting up—and passing them on. He told Paquette, “We saw this coming a long time ago. There’s a lot of poverty and very few resources available to the community. We’ve been asking for help for some time.”

Cooke said he has seen many cases of patients illegally using Opana, a prescription painkiller that delivers a potent high, especially when ground into water and injected into veins, Center for Disease Control investigators found. "The nearest hospital with social services and HIV testing, Cooke said, was only five miles away. But many of Austin’s drug users lacked transportation."

Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Paquette, “When you don’t have a health-care system where people have access to testing and treatment, the introduction of one infection into a community of drug users can turn into an outbreak."

To watch an MSNBC interview on the issue with Beth Meyerson, co-director of the Rural Center for AIDS and STD Prevention at Indiana University, click here.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Obama's antibiotic plan getting mixed reviews: critics say it doesn't go far enough in agriculture

The Obama administration's National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria, a proposal to fight drug resistant bacteria responsible for two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths per year in the U.S., is getting mixed reactions.

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology praised the plan, saying in a statement: "More than half of all hospitalized patients will get an antibiotic at some point during their hospital stay, but studies have shown that 30 to 50 percent of antibiotics prescribed in hospitals are unnecessary or incorrect, contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance."

But not everyone supports the plan. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the only microbiologist in Congress, unhappy that she wasn't consulted on the plan, released a statement criticizing it for not going far enough: "With 80 percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States being used in agriculture mostly for prevention, any meaningful solution to the looming antibiotic resistance crisis must begin with limits on the farm, and trusting a voluntary policy that lets industry police itself will not bring about real change. Antibiotics were never meant for prevention of disease; they were meant for treatment of disease. Using them at sub-therapeutic levels for prevention has just made bacteria stronger and is rendering antibiotics ineffective."

Mae Wu, health attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. said “The Obama administration needs to do more to reduce antibiotic use in animals that are not sick," Lydia Zuraw reports for Food Safety News. Allan Coukell, senior director for health programs at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said "While we’re pleased with the action plan’s continued emphasis on tracking antibiotic use in human medicine, we urge the administration to make even greater progress in reducing the use of antibiotics. We call now for a clear plan to review the safety of antibiotic use for disease prevention in food animals and establish systems to provide better and faster collection of data about antibiotic sales and use.”

Depressed Central Appalachian coal communities using region's rich history to promote tourism

Struggling Central Appalachian communities that once relied on the coal industry for jobs are now trying to revitalize local economies through tourism that highlights the region's rich coal history, Jonathan Drew and Allen Breed report for The Associated Press. That includes mining museums, festivals, wilderness adventures, coal-themed business or sub-regions that "have been rechristened with alluring names like the Hatfield-McCoy Mountains or the PA Wilds." (AP photo by David Goldman: A coal mine tour in Lynch, Ky.)

"Will it work? Proponents point to the region's assets, its natural beauty, its distinctive mountain character—and characters (like the feuding Hatfields and McCoys)," Drew and Breed write. "But others note the paradoxes: Environmental degradation alongside unspoiled areas, a history of poor education that for decades didn't preclude high-paying jobs, an away-from-it-all feel partly caused by a lack of good roads and other infrastructure."

Recent studies suggest that except for a few lucky areas, the trend won't work, Drew and Freed write. Suzanne Gallaway, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, told AP, "It's kind of really odd that economic practitioners push tourism to be a propulsive industry when it has such low wages.

Statistics back up those claims, Drew and Breed write. A 2012 report compiled for the Mountain State's Division of Tourism found that West Virginia's "spending and hospitality employment have been slow to grow in many counties." The report found that jobs in the Hatfield-McCoy Mountains dropped from 2004 to 2012 from 1,400 to 1,300, and "another area that includes the New River Gorge and the Greenbrier resort shed 700 tourism-related jobs during the period, the report shows."

But those numbers aren't stopping states from continuing to try to turn coal's history and culture into profits, Drew and Freed write. Business owners are trying just about everything to attract tourists, including an Eastern Kentucky couple that turned an old "company store" into a winery that sells products named after the region's coal history.

Tourism consultant Carole Morris told AP, "It's not a panacea. It's not going to be that cure-all." But she did add, "I have rarely been in a place where tourism was impossible. There's always something interesting, something in the history of a community that brings people." (Read more)

Community foundations preserve family legacies and keep farms going long after owners are gone

Community foundations are becoming more common in rural America, and many allow farmers to give a portion of their land to the community. That leaves a legacy and allows farmers to keep their farms up and running long after they retire or die, Elizabeth Williams reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer.

Patrick Costello, a Minnesota attorney and rural advocate, said the state changed "its anti-corporate farming law to allow individuals and private foundations to make retained farmland gifts to public charities as exit strategies either upon closing up foundations or making estate plans," Williams writes. "Small hospitals or small churches that found themselves going out of business also had another option of handling their farmland assets, Costello added." Costello told her, "Farmers spend a lifetime putting together a farm unit, and they really hate to see it split up and sold off, even after they've gone."

For example, 79-year-old Minnesota farmer Glenn Krog has no children, and his sole employee is also childless, Williams writes. Krog "gifted a half section of farmland to the community foundation's 'Keep it Growing' program two years ago. Krog and his employee have the benefit of farming it until they pass away. Krog's niece will inherit the rest of his farm. Then, whoever is farming the home farm owned by Krog's niece has the right of first refusal to rent the portion owned by the foundation after the death of his employee."

Another plus is a double tax benefit for making an annual charitable donation, which has whittled down Krog's estate value, reducing his future estate tax exposure. Williams writes.

More Americans returning to exurbs, which featture paved subdivisions on what was once rural land

People are returning to the exurbs, rural areas that have been paved over and turned into subdvisions, Emily Badger reports for The Washington Post. Cheap housing and easy mortgages made exurbs a popular migration destination in the early 2000s, before the housing crash left many of these areas deserted and incomplete.

"New census data, though, suggests that eight years after the housing crash, Americans are starting to move back there again," Badger writes. From 2011 to 2013 urban areas saw faster growth than exurbs. But Census data released last week "show that the exurbs are now again growing faster than more urban places, according to Brookings Institution demographer William Frey."

Frey said it's too early to tell if this trend will continue, Badger writes. He told her, "It’s not going to be reverting back to the early part of 2000s when we had this maniac exurban and suburban growth . . . We’ll have to wait until there's a generation of kids that come out that have opportunities to make decisions based on their preferences rather than just constraints. That’s not yet happened, either. It may be starting to happen." (Post graphic)

BNSF to increase safety by reducing train speeds, but only in urban areas with 100,000 residents

BNSF Railway announced last week that it will reduce all oil train speeds to 35 mph through municipalities with 100,000 or more more residents until its customers phase out old, single-hulled DOT-111 tank cars, which is expected to start in May, April Baumgarten reports for The Dickinson Press in western North Dakota. In 2013, a BNSF train running from North Dakota to Maine derailed in Quebec, killing 47 people. During that same year, more oil was spilled in the U.S. from trains than in the previous 37 years.

North Dakota critics blasted the move, saying the only state city the rule affects is Fargo, Baumgarten writes. Rep. Corey Mock (D-Grand Forks) told Baumgarten, "That doesn’t do a whole lot to secure our other communities . . . I think many of our rural communities would also argue that their lives are no less at risk."

BNSF spokesman Mike Trevino countered that "slowing the trains down in all communities would reduce the amount of product BNSF could ship and would burn up time" and "it would also impact trains hauling other commodities, such as grain or anhydrous ammonia. He added the measures go beyond the federal standard." (Read more)

Common Core test opt-out movement grows; New York leads the way

Spring is standardized test season, but across the nation, opposition to Common Core tests is increasing. On Thursday, the New Jersey Assembly voted to let parents choose not to have their children take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers Common Core tests and require the schools to give the children other activities to do during test time. Rocky Killion, Indiana superintendent of the year, is so averse to the exams that he even recommended parents home-school their children during testing week, Valerie Straus reports for The Washington Post.

New York is leading the opt-out movement; approximately 60,000 parents decided last year not to let their children take the tests. "The purpose of the standardized tests is to measure a student's knowledge and overall achievement in Common Core Learning Standards adopted by New York three years ago," Swapna Ramaswamy writes for The Journal News.

A post by Carol Burris, New York's 2013 high-school principal of the year, and Bianca Tanis, an elementary special-education teacher and public school parents in New York's Hudson Valley, explains what is happening in the state: "This year, the New York State Allies for Public Education, a coalition of pro-public school, anti-testing advocates, are sponsoring more than 40 forums across the state, and parents are coming out in droves to express their dislike of Common Core test-based reform," Burris and Tanis write.

New York legislators are also weighing in. Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco said during an interview with News 10 that school distrcts "should be providing parents with the truths and the facts and their rights. . . . They can refuse something for their kids they've never opted into," Burris and Tanis report. Former teacher Tedisco introduced a bill to help parents opt their students out and make it illegal for student or teachers to face repercussions as a result.

Others, by employing strategies such as threats and misinformation, are trying to stop the opt out movement. Some superintendents have said that state funding will no longer be available for schools whose testing participation falls below 95 percent, but the "New York State Education Department has stated that test refusal will have no effect on state aid," Burris and Taner write. (Read more)

Nevada, Oregon sign deals to protect sage grouse

The federal government, an environmental group and the world's largest gold mining company reached a deal on Thursday to protect sage grouse across more than 900 square miles of private land in Nevada, Scott Sonner reports for The Associated Press.

Barrick Gold Corp., The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will establish "a 'conservation bank,' providing the mining firm credit for enhancing critical habitat in exchange for flexibility in future operations," Sonner writes. "It aims to preserve and restore more habitat than is lost through development while at the same time providing Barrick with more certainty as it maps out new mining plans." (AP photo)

Also last week, eight eastern and central Oregon counties signed a deal with the federal government that "allows landowners to enroll their property in a voluntary conservation program," Shelby Sebens reports for Reuters. "Officials say the deal, along with other conservation agreements across Oregon, could protect over 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of sage grouse habitat."

"The Oregon deal means landowners can volunteer to take steps to protect the sage grouse now, such as removing invasive grasses and marking barbed wire fences, in return for assurance that they won't have to follow additional regulations, officials said," Sebens writes.

Fish and Wildlife, which has said it wants to protect 16.5 million acres of high-value sage grouse habitat in order to save the bird from the threat of extinction, will decide in September if the species should be listed as endangered. BLM's land-use plan amendments, set to be finalized in late summer, will be a key factor in that decision.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

April is Global Astronomy Month, and rural areas are the best places to study the night sky

April is Global Astronomy Month, promoted by the international group Astronomers Without Borders, and since the stars and planets are easier to see in rural areas, rural news media should take note. It can be another case of acting locally while thinking globally.

"All people share a common bond viewing what the sky offers," John Goss writes in his monthly astronomy column for The Roanoke Times. "We all live on a very small world floating in a vast, largely unknown cosmos. Sometimes we think that with humanity’s many differences, people in different lands have little in common with one another. One commonality is that we all see the same sky."

Friday, March 27, 2015

White House unveils plan to fight and prevent antibiotic-resistant bacteria

The Obama Administration today announced the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria, a proposal to fight drug resistant bacteria responsible for two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths per year in the U.S., says the White House. The plan requires $1.2 billion in funding from Congress in its first year, which is double the nation's current spending, Sarah Ferris reports for The Hill.

The plan includes five main goals: Slow the emergence of resistant bacteria and prevent the spread of resistant infections; strengthen national "One-Health" surveillance efforts; advance development and use of rapid and innovative diagnostic tests; accelerate basic and applied research and development; and improve international collaboration and capacities, says the White House. (Centers for Disease Control graphic)
The plan includes "studying the extent of the problem on farms and lays out plans for developing new drugs that producers can use more safely," Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The plan "affirms the steps the Food and Drug Administration has taken to phase out the use of medically important antimicrobials for growth promotion, through the voluntary cooperation of drug makers, and to require veterinary oversight of all other uses of the antibiotics."

"It does not set targets for reducing drug usage but includes plans for monitoring the impact of the voluntary strategy and analyzing the extent of resistance on farms," Brasher writes. The plan includes a three-year research goal "to develop three possible alternatives to antibiotics that are now used for growth promotion" and a five-year research plan "to develop alternatives to antibiotics that can be used to treat at least three priority bacterial pathogens."

As part of the plan, "federal agencies will be tasked with combating the misuse of antibiotics, both in human patients and in animals, as well as strengthening the infection control practices that are used by health providers across the country," Ferris writes. Funding includes $263.4 million for the Centers for Disease Control to "help every state develop a prevention program, which could prevent 600,000 infections and $8 billion in medical costs."

Obama told WebMD, "There are parts of this plan that we can implement on our own right now, and wherever we can act without Congress, we will. But to get the whole job done, we need Congress to step up." (Read more)

House passes extension of Secure Rural Schools program to help struggling rural timber counties

On Thursday the House passed bipartisan legislation that involves extending the Secure Rural Schools program, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The program, which expired in September 2014, "provides assistance for schools, law enforcement and infrastructure in rural forested communities that lack a tax base to adequately fund such activities." The program awarded about $270 million to 729 counties in 2014, but the $1.1 trillion spending bill that passed in December did not include funds for the program.

"The extension was included in the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 2), which contains reforms for how doctors are paid under Medicare and reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program," Agri-Pulse writes. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told lawmakers, “What we're doing today is providing a lifeline to our schoolchildren in classrooms in rural counties that are forested under federal land and making sure law enforcement have the resources they need. This will even protect some counties [in Oregon] from going bankrupt because of lack of management and activity on our federal lands."

Agri-Pulse writes, "The two-year extension now goes to the Senate. The provision falls under forest reform policy approved twice by the House last year, but the Senate never voted on a reform plan of its own." (Read more) (Daily Yonder map: Estimated payments that counties received from the Secure Rural Schools program in FY 2013. For an interactive version, click here)

Illegal workers accounted for 5.1% of all employees in 2012; number in white collar jobs on the rise

Illegal immigrants are most likely to work in construction in the South and Southwest, manufacturing in the Great Plains states and leisure and hospitality in the West, says a study by the Pew Research Center, Philip Bump reports for The Washington Post. While only 4 percent of undocumented workers are in agriculture, the highest overall percent of illegal immigrants are in that industry, accounting for 16 percent of all employees.

The study, which consists of data from 2012, found that 33 percent of undocumented workers are in the service industry; 15 percent in construction and extraction; 14 percent in production, installation and repair; and 8 percent in transportation and material moving, Jeffrey Passel and D'Vera Cohn report for Pew.

Unauthorized workers consisted of 5.1 percent of all workers in 2012, Passel and Cohn write. The number in blue collar jobs dropped from 2007 to 2012, while numbers rose in white collar jobs. Undocumented workers in construction dropped by 475,000 from 2007 to 2012. During that same time the number with management and professional jobs grew from 10 percent to 13 percent. (Read more) (Pew map)

Feds establish initiative to award up to $38 million to help revive struggling Ky. coal communities

In an attempt to stimulate the economy of coal-depressed Kentucky counties, state and federal officials Frday announced the formation of the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) initiative, "which will award up to $38 million in grants to coal communities to support economic and workforce development," says a release from the state.

The release said the initiative is designed to use federal economic and workforce development resources to diversify economies; create jobs in new or existing industries; attract new sources of job-creating investments; and provide a range of workforce services and skills training that offer industry-recognized credentials for high-quality, in-demand jobs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also announced approval of a $1.8 million loan for a new innovative business in Eastern Kentucky, the region hit the hardest by the loss of coal jobs. (Read more)

Democratic senators pushing legislation to expand forthcoming crude oil train regulations

Four Democratic senators on Wednesday made a push for legislation that would require the U.S. Department of Transportation "to regulate the volatility of oil being moved in trains, a proposal that goes beyond plans to focus on the design of tank cars," Timothy Cama and Keith Laing report for The Hill. "The bill faces strong industry opposition, and oil, ethanol and freight rail interests have been meeting with White House officials in an effort to dial back the DOT’s upcoming regulations."

More oil was spilled from trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the previous 37 years, and 47 people in Quebec died from the derailment of a train running from North Dakota to Maine. There has also been a recent rash of derailments, which led Canada to propose rules to toughen tank-car standards. DOT in October 2014 proposed a two-year phase-out of older tank cars, but the oil and rail industries said that wasn't enough time."

In addition to "beefing up design standards for tanker cars, regulators want to phase out older cars in two years, enhance braking systems and reduce rollovers and impose new speed limits in urban areas," Cama and Laing write. But Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), "the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the Obama administration should go further. She disputed assertions that the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) lacks the legal authority to regulate the volatility of crude oil."

"Cantwell’s bill, backed by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would require PHMSA to regulate the content of gases like butane, propane, methane and ethane in crude oil extracted from the Bakken region of North Dakota, the center of the recent boom," Cama and Laing write. "Those gases’ contents add to their volatility, which determines how easily the oil will explode when a tank car is breached. Environmentalists say Bakken crude is more volatile than oil from elsewhere." (Read more)

Reddit users summarize each state in one word; sorry Ohio, but respondents say you're boring

Georgia equals peaches, Iowa corn, Kentucky chicken, Minnesota cold, Montana mountains and for some reason the first thing many people think of when they hear Indiana is the character Indiana Jones. These are just some of the top answers a couple hundred Reddit users gave when asked in an informal survey to summarize each state in a single word, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. (Associated press photo by Rick Bowmer: Oregon makes people think of hippies and hispters, according to the Reddit survey)

Many of the top answers involved food (Maine lobster, Nebraska corn), but some invoked industry (oil for North Dakota) and natural disasters (tornado was the top answer for Oklahoma), while New Mexico made people think of meth in relation to the show "Breaking Bad," and users didn't have high opinions of Ohio, calling it boring. To see the results, click here.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend cutting back on red and processed meat, sugar, refined grains

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have released proposed 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines, released every five years, "provide authoritative advice about consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices and being physically active to attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce risk of chronic disease and promote overall health," says USDA.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the 2015 guidelines recommend eating healthier foods, while cutting back on less healthy alternatives. "The committee basically recommended Americans take up a diet that is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy products, seafood, legumes and nuts," Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. "We should cut back on red and processed meats and sugar-sweetened foods, drinks and refined grains. And we should be moderate in our alcohol." (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion graphic)

Recommended cutbacks of certain foods have not gone over well with those food producers, who met this week to give feedback on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's recommendations, Clayton writes. The North American Meat Institute argued that "lean meat, poultry, red and processed meats should all be part of a healthy dietary pattern because they are nutrient-dense protein."

Shalene McNeill, a nutritionist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, "told the committee that its recommendation to exclude lean meat ignores decades of nutrition science," Clayton writes. McNeill said Americans should be encouraged to eat more lean meat, along with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Grain, sugar and milk producers also expressed displeasure with the proposed rules.

Most nutritionists have embraced the proposed rules but say the key is getting people to adopt them, Andrea McDaniels reports for The Baltimore Sun. Among those rules is limiting sugar intake to 200 or less calories—or 10 percent of total calories—per day. Currently, Americans get about 13 percent of their calories—or 268 calories—from added sugar.

"On the flip side, some foods once shunned are now accepted," McDaniels writes. "Research has found that cholesterol-high foods are no longer believed to contribute to high blood cholesterol, so people can now indulge in shrimp, eggs and other foods that were once off limits, the panel said. Rather than focus on cholesterol, people should curb saturated fat to about 8 percent of the diet."

The panel also said "up to five cups of coffee a day are fine so long they are not flavored with lots of milk and sugar," McDaniels writes. "The panel also singled out the Mediterranean diet—rich in fish and chicken, fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, olive oil and legumes—for its nutritional value."

Census Bureau releases population estimates; Pew county-level map shows population changes

After years of steadily losing population, rural Pickens County, Alabama, was the nation's fourth fastest growing county under 10,000 residents from July 2013 to July 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released today, Brendan Kirby reports for Al.com. Pickens County, which has been losing population since 2000, had a 5.1 percent growth in the latest census. Officials credit the 2013 opening of a federal women's minimum security prison for providing jobs, boosting local sales and increasing the overall population.

The nation's micro areas consisted of 27.2 million people in 2014, an increase of 13,000 from 2013, says the U.S. Census Bureau. Overall, 244 of 536 micro counties gained population from 2013.

Population grew by 18.3 percent in McKenzie County, North Dakota, from 2013 to 2014 but during the same time decreased 2 percent in Burke County, according to an interactive map The Pew Charitable Trusts created that details county-level population changes in every U.S. state. Overall, 60.4 percent of the state's 53 counties saw population growth from 2013 to 2014, with North Dakota home to four of the top five fastest growing counties in the nation. (Read more)

Mobile EKG allows rural Ohio EMTs to relay information to hospital; device helps save lives

A rural northern Ohio hospital has been equipped with technology to help heart attack victims get quicker access to life-saving care, Cheryl Powell reports for the Akron Beacon Journal. Lodi Community Hospital, a 25-bed critical access hospital, recently started a STEMI Rendezvous program that provides area fire departments with wireless cardiac monitors to perform on-the-scene electrocardiograms (EKGs) that can an be transmitted immediately to the hospital. (Journal photo by Mike Cardew: Lodi EMTs get training on the mobile EKG)

Thomas Whelan, president of Akron General community and specialty hospitals, which includes Lod Community, told Powell, “Out here in the rural setting, access is not as bad as in Wyoming, but it’s still difficult to get to care. It’s actually bringing health care right to the patient’s door.”

The new technology saves time by allowing doctors to be ready for an arriving patient, Powell writes. "By using a balloon to open the artery and a stent to keep it open, damage to the heart muscle can be reduced. National guidelines call for a 'door-to-balloon' time of 90 minutes or less," said Dr. S. Leslie Tobias, medical director of Akron General Medical Center’s cath lab. Tobias told Powell, “There’s excellent data if you can get an artery open within 90 minutes of presentation, you will salvage some heart muscle. That’s extremely important.” (Read more)

Senate passes amendment limiting proposed Waters of the U.S. rules; lack votes to deny presidential veto

The Republican-led Senate passed a non-binding amendment on Wednesday to limit proposed Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules that would re-define what bodies of water the Environmental Protection Agency regulates under the Clean Water Act, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The amendment "spelled out various features that should be exempt from the anti-pollution law including isolated ponds, roadside ditches, irrigation ditches and stormwater systems."

The Senate voted 59-40 in favor of the amendment—Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) missed the vote but was expected to vote in favor of it—meaning there could be a filibuster-proof, 60-vote margin for a standalone WOTUS bill or amendment later, Brasher writes. The Senate is still short the two-third votes needed to overcome a presidential veto.

Assembling 60 votes to challenge Presidential Obama on this issue could also give Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) an issue that could be combined with his efforts to block the administration’s anti-coal rules aimed at climate change.

Oklahoma officials to increase scrutiny of disposal wells located near earthquake swarms

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission announced on Wednesday plans to expand scrutiny of disposal wells that could be linked to earthquakes to include wells within six miles of an earthquake swarm, Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. OCC "defines a swarm as two earthquakes within a quarter-mile of each other if one of the quakes is magnitude 3 or greater. That will put another 350 wells that inject into the Arbuckle formation under that extra scrutiny."

Oklahoma led the lower 48 states in earthquakes with 585 of magnitude 3 or higher in 2014, more than the state had in the previous 35 years combined. Officials have been slow to publicly link oil and gas operations to earthquakes and have faced industry pressure to quiet scientists who speak out about such links.

Companies that own wells within earthquake swarms "will also have to demonstrate to the agency that they are not injecting in, or too close to, the granite bedrock zone known as the 'basement,'" Soraghan writes. (Oklahoma Geological Survey map)

Despite mounting scientific evidence linking disposal wells to earthquakes, many people, including Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, are not convinced the link exists, Soraghan writes in a separate story. "State Insurance Commissioner John Doak has warned insurance companies against denying claims based on the 'unsupported belief' that Oklahoma quakes are man-made. And the state's richest oilman, Continental Resources Inc. founder Harold Hamm, has said of quake activity, 'It's certainly not related to oil and gas activity.'"

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

County health rankings are out and are a great resource for use in local coverage

The University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute's annual county health rankings, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are now available. The rankings are a good resource for assessing a county's overall health status and for comparing counties within the same state. (Example: Overall rankings in Mississippi)

Counties are ranked within each state based on quality of life and length of life. Thirty percent of the information is based on health behaviors (tobacco and alcohol use, diet and exercise, sexual activity), 20 percent on clinical care (access to care and quality of care), 40 percent on social and economic factors (education, employment, income, family and social support, community safety) and 10 percent on physical environment (air and water quality and housing and transit).

The healthiest counties had lower rates of unemployment, children living in poverty, children raised in single-parent households, violent crime, smoking, vehicular deaths, sexually transmitted diseases, preventable hospital stays and housing problems. They also had higher rates of college attendance, more exercise opportunities, better air and water quality and more access to physicians, dentists and mental health providers.

The least healthy counties had lower rates of high school graduates and access to exercise and mammograms. They also has higher rates of unemployment, income inequality, children raised in single-parent households, vehicular deaths, smoking, teen births, uninsured adults, housing problems and worse air and water quality. To search by state click here.

Bison farms, growing in popularity, provide a healthier alternative to other meats

More than 162,000 bison live on 2,564 private ranches and farms in the U.S., according to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census, says the National Bison Association. Once in danger of extinction, the species is now flourishing, with more than 500,000 in North America. And people have taken notice that bison meat, although more expensive, is a healthy alternative, with fat and calorie intakes considerably lower than other meats. It's not uncommon to find bison meat in restaurants or in the meat department of grocery stores. This is good news for farmers and ranchers raising bison. (Farmer's Pride photo by Tiffany Kessler: Bison in Oldham County, Kentucky)

One such farm is in Oldham County, Kentucky, near Louisville. The 150-year-old, 1000-acre farm is one of only 10 in the state to raise bison, Tiffany Kessler reports for The Farmer's Pride. The farm's 300 bison recently switched to being grass-fed, which is cheaper than hay and is in line with consumer demands for the animals that grow to weigh between 900 and 1,100 pounds.

Despite the fact that bison are healthier, farm manager Kristopher Kelley said many restaurants weren't even interested in samples, Kessler writes. Kelley told her, "We had to do a big push on marketing. We spent a lot time with local chefs, showing them the health benefits of bison and the different ways it can be used in cooking. We had a lot of success with that. Now if bison is on the menu in Louisville, it’s generally ours.” (Read more)

School District in Kansas exemplifies challenges faced by rural schools across the nation

Syracuse Unified School District in southwest Kansas is experiencing many of the changes and challenges faced in rural school districts across the country, Celia Llopis-Jepsen writes for The Topeka Capital-Journal. Syracuse's school district covers almost a thousand miles, and the bus travels for an hour and a half just to make four stops. The district includes about 550 students, which is the state's media enrollment.

Challenges include low enrollment, travel distance to school, teacher recruitment, housing shortages and changing demographics. The difficulties have spurred some to move to larger towns and cities. "When you talk about how many students in western Kansas that we educate—they're not staying here," Sally Cauble, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, said. "They will be our leaders. We better have them educated."

Some students take advantage of the perks of attending a smaller school. For example, they have the opportunity to participate concurrently in a variety extracurricular activities, Llopis-Jepsen writes. The teachers carefully schedule practices so that enough students can participate in each one. Mallory Horton, a junior, is a cheerleader, a track and cross-country athlete and a member of the honors society and the academic quiz team. Lora Horton, Mallory's mother, said, "Being in a small school and having the opportunity to be able to be in different things—I feel like that has taught them how to multi-task and schedule."

Unfortunately, because of the recession, Kansas education funds per student had to be cut from $4,400 to $3,937 over a two year time period. Kenneth Bridges, superintendent in Syracuse, said, "What happens in Syracuse next is we lose programs—art, music—start charging fees for athletics. The next step is to eliminate teachers and increase class sizes." To prevent negative outcomes, the school is considering changing to a four-day week—saving an estimated $100,000 to $120,000 per year—and postponing textbook purchases as well as combining two bus routes into one.

Rural school districts "spend more per pupil, however, than towns do, have smaller student-teacher ratios and are less likely to have full-time superintendents," Llopis-Jepsen writes. The media student-teacher ratio in rural areas is 12:1, compared to 15:1 in towns, 17:1 in suburbs and 16:1 in cities, according to state data.

Another change is increasing diversity. "The English language learner challenge is going to get harder," said Shelly Billig, who leads rural research at the Denver-based education lab REL Central, Llopis-Jepsen writes. Many teachers in Syracuse have taken English as a second language courses on their own time with only partial reimbursement. "We do the best that we can," said Becky Clark, principal at Syracuse Elementary, "but still, we're missing a level of support." (Read more)

Buyer beware when oil and gas companies offer to buy mineral rights; royalties not included

Some oil and gas companies have begun asking property owners to sell mineral tracts outright, instead of signing a lease, a move that might look good financially to residents at the outset but could end up costing them down the road, Casey Junkins reports for The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register. It's a buyer-beware story that land owners should be sure to note.

"The practice can be beneficial for property owners in that the up-front payment likely will be higher than what is offered through a lease agreement," Junkins writes. "But royalties are not included, and for tracts with true drilling potential, this could mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of a lease."

Tim Greene, owner of Land and Mineral Management of Appalachia and a former West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection inspector, told Junkins, "Lots of companies just buy them and flip them onto someone else. But if they buy all the minerals, that is it. You won't get any royalties or anything else. If getting $100,000 right now could change my life, selling out might be something I am interested in."

Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, "said some firms purchasing oil and natural gas minerals may already have agreements to transfer those properties to established drilling firms," Junkins writes. "Sometimes, companies do this so they can acquire the land at a lower price than they would have to pay if property owners knew the identity of the ultimate owner." (Read more)

VA changes interpretation of rule to allow some rural veterans access to care at other facilities

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday changed its much-criticized interpretation of a law that was making it more difficult for rural veterans to receive medical care at facilities other than VA clinics, Ben Kesling reports for The Wall Street Journal.

The 2014 Veterans Choice Act said that veterans who had to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or who had to travel more than 40 miles to a VA facility could instead get appointments at other locations, Kesling writes. But Veterans Affairs judged the 40 miles based on actual distance, not driving distance, a move that eliminated some rural veterans from going to health care facilities located closer to their homes. "The new rule allows veterans to plug directions into a commercial product such as Google Maps to calculate actual driving distance."

Some advocates are still unhappy with the rule because it doesn't take into account the services offered by the closest facility, Kesling writes. "For example, if a veteran requires specialized care available only at major facilities but lives within 40 miles of a basic clinic, that veteran isn't eligible for outside appointments and still may have to drive hours to get necessary care." (Read more)

Maryland House passes fracking ban, Senate approves tougher standards for drillers

The Maryland House on Tuesday passed a three-year ban on fracking, while the Senate approved tougher new legal standards for drillers, Erin Cox and Timothy B. Wheeler report for The Baltimore Sun. "Each bill must still clear the other chamber, but the actions signaled the legislature was willing to go further than it has before to limit natural gas drilling."

"Maryland has been under a de facto ban for more than three years after former Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, put any permit review on hold while a commission studied the industry and his administration wrote regulations to enforce it," Cox and Wheeler write. "Those regulations are now languishing on the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, who has said he supports fracking and the jobs it would bring to economically depressed Western Maryland—as long as it can be done safely."

The Senate's measure would "hold any future drillers to some of the country's strictest liability standards, declaring the practice 'an ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous activity,'" Cox and Wheeler write. "The distinction makes it easier to hold drillers financially responsible for any contamination and health or environmental problems, even if drillers followed all regulations. It also requires them to have hefty $10 million insurance policy that extends six years beyond the drilling operation, among other provisions." (Read more)

Peak Internet speeds on the rise in U.S., but states with large rural populations still lag far behind

Delaware has the fastest average peak Internet speed in the nation, and 43 states "saw average peak connection speeds grow between the third and fourth quarters of 2014," says the State of the Internet report by Akamai Technologies, Niraj Chokshi reports for The Washington Post. However, several states with large rural populations continue to have significantly lower average peak speeds, with Kentucky leading the way with the worst average peak Internet speed in the U.S.

Delaware's average peak speeds are 75.4 megabits per second. Following Delaware are Virginia (73.5), Washington, D.C. (65.9), Massachusetts (65.5), Rhode Island (64.6), North Dakota (61.9), Utah (60.2), New York (59.8), New Jersey (59.4) and Connecticut (57.9). On the opposite spectrum was rural America, led by Kentucky at 34 megabits per second, Arkansas (35.1), New Mexico (35.5), Idaho (37.2), Mississippi (37.3), Alaska (37.7,), Louisiana (39.4), Maine (40.4), West Virginia (42.1) and Iowa (42.4). (Read more) (Post map)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Funds available to fight for freedom of information; rural newspapers encouraged to apply for help

Rural newspapers that lack the funds to fight freedom-of-information battles now have a more robust source of financial help. The Society of Professional Journalists and the National Freedom of Information Coalition have joined forces to provide court fees and help with attorney fees to litigants who sue for access to government information. Rural media are encouraged to take advantage of this great opportunity in the fight for open government. The partnership, which was approved last week during Sunshine Week, will:
  • Have staff and volunteers from both organizations solicit applications and monitor public record battles at the state and federal levels for worthy cases.
  • Give priority to cases that a) have a strong legal basis, b) have the ability to establish good case law, and c) will help citizens and journalists, regardless of the profession or standing of the plaintiff.
  • Write or join amicus curiae briefs and/or intervene in cases where appropriate.
  • Coordinate publicity and advocacy.
  • Solicit other partners, when merited, such as state coalitions and other national access organizations.

Some local governments using social media to post restaurant health inspection scores

Restaurant health inspection scores are a staple of many newspapers, but officials in some areas are posting the scores on social media "to alert the public to health violations and to nudge establishments into cleaning up their acts," Jenni Bergal reports for Stateline. A few cities are even mining users’ comments on sites like Yelp "to track foodborne illnesses or predict which establishments are likely t­­o have sanitation problems." (A health inspection report on Yelp)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year more than 48 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die, Bergal writes. "About 60 percent of outbreaks come from restaurants, according to the CDC."

In an attempt to decrease the number of foodborne illnesses resulting from restaurant health violations, dozens of city and county health departments have been posting restaurant inspection results on government websites to share with the public, Bergal writes. Rajiv Bhatia, former environmental health director for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, told Bergal, "It allows the public to see the workings of a government agency and puts some pressure on the agency to do its job.” (Read more)

If you're a journalist, you don't need to have a phobia about math; here are resources to help you

Help is available for math-phobic journalists who need to tackle math to write stories. "Whether it’s reading a government-produced spreadsheet, calculating percentage changes or judging the results of complex academic studies, journalists often must confront the world of math, like it or not," John Wihbey reports for Journalist's Resource, a service of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Wihbey offers these resources:

Nieman Reports article recognizes the importance and health of weekly newspapers

The troubles of the metropolitan newspaper industry have overshadowed the health of its community-newspaper cousins, including rural weeklies that remain the only lifeline for covering local community stories of interest,  Barbara Selvin reports for Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. (St. Louis American photo by Lawrence Bryant: The weekly has been able to get stories on the shooting in Ferugson, Mo., that other outlets haven't because local residents trust the newspaper.)

Selvin notes that the nation's 7,000 non-daily community newspapers with a total circulation of about 65.5 million, and about seven out of 10 weeklies have a circulation of less than 15,000. "Often, local newspapers are the top source for news about a community, a source that has grown in importance as regional papers have pulled back from covering outlying communities over the past 15 years," she writes. "Weeklies with a strong editorial voice bring communities together—or stir debate—over issues of great local import."

"While major daily papers have expanded their online presence, there is a robust debate as to whether, or how quickly, weeklies should attempt to move their communities online," Selvin writes. Some argue that weeklies should male the move now, while "the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors runs strongly in favor of maintaining an emphasis on print for reasons of revenue and community service."

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes the Rural Blog, told Selvin, “The weekly newspaper business is the healthiest part of the American newspaper business." But Cross said he "sees trouble ahead due to the growing role that communities of interest play in people’s lives through social media." He told Selvin, “As we spend more time with communities of interest, do we spend less time with communities of place, and does that reduce the interest in, and demand for, news of that place? I think it does.” (Read more)

Rural South Carolina newspaper series examines the South's struggles with obesity

A few times each year, an obesity report is released, filled with statistics about how fat Americans—often rural residents, mainly in the South—have become. News outlets jump on the stories, with television stations showing the same random videos of fat people shot from the neck down. The Index-Journal in Greenwood, S.C., decided to tackle the issue, using a series to look at why local rural areas struggle with obesity. (Index-Journal photo by Andrew Macke: Popular southern foods high in fat are one reason for the obesity epidemic)

South Carolina is 10th in the nation in adult obesity, with 31.7 percent of adults obese in 2013, reports Ariel Gilreath. Even worse, the state is second in childhood obesity. The epidemic is particularly bad in rural areas. Dr. Patrick O'Neil, the director of the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, told Gilreath, "For various reasons, you do often see a higher prevalence of obesity in rural areas, and there's a lot of speculation as to why that might be, and the same is true for why is South Carolina near the top in obesity rates. We have some areas of much lower income, which also tend to be the rural areas, and lower income is associated with higher rates of obesity."

O'Neil said the culture of the South supports obesity, Gilreath writes in a separate story. Some of the main problems are southern traditions that include foods and drinks high in fat or sugar, such as fried chicken, sweet tea and macaroni and cheese, that many rural residents eat as children and continue to eat as adults, serving their children the same foods. Fried foods and other fatty foods are often cheaper, something that appeals to people with lower incomes. And once someone gets accustomed to unhealthy foods, it becomes difficult for them to change their diet.

Another rural Southern problem is a sedentary lifestyle, often caused by a lack of options, Gilreath writes. It's hard to ride a bike in an area with no sidewalks and roads in poor condition. Therese Moore, clinical dietician at Self Regional's Diabetes Education Center, "said the mindset of small, southern communities hinders people from healthy lifestyles." She told Gilreath, "You're looking at a perception that's not natural for people to walk where they need to go here, when you're living in a small town. And walking a mile is almost unheard of to go somewhere purposeful."